Malaysia at First Sight

“Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” is a cultural expo of sorts … on one hand playing off the clichés and truisms in how we are asked to present and think of ourselves, and on the other dismantling the structure of such prescriptions to reveal the fault-lines in such a presentation.”

Valentine Willie Fine Art (VWFA) director Beverly Yong’s comment in the exhibition catalogue sets an honest tone in introducing Malaysia as a backdrop for exhibition visitors to Gallery 4a — Sydney’s iconic privately-run centre for the meeting of Australian and Asian art. But unlike a play’s narrator who sets, upfront, the background of a scene, an art exhibition catalogue is usually read by visitors retrospectively, allowing one’s first impressions of the show to be formed by the work and not the catalogue essay or note.

The idea of constructing first impressions is an interesting idea. It pre-supposes that there is a preferred image to project.

As a metaphor for first impressions, Beverly chose the “welcome arch” decorated with the words “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” that hangs above the highway that whizzes one from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to towards the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. The arch constructs an image of Malaysia; it’s a fabricated icon and like many things Malaysian, it communicates on two levels –­ as a cultural statement delivered with great doses of pride to tourists and as government propaganda in the can-do vein of “Malaysian-boleh” that is quickly filtered by the locals.

This exhibition’s title of the same phrase “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” used on the welcome arch combines these two perspectives in a kind of micro and macro viewpoint of contemporary Malaysia. There’s a saying that goes, “A little distance allows clarity”. Add a whole lot more distance by placing the exhibition’s works in Australia and one wonders what the works’ statements translates into? Simply, how do Sydney audiences respond to this picture of Malaysia presented by the crème of the local art scene?

On the same week “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” opened at Gallery 4A, the editorial entitled “What will people think?” on (Malaysia’s leading arts and culture website) touched on this same question. The backdrop the editor Veronica Shunmugam proposed — just like the welcome arch Beverly used –­ was that the opinion of others shape Malaysian motivation.

Was the work in this exhibition made with international audiences in mind? Was the exhibition curated to shape “what people think”, to shift misconceptions or the flipside or perpetuate propaganda? These are questions faced by any curator presenting a country-based survey.

Beyond a cultural expo

Beverly gave Sydney a fantastic show. She chose ten artists that collectively move beyond parochial objectives and paint a picture of an art scene that is a serious regional player. These artists were Jalaini Abu Hassan, Emil Goh, Yee I­-Lann, Roslisham Ismail aka Ise, Sharon Chin, Wong Hoy Cheong, Anurendra Jegadeva, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Sharmiza Abu Hassan and Vincent Leong. From a curatorial perspective, it is balanced, thought provoking, timely and succinct.

The only faux pas (and a pedantic one on my behalf) was using the derogatory term “cultural expo” to describe this contemporary survey. It was a serious, extremely professional presentation, right down to VWFA’s folders of support material on each artist. It had little to do with trade-show kitsch. Quiet the contrary; I am excited by this show as a collection of individual artists rather than an exposé of Malaysia Boleh. Maybe viewing it outside Malaysia allows one to engage with the work rather than the rhetoric?

Terms like “cultural expo” shackles perceptions (of visitors) and are not the benchmark for excellence, falling into that worn history of things presented as “British best”. This is a consideration that Australia shares with Malaysia, one increased under the Howard Government and the aftermath of our failed Republican referendum. Perhaps this is why this exhibition connects with Sydney audiences?

Sure, Australia will never understand the complexity of all those layers that define Malaysia. However, there is a growing acceptance of this complexity and a need to move on from this stage. (At the time of the opening, Australia was grappling with a redefinition of black Australia in the first public addressing of its own racial segregation since the policy of self-determination was adopted in the 1970s. The issue being grappled with is proving impossible to resolve).

The work in this exhibition says Malaysia is looking to move beyond the post-­Merdeka (Independence) era. Contemporary Malaysian art has grown since the formation of Malaysia and is only now starting to find a mature voice. Sharon Chin’s outstanding piece, “Pole Positions” (2007) most clearly points to this route in negotiating the future.

