Culture Diary

Some long thoughts on Air Con and some brief thoughts on the announcement of selected artists for the Ilham Art Show 2022. 

I really don’t know what to call this thing where I just comment on aspects of art and culture. The last time I did it was in the form of Capsule Reviews for a few things. But sometimes I really just have thoughts for a bunch of stuff that I just stir fry together in the same pan (read: post). “Culture Diary” will be the way I categorise them for now.  

Air Con 

Last Sunday, I watched a fantastic theatre production — Shanon Shah’s Air Con, directed by Instant Cafe Theatre co-founders Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi. It premiered in 2008. Instant Cafe Theatre revived the recording of the 2008 performance for a single weekend, streaming it online via this new Malaysian-founded pandemic-baby site called CloudTheatre. The play made me laugh. The last time a piece of Malaysian art got me laughing with it rather than at it was I don’t even know when. At times, it surprised me with the twists it took; it was a real ride, I barely registered its 2.5 hour runtime. 

The play centres on an all-boys boarding school in the Malaysian state of Kedah. Behind the boarding school is a railroad track which is also, at night, a spot where transgender prostitutes meet their clients. The play opens with the news that a “Mak Nyah” (local slang for transwoman) has just been found dead in the sewers by the railroad tracks, her skull bashed in. Rumours have long abound that boys from the boarding school get their rocks off with those prostitutes, who offer a service known as “air con”: in which they suck on a cough drop before delivering a blowjob. The spectre of the murdered prostitute haunts the boys’ school as its students are suspected of being clients, murderers, and fellow transgenders alike… 

On the surface, you could distill it as a pedestrian story of bullying and acceptance. But Shanon Shah’s ambitions were greater than this. Air Con is more than a moral tale that simply “sends a message” or “raises awareness” — the play deals with daring, thorny Dostoyevskian questions of spiritual redemption. And it dares to consider that most perpetrators suffer a greater torment than their victims, even if their victims are dead. This is a something I’ve suspected of being true myself. The play resists the neat and simplified social narrative of perpetrators being irredeemably bad and evil, a narrative that has become the modus operandi of 21st-century cancel culture which seeks to deplatform grown adults for opinions they had and actions they committed in fits of folly or even in their youth. But Air Con’s not about posting the n-word on Facebook when you were 13 — it’s about big boy stuff, it’s about murder! Under the mandate of the law, a murder is a murder and must be punished, but what of the Mandate of Heaven? And can any corporeal punishment ever be enough to effect spiritual redemption and transformation? How to reach that hard nub of consciousness from which springs love, evil, and all manner of things we can never understand? 

Air Con begins with a wound, and it progresses by digging and digging at it until it starts festering with a phantasmagoria of awfulness. It burns slow, offering many entertaining vignettes of life in this school and nurturing its characters’ development. Dramatic back stories, rumours, minor confrontations, but also momentary respites where you see the joyfulness and foolhardiness of male youth. The turbulence of young men growing up in such close proximity to each other, without any mediating female presence, is treated with sensitivity and tenderness. The play had an easy sense of humour and didn’t let itself get bogged down by the weight of its themes. (Some Malaysian artists can’t pull this off — they go straight into serious buttoned-up mode and eschew any attempts at humour under the guise of taking their topics “seriously”, in the hope that audiences won’t realise that they don’t have a sense of humour or personality to start with. OK, rant over. In short, this play’s got jokes.) 

Boys will be boys — unfortunately for them. The play treats maleness like a prison, something itchy and claustrophobic. Some of them go out to the railroad tracks to escape. There are two parallel friendship arcs in Air Con, one slightly healthier than the other, and there’s an implicit insinuation that the less healthy one is undermined by the boys’ own “toxic masculinity” and the need to project an appearance of toughness. Both sets of friendships require immense feats of self-introspection to maintain them, and a certain incident in a science lab gives you a sudden wrenching insight into the volatility of life in an all-boys’ school. The friendship between Burn and Chep is the less entertaining one, but the most fascinating: it makes a great demand of the audience to care about the fate of their friendship. But we do, or at least I do. It demands us to think about the most difficult thing of all: death. Death and death and death and the dissolution of all things and whether any salvation is possible beyond the beyond. 

The online stream only offered like 30 seconds of intermission, so by the final half hour I was dying for a pee. So I’m not sure whether this physical urgency within me exaggerated the way I perceived what I was watching, but the final half hour of the production seemed to spiral into this surreal, claustrophobic thing. We’re talking Shakespearean levels of tragedy and hysteria. The acts were shorter and the supernatural had crept in. Flashing lights. Only thing is, it seemed to me that Hamlet’s madness came a little too late here. The play’s ending had a slightly tacked-on feeling, a skinny tragedy. Maybe Shah should have tossed one of his characters a monologue? 

The actors were a revelation. I felt like I was watching Malaysians for the first time rather than actors. Every boy seemed tailor-made for their roles; you get the impression that they are exactly like their characters in real life; they inject so much life and tenderness into the story. All close-ups of Burn’s face are hypnotic, “someone handsome but lonely”. I suspect that I will not be forgetting this kampung boy for a long time. And all interactions between William, Asif, Mona, and Mimi have a natural ease that makes you envious—makes you wish you could be, for a brief moment, a persecuted gay in an all-boys’ boarding school, if only so you could have camaraderie and jokes like these. 

It’s impossible not to be conscious of the temporal distance between now and when the play premiered. Something about the writing feels so very much of its time, and impossible or at least rare now. Here was a thing aware of its own intelligence, which had no qualms nodding to Shakespeare and other facets of the Western canon, but which also breezed through a dialect-inflected bilingual script. This is something with a great respect for plot — for the classic form of the thing, and for the audience. What I perceive as the art of today sees the audience mostly as a mass to be “enlightened” or messaged to or raised awareness at. People these days don’t have compelling narratives, they have things they want to Say to audiences who likely already agree with them anyway. They have pithy statements, they have takedowns of the government. But they don’t have the personality, the tenderness, the quality of being compelling, if not “real”. What makes Air Con great for me is that it is not a morality play but rather a classic tragedy. Plain and simple in its complexity. Teach it to boys in schools not for the message of acceptance, but for the craft. Many people fail to understand that so long as the craftsmanship is good, you don’t need to worry about getting the message across. 

The Ilham Art Show 2022

A couple weeks ago, Ilham Gallery—which is, I dare say, the leading art institution of Malaysia—announced their selections for their inaugural Ilham Art Show triennial. The Ilham Art Show will be an open call exhibition programme (like the Royal Academy summer exhibition) and its first iteration will take place sometime next year. 

The gallery received 360 applications for the show. It’s unmistakable for me now that Ilham is the highest form of validation that artists can receive in Malaysia. Some of the names on the list were surprising to me: a couple of artists who had previously expressed in private conversation their distaste of being asked to “apply” for stuff (as opposed to directly invited), another artist who has had his works sold for five figure sums. One of my artist friends told me, “I submitted because I wanted to see if I’m good enough to get selected.” This isn’t meant as an indictment, but rather a remark on the awesome reputation that Ilham has. For many Malaysian artists, I think, it’s a ticket outta these dumps.

Nobody cares about Balai anymore because they’ve stained their own name through one too many misdemeanours and non-apologies throughout the years. Once a mighty institution with regular themed competitions, now it seems that they’re left with only Bakat Muda Sezaman which… did anyone even apply for this year? After the fiasco that was 2019’s influencer storm and after going into total closure for all of 2020, Balai has erased themselves out of the moment’s cultural relevance. Which is a shame… 

Everything in the pandemic is about giving out opportunities, about applying for things. Cendana has also been churning out grant after grant, some of which are undoubtedly useful and beneficial. With some good insight, they finally opened a grant just for art production. But nevertheless, I’m starting to wonder whether all this applications, funds, and grants might not be a little damaging. Everyone is just applying for stuff, but why? I think many of our better contemporary artists are a little bit of school swots — if you dangle a prize in front of their faces, they’ll apply not for the prize itself but just to see whether they’re brilliant enough to win. The winning is what matters; the prize could be fuck all (and usually it really is just fuck all). Did anybody apply for the UOB Painting Award this year? Did anybody apply for CENDANA’s multiple grants for visual artists, which have a huge total value? Did anybody apply for Bakat Muda Sezaman? But 360 artists applied for the Ilham Art Show. Kudos to UOB, Cendana, and Balai for trying, but they quite simply do not have the regional (if not international) recognition, the intellectual credibility, the temperature-controlled frigidity, or the sheer sleek appearance of Ilham Gallery. Everything just looks and feels more serious there. That’s just how it is. 

