Archive for August 2011
Portrait of A S Byatt: Red, Yellow, Green and Blue: 24 September 1997, Patrick Heron. In the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Image of the day: Patrick Heron’s portrait of one of my favourite writers, Antonia Susan Byatt (b. 24.8.1936), who today celebrates her 75th.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she wrote the 1990 Booker winner, Possession: A Romance; if you haven’t read it, run to the nearest bookstore — don’t walk.
A snippet from the book, where Byatt reworks Freud’s essay, The Theme of the Three Caskets (an exposition of said theme in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear), into a fairy tale involving a sojourner and three eldritch women, who ask him to choose among them:
First came the gold lady, stepping proudly, and on her head a queenly crown of gold, a filigree turret of lambent sunny gleams and glistering wires crisping gold curls as heavy with riches as the golden fleece itself. She held out her gold box bravely before her and it struck out such rays that his eyes were briefly dazzled with it and he was forced to look down at the grey heather.
And she sang:
“Mine the bright earth
Mine the corn
Mine the gold throne
To which you’re born
Lie in my lap
Tumbled with flowers
And reign over
Earth’s tall towers”
Then came the silver lady, with a white crescent burning palely on her pale brow, and she was all hung about with spangled silver veiling that kept up a perpetual shimmering motion around her, so that she seemed a walking fountain, or an orchard of blossom in moonlight, which might in the day have been ruddy and hot for bee kisses, but at night lies open, all white to the cool, secret light that blesses it without withering or ripening.
And she sang:
“Mine the long night
The secret place
Where lovers meet
In long embrace
In purple dark
In silvered kiss
Forget the world
And grasp your bliss”
And he turned from the gold lady and would have taken the silver, but caution, or curiosity, restrained him, for he thought he would still see what the dim last might offer, compared to her two sweet sisters.
And she came, almost creeping, not dancing nor striding, but moving imperceptibly like a shadow across his vision, in a still pool of soft light. And her garments did not sparkle or glitter but hung all in long pale folds, fluted like carved marble, with deep violet shadows, at the heart of which, too, was soft light. And her face was cast down in shadows, for she looked not at him, but at the dull lead casket, as pale as might be, and seemingly without hinge or keyhole, that lay cradled before her. And around her brow was a coronet of white poppies and on her feet were silent silken slippers like spider webs, and her music was single, a piping not of this earth, not merry, not sad, but calling, calling. And she sang:
“Not in the flesh
Not in the fire
Not in action
Is heart’s desire
But come away
For last is best
I alone tender
The Herb of Rest”
The Beguiling of Merlin (c. 1872-7), Edward Burne-Jones, currently in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. Reproduced on the cover of the popular Vintage paperback edition of Possession.
A French poster for Days of Being Wild. Image from Not Just Movies.
Its yesterday once more, once more.
A while ago I held forth on the phenomenon of nostalgia for the recent past.
More recently, while doing research for another piece, I chanced upon a Straits Times article I remembered reading years ago — 1992, to be precise.
Days of Being Wild is an all-time fav. This brought me right back …
If you represent Richard Carpenter or his sister’s estate, don’t sue me.
YESTERDAY ONCE MORE, BEFORE 1997
Many Hongkong movies have a sepia hue these days. Jittery citizens of the British colony want a last look back at the good old days as the return to mainland Chinese rule draws near. WONG KIM HOH reports.
Crumbling mansions with secret chambers. Love duets sung on balconies. Masked female crusaders. All these cinematic clichés from the 60s are parodied in the comedy, ’92 The Legendary La Rose Noire, directed by Joseph Chan.
Another Hongkong director, Lawrence Ah Mon, also reconstructs the British colony of yore in Arrest the Restless. In this big-time crime story, homage is paid to a famous law enforcer and the “teddy” boys and girls who painted the streets of Hongkong red, more than three decades ago.
Now showing here, these movies were directed by just two of a growing number of film-makers who wax nostalgic about the colony’s past.
In the past two years, the Hollywood of the East has produced at least a dozen movies where the guys sport sideburns and wear drainpipe trousers, while the girls have beehive hairdos and carry Grace Kelly handbags.
These include Wong Kar Wai’s critically-acclaimed Days of Being Wild and Poon Man Kit’s To Be Number One. Also in this sepia genre are Wu Ma’s Story Of Kennedy Town and Wong Ching’s Casino Tycoon.
Why are so many harking back to the past?
The answer apparently points to 1997, when the British colony reverts to Chinese rule.
To Hongkongers, the year signifies the end of a chapter in history.
They fear that their capitalist legacy, which has shaped their identity, will eb erased once the Communists take over in 1997.
Movies which reconstruct the past are a means of helping Hongkongers preserve this vital history.
Reliving the past also helps them forget the uncertainties of the future.
Director Wong Kar Wai explains why he made Days of Being Wild, about the lives of six Hongkong youths, in an interview: “1960 was a good year, the beginning of a decade, the prelude to the 60s.
“Back in those days, the sun was brighter, the air was fresher. The sound of wireless sets flowed down the streets from a distance … it felt so good.
“It was like a dream. Of course, it could easily have been a dream. With memories, one simply cannot avoid the rosy tinge setting in. bad memories will fade out. What we want to remember will be remembered lovingly.”
Wong’s sentimentality and nostalgia show in the loving attention he pays to details. Days of Being Wild remembers Hongkong’s past by aestheticising it. Other movies which express the same whimsy include Anthony Chan’s A Fishy Story and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, one of the first nostalgic trips on celluloid.
A more strident and political tone is adopted by John Woo in Bullet In The Head. The film deals with the trials and tribulations of three childhood buddies in Saigon.
Using the Vietnam War as a backdrop, his movie makes a point about the present and future of Hongkong. It also expresses his distrust of the Chinese government, especially after the bloodbath in Tiananmen.
He tells The Sunday Times: “We had so many beautiful things in the 60s but we have lost them. I want them back. I want people to rediscover lost values like friendship, warmth and compassion.
“I want to remind them that violence and war only distort humanity and turn the Chinese into wandering people. That’s why in the film, I talked time and again about going home, going back to Hongkong.”
Indeed the date June 4, 1989, has left many of the colony’s residents with a deep sense of misgiving. Like Woo, they suspect ruthlessness, lawlessness and corruption will reign supreme.
That perhaps explains the sudden popularity of “big-timer” movies. These are movies which deal with the lives of famous crooks and corrupt law enforcers. All these movies share several characteristics: their heroes are “real people” and they are set in the post-war Hongkong of the 50s and 60s.
The progenitor of such movies, of course, is the very successful To Be Number One, the story of drug kingpin Limpy Ho. He apparently amassed a personal fortune worth hundreds of millions in Hongkong dollars by being one of the colony’s most notorious drug dealers.
Other glorified film accounts of big-timers followed. These include Lawrence Ah Mon’s Lee Rock (based on the life of Lui Lok, probably the colony’s most celebrated corrupt policeman) and Wong Ching’s Casino Tycoon. The last is reportedly based on the life of Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho, nicknamed Macau Inc.
Hongkong film critic Li Cheuk-to, who is also the programme co-ordinator for the Hongkong International Film Festival, explains the appeal of these big-timer films: “They endow the ruthless with historical significance and play up their myth and stature.
“In doing so, they legitimise the naked utilitarianism that is so prevalent in Hongkong, in this post-June 4 era. Values which do not serve utilitarian purposes are no match for a harsh reality.”
Mr Li, in his 30s, also adds, however, that the average Hongkong movie-goer has always been partial to celluloid exploits revolving around fame and fortune. He cites the popularity of gambling films. Both genres are products of the spirit of the times.
“As time is running out, to “get rich quick” is the psychology many Hongkong people subscribe to. That’s why these movies are popular,” he says.
It does not matter that fact is liberally fictionalised in most of these movies.
“Hongkong audiences are not simplistic. They know when to suspend disbelief.”
However, the big-timer movies will probably wane, because they are showing signs of repetition.
