Big Art and Little People

Some confessions ought to start this piece off nicely:

First, when asked to review Multhalib Musa’s recent exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery, I had absolutely no idea who the artist was. The exhibition’s Chubby Checkeresque title, Twist, suggested milkshakes and black-and-white linoleum flooring, but these American dreams came to a halt when I googled the artist’s name.

The second confession is that I actually found nothing on the search engine. I later discovered that I had misspelled Multhalib’s name. For this, I am sorry -­ self-diagnosed dyslexia really doesn’t make for very professional criticism, nor does the admission that it was Facebook that came to my rescue. Still, it was there that I first saw the Rimbun Dahan alumni’s work and learnt that I was not going to see any kitsch from the fifties, but rather, a formidable body of contemporary sculptural works made from metal — works whose form induce a sense of the organic and contrast starkly against the harsh, cold material in which they are produced.

‘A Tale of Two Boundaries’, Multhalib’s winning submission for the 6th Oita Asian Sculpture Exhibition (2001) is a good example of this. It features a series of minimalist spade-like forms assembled together in ascending, and then descending sizes, to form the overall piece. If my description falls short of adequate, I urge readers to picture a fish without a tail or fins. And, if the picture fails to form, help is only a mouse-click away.

Altogether, viewing Multhalib’s works online first was — to be perfectly honest — a little intimidating. Sculpture, especially those entrenched in contemporary gestures, remain amongst the most difficult to comprehend, analyse, or appreciate. The minimalist works by Donald Judd or Eva Hesse, for example, are great culprits for this and it certainly doesn’t help when accompanying literature on the subject is written in academic jargon that confuses more than it clarifies. It may be easier poking fun at Michelangelo’s David, but — and, as a recent exchange of words right here on Kakiseni has shown — this forms the crux of the great debate between high art and populist art. Is one any better than the other? And, where does Multhalib’s work stand in relation to this dichotomy?

In Twist, sculptures — both standing (the ‘twist’ series) and wall-mounted (‘linear twist’) — bear the artist’s signatory approach of deriving each piece, or expanding it, from a central idea or form. Here, the overriding principle is the gesture of twisting, and the form du jour, the fin (or, an elongated S-shape). Each piece is a subtle variation of these combined elements.

These metal works are, as noted by Gina Fairley in the exhibition catalogue, an extension of Multhalib’s formal training as an architect. References to Frank Gehry’s architectural marvels abound, but how exactly does the language of architecture translate into that of art, or more precisely, sculpture? For one, it’s apparent in the process of creation, which Multhalib has documented with great diligence and detail. The blueprints of his work (available online) are evidence of the shared technical vocabulary between the two fields, and, the actual physical quality of both is similar. Like buildings, Multhalib’s works — more evident in the standing sculptures than the ‘linear twist’ pieces — necessitate an all-encompassing viewing experience; you are required to work your way around the sculpture, appreciating it from all angles and the small changes each approach affords. At the exhibition, the ‘twist’ series were exhibited on plinths, so it is a great shame that I am so short; from photographic reproductions, I understand it is quite a view from the top — the variations between the one, two, and three fin sculptures are more notable.

So, is Multhalib’s work high art and inaccessible? The context of the exhibition (a private commercial gallery) notwithstanding, I wouldn’t argue so. Seeing the works in-person and some words with the artist himself enlightens me that Multhalib himself veers towards the classification of public art — works that, in the right environment, engage viewers and enhance the landscape in which it is situated. The ‘twist’ series may be a little too small for public spaces, but there’s no denying the engagement it prompts in viewers. I, for one, imagine Lilliputian characters running up and down the most precarious of spiral staircases — a hypothesis that lacks intellectualism, but highlights the possibilities with works that don’t prescribe or dictate any preformed notions upon its viewers. In short, it’s perfectly fine to remove the shackles of academia.

The ‘linear twist’ family, on the other hand, may find its way into a corporate space, but still, the works withhold the capacity to actively engage viewers through its evolving temporal and physical qualities. The metal used for these works will rust and ‘linear twist 1′ (2,3,4, and 5) will visibly age over time –­ just like us. It’s arguable that paintings and other artworks age too, but conservators — like the great plastic surgeons of our day — conduct exhaustive efforts to reverse this very process. Multhalib’ s works won’t be going under the surgeon’s knife, but instead, will be allowed to transform naturally.

Interestingly, these points recall the work of Carl Andre (an American minimalist sculptor working in the second-half of the twentieth-century), whose infamous floor-pieces were made with grids and mathematical efficiency in mind. Andre’s works, made from metal sheets or bricks, were placed directly on gallery floors and viewers were allowed (encouraged, even) to step and walk over them. This example hints at a more symbiotic spectatorship.

Michelangelo’s David, on the other hand, isn’t quite as welcoming, or rather, the guards protecting his manhood aren’t and you are forced to take in his virile marble body from a distance.

In 1967, Artforum published art critic, Michael Fried’s, seminal essay, ‘Art and Objecthood’. And, like the other great advocate of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, Fried abhorred Minimalism, arguing against its lack of distinction from mere objects and its overt reliance, or loan, on theatre. In short, he felt these works had no function as art objects without the presence of a spectator who was needed to complete it. Indeed, like the works of Minimalist artists, Multhalib’s also require a degree of theatricality: they demand our time, space, and physicality, but so what? I think we all need a little drama in our lives.


Rachel Jenagaratnam is a free-lance writer.

First Published: 17.07.2008 on Kakiseni

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