The contemporary imagination

“Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” was a hot show in Sydney. At the opening, I overheard the comment “It is like the old 4a … its just fantastic.” This is a telling statement given the Australian tendency for (meting out) harsh criticism and Gallery 4a’s slant towards the hottest trends out of North Asia, particularly China.

Established in 1996 in Sydney’s Chinatown district, Gallery 4a has often been a soap-box for politicians wanting to be seen as supporting the arts and Australian­-Asian relations. The opening of “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” was no exception with the former New South Wales premier Bob Carr doing the honours. Sadly, government support had not been forthcoming for this important venue for a few years prior to the show and Gallery 4a, operating on the whiff of a gold coin and volunteers, was perilously close to closing its doors.

Carr’s speech opened the exhibition with the statement, “Art is the contemporary imagination.” Governments and politicians are usually criticised for their lack of imagination, but on this occasion Carr championed art as the vehicle to usher in the future. This exhibition has two political anchors; it salutes 50 years of Malaysian independence from colonial rule and it signalled the possible close of a dedicated Asian gallery in Australia. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is, these political agendas don’t hijack this exhibition, but it is important they aren’t denied. Being politically alert doesn’t have to equal activism.

But what of the work …

The resounding feeling one walked away with was “Gee, Malaysian art is good” rather than “Yikes! Malaysia is complicated”.

I spoke earlier about the idea of translation and how the work would be read in Sydney. An interesting example is Sharon Chin’s installation “Pole Positions” (2007). Like most Australians engaging with this piece, I viewed what I saw to be a pair of (Muslim) prayer carpets as an architectural “cut-out” perhaps referencing an important mosque, reaffirmed by the sound-track of the call to prayer and the video of the tip of a minaret. One could mistakenly assume that the carpet’s form alludes to a keyhole and the notion of “cultural or religious voyeurism”, particularly as we grapple with our changing world. Slowly, it is revealed that the video had been shot through a mobile phone camera, thereby adding another layer of meaning to and engagement with the piece as an image of contemporary Malaysia.

However, only upon reading the catalogue do we realise that the carpets are the footprints of the Petronas Twin Towers in KL and the tips of the minarets are actually the spires of the towers. Maybe the pairing was an obvious hint lost on me? The piece fuses this icon of successful global Malaysia with the very syncopated soul of the country — the call to prayer five times a day. What is obviously a clash is further complicated given it has been produced by a non-­Muslim Malaysian of Chinese descent. It has an odd parallel to the layers that define Malaysia. Chin explains: “I like that there is a lot below the pinnacles, just as there’s a lot beneath the surface that we present to the world.”

This is a super smart piece. That Chin draws upon such intersections – the icon of the towers, technology’s participation in contemporary Malaysian life, the ever present emersion of Islam and the rhetoric of Western installation – explores the notion of “perspective” from many different points. Altering our perspective in a physical and cerebral way, the artwork requires the visitor to kneel on the prayer carpet in order to be able to put on the headphones and pay homage to the minarets that, for me, reflect rising consumerism of today’s Malaysian society.

Some days later, I returned to Gallery 4a to take another look at the show and spend a little quiet time with the works “post-opening”. Immediately upon entering the gallery, I heard the call to prayer coming from Sharon’s piece. What had happened to the headphones? Asking the gallery attendant I was to learn that it was a decision to use the headphones during the show opening to be respectful of the Muslim call to prayer, considering alcohol was to be served to guests. I have to say this was an extremely sensitive and laudable curatorial gesture.

The flipside is; does the piece work better with or without the headphones?  Again it illustrates how easily we can misread a gesture or an artwork when these are presented in a different context. While I apologise if I had imposed a “reading” upon Sharon’s work by earlier suggesting that a viewer would be required to kneel on the prayer rug in order to put on the headphone, I realise that the kneeling gesture of a viewer carries the same level of sensitivity and respect for the call to prayer. It invites the viewer to focus, engage with and quietly respect that soundscape without distraction.

