Playground by Alya Hatta @ ZHAN Art Space

If I’m not mistaken, in Alya Hatta’s solo exhibition Playground (closed last weekend; I caught it on the last day), there are three paintings entitled “Me”; one of them had something Jenny Saville-esque about it which made me wonder if she and Tracey Emin are the only women artists that young women in art school get introduced to. For someone in her early 20s (I think she’s 20), it’s slightly strange that she seems so pre-occupied with documenting her life and her body, but that’s not really her fault — this is the playground most young women grow up in. I didn’t like the “Me” works so much, but the exhibition generally was an enjoyable romp through the life & times of a promising young artist. Good for a Sunday and with friends, especially if you’re in your early 20s too. 

L to R: Shop Joy; We Broke Up; Sushi Queen

Self-revelation and confession can stray into self-indulgence, an accusation that the artist pre-empts by painting in the style of a child, with furious jagged lines and exaggerated expressions on her characters. The subject of the paintings range from her love for Sushi King, to an ex-boyfriend (titled “We broke up”; captioned “The title says it all!”), to a bright painting inspired by a phrase her relatives used to scold her with — “jangan duduk katak” — to a childhood experience of feeling ugly when she looked at herself in a mirror. What could be sensitive portrayals of childhood’s intensity of feelings sort of end up looking a bit delirious on canvas, maybe because the artist herself is not yet so distant from the age that she was in these paintings. Of these (the paintings that are not titled “Me” but are about Me nevertheless), the one I enjoyed most is probably the one dedicated to Sushi King, which depicts a central figure with multiple limbs contorted in a spiral… And a pair of conjoined limbs next to her, a silver anklet bedazzled on the foot. Sushi flies off on a haphazard conveyor belt. The Shard (?) is in the background, being exploded (?). What I will say is that she has a knack for painting faces. 

The better works of the show are the still lives: the painting of a convenience store with a carcass on the counter which opens the exhibition (a good choice), another smaller one of a chicken hanging in some outdoor butchers’ stall. Then there’s a painting supposedly inspired by the Tugu Negara, but transformed into a fleshy red bundle of legs instead, piled high on a cold concrete slab, but with the impression that they’re still kicking  — this is probably the most interesting painting in the show. 

The titular work, Playground, is an installation of a dining room scene. On a plinth is a tiny cabinet stocked with every day items and some snacks that seem more appropriate for a fridge rather than a cabinet, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ve all been preserved forever with resin. The yellow of the substance lends the items that old fossilised glow. On the floor is a low dinner table with the detritus of a meal — the most touching detail for me is the crystal glass candy jar sitting anachronistically next to a plain plate of fish. That crystal jar, with its pretensions to luxury, is one that I’ve seen in many households. On the floor, a doily mat with an edge missing, and on top of it a pair of baby shoes “never worn” — the price tag still on them. Up by the wall, a mosquito swatter covered in doily with a red target painted in the centre. This tiny kitchen, the domestic “playground” of her childhood, closes the show with a slightly more subdued and tender touch compared to the paintings of her in the playing grounds of early adulthood. 

on money and art

A recent visit to Bank Negara Museum and Gallery led me to think about the relationship between money and art within our national art institutions.

Recently, I was working on a project at Bank Negara Museum & Gallery. While literally waiting for paint to dry (my humble task that day), I decided to walk around the museum, which I’d never visited before. As I made my way through its halls that day and as I began to get deeper into the project that week, I started becoming more cynical about the purpose of art and its institutions. 

When I first arrived at BNMAG, I was duly amazed by how stunning it looks from the outside, all well-kept lawns and black tiered fountains and glass facades. In the middle of the museum is a spiral staircase, much like the one at Balai, which is supposed to be like the one at the Guggenheim?, and so from the third floor where I worked, I could lean over the banister and survey portions of the floors below. The first and second floors are the dedicated “museum” sections of the place:  there is a section on the history of islamic finance, a section on the history of money, and a section on the history of the bank. The third floor is the space dedicated to temporary art exhibitions.

I skipped the first floor because I’m not interested. On the second floor, there was an exhibition showing the collection of Tun Ismail Mohamed Ali, the first governor of Bank Negara. The exhibition space dedicated to Tun Ismail is split into half: half the space showed his collection, and the other half showed a tiny museum of his life. 

One of the first works displayed was a reproduction of a mural by Syed Ahmad Jamal, commissioned for the Bank Negara headquarters. It was a beautiful piece of design that utilised a nice black-silver-gold colour scheme. And though it was a reproduction, the print didn’t turn out half bad. I was reminded of another set of murals commissioned for a bank: the four murals on the exterior of the OCBC bank next to Masjid Jamek LRT station. Like those, the piece by S.A.J shows clearly the conditions of its commission. It’s beautiful, but it’s boring. It’s beautiful, but it’s commissioned by a bank. Like those, the metaphoric and expressionistic possibilities of art are hijacked by the shallowness of profit. I was struck by how poor art becomes when called to the impossible task of beautifying the circulation of capital. 

I continued through the gallery. The collection of works is fine. The show had no curation, and no point for curation. He bought art. Here is the art that he bought. It’s not that I am opposed to the practice of art collection—if this man had been my friend, and I’d met him at his home, and he’d walked me through his art collection, I wouldn’t have minded. What I minded, here, is how clearly the whole exhibition served to flaunt a single individual’s wealth, subsequently making the bank look good by association. What I minded was that a building calling itself an art institution would put the art of various talented artists in the base service of glamorising the collector who bought their work.