Of course, it works both ways. Applications make artists feel productive and, when one is successful, flatter their ego, but applications also flatter an institution’s perception of itself. I think this was the impasse faced by the shortlisted contestants of the Turner Prize in 2019, when they decided to split the prize amongst themselves. Grants and funds are a way for both artists and institutions to reinforce each other’s prestige. When the Ilham Art Show results were published, I perceived a lot of disappointment from non-selected artists.

Where am I going with this? I don’t know, nowhere in particular, I just find the whole thing interesting. I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective on something. Everyone seems to be shitting money out of all possible holes and yet. Last year, this is exactly what everyone thought they wanted. Give artists money. The arts are essential too. And yet. The money keeps gushing out, there’s not enough artists to receive such a deluge of money. And yet, was it ever really about money? The hunger feels deeper, much deeper than the superficial wound of money: it’s about institutional recognition. And deeper than that, it’s probably about recognition more generally and the audience factor in the making of an artwork. Even if people mostly make art “for themselves”, there is still an implicit and persistent awareness of “the audience” — there is a need to touch the lives of others, or to influence the way they think, or to have one’s own personal struggles seen and validated, or some such thing along those lines. As one of the panellists on the selection committee, Zoe Butt, said in a press statement on the announcement of the selection, “artists are the true jesters in our 21st century”… Jesters need an audience and Ilham offers the widest variety of audiences (including the potential for regional recognition) and the best-looking stage. 

Capsule Reviews: Art exhibitions, David Fincher, Lana Del Rey

Art these days is enervating, uninspiring. Nothing really seems worth the time or the effort to visit. P has gotten into farming and social work. Another one of my artist friends has plans to move out of KL to the coast, his slow method of ejecting himself from the art scene. Nobody has invited me to anything interesting for over a year now. There’s hardly anything on with thought in it, while the few that do seem somehow out of joint with the current time, like relics from a different era, and I can’t seem to feel anything. Among galleries whose programming I would normally look forward to, A+ has been doing group shows for the better part of last year and ILHAM has been running the same show for nearly a year now. It’s not a good time for showing art; as if now that the borders are indefinitely shut and there’s no one but fellow Malaysians to show art to, the galleries have just shrugged and given up. Contemporary art’s lustre has faded — its hints of international exchange and foreign glamour — its titillating minor scandals surrounding big shows, especially at Balai — the wine glasses, the roundtables, the smoking sections, the catalogues with inane essays — the curator of indeterminate ethnicity flying in, the mysterious rich kid art history grad at a European university returning home … No one is really trying to impress anymore, not like they used to.


PAUSE 202X, iterations 1 and 2 @ Tun Perak Co-op
12–28 March; 9 April – 2 May 2021

I can’t with any honesty say that I was a fan of either iteration of this PAUSE 202X KL series, organised and curated by Sharmin Parameswaran. I really wish I could have more generous things to say about it, because many of the artists featured are my friends, and I think that generally all of them want to do good work. It’s just that you wouldn’t be able to tell from this showcase.

Located at Tun Perak Co-op, a relatively new and hip art space located near Masjid Jamek in the centre of town, PAUSE 202X comes on the heels of “May We…”, another recent group exhibition curated by Rebecca Yeoh. The primacy of installations in both exhibitions reflects the current trend in the type of art that’s shown in non-commercial gallery spaces in Kuala Lumpur (as if the people who run these spaces only understand three-dimensional art objects). It’s as if these spaces — many of which are refurbished heritage buildings — have some secret aura that compels curators and artists to only create installation artworks, even if the medium doesn’t come naturally to them. It’s as if they feel challenged by the space, challenged to be another type of artist, one that they never even thought about being. I think the space is haunted by the spectre of Instagrammability, just like all heritage places are these days. The Insta-apparition slides into these young artists’ consciousness, feeds off their insecurities, and makes them create works that they, in truth, probably don’t feel all that comfortable creating. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they would just like to exhibit a single, perfect picture, but the hollowed-out former-kopitiam interior of Tun Perak Co-op urges them to do more… MORE!… To justify taking up space in a heritage building older than them, to answer to why its architecture should be supporting their artworks. The Insta-apparition that haunts the building swoops up to their ears and whispers to them, “Don’t you know what a big opportunity this is?”

So they end up doing odd things, like throwing k-pop lyrics into their artworks, or tacking up pages from their diary onto the walls, or presenting their videos on low-definition — but “vintage” — television sets. It doesn’t have to be like this.

What’s Left for Gathering, Tan Zi Hao @ Mutual Aid Projects
13 March – 10 April 2021

The most recent exhibition in independent curator Eric Goh’s programming for his temporary project space in Wisma Central, Tan Zi Hao’s What’s Left for Gathering was somewhat testament to the fact that, if you’re going to attempt an installation without wanting to commit to it anyway, then the best spot to do that is in a plain white room, far away from any heritage elements or Insta-apparitions. Instead of trying to fill up a room and its creaky heritage floorboards, it’s better to just have a table with some of your references on the side, so people can understand you a bit better as an artist. This element of exhibition design is a tried and true method — ILHAM has done it, OUR ArtProjects has done it, The Back Room has done it, A+ has done it (although you weren’t actually allowed to touch the reference material then), Ahmad Fuad Osman’s biggest work in his recent Balai survey, his “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project”, was literally just a presentation of his research materials.

This allows there to be room — but not too much room, otherwise it might be awkward — for Tan’s real works: his fine, elaborate drawings of imagined species of carrier shells and household casebearers. One can really get lost in his drawings, fall into their mysterious spirals and soft pencil marks and end up one of the gathered artefacts on these creatures’ shells. His imagined casebearers in particular fixated me: casebearers for words, for micro-beads. So colourful and intricate, these things that I peel off my walls and throw in the bin. There was one casebearer in a small, square, mint green frame — a real casebearer, that Tan found in his house, with a mint green halo about it, I forgot what his explanation was for why it was like that.

There was some connection to migration, about carrying things on one’s back, about travelling & picking things up along the way. But on the whole, it was what I would, not without affection, call a “nerd exhibition” — Tan seems much more invested in these casebearers and carrier shells as creature specimens, rather than with their symbolic possibilities, just as how Ahmad Fuad Osman, in his Enrique de Malacca project, seemed much more interested in the actual work of research than in the research’s conclusion. The overall feeling, especially with the artist and curator there to act as guides, was more like a visit to an underfunded but interesting little laboratory. I often wonder about these research-based “nerd exhibitions” (I’ll repeat: not without affection) and the extent to which they potentially obscure art’s transcendent quality in too much explication. Still, the drawings were really very exquisite and I left having learned a lot about sublime forms of life.

Mank (2020), directed by David Fischer. Netflix

Like most things that are these days nominated for Oscars or produced by Netflix, Mank was yet more easy and digestible content. Of course, it was entertaining to watch. Gary Oldman was fabulous as an alcoholic, unrepentant screw-up writer, and Amanda Seyfried in general looked fabulous, but the movie cannot live up to its subject. People used to write and direct movies like Citizen Kane, and now they just write and direct biopics about the people who wrote and directed movies like Citizen Kane. Feature films these days inch ever closer to resembling documentaries, more often than not drawing from true stories of dead people, and the cinematic art seeps out of the mainstream, only to be attempted by more independent productions.

Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2021). Lana Del Rey

What can I say that will be objective? It’s yet another lush banger from LDR, the container in whom I pour out all the emotions and longings that I’m too clogged up to express myself. This ones a little less sweeping and poetic than Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the album that preceded it, but it still puts me in that same twirling, dreamy mood that only LDR can achieve. It’s a little white girl unhinged, with song titles and lyrics drawn from Pinterest quotes. “Not all those who wander are lost”. “Wild at heart”. She reveals the sultry undertones of suburbia, puts the breathy “desperate” into “desperate housewives”, goes against the girlboss agenda by showing that domestic desperation also has its fun side in a form of unhinged feminine freedom. In theory, I love it.

Articles for CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Masterclass

Update [7 Apr 2021]: I’ve completed the masterclass now, with 15 articles in 5 months. This gave me a good excuse to make the effort of visiting more exhibitions around the city, and then to discipline myself into responding to each of them in what I hope was a thoughtful manner. I also hope this can contribute somewhat to the existing pool of discourse on Malaysian art.

Here’s a list of articles I’ve written for the masterclass I’m in, which I’ve previously talked about on this blog. Dates in bracket refer to when they were published.

  1. Participatory Utopias (5 Apr 2021)
  2. Rapkot and Imaniac’s Fiery Debut (19 Mar 2021)
  3. The Internship Archipelago: A Millennial’s Thoughts on Free Labour in the Arts (11 Mar 2021)
  4. January of Discontent: Wawasan 2020: Townhall and May We… @ Tun Perak Co-op (3 Mar 2021)
  5. Yes, you’re alone! Now what? (24 Feb 2021)
  6. How to leave town in a diseased world: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part II) (17 Feb 2021)
  7. Alone in Bangkok: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part I) (2 Feb 2021)
  8. Fadilah Karim’s Endless Decade (25 Jan 2021)
  9. Inside the Ellen Lee Collection (18 Jan 2021)
  10. Tale of Two Tomi’s (11 Jan 2021)
  11. The Theological Thorniness of Instant Café Theatre’s CMCO Nadirah (22 Dec 2020)
  12. Izat Arif vs. the art world (14 Dec 2020)
  13. Curatorial meanderings in Fergana Art’s Se{SUMPAH} (7 Dec 2020)
  14. Look East Gone West: Ho Rui An @ A+ Works of Art (23 Nov 2020)
  15. Reminders of death in Dhavinder Singh’s Tagistan (11 Nov 2020)

Artists mentioned: Dhavinder Singh, Ho Rui An, Syafiq Mohd Nor, Leon Leong, Azam Aris,  Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh, Korakot Sangnoy, Che Ahmad Azhar, Izat Arif, Tomi Heri, Alvin Lau, Mark Morris, Jerome Kugan, Hoo Fan Chon, Chye Pui Mun, Fadilah Karim, Roslisham Ismail a.k.a. Ise, ANJU, Adam Ummar, Kara Yong, CC Kua, Liflatul Muhtaroom, Kentaro Yokouchi, Jun Kitazawa, Andita Purnama Sari Putri, Shamin Sahrum, Ali Alasri, Paul Nickson, Sharon Chin, Lith Ng, Lostgens’ Collective, Wong Hoy Cheong

Musicians mentioned: Rapkot (producer), Imaniac (rapper)

Spaces mentioned: Annexe @ The Zhongshan Building, The Back Room KL @ The Zhongshan Building, White Box & Black Box MAPKL @ Publika, A+ Works of Art, Tun Perak Co-op

Recent writings

My writings have been going elsewhere and in exchange I’ve been getting money.

Back in September, I was selected to participate in an Arts Writing Masterclass by the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) and Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA). The masterclass began as a weekend-long event of four sessions with four different writers and journalists, and then 12 participants were selected to embark on the next phase, which is a sponsored, 5-month writing programme. Every month, I’m asked to write between 2-3 articles, each of which CENDANA-ASWARA pays me for in what I believe (I may be mistaken) is decent compensation for someone who’s writing they’re obliged to accept anyway even though many of us aren’t professional writers. It’s been going well. There are ways that I could complain, but overall I think just having deadlines set externally for me has been a good incentive for personal improvement (the problem with most writers is that they just need to get over themselves and actually write), along with having a sponsored mentor who gives you constructive feedback. You can judge the quality of the work I’ve produced so far for yourself; in order of newest to oldest:

  1. Alone in Bangkok: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part I)
  2. Fadilah Karim’s Endless Decade
  3. Inside the Ellen Lee Collection
  4. Tale of Two Tomi’s
  5. The Theological Thorniness of Instant Café Theatre’s CMCO Nadirah
  6. Izat Arif vs. the art world
  7. Curatorial meanderings in Fergana Art’s Se{SUMPAH}
  8. Look East Gone West: Ho Rui An @ A+ Works of Art
  9. Reminders of death in Dhavinder Singh’s Tagistan

(I still have two more articles pending publication, and four more to produce as a mentee in this Masterclass. I’ll post future updates to my “other places” page.)

I’ve spent the past week like a distracted rabbit burrowing through the digital warren of Singapore Art Week 2021 in order to produce this review of some of their online art stuff. I only covered a fraction of Singapore Art Week’s digital offerings, and then an even tinier fraction of what Singapore Art Week has to offer in its entirety, including all the physical stuff. I’m telling you, if you look through their website or Instagram or booklet you might go mad. It’s just so much. I genuinely can’t imagine that half the stuff they have listed (a lot of live-streamed artist and curator talks) would have more than 10 viewers. I really don’t get it, like who is it all for. Maybe there’s a quota I’m not aware of.

This push to digitalise or virtualise art arises from a push towards “accessibility”. The idea is to make art more accessible to… “more people”. If I knew more Lacan instead of the mere froth I’ve managed to skim off third- or even fourth-hand references made by other writers and Twitter users, I would make some sort of comparison here to a Big Other whom all this is supposed to be made accessible to. Or perhaps it was for people like me, under lockdown, restricted from travelling — even though I wasn’t even thinking about SAW before I was asked to write about it. I’m just a slacker… And yet, I was the one who went through it all, and my takeaway is that it was just too much — every event had its own dedicated website (all beautifully-designed btw), its own fluently-written exhibition text, and all the artist bios were in the right places with the right formatting. So much text, damn! My brain was frizzing out; I clearly don’t know how to use the Internet like a normal person. Which of course made me wonder what a “normal person” is, and if I’m so inept at getting the hang of all this, then who is the one who’s actually adept, and who is the one who shuts their laptop feeling pleased, fulfilled, and enlightened from all they’ve learned about Singaporean contemporary art, thanks to the accessibility of the Internet? Who is this normal person who’s supposed to parse through all this in a normal manner instead of their brain frizzing out like mine, and whose experience will thereby justify the sheer volume of it all???

Anyway. Read it here: A Malaysian under lockdown reviews Singapore Art Week 2021

In the review, I propose that this is all just a marketing strategy to leave me with FO(H)MO (Fear of Having Missed Out) at all the Great Stuff that’s happening out there, despite not having managed to parse through all the Great Stuff and critically dissect whether it was all actually great or not. Forest > trees and all. Well, on that note, there is an exhibition I’ve just been made aware of that I wish I was aware of earlier: In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War (“In Our Best Interests”: another very Big Other-y headline! Who’s “our”? Guess I’ll find out). Although, this looks text-heavier than anything I covered in my review, so maybe it’s best to have been unaware. With the Internet, processing time gets short-circuited.

Questions for a Malaysian Arts Council

Some questions and contemplations after reading Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s proposals for the creation of a Malaysian Arts Council, Malay Mail, ‘Fixing arts and culture 2020’, 19th May 2020. Accessed 21st May 2020.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in Malaysia reached severe levels right about the time a coup overthrew (perhaps this is generous, more like feebly but nevertheless winningly jostled aside) the Pakatan Harapan government elected in 2018, so as you can expect, much ire has recently been levelled at the government. In a way, the pandemic has helped to “legitimise” the coup government. In the midst of a pandemic, you can’t very well tell the government to fuck off when your job’s suddenly in question and you’ve still got rent and utilities to pay and, oh yeah, there’s an invisible virus ravaging the city. So we’re seeing more criticisms of the government, and some of the loudest and most prolific of these voices have been those coming out of the arts and cultural sectors.

Most people working and practising in the arts can probably be considered among those SMEs and freelancers whose livelihoods are totally thrown into limbo. Many of them have always been living day to day, sale to sale, without any fat company profits or personal savings to fall back on. Add to that is the burn of being totally overlooked and slighted by the government, after Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture Nancy Shukri went on air and tossed off the arts sector like a parent rolling their eyes at a teenager’s bad mood — they’re fine, they’ll get over it. It’s as if the government doesn’t notice us at all! …Which is a bad thing now as we’re ass deep in a global pandemic and capitalist crisis, but desirable otherwise.

This is a terrible time for the individual, and societies all over the globe are handing their lives over to their governments for protection (except for the US where many insist on “protesting” for their individual entitlements). But are we really sure that what we want is increased government involvement with the arts?

Recently, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim of Sutra Foundation published a widely-shared piece on the Malay Mail titled, ‘Fixing arts and culture 2020,’ in which he proposes the establishment of a Malaysian Arts Council, like they have in England. It is a very detailed article, not only calling for the establishment of an Arts Council but also stipulating its conditions and diagnosing current flaws in the way our government funds and organises arts and culture.

One of the issues he diagnoses is a failure to distinguish between ‘serious’ arts and ‘commercial’ arts, assuming that ‘serious’ arts are driven by more genuine “artistic” intentions, while ‘commercial arts’ are created to be crowd-pleasers. Datuk Ramli defines ‘serious’ cultural work as presentations, work, and research that ‘do not measure their success in simplistic KPIs in terms of profits.’ Not to be pedantic, but I’m not sure if the two words are really accurately used here, whether seriousness is totally incompatible with commercial success. It seems like a slippery slope into confusing ‘serious’ (and thus worthwhile?) art with poverty and a deliberate failure to garner mass appeal.

Datuk Ramli enumerates some examples of what he means by ‘serious’ arts and culture.

‘Serious Arts may be driven by non-commercial motives – such as research in indigenous music, exploring new avenues of contemporary expressions, sustainable outreach programs, new original works in music or dance choreography, archival & documentation etc. ‘Serious’ arts practitioners within the fields of our tangible and intangible heritages are engaged in less financial profitable activities but nevertheless contribute towards sustaining the ‘good life’ of the nation.’

Ok, so what he means is arts work that does not produce an end product that is consumable by the general public, or cultural work/exhibitions that are more experimental and unconventional and therefore unlikely to gain a large audience, but are done for the sake of experimentation and testing conventions. That’s an understandable definition and can be gathered under a different designation than ‘seriousness’ (implying that any commercially-driven work is unserious; as if Parasite wasn’t widely considered serious and “radical” while also bagging the Oscars) — but, again, pedantic.

Even though the Arts Council should be funded by the government, Datuk Ramli argues that it should remain ‘autonomous’ so that it avoids turning into (or solidifying their identity as) a propaganda racket for the government. ‘The government should keep an arms-length policy with regard to their dealing with Arts & Culture lest they kill its spirit when they interfere with its creative process.’ This is wise, especially given the many mis-dealings that have happened in the past in our National Art Gallery (Balai Seni Negara). Most recently, the artist Ahmad Fuad Osman suffered four of his works being mysteriously taken down from his survey exhibition, At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important, as ordered by persons unknown and for reasons unknown. Presumably because they offended Malay-Muslim sensibilities regarding pigs and nudity.

Currently, our art institutions suffer a lack of transparency and accountability to the very art community it is meant to uplift; hence Datuk Ramli accuses these government-funded venues of being ‘dens for iniquities, cronyism, and corruption’. He’s right that herein lies the pitfalls of government involvement with culture but I also wonder who, then, the autonomous Arts Council spending should be accountable to. Forgive me if I’m being overly literal or if I’m missing something. But if governments are created to represent and serve a nation’s people, and culture is being funded by the government, then shouldn’t those funds also be audited for how well it is serving the people? Is it realistic or even desirable to expect the government to give out public money to the cultural sector and then leave artists alone to do their own thing? (What other “autonomous” entities does it currently spend public money on?)

If we follow this logic, that governments should be answerable to the people, then bureaucracies and their requisite paper trails sort of start to make sense. The issue now is more that we have the bureaucracy without the citizen watchdog. Reams and reams of paperwork is filed and reports are duly submitted to higher-ups, but the rakyat doesn’t seem any closer to being involved with or consulted to in the arts. Many government agencies work on behalf of the people, assuming they understand the nation’s needs and desires through online surveys but not by adding them to their boards and panels. Many cultural practitioners perhaps make work with the people in mind, but, let’s be real, many of them already know their audiences.

In the battle between the cultural sector and the government (mostly fought by the former in the form of journalism and media appearances), where does the general masses of the population factor in? And, returning to the ‘serious’ vs ‘commercial’ dichotomy, why are certain cultural practitioners so averse to commercial success?… Unless the answer is that, deep down, they know and live in denial of the fact that their work can only be understood by certain intellectual and educated classes of people.

In each one of us, myself included, there is a (not-so) little narcissist who refuses to be understood by the masses, because mass understanding and appeal erodes the idea of our secret, unique, and transcendent genius. They just don’t get it. Even some of the people whose whole beat is campaigning for the masses or creating art about the masses probably act, even if just a little bit, on the influence of the little narcissist. This isn’t really a rare problem and we’ve learned to live with it; postmodern techno-capitalism has encouraged each of us to nurture this little narcissist our whole life, through rampant competition and obsessive concerns over individual identity. Who am I? What distinguishes me from everyone else? What is my “identity”? Or if we’re curating an Instagram account, What is my aesthetic?

When it comes to arts and culture, the presence of the ego is felt perhaps more keenly than in many other fields, because so much of art is an attempt by artists to sublimate their own egos or to grapple with their own lived experiences. Woody Allen is one artist who manages to pull this off — shamelessly culling material from his own life and inserting himself in nearly everything, but still creating something that is commercially successful and emotionally resonant. Many are not as successful and it sometimes shows!

In a contemporary global art market where names grow larger than their persons and a unique artist identity is nearly as important as the art itself as a curation and selling point, should artists be allowed to get government funding carte blanche? What does it mean by, ‘for the good of the nation’? 

Of course, cultural workers and practitioners are citizens of the nation too, but surely there will be an expectation that the impact should reach beyond their communities (although they are very well interlinked within Malaysia) and also include the input and involvement of the non-cultural swathes of the population. Above all, it should arguably erode the distinction between artist and the masses, with the masses just as easily being able to see themselves becoming artists, writers, directors, dancers, actors, Council board members, etc., as well.

In the not-so-distant past, Mao Zedong addressed these same problems in his “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art”, where he theorises on what an art for the people should look like. I won’t go into it, but the entire text is worth reading in full, to understand the sacrifices that will be required from artists as well if they truly want to transform culture into something that can serve the broad masses. Personally, I don’t have issues with any artwork that’s created to pander to the sensibilities of a select few. But why should we use public money to fund that?

And a final question: when one’s national culture seems to have always been defined by protests against the government and political conventions, are we really as capable as we think of working with the government? I suspect that those who have always acted independently and deliberately chosen to fly under the radar will continue finding ways to maintain their independence.

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s argument is relentless and clearly informed by years of involvement in the industry, enumerating clear demands for a better world for Malaysian arts. One of the major points where I’m in total agreement with him is that arts and culture should be de-linked from tourism. If the arts community had won more battles, I wonder if they would continue asking for the same things. For all my questionings, of course I hope Datuk Ramli’s proposals do gain traction nevertheless and become a serious topic of national debate.

Header image:

Designer: Revolutionary Committee of Tianjin Industrial Exhibition Hall (天津市工业展览馆革命委员会)
1971, February
Turn philosophy into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses
Rang zhexue bian wei qunzhong shoulide jianrui wuqi (让哲学变为群众手里的尖锐武器)
Publisher: Tianjin renmin meishu chubanshe (天津人民美术出版社)
Part of the IISH / Stefan R. Landsberger / Private Collection,