Ise’s duratrans and lightbox work also picks up on this idea of perspective. Ise (Roslisham Ismail) questions how blinkered Malaysia has become. Visitors are welcomed to the exhibition by his piece “The Est” (2007), a Merdeka-inspired collage touting the country to be “flawless, the greatest, the first, the biggest … The time is now, the place is Malaysia, Malaysia welcomes the world.” Looking at this piece, I am reminded of Beverly’s metaphor of the welcome arches on the KLIA-KL freeway.

But the real bite to this work is the small statement at the bottom of the image that reads “Beaches dirty due to poor attitude”. Ise uses the 50th anniversary bravado to question Malaysia’s unrealistic pretensions that mask the real issues of “grassroots Malaysia”. Ise’s second work “Awas Peragut” explores the grassroots’ reality that is plagued by bag snatches, lone sharks and get-rich-quick scams. He uses the medium of advertising, his lightboxes echoing Sydney’s metro-adverts glowing in urban bus shelters. In fact, the piece is an interesting follow-up to Ise’s Gallery 4a installation last year that collaged the city’s advertising detritus on the same walls.

As with Ise’s two works, Wong Hoy Cheong fleshes out the idea of the grassroots’ reality in his two-channel video “Suburbia: Bukit Beruntung / Subang Jaya”. I was disappointed when I first saw this piece in “Bound for Glory” at VWFA, KL, in September 200. However, its Gallery 4a version was presented in a smaller format that tightened the piece’s loose ends, giving it greater clarity and encouraging more empathy from viewers. Gone was its “art world spectacular” feel that suffocated its content in VWFA. Still, my gripe with this piece is its saccharine soundtrack that trivialises an otherwise sensitive and necessary contemplation of Malaysian suburbia. Has the significance of the sound element been lost in my translation?

Yee I-Lann’s “Malaysiana” photos, located in the gallery’s foyer, are the first look visitors get of this exhibition. But since I have written about I-Lann’s work in the past, I want to mention a new piece by Vincent Leong. Entitled “Run, Malaysia, Run” (2007), it was overlaid in the same space as I-Lann’s work, which was an extension the dialogue of her (previous) photo-montage works.

Vincent’s rotating video, through its very motion, plays on the idea of the treadmill of any system. Its simple delivery allows an easy connection of the dots to bigger thoughts. Bob Carr described it as a “contemporary ballet” that “captured the appeal of Malaysian culture with a sense of fun”.

Like I-Lann’s studio-photos, Vincent’s characters wear the costumes of race, a kind of societal badging that defines ones place in the system of things. It is far from neutral or just a fun game. Reaffirmed by the video’s loop, the character’s jog is similar to a march and suggests a pack-mentality devoid of direction. The individual — even though clearly defined as Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan or Nyonya — is absorbed by the stronger element of the mass. Pared down, “Run, Malaysia, Run” is an erudite picture of contemporary Malaysia.

As a round up, I want to mention the work of Nadia Bamadhaj. Using the same freeway arch in her digital print “I Bestow Upon You No. 1” (2006), she re­contextualises it by placing it within the open landscape of Faroe Island, in the autonomous region of Denmark. It is a surreal and academic pairing. Nadia has a great sensitivity for creating spatial drama in her images, celebrating the monumental. However, it is only after reading about the work (in the catalogue notes) that the audience can filter through the density of these images. I suppose from that perspective they’re quintessentially Malaysian operating on two levels; an immediate sensory engagement and a prolonged intrigue. Her work asks us to consider the very idea of Malaysia when moved outside the known context, thereby offering Sydney audiences a guide in how to read this exhibition as a whole.

Selamat Datang ke … next?

The exhibition will return to VWFA where it will open on 22 August for a reason I am not entirely sure is anything other than a celebratory pat on the back (for a good showing in Sydney). On a second look at the show, I have to reiterate it presents a really strong and vital picture of contemporary Malaysian art. This is a perfectly packaged show to travel. I am surprised that no party furthered the advantage of the works having been flown to Sydney at (routine) high costs by taking contemporary Malaysian art to regional Australia or countries in the region. Who needs biennales when an exhibition like this does far more in spreading awareness of contemporary Malaysian art. Push the envelope just a little further – Boleh.

First Published: 20.08.2007 on Kakiseni

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