Instead, film-makers are feeding the Hongkong movie-goers’ penchant for nostalgia by reviving the film genres that filled up cinema halls a few decades ago.
Watch out for the return of flying swordsmen, “tornado” palms (a pugilistic move), masked crime-fighters, sacred manuals and court intrigues. Ah, the stuff of nostalgia.
It’s yesterday once more.
Ahmad Mashadi, director of the NUS Museum, has a piece out in the latest issue of Third Text, which embeds certain emergent art practices of the 1970s in their historical moment. The ’60s and ’70 were turbulent times for SE Asia in general, the anti-colonialist movement sweeping the region irresistibly towards angry, uneasy independence for many of its fledgling nation-states, and Mashadi seeks to realign art historical and socio-political narratives. While this piece is essentially something of a rehash of his earlier essay for the Telah Terbit catalogue, it’s still nonetheless a fascinating read — if only because there isn’t very much like it out there.
Shoobie doo lang lang …
A shoutout to JW for the link !
FRAMING THE 1970s
This article attempts to shed light on the critical artistic practices taking place in Southeast Asia during the 1970s. The ﬁrst part outlines the contexts of social and political transformation in the region within which developments in prevailing artistic practices and conventions took place. The tenor or intensity of such conditions varied across locations, yet they broadly informed the emergence of artistic discourses marked by newer attitudes towards the role of artists and art, as well as the constitution, the materiality of art, and the considered references made to society and notions of publicness.
Towards this end, we may consider two historical premises, both of which are critical in understanding ‘why Southeast Asia in the 1970s?’. First, Southeast Asia might be perceived as a set of emerging nations whose domestic social, economic and political concerns often appear vexing and tumultuous, yet nevertheless intersect with prevailing discourses of international politics, in particular with Cold War ideologies. The project of decolonisation also brought into play rhetoric intended to exemplify the independent nation-state and its destiny. Such rhetoric has greatly, if not fundamentally, affected the formation and reception of culture, history and self-perception in the region. Second, artistic developments in Southeast Asia from the 1950s on were affected by an increased access to Euro-American artistic models and an eventual shift towards ‘internationalism’, expressed through the pervasiveness and institutionalisation of abstraction and formalism as dominant modes of expression. The institutionalisation of these modes of depiction was both an indication of the extent to which they were celebrated as universal languages enabling cross-border interactions and an expression of progress that could be shaped according to the will of a given state.
As a practice marked by criticality and reﬂexivity, the contemporary locates itself within these horizontal-synchronic references to the present and social contexts, and the vertical-diachronic autonomy of artistic discourse as it unfolds over time. In order to explore the potential of such readings, the second part of this article will provide a chronological description of key developments during the 1970s in Southeast Asia, a time when the synchronic and the diachronic came together in a highly explosive way.
The Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa stencilled these words onto an otherwise empty plinth in 1976: ‘This is a statement about form.’ In doing so, he attempted to bring into focus the need to rethink ways of perceiving art and its mediatory element, the object. The latter, rendered absent, no longer functioned as a carrier of intrinsic meanings or value, therefore undermining the absoluteness of aesthetic and critical judgements. Pablo Baen Santos paints an image of the New Christ (1980), a blue-collar common man cruciﬁed on a dollar sign, with an American ﬂag waving in the background. It is ﬁgurative, conceived to communicate effectively and to connect emotively to the ongoing economic and political struggles in the Philippines. Decidedly leftist in its politics, the work is informed by anti-capitalistic and anti-American sentiments. If these works are to provide a cursory snapshot of contemporary practices in Southeast Asia during the 1970s, then such practices characterised two broad approaches – conceptualism and statement-making – as well as realism and forms of activism. However, these approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but instead as trajectories founded upon shared contextual currents.
The outcome may be described in relation to the emergence of the ‘aesthetics of rejection’ and ‘aesthetics of empathy’. It is not a bifurcation of artistic trajectories, but rather an intertwined proposition of the contemporary. Criticality, conceptualisms and activism describe these interests, best expressed by David C Medalla in 1975. When asked by interviewer Cid Reyes what he wanted Philippine artists to ‘rebel against’, Medalla stated:
Well, against authority. One should not just accept authority in anything, least of all in art. I don’t mean one should rebel merely for the sake of rebellion: that will be absurd. That is to say, only after having examined reality can one accept certain fundamental concepts. Our young artists should immerse themselves in the lives of the people. They must be thoroughly critical, not only of what is currently fashionable but also of all those artistic forms they are adapting from abroad. They should learn to integrate themselves with the needs of the masses of the people. I think it can be done. 1
These interests are signiﬁcant and broad ranging, not only in their relevance to art from the Philippines, but also to our discussion on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. They may be explored along several fronts: as critical responses to conventions and modes of ‘internationalism’; through questions pertaining to institutions and institutionalisation of art; and through regional and national political developments. As a cultural projection of nation, earlier modern developments as expressed through abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to reﬂect notions of national ‘progressiveness’ by displacing the conservatism of earlier styles. In turn, such developments sought to capitalise on the language of abstraction in order to facilitate international engagements. The idea of international fraternity often played itself out through biennales and other large-scale, recurring international arts events. Relentlessly, according to Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, founder of the Art Association of the Philippines in 1948, the drive towards internationalism and international recognition:
. . . took the form of a desire to compete. . . to crash the international scene, it was believed that one had to paint in the international style. The feeling grew that the Filipino artist was as good as anyone.2
Some of the many artists who participated in international events included Vicente Manansala and Nena Saguil (Spanish-American Biennale, Cuba, 1958), Napoleo´ n Abueva and Jose´ Joya (Venice Biennale, 1962) and Arturo Luz, Lee Aguinaldo (Sa˜o Paulo Biennale, 1971). These participations were undertaken at considerable cost and effort, yet as Kalaw-Ledesma recalled, ‘our entries were lost in the sea of similar works, each working in the same school of abstract thought’.3
Disappointed by the outcome of the Sa˜o Paulo participation, Arturo Luz lamented:
. . . in my opinion the Bienal de Sa˜o Paulo is a showplace for the big nations determined to gain prestige and rather expensive exercise for the small participating nations. . . My own guess is that international recognition will come if we win an award or send an exhibition which is truly original and outstanding by international standards.4
Nevertheless, the trend towards abstraction and formalism continued. Mediated by the various searches for national and cultural identities, this trend was inﬂected by the local through references to indigenous motifs and philosophical frames. Declared a universalist language, abstraction became subject to institutional appropriation and reiﬁcation and thus to critique. In locating abstraction as part of the project of nation, Syed Ahmad Jamal claimed:
The Merdeka [Post-Independence Malaysian] artists of the ﬁfties and sixties subscribed mainly to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. The immediacy and mystical quality of the mainstream art of the 1960s appealed particularly to the Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage.5
The statement projects an attempt to locate Malaysian art within the fraternity of the international. But the reference made to the ‘Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage’ makes clear the anxiety underwriting the problems of situating the abstract in Malaysia and resituating the same back into the global discourse, a process characterised by its inherent unevenness where Asian abstraction art was often regarded as ‘derivative’ by the hegemonic West. For contemporary artists during the 1970s, these contexts and contingencies provided points of introspection, opening new grounds for critique and generating new points of departure. On the one hand, considered references to ‘universalist Western’ perspectives that privileged notions of progression provided ground upon which to form discourses leading to a range of aesthetic investigations and developments, concomitant with the emerging regard for the sense of the self within the broadening sphere of the modern experience. On the other hand, the perceived uneven relationships underlying internationalist engagements coupled with speciﬁc and localised communitarian needs posed considerable challenges in catalysing theoretical and artistic developments. In Indonesia, the relatively open developments during the 1970s had been made possible by the fall of President Sukarno in 1966 and the subsequent removal of the Communists from the cultural landscape. A cultural manifesto known as Manikebu (Manifesto Kebudayaan), which was introduced in 1963 by a group of cultural activists arguing on behalf of freedom of artistic expression in contradistinction to the directed approaches of cultural productions of the past decade, was rejected by Sukarno and attacked by LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), the Communist Party’s cultural arm, then closely tied to the Sukarno government. The inﬂuence of LEKRA diminished along with the displacement of the Sukarno government. A failed coup known as Gestapu took place on 30 September 1965 with the military targeting suspected Communists and leftists, often through the involvement of Islamic militias. Left-wing artists including writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and painter Hendra Gunawan were imprisoned.
Tainted by his links to the Communists and implicated in several events associated with the attempted coup, President Sukarno eventually ceded his powers to Suharto who established a New Order government in 1966. The new president oversaw a series of policy changes including a more hospitable attitude towards the US. With the left-wing rhetoric of LEKRA removed from the cultural discourse of Indonesian art, and Sukarno’s spectacular fall from grace, the entire ediﬁce of Communist aesthetics imploded as well. The effects were immediately felt with the dissipation of the discourse between the Yogyakarta and Bandung schools. In its place arose a less polemical articulation of the introspective self and culture as mediated by formalism. Those harassed by the left during the late 1950s and early 1960s welcomed the opportunity to explore concerns relating to individual expression associated with high modernism. Indeed, the government-run Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Art Center opened in 1968 with little incident. Although state-controlled, the Center provided a place for artistic practice relatively free from the undue inﬂuence of any one ideology. Aesthetic experimentation and formal references to indigenous cultures consequently ﬂourished in the Indonesian artworld. These kinds of sites and the gradual erosion of politics as a key concern for artists later gave rise to another group of practitioners eager to redeﬁne the trajectory of Indonesian art so that it more closely related to the country’s history and society.
In 1969, a year after the opening of TIM, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) opened in Manila. Its construction, supported in part by the US, resulted in a building that initially hosted groups and shows from abroad. The visual arts initiatives offered an internationalist orientation focusing on high modernism and new experimental forms, including conceptual and performance art which were seen as extensions of an emerging Filipino modernity that seamlessly embraced a dynamic spirit inherent within regional and indigenous cultures. The early history of the CCP coincided with the increasing political tensions within the Philippines; in 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and the establishment of a Bagong Lipunan (New Society), ostensibly in order to safeguard democracy and introduce ‘law and order’. The CCP positioned itself as an institution intended to promote criticality in artistic and curatorial practices connected to the practices of Roberto Chabet and Raymundo Albano as well as with their associates. Yet the Center’s links to the Marcos regime and the apparent exclusion of artists identiﬁed with the political opposition compelled many to view the CCP as merely a cultural extension of Marcos’s rule. The political opposition dubbed the CCP a monument to a morally bankrupt elite and throughout the 1970s the Center was approached by some artists as afoil against which to express resistance to the Marcos government. 6 A case in point is Kaisahan (Solidarity), led by Pablo Baen Santos, which initiated protests against the Marcos government and American patronage by incorporating strategies taken from realism and street art. The group issued a Declaration of Principles, which stressed the creation of nationalist art intended for the people and reﬂective of their aspirations.
Such art was to function as a means of communication, an imperative that extended to the production of banners and posters used in demonstrations and marches, as well as to political cartoons published in various popular media venues. Realism was deployed in order to critique the state’s patronage of the arts through such institutions as the CCP, which tended to favour abstraction and conceptual practices that for many appeared artiﬁcial, mannerist and overly indexical of international movements.
Across Southeast Asia, the end of the Second World War also meant the beginning of decolonisation, which proved to be a period of intense change and turmoil. Although the transfer of power from colonial rulers to emerging indigenous elites was relatively peaceful in the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya and Singapore, in Vietnam and Indonesia it was not. The 1960s and 1970s, when numerous transformative and tumultuous social and political shifts took place, complicated the picture further. This period of transformation coincided with the Cold War, a struggle that involved global politics of patronage as the US and USSR lent their support to particular political factions in those countries they hoped to inﬂuence. Instruments of diplomacy and foreign policy became tools for imposing a narrow binary perspective on political doctrines, many of which resulted in violence, death and untold trauma. The US extended both direct and indirect forms of support to regimes considered critical in stopping the advance or inﬂuence of Communism, particularly after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. In practice, these interventions also involved aiding or assisting regional governments in order to neutralise the inﬂuence of the political left, even if it meant disregarding the will of the popular electorate. 7
Key political events were often read in relation to these patterns of support. The imposition of martial law in the Philippines, and the military actions against students at Thammasat University in Thailand in 1973 and 1976, as well as actions undertaken in Indonesia in 1978, galvanized a range of popular struggles that included the formation or consolidation of artists’ groups afﬁliated with the political left. Inspired by leftist politics and anti-Americanism, student protest groups were widespread, especially in the Philippines and Thailand. In the latter, these protests emerged through a form of criticism articulated through Surrealism and at times powerfully combined with images of religious signiﬁcance. The works of Somchai Hatthakitkoson and Thammasak Booncherd directly refer to what they regarded as the imperialist presence of the United States in Thailand. Somchai’s The Goddess Kali of the 20th Century (1972) was conceived as a metaphor of public indignation directed towards the prostitution of Thai women to US soldiers.
Attempts to deﬁne art according to broader ethical and religious constructs often involved incorporating a range of iconographic signs, then repurposing them in order to allude to contemporary concerns. Buddhism, for example, was denoted through images of the Buddha or through decorative motifs associated with the practice of Buddhism. Such tactics were put into practice by groups such as the Dharma Group, led by Pratuang Emjaroen. Pratuang undertook a series of paintings addressing the violent suppression of pro-democracy student protests in 1973 and 1976. 8
In Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes (1976), the head of the Buddha has been pierced, stained with blood and placed amidst alandscape of riﬂe butts and muzzles. Pratuang describes his intent thus: [they] symbolise the feelings of confusion and disbelief at the sight of such horriﬁc scenes. There are crying faces and a sky with heavy black storm clouds. Tears stream endlessly down the face of the Buddha, a symbol of the Thai people under threat. 9
Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes was shown in the third exhibition of the Dharma Group at the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, which opened on 5 October 1976. Coincidentally enough, a student protest against Thai military rule was violently quashed by the state the day after the show’s opening, a grisly echo of a similar confrontation that took place in 1973. The exhibition was closed soon after.
The recourse to religion and tradition may also be seen in Malaysia following the race riots of 13 May 1969. In the aftermath of the political and cultural anxieties arising from the riots, the National Cultural Congress convened in Kuala Lumpur from 16 to 20 August 1971. There, the proposal that art be mobilised to serve economic and social objectives rather than the individual was made. It was a controversial proposal, provoking numerous responses that recalled the 1969 riots, including Redza Piyadasa’s May 13th, 1969, which in his words harboured an intimation of a certain sense of nation. 10
A more direct response to the emerging cultural policy aimed at healing the rifts of a multi-ethnic Malaysia appeared some years later. In the years immediately following 1969, Piyadasa worked on various projects that may be described in relation to their afﬁnities to conceptualism and situational practices. In 1974, he, with Sulaiman Esa, authored Towards a Mystical Reality. Although it need not be seen as a direct attempt to critique state views of culture, the manifesto proposes an alternative aesthetic that enables new ways of producing and apprehending art outside Western-centric rationalist positions. The manifesto is noteworthy for proposing an artistic ideology based on cultural and philosophical traditions in Asia; in anticipation of realising this ideology, the authors aimed to ‘sow the seeds for a thinking process which might someday liberate Malaysian artists from their dependence on western inﬂuence’.11 For example, the artists reiterated their quest to redeﬁne parameters by realigning them to borrowings from Asian philosophical notions that enable Asian art production to converse with international concerns; not through a style or formal criteria but an attitude that is mystical and can be unpacked to support new art concepts and productions. By the late 1970s, a strong interest in the Malay culture and Islamic consciousness had emerged in Malaysia. As a Muslim convert of Sri Lankan descent, the 1970s was also a period of introspection for Piyadasa. He began to reﬂect on the vexing question of cultural and national identities in his works, one that had been conditioned by the complexities of colonisation, migration and ethno-nationalism. Piyadasa used archival portrait photography as a basis of his investigations, re-rendering them in ambiguous terms with motifs and colours to engage the viewers’ attention in rethinking the binarist bumiputra (indigenous)/nonbumiputra divide that surfaced in post-1969 Malaysia. 12
During the late 1970s, Sulaiman Esa was drawn to synthesising a conﬂation of ethno-nationalistic modernity with individual expression. He produced a seminal series of prints entitled Waiting for Godot, based on Samuel Beckett’s famous existential play. The series of photoetchings explored a deep personal dilemma regarding the question of artistic purpose and faith, with the prints juxtaposing two contrasting markers of aesthetic and philosophical values through images of the nude and the arabesque. The series foreshadowed the artist’s move towards a Malay-Islamic orientation which became a dominant trend in Malaysian art during the 1980s, coinciding with the rapid rise of pan-Islamism in Southeast Asia. The politicisation of artistic practices may also be located in artistic developments linked to nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of earlier decades. Although the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) emerged in Indonesia under the relative calm of the early phases of Suharto’s New Order, the increasing social tensions and militarism of the late 1970s prompted artists like Dede Eri Supria and F X Harsono to address critical issues such as economic exploitation, global capitalism and social suppression. The group’s manifesto ‘Lines of Attack of the Indonesian New Art Movement’ proposed a rejection of ‘the concept of art that is universal’, insisting instead on a recognition of cultural and historical contexts and social concerns. 13
This critique against increasingly lyrical, mannerist and formal tendencies is paralleled elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Yet these aesthetic positions and notions of criticality in favour of communitarian perspectives may be located within a trajectory of critical positions deﬁned by earlier groups such as the nationalist Persagi (Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia, founded by S Sudjojono in 1938) and LEKRA, the Communist party’s cultural arm, defunct by 1965, both of which were signiﬁcant for their articulations of the rakyat (the people) and its realities.
The artistic movements described above may be seen as a collective critique against the formality, un-reﬂexiveness and repetitiveness of what was called ‘international abstraction’ and ‘provincial lyricism’ which had dominated art-making. While theoretical positions concerning the function and independence of artistic practices tended to differ, they also shared an interest in addressing the conditions of art-making, such as the reception and development of Euro-American models from a postcolonial perspective, as well as the need to challenge the values upheld by institutions and the art market. This helped introduce new forms of practice, in terms of both medium (installation and performance) and content (the explicit invocation of political, gender, religious and environmental issues). Since the late 1970s, the performances and installations of Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu have consistently addressed the profound impact of urbanisation evidenced through the destruction of nature and the trafﬁcking and consumption of wildlife in Asia. Elsewhere, the political activism and protest art seen through seni rupa di kaki lima (street art) incorporated strategies of performance and happenings. As such, the re-emergence and preoccupation with the ‘ﬁgure’, associated with the radical left, need not be seen as mere counterpoints to more conceptual practices. This complexity was highlighted by Patrick Flores in 1998:
The agenda of Philippine art history and criticism through the years has been caught in the vise of antinomies: craft and art, indigenous and colonial, conservative and modern, social realist and conceptual, form and content. While these oppositions may attempt to dramatize discrepancies among competing modes of knowing art and putting it into practice, they cannot even begin to discuss the complexity of the conﬂict, the possibility of encounters, and the art world’s overlapping – because combined and uneven – modes of production. 14
The manifesto of the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru ﬁts within the agenda of art history and criticism as deﬁned in relation to a broader postcolonial history and culture whereby the new can be made meaningful, detached as it is from the imperatives of Euro-American theories and histories:
To [inspire] the growth of ‘Indonesian’ art by privileging research into the new Indonesian art history, that has its roots in the art practices of Raden Saleh. To examine ways of periodising such history, to study critically its evolvement, to consider its future developments. To acknowledge that in the new Indonesian art history, there are contexts that are unique, so much so that these may not be referenced in ‘imported books’, useful in contextualising Indonesian art, making it conducive for further development.
To aspire to artistic growth that is referenced in the writings and theories of Indonesians art critics, historians and thinkers. To reject totally the perception that Indonesian art is an index to world art, a claim that art is universal, that places Indonesian art contingent to international discourse. 15
Here we may return to the impact of the race riots of 13 May 1969 (the ‘May 13 Incident’) in Malaysia as a foundational point in the development of Malaysian art in the 1970s and 1980s. For many, the incident was signiﬁcant in revealing the limitations of modernism vis-a` -vis the cultural articulation of nation and community. Some declared the need to emphasise communitarian interests that would express a national identity and its values, interests that might correspond with the Rukun Negara (National Principals), a set of national values introduced by the government in 1971 as a response to the May 13 Incident. For T K Sabapathy:
. . . overtly and covertly, events of May 1969 and the Cultural Congress (1971) began to shape thinking and practice among artists; they were far too shattering and fundamental to be ignored. Throughout the 1970s, artists began the difﬁcult, painful process of rethinking their positions, and recasting their perceptions of culture, language, race, state/nation and identity. . . the stakes were too important and consequential not to be involved. 16
Artists sought to engage with this search by oscillating between various dogmatic and critical perspectives. Those associated with Mystical Reality and conceptual approaches tried to explore the limitations of modernism within the local milieu while also engaging with what they perceived as the international. Their works in the early 1970s investigated the assumptions of nation and community, making direct and oblique references to the events of 1969 and the National Cultural Congress of 1971 that had shaped the cultural debates during the period, placing special emphasis on examining and reﬂecting tensions and contradictions between individualism and communitarian interests. The May 13 Incident shattered the positivist complacency of post-independence, bringing to light the problematic of cultural decolonisation and its role in positioning the contemporary. Kaisahan’s manifesto aptly preﬁgures these vexing questions:
For us, therefore, the question ‘for whom is art?’ is a crucial and signiﬁcant one. And our experiences lead us to the answer that art is for the masses. It must not exist simply for the pleasures of the few who can afford it. It must not degenerate into the pastime of a few cultists.
We are aware of the contradictions that confront us in committing ourselves to this task. At present, under the conditions of our times, the audience who will view our works will mostly be the intellectuals, students, professionals and others who go to the galleries. But we wish to gradually transform our art so that it has a form understandable to the masses and a content that is relevant to their life. At present, it is inevitable that our art is sometimes commercialized. But we should use this as a means and not as an end for our artistic expressions. 17
As sketched above, these events crucially deﬁne perspectives of nation, community and self, expressed in a range of feverish, even manic, struggles for identiﬁcation and resistance often complicated by the production of cultural identiﬁers in sync with the project of nation-building that so preoccupied governments throughout Southeast Asia. The economic and social transformations that took place in the 1970s, moreover, necessarily inﬂected cultural discourse by compelling artists to reﬂect on a broad spectrum of social conditions. Such transformations also demanded that artists turn inward to focus on the condition known as the self so as to open up the potential of art as practice.
1. Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, 1980, p 149
2. Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma Guerrero, The Struggle for Philippine Art, Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Manila, 1974, p 67
3. Ibid, p 68
4. Ibid, p 71
5. Syed Ahmad Jamal, Contemporary Malaysian Art, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1988, unpaginated
6. Benigno Aquino Jr, ‘A Pantheon for Imelda’, in A Garrison State in the Make and Other Speeches, Benigno S Aquino Jr Foundation, Manila, 1985, unpaginated
7. The Lon Nol government came to power in Cambodia through a coup d’e´ tat against Prince Sihanouk, bringing the country into an escalated civil war that ended in a victory for the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Suharto’s New Order, introduced in 1966 after the bloody purging of the Parti Komunis Indonesia (PKI), which led to an estimated one million deaths, was characterised by the dominance of the military across the economic and political spheres which only ended in the late 1990s. In Thailand, a brief experiment with democracy in 1969 gave way to the return of a military government in 1971, thus foreshadowing the violent suppression of student movements in 1973 and 1976. In the Philippines, President Marcos, sensing an electoral defeat, introduced martial law in 1972, hence precipitating a populist movement for the reconstitution of the democratic process which later culminated in the advent of People’s Power in 1986.
8. Pro-democracy student protests at Thammasat University in 1973 resulted in a bloody confrontation with the Thai military, an incident later commemorated as the ’14 November Uprising’. The ensuing events eventually led to a review of the Thai constitution for the reinstatement of civilian rule. However, the military reassumed power in 1976.
9. Sodchuen Chaiprasathna and Jean Marcel, The Inﬂuence of European Surrealism in Thailand, R Michael Crabtree, trans, Thailand Research Fund, Bangkok, 2005, p 36
10. See T K Sabapathy, Piyadasa: An Overview, 1962–2000, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2001
11. Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, Towards a Mystical Reality, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1974, pp 4– 5
12. See Sabapathy, op cit
13. The full manifesto is published in Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia, Jim Supangkat, ed, Penerbit PT Gramedia, Jakarta, 1979, p xix. Also see Telah Terbit (Out Now): Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices During the 1960s to 1980s, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2007, pp 50–51.
14. Patrick Flores, ‘Missing Link, Burned Bridges: The Art of the 70s’, Pananaw 2, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Manila, 1998, p 53
15. Telah Terbit (Out Now), op cit, pp 50–51
16. T K Sabapathy, ‘Vision and Idea Relooking Modern Malaysian Art’, Merdeka Makes Art, or Does It?, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1994, p 71
17. Alice Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary Art in the Philippines 1970–1990, University of the Philippines, Manila, 2001, p 24
An old piece from the Asian edition of The WSJ. A couple of years old, but still an interesting read that attempts to contextualize recent developments and draw specific connections.
The original here.
A MATTER OF EXPRESSION
Malaysia’s modern-art scene grows up. By John Krich. Published October 2, 2009.
KUALA LUMPUR — It may have been Malaysia’s art happening of the year, though almost no one saw it. At the swank Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery one June morning, a pair of workers hastily pulled down a single work from a group show: a gigantic image of the head and shoulders of the country’s new prime minister, Najib Razak.
The work’s removal echoed its creation. The image was said to have been cut down from a congratulatory downtown billboard (a YouTube video documents the theft, not very convincingly). Compounding the provocation, black tape had been placed across the politician’s eyes and yellow police-line tape across his mouth, negating him in the manner of the famous Queen Elizabeth II cover art for the 1970s punk-rock anthem “God Save The Queen.”
It was enough to offend at least one gallery visitor — who turned out to be a government aide. Down came “Najib’s Head Stolen From Billboard,” though a gallery manager insisted it had been removed along with other works solely to make room for VIP guests at a book-launch reception. (The prime minister’s image not only ran down the full height of the gallery wall, but covered part of the floor.)
The artist, 32-year-old Fahmi Reza, a ponytailed human-rights activist, clearly relished the controversy he’d stirred, if not the result. “The billboard was trying to brand our new leader, in the manner of a Big Brother, and this was just my rebranding,” he says. “I don’t think I was doing anything wrong, but they always try to make us feel afraid.”
It seems contemporary art, an elite and minute corner of Malaysian culture, is starting to feel the same watchful eye that’s applied to more popular expression like film and the press. The intrusion of civil society into the rarefied gallery world sparked a wave of debate on arterimalaysia.com, a Web site begun in February this year that’s devoted entirely to Malaysian contemporary art.
“In the past, no one paid attention if we mocked politicians,” says Ahmad Fuad Osman, founder of the artists’ collective Matahati. “But we’re not seen as weirdos anymore.”
So what has changed? For one thing, contemporary art has finally entered the complex fray of Malaysian politics, after decades of staying largely on safe and highly personal territory. As Malaysia struggled to define itself after achieving independence in 1957, artists looked to imitate “fine arts” trends in Britain or the U.S., or drew on Chinese water-color traditions. Even long after in-your-face pop and performance art became the vogue in the West, Malaysia’s better-known practitioners were still mired in murky abstract expressionism — in part to honor Islamic admonitions against the too-literal portrayal of living beings.
Another reason the government may now be noticing art: The market has heated up in recent years. As curator and painter Anurendra Jegadeva puts it, “All kinds of people are paying attention now that art has become a valuable commodity.” Since 2006, prices for the better-known Malaysian modern artists have soared — 100-fold in extreme cases such as the internationally known Ahmad Zakii Anwar — as the general international demand for Asian works has trickled down to one of the least-known markets.
Wealthy local buyers have emerged, as have collectors from China and India, suddenly curious about artists from their respective diasporas, who together make up a large proportion of Malaysia’s population. Malaysian artists are winning more commissions from Japanese and European museums and being invited to prestigious biennales around the world. And the Valentine incident coincided with the first major U.S. show by the Matahati collective, whose five members have long been known as the “rock stars” of the Kuala Lumpur scene. The show, in Los Angeles, was titled “Malaysian Contemporary Art to the World.”
But the artistic surge, which took place under the relatively laid-back government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — once sent a pillow by local artists as symbolic thanks and encouragement for letting watchful governmental eyes stay asleep — may now be on a collision course with a new government. The ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organization) party, needing support from less-tolerant Islamic parties as it fights to hold off an opposition that nearly took power in last year’s elections, could take a harder stance.
It was Malaysia’s political turmoil in 1998 that spurred modernists to openly attempt social commentary and satire. The “reformasi” movement was born that year, and it was also in 1998 that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, UMNO’s leader, sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and had charges, including sodomy, placed against his one-time heir apparent. It was during the period’s turbulence that Mr. Ahmad Fuad, for instance, became known for his pop-style howling faces.
During recent years, with Mr. Anwar first imprisoned, then released to lead a resurgent opposition, and Mr. Abdullah presiding over a period of turmoil in UMNO, younger artists have become less and less cautious about diving into political controversies — or perhaps the country as a whole has simply moved on from hollow imitation of European art forms.
Mr. Ahmad Fuad of Matahati, linking the political with the aesthetic, adds that Malaysian art was all about painting during the years of stability under Mr. Mahathir, but the Anwar protests set the stage for more experimentation in other media.
The jolt of the 2008 elections, threatening to topple the powerful coalition that has ruled the country from its inception, sparked a similar uptick in directly political art. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of independence, this has led to a general trend of historical re-examination, including of the Communist movement wiped from history books during Malaysia’s “Emergency,” the 1948-60 fight against guerrillas.
“It’s still such a young country and we have to break through the coldness of our own history,” says Mr. Ahmad Fuad, whose recent work includes pieces juxtaposing colonial documents and photographs with cellphones and motorcycle racers and playfully showing founding fathers of UMNO with miniskirted disco dancers.
But now artists are worrying. “It seems the elite is going backwards as we’re going forward — turning to Taliban-like people who may put the whole thing on hold,” rues conceptualist Wong Hoy Cheong, the country’s best-known artist internationally. (Young curator and Arteri co-founder Eva McGovern wonders, though, whether it would have been any different if UNMO had lost the election. “Does the current opposition have a different view of the arts?” she asks. “That’s not clear at all.”)
Some see troubling signs everywhere, including the Najib administration’s expunging the word “art” from the name of the former Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism (now Tourism, Culture and Environment). A more ominous and significant development was the mass resignation in March, under pressure, of the team of artist-curators in charge of the Petronas Gallery in the shopping mall of Kuala Lumpur City Centre. The offerings at the country’s most visible exhibit space, backed by its most powerful corporation, the state oil company, had grown ever more adventurous, if not overtly political, over the past several years. Under the banner of “Art for Everyone,” a series of exhibits had won praise and prizes for their mix of popular and elite appeal.
The rationale for the change may have been supposed objections to the recent Liew Kung Yu exhibition, “Proposal for My Country” — though these colorful collages, enlarged post cards breezily re-imagining Kuala Lumpur’s freeways, hardly seemed like a threat to anyone. A year’s worth of coming exhibits have been put in limbo and an interim appointee with little art background is currently heading the gallery. Ms. McGovern calls the Petronas purge “a very sad moment.” Former staff declined comment, seeming baffled by the artistic retrenchment.
Still, there are hopeful signs that contemporary art in Malaysia is here to stay. For one thing, the interest of buyers has hardly been dented by the current world recession. Just this summer, Imcas, a showcase of Malaysian modern art spearheaded by private collectors Farouk and Aliya Khan, occupied more than two floors of a large mall in Johor Bahru, an arts backwater five hours from Kuala Lumpur; it led to sales estimated at $150,000. “Given this was showing younger artists to the public, the response was fantastic and quite motivating,” Farouk Khan says.
While Pakhruddin Sulaiman, a lawyer whose impressive collection is his major passion, rues the lack of any real secondary market or regular auctions to determine true values, he vows that he and his cohorts are decidedly here to stay. “For two years,” he says, “nearly all the work at every Malaysian exhibit in KL was fully bought out.” (His collection, housed on an entire floor above his neighborhood office, may form the core of a modern museum of the future.)
And regional galleries such as Valentine Willie continue to show and promote artists like Sabah-born Yee I-Lann, one of whose photo collages sold for more than $30,000 last year at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
“In the ’90s, museums and academics still set the agenda,” says the conceptualist Mr. Wong. “Now it’s clearly the commercial galleries.”
That doesn’t seem to be forcing a more “commercial” product. Many artists are as wild and iconoclastic as ever, like the corpulent, skinheaded Ise, a/k/a Rosli Sham Ismail, who declares “politics is everywhere” and whose art seems to consist mainly of journals about himself and his friends. Many artists are creating their own underground exhibits, like the Lost Generation Space in a private bungalow. Others, such as the transient Findars Space and Rumah Air Panas, have taken inspiration from Central Market’s Annexe Gallery, a thriving two-year-old experiment in free-access — and so far unfettered — space. In response, official institutions, like the sparsely attended and little-noted National Gallery, are scrambling to regain relevance, and commercial entities are opening their own impressive new exhibit spaces — such as the 10,000-square-meter gallery Bank Negara has slated for its new headquarters.
“Suddenly, the stigma is gone,” says Mr. Jegadeva, the artist and curator. “Everyone wants their kids to be artists, and to hang real canvases, instead of posters, in their homes, developments and office lobbies.”
Most promising of all is the emergence of a younger generation of curators, returned from studies abroad with a determination to bring higher critical standards and greater sophistication to the scene.
“We need to develop the infrastructure and stimulate discussion,” says Beverly Wong, one of the founders of the three-woman team called Rogue Art, which stages period whimsical shows and conferences in rented spaces. “We need to fully plant the idea that contemporary art is as much a part of civil society as NGOs.”
Arteri’s Ms. McGovern, who returned from London to lead the ambitious team on the Web site, calls her home country’s art scene “still in its adolescence — and requiring proper understanding, presentation, cataloguing, a whole culture.” That might mean efforts like those of Shooshie Sulaiman, a conceptual artist who has been shown overseas and who is transforming her small neighborhood workspace into an art archive and resource center.
Malaysian artists are also forging stronger links with other Southeast Asian artists, museums and galleries — reaching out especially to Indonesia, with its far more daring, diverse and well-cataloged
output. “Now we can just hop on a plane to see what’s being produced in Jogjakarta. Or Manila,” says Yee I-Lann. “You might say the greatest influence on Malaysian art has been the cheap fares of Air Asia.”
Ms. Yee even sees a silver lining in the possibility of a political crackdown. “If the space for expression is tightening once again, a little pressure keeps people from getting too comfortable,” she says. “Good art requires some of that social tension.”
An untitled sculpture by Sun Kang Jye at Lost Generation Space. Jimin Lai for The Wall Street Journal.
1st & 2nd floors, Central Market Annexe, Jalan Hang Kasturi
More than an art gallery, the Annexe was launched in 2007 to provide free and rentable space for all kinds of alternative culture and causes.
Valentine Willie Fine Art
1/F, 17 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru
With numerous branches around Southeast Asia, this roost in trendy Bangsar is Malaysia’s top commercial force — also includes a space for new, experimental work.
House of Matahati
6A Jalan Cempaka 16, Taman Cempaka, Ampang
Founded by the country’s groundbreaking collective in contemporary art, this space seeks to encourage emerging talents with shows and a recently instituted prize.
8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields
A small operation in a funky Indian neighborhood, it features a core of serious artists. The gallery also has promoted Malaysian art by taking traveling shows to other countries.
CHAI House (Instant Cafe House of Art & Ideas)
6 Jalan 6/3, off Jalan Templer, Petaling Jaya
Just opened by the country’s leading political theater company, this space plans theme shows, lectures and performances.
Lost Generation Space
54 Jalan Taman Seputeh 3, Taman Seputeh
Run by artists in a private house, this has been a place to see cutting-edge works and performances — when they’re in the mood.
It’s pretty bizarre.
Here’s what the promotional literature has to say:
A house with transparent walls: in it are a chair and the figures of two children. There is a bundle of drumsticks; the chair is encased in perspex. One child appears to be dancing whilst the other is squatting. A large-scale painting of a woman sewing clothes hangs on the wall. The “glass” house is bracketed by drawings of the children wearing clothes sewn by the woman, and by drawings from the three contributing artists.
“死了, 他们都死了, 好惨, 一个 自杀, 另一个悲伤憂鬰而死。
这个世界, 没人听, 没人看, 没人感觉到, 竟然忽略了他。
看了墙上这些画, 我决定再试一试, 让世界的人再看一看, 於是, 带了这些画及我们的四岁兒子, 回母亲家。”
“Dead, they are both dead. Such tragedies – one had killed himself, the other died of sorrow. This world has not had a chance to see, listen nor feel. It has been indifferent and has neglected his existence.
Yet the walls are still full of these paintings wanting to be unveiled. I must give another try, not lose hope, need to give this world another chance.
With this in mind, I shall return to my mother’s home with what I have left. I shall return there with these paintings and our 4 year-old son…”
And below is a short essay on the piece by Eva McGovern of VWFA.
It’s about as strange as the artwork it purports to elucidate, but one point at least was hammered home for me: the intentional semantic elusiveness of Tang’s work. If McGovern’s intention was to self-reflexively reenact the significatory imprecision it locates in First Arts Council, then mission accomplished. Otherwise …
龍婆缝衣 | FIRST ARTS COUNCIL by Tang Da Wu
(featuring contributions by Jeremy Hiah, Pan Jia Ding, and Zai Kuning)
by Eva McGovern
For centuries, the art of story telling, of myth making and breaking has been part of visual and oral histories all over the world. However, such practices seem to be fading from relevancy in a contemporary society keen to subscribe to instantaneous knowledge absorption and dissemination through various modes of media. Stories are not told with the same reverence, mystery and poetry as before. Instead the dramatic language and physical act of writing are amplified to mere sensation and gossip, soon to be forgotten for the next episode of interest. Visual Art too, has its own place within the tales of time, of people and place. Through didactic or surreal and ambiguous images artists present a sequencing of the inner and outer worlds that narrate, critique, warn and celebrate humanity.
The importance of stories both personal and public, carefully woven with the threads of fiction, fact and all that falls in between is what Tang Da Wu promotes in The First Arts Council with contributions by Pan Jia Ding, Zai Kuning and Jeremy Hiah. Featuring drawing, painting, a disoriented perspex house, and costumes the exhibition is a mysterious but alluring constellation of thoughts, objects and images. Hinting at both reality and mythology Da Wu shares the story of a female figure making clothing for children. Her role as a nurturer, guardian and protector is a fragile one. The blessings and guardianship of future generations, that her presence alludes to, has the potential for multiple meaning. But more questions than revelation disturb the surfaces of Da Wu’s works. Is there an element of reality haunting the works on display? What does the title allude to? A specific moment in history unraveled to become tragedy and allegory or a personal fiction unburdened by time and reality?
Audiences feel the pricking of recognition taking place based upon a system of knowledge and characters bespoke to [sic] the artist but with universal resonance. Purposefully enigmatic, Da Wu’s visual lyricism and criticality float beneath and below his poetic lingerings. Encouraged to make their own conclusions audiences are left in a state of marvel and wonder.
Importantly, all will be revealed on opening night.
As I remarked to someone, trying to write – intelligibly – about Tang’s piece was a frustrating process. It seemed to have so much to say and yet … nothing, all at once. This passage from A. S. Byatt’s Possession (a book close to my heart) pretty much sums it up: “And then I got the sense of things flittering and flickering behind all that solid – oh, I think of it as panelling. And then I got to think – I was being led on – to imagine the flittering flickering things – and that really it was all just as stolid and dull as anything. I thought I was making it all up, that she could have said something interesting – how shall I put it – intriguing – once in a while – but she absolutely wasn’t going to. It could be an occupational hazard of editing a dull journal, couldn’t it? Imagining that the author was deliberately baffling me?”
Perhaps trying to fit the awkward semantic edges of Tang’s piece into one over-arching interpretive framework was my problem ….
One more quote (this post is literally, quoting Barthes’ over-quoted dictum on quotes, “a tissue of quotations”), from Didi-Huberman’s Confronting Images, on the oft over-determined quality of much exegesis in art today:
Books on the history of art nonetheless know how to give us the impression of an object truly grasped and reconnoitered in its every aspect, like a past elucidated without remainder. Everything here seems visible, discerned. Exit the uncertainty principle. The whole of the visible here seems read, deciphered in accordance with the self-assured – apodictic – semiology of a medical diagnosis. And all of this makes, it is said, a science, a science based in the last resort on the certainty that the representation functions unitarily, that it is an accurate mirror or a transparent window, and that on the immediate (“natural”) or indeed the transcendental (“symbolic”) level, it is able to translate all concepts into images, all images into concepts. That in the end everything lines up and fits together perfectly in the discourse of knowledge. Posing one’s gaze to an art image, then, becomes a matter of knowing how to name everything that one sees – in fact, everything that one reads in the visible. There is here an implicit truth model that strangely superimposes the adaequatio rei et intellectus*of classical metaphysics onto a myth – a positivist myth – of the omni-translatability of images.
*Medieval truism: The intellect of the knower must be adequate to the thing known.
Below are two inscriptions scribbled on the walls of the gallery by Tang himself. The longer one seems to be a reference to a specific individual; the short epigraph, penned onto a stretch of wall next to the large slanted ink-on-paper works (above), reads “一切都邪”, or “All is evil”. The words for evil, 邪, and crooked, or slanted, 斜, are homonyms in Mandarin, both pronounced xie in the second tone. The slippage between the two here, I think, encapsulates perfectly the equivocal, elusive, teasing character of Tang’s work …
The longlist for the second APB prize is out.
A number of Singaporeans were nominated, including the ever awe-inspiring Jane Lee and the Puck-ish Heman Chong. The competition this year has been expanded to include almost all of Asia, and, accordingly, the prize money for the big winner has been upped to a cool forty-five grand SGD.
I wish they’d stop using the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ though; countries like Nepal and Bangladesh (which feature on this year’s list) don’t really fit in there. More importantly, doesn’t a pan-Asian prize in general just sound so much more … impressive, than simply one for the Asia-Pacific region ?
ST write-up below. Longlist of nominees and other pertinent information available over at the SAM’s website.
BREWERY’S ART PRIZE GOES REGIONAL
Prize funding also doubles with more than three times the entries from previous run. By Deepika Shetty.
The triennial Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Signature Art Prize is getting bigger. The second edition this year will include nominations from the whole Asia-Pacific region.
The competition will see 130 works from 24 countries vying for the $45,000 grand prize, more than three times the number of entries for its inaugural run in 2008 which featured 34 works from 12 countries.
The APB Foundation has also doubled its prize funding from $2.25 million for five editions to $4.45 million.
As a media briefing held yesterday at SAM at 8Q, Ms Sarah Koh, APB’s general manager for corporate communications, said they were encouraged by the enthusiastic response to the inaugural edition.
She said the foundation decided to expand the focus from South-east Asia to the Asia-Pacific to create opportunities for a wider pool of talented artists from the region.
The prize is aimed at recognising artworks created in the preceding three years and encouraging the development of contemporary art across the region.
Apart from the grand prize, there will there will also be three Juror’s Choice Awards worth $10,000 each and a $10,000 People’s Choice Award.
All artworks have been nominated by art experts in each country and they are being judged by an international jury panel. The jury comprises Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Gregor Muir, executive director at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London; Hendro Wijanto, South-east Asian writer, critic and curator; Ranjit Hoskote, Indian critic and curator; and Tan Boon Hui, director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which is organising the competition and will be exhibiting the winning artworks ranging from paintings and sculptures to new media and installation works.
The jury will shortlist 15 finalists, whose names will be announced by Oct 1, and an exhibition of their works will open at SAM on Nov 11. The winner will be announced on Nov 18.
Museum director Tan, 41, said: “The expanded reach of this year’s prize enables us to validate and profile even more artists and their practice.”
Seven local artists have been nominated by for the competition by Ms Joanna Lee, an art consultant and independent curator, and Ms Audrey Wong, programme director of the MA Arts and Cultural Programme at Lasalle College of the Arts.
These include several instantly recognisable names such as artist Jane Lee, who made a splash with her massive painting Raw Canvas at the Singapore Biennale in 2008, and award-winning photographer and film-maker Sherman Ong, who won the first Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu award for photography last year. (See side story.)
Also on the nominated list are several big contemporary art names such as leading Pakistani artist Rashid Rani. His work Desperately Seeking Paradise, a conglomeration of numerous miniscule details, was recently on show at the Musee Guimet, France’s national museum of Asian art.
Japanese artist Kohei Nawa’s PixCell-Deer#17, which explores how people interact with virtual reality, has also been nominated. The artist sources taxidermied objects from online auction sites and layers them with transparent glass beads. The veil of differently sized glass beads on the surface of the taxidermied animal magnifies it in some areas and distorts it in others. this piece was exhibited in Trans-Cool Tokyo, a show held at SAM at 8Q last November.
Adding to the range and the contest are artists such as Qiu Anxion from China, Sopheap Pich from Cambodia, Eko Nugroho from Indonesia and Tracey Moffatt from Australia.
Said Mr Tan: “The range as well as the quality of the art shows that we are at the heart of the most dynamic region and this award will help us uncover ground-breaking artworks of lasting significance.”
FROM SINGAPORE: SEVEN ARTWORKS
RECONSTRUCTING SENTOL, 2008 – 2010, Khairuddin Hori. Digital print on paper, 14 pieces. Appropriating ideas and images from Mat Sentol films of the 1960s, the artist creates new pictures, giving each one of them a contemporary and often idiosyncratic touch. He juxtaposes real and imagined landscapes with characters from the films.
THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS, 2010, by art collective Vertical Submarine. Installation. Inspired by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story of the same name about a maze, this tongue-in-cheek installation was shown by artist jason Wee’s art space, Grey Projects, in Zion Road. The constructed labyrinths led to rooms that alluded to central characters in Borges’ story.
SECOND-HAND CITY, 2010, by Michael Lee. Digital print on archival paper, set of 10. Melding science fiction with cultural studies, the series Second-Hand City (2010 – 2011) weaves several themes in contemporary life and art in the city. These range from the demolition or collapse of structures to their physical disappearance and destruction by war or natural processes, and statuses of being abandoned, not built and forgotten. this leads a refreshing exploration of the lifecycles of buildings and cities.
TOGETHER AGAIN (WOOD: CUT) PART I NATURAL HISTORY & TOGETHER AGAIN (WOOD: CUT) PART II MAGIC, 2009, by Lucy Davis. Woodcut, woodprint collage and woodprint. Breathing new life into the term “dead wood”, visual artist Davis collected discarded wooden objects from the streets around Little India. She then transferred their woodgrains onto rice paper. this was eventually used to form tree-shaped collages and the work beautifully blended ecology with everyday stories.
A SHORT STORY ABOUT GEOMETRY, 2009, by Heman Chong. Performance involving the oral transmission of a 499-word story written by the artist via physical face-to-face encounter between two people. Focusing on a more intimate and concentrated exchange, the work is a private memory class. A participant with the help of a teacher is required to memorise a 499=word short story. The short story will not be published or adapted into any other form.
BANJIR KEMARAU (FLOODING IN THE TIME OF DROUGHT), 2009, by Sherman Ong. Video in two separate rooms, 92 minutes each. Some time in the near future, when 40 per cent of Singapore’s population is made of foreigners, the tap runs dry. Ong’s actors speak in Mandarin, Tagalog, Thai, Indonesian, Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Italian and some German. Through their fears, he reveals what a water crisis can mean for ordinary people living here.
STATUS, 2009, by Jane Lee. Mixed media. Lee continues her artistic exploration through layers of paint. Like her earlier painting, Raw Canvas, which was featured at the Singapore Biennale in 2008, this work is also created with her trademark squiggles of paint and parts of it look like a loosely woven piece of fabric.
It does residencies too.
Spanish artist Mariona Vilaseca has been there for the past month, and the fruits of her labour are currently on view at GP’s temporary home at 47 Niven Road (only till August 22).
Mariona likes little things, and she likes repeating them.
The effect was disarming. Particularly winsome were her objects shaped from tissue paper and small wads of cotton wool, which she dyed a brilliant shade of vermillion (below). She remarked that her use of colour was at least partly inspired by the pervasiveness of food colouring she witnessed here — think the oleaginous gleam of blood-red ang ku kueh, or the mounds of tawny yellow rice served up as nasi briyani, or perhaps the various lurid hues that pickled fruit come in — and indeed her little shapes are vaguely reminiscent of foodstuffs. Strung up on a pole, the red lengths of tissue paper rather looked like dried peppers from afar; the swirled balls sitting in an open drawer and the flat pig-tailed squares on a pedestal could almost be pastries of a sort.
And, coincidentally or otherwise, when I was there last night Mariona kept trying to fatten her guests up with baked goods: coffee cookies, beancurd tarts …
The artist is also rather fond of conical forms, which, almost always rendered in black — another preferred hue — resemble mountains. The motif is repeated across a range of media: Indian ink on paper (constituted by reiterated dottings not unlike Seurat’s pointilist technique), small mounds of incense ash moulded into a series of military-like formations (below).
More reiterations below …. and Mariona herself.
ADDENDUM: This post has gotten a couple of comments from Spanish-speaking readers in their own language. Unfortunately, I’ve had to delete these. I mean no disrespect at all – indeed I tend to approve all comments made on this site, even the insolent, unconstructive ones (you know who you are) – but comprehensibility is the minimum requirement I think. Feel free to write in in the language of your choice, but do AT LEAST include a translation in English.
Thank you. Muchas gracias. 谢谢. Terima kasih. நன்றி. ありがとうございます. 감사합니다. Danke schön. Merci beaucoup.
Members of the local LGBT community – and beyond – would not be unfamiliar with Ouyang Wen Feng, the gay Sino-Malaysian pastor who was thrust into the limelight when he came out in a very public manner back in the mid 2000s.
You’ve got to give it to the guy: he’s Chinese, Christian and gay. Across the Straits of Johor, that’s three kinds of undesirable. He may as well be dead, as far as mainstream Malay-Muslim society is concerned.
But he’s not.
In fact, he’s living well in NY these days (the best revenge, as the maxim goes) — and planning to take full advantage of New York’s recently-enacted equal marriage law.
The full scoop from The Lede:
GAY MALAYSIAN PASTOR’S WEDDING PLANS STIR ANGER.
By J. David Goodman. Published August 16, 2011.
Government officials in Malaysia have expressed outrage over the plans of a prominent gay Malaysian to marry in New York — and celebrate the wedding back in his home country.
The Rev. Ouyang Wen Feng, a Chinese-Malaysian pastor who has lived in the United States since 1998, said on Tuesday that after he married his partner of roughly two years at the end of this month, the couple would travel to Malaysia for a wedding banquet, The Associated Press reported.
The move is likely to further inflame conservative officials in Malaysia, where Muslims are in the majority. Since the planned wedding in New York was announced last week, government officials and newspaper columnists have fumed that the union would harm Malaysian society.
“Day by day we see various attempts to destroy our value system and Pastor Ou is doing it in the open,” a columnist wrote in Utusan Malaysia, a conservative daily owned by the ruling party, according to a translation by the Web site the Malaysian Insider. The columnist added that Mr. Ouyang’s “attempt to break this value system to marry the same gender in this country has to be opposed. In fact the government has to act to block him.”
The country’s Islamic Affairs minister, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom, said on Sunday that “social problems” would arise if such “extreme human rights” were permitted. “I think it will encourage liberalism in Malaysia and this understanding is worrisome,” he told reporters.
The couple plan to wed in New York on Aug. 31 — the Malaysian independence day — but a date for the banquet in Malaysia has not been announced. New York legalized gay marriage this summer and began marrying same-sex couples in late July.
In 2006, Mr. Ouyang, who also goes by his birth name, Ngeo Boon Lin, became the first public figure in Malaysia to come out about his sexual orientation, according to a biography on the Web site of the Metropolitan Community Church, a mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender congregation in New York. In addition to his pastoral work, he is also a journalist and has written a column for the Sin Chew Daily, the largest Chinese-language paper in Malaysia.
But the Malaysian authorities have shown little tolerance for his message, or for public acceptance of homosexuality. Earlier this year, the country’s leading private radio broadcaster censored portions of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” because they were perceived to be offensive. “The issue of being gay, lesbian or (bisexual) is still considered as a ‘taboo’ by general Malaysians,” the broadcaster, AMP Radio Networks, said in a statement at the time.
Mr. Ouyang, 41, who grew up in a conservative Christian household in Malaysia and is currently traveling to Hong Kong to promote his book on homosexuality and Christianity, faces opposition from the country’s majority Muslim community as well as its Christian minority.
The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, an umbrella organization of Malaysian churches, has opposed the planned union.
In 2007, Mr. Ouyang laid the groundwork for a church that would be accepting of openly gay congregants in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. Mr. Ouyang was ordained in the United States that year.
“For some of us, especially our gay brothers and sisters, we have experienced firsthand that Christianity has been used to persecute minorities,” Mr. Ouyang said during his first service in Malaysia in 2007, before calling on the roughly 80 gays and lesbians in attendance to “reclaim our faith and celebrate our sexuality.”
Despite stiff opposition, Mr. Ouyang has continued to push for greater rights for gay Malaysians. This month he called on gay Malaysians to come out, saying that discrimination by the Malaysian government was based on “ignorance” and that staying in the closet would “perpetuate prejudice.”
But to do so takes courage. A Malaysian man who came out in a YouTube video in December was forced to take down the video, “Saya gay, saya okay,” after he received violent threats. Seksualiti Merdeka, a Malaysian gay advocacy group that helped post the video, explained the decision to remove the video and lamented that “so far nobody in authority has denounced the threats of violence.”
Regular readers will notice that the tagline for this site has changed.
I started this blog with a pretty specific vision. (See my inaugural post on what I dub quotidianism.) While “the embodied everyday” was a very theoretically apropos description of those concerns, it started to seem a tad … purposeless, as the site began to take on a life of its own, quite distinct from any pre-determined frameworks I’d dreamed up for it. (My revisitation of the topic here.)
So anyways, I figured a slight tweaking was in order. As a statement, “articulations” is simultaneously broad and brief enough to suggest both thematic scope and critical concision, an elastic conjuncture of those centrifugal, often contradictory positions …
Of course there’s the rather cheesy pun – art-iculations indeed – but feel free to pretend that’s not there.