The art collection moved into a small museum of his life. On one of the walls was a big questionnaire-style poster detailing the specificities of his life. His skin colour: “sun-browned.” Another wall was dedicated to a yearly timeline of his life and achievements. There was a vitrine of his possessions and a replica of his study. Above the vitrine, there was a mosaic of lightboxes with bite-sized facts about the man himself. He liked dark colours and enjoyed western classical music. 

The various fun facts I learned about Tun Ismail Ali

I’m irritated at the shallowness of what art has become, especially on an institutional level, but the practice, while uniquely shallow on BNMAG’s part, is not exactly uncommon in the art world, nor is it a uniquely “Malaysian” failure. All over the world, the money that is financing art institutions is coming from big petroleum companies (such as Petronas), banks, or otherwise exploitative organisations. I brought this up with a friend, who argued that art being financed by banks and corporations have nothing to do with the quality of a gallery, since this practice is a given in the art world. The Tate was financed by BP; the Whitney Museum is chaired by the CEO of an arms company; the Met, Guggenheim, and the National Portrait Gallery in London were sponsored by the pharmaceutical Sackler family, accused of creating the opioid crisis in America; and what about Saadiyat Island being built out in Abu Dhabi, a city infamous for its brutal labour practices? These big boys are considered exciting and dynamic art destinations that set a standard followed by many other, smaller art institutions and galleries the world over. So the only conclusion left to be made seems to be that Malaysians are just shit at giving a shit, but (call me naive), it’s a conclusion I’m still holding out on making.

Do the Tate, Whitney, the Met, the plutocrats of Abu Dhabi, etc., etc., genuinely care about art more than we do, or are they just more experienced in beautifying their money trail? The failure of Malaysia to live up to its own delusions of grandeur has always been an area of interest in my writing. Under the influence of corporations and capital, art is reduced to a “high-brow” medium for either flaunting or obscuring one’s wealth.The Tun Ismail Ali “exhibition” has made me think our art institutions suffer from the former, but the latter is equally sinister. Malaysians are more crass, but in being so, the rift created by art and the money that finances it becomes clearer to see.

Advantages of Owning Your Own Art Museum, Guerrilla Girls, 2016 

Malaysian money is uncultured and new and Asian and therefore excited to show off. We’re not like our European colonisers who have a history of art. Because of this, galleries such as Bank Negara’s are not properly curated or project managed, because the point of art, for us, is still a way to show off wealth. We haven’t reached the point of development yet where we’ve manipulated ourselves to believe that the point of art is to change people’s minds, or broaden horizons, or whatever. A museum and gallery is simply what is done when one is a bank or corporation: everyone in the West seems to have them. So the gallery staff are either not properly trained to care, or have been conditioned into indifference. The artworks suffer under bad lighting and uneven walls unfit for a gallery. Artists are outsourced to line the walls in the same way that a contractor might be outsourced to paint them. The spaces end up having only the semblance of a gallery while being soulless and creatively, intellectually malnourished, like any child of wealth.

But it makes me upset, also, to buy into the ready tirade against the government and our national art institutions. Is the inefficiency and callousness of BNMAG a result of Malaysianness, or is it because it’s literally a gallery operated by a bank? Or put it another way, can you really expect anything more from galleries that are either constructed or majorly subsidised by banks and corporations, even if they hire “proper” staff who have a “background in arts”? Or put it another way: can the combination of art with exploitative capital power ever produce anything meaningful?

In Malaysia, donating an artwork to a national art institution is considered significant enough to warrant a tax deduction

Collectors can get a tax deduction by donating art to national art institutions, but the public fails to gain anything from their contribution when minimal effort is put into setting up the exhibitions or into enlightening the public on art. With the Tun Ismail Ali collection, we do not contemplate anything except for the fact of this single person’s career and his taste in art. When collectors donate their art collections, the public is afforded the chance to look at a work that would have otherwise remained in private view, but the possibilities of art are still limited to what one can gain by only looking at it. In Malaysia, these possibilities are hijacked by poor arts management, which is where my grief as a Project Manager arises, but I also don’t think art becomes better by producing better exhibitions. Producing sleek, interesting, and internationally-renown exhibitions is not the only way that an entity with a lot of fucking money can show its concern for the arts, if indeed they are truly invested.

Right now, I’m thinking about the Federal Art Project, a project under the Works Progress Administration that was created in Depression-era America. You would think that, given the current climate where the National Endowment for the Arts is facing termination under Trump’s America, surely a desperate, Depression-era America would have been even more likely to cut funding to the arts. And yet the Federal Art Project received 7% of funding from the WPA and continued to provide employment to artists, because it considered art production a legitimate field of work like any other. Under the Federal Art Project, artists were hired to create murals, paintings, and sculptures for public spaces and government buildings, along with being incentivised to painstakingly document an Index of American Design. From 1935 to 1943, over a hundred community art centres were set up to train young artists; the only costs these centres had to bear were material fees. Some of the artists supported by the Federal Art Project were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

Poster for the Harlem Community Art Center, New York City, 1938 

Going back to the question of whether banks and corporations can ever work meaningfully with art and artists, I think we need to look beyond the success of exhibitions if we want to gauge amount of care. Sure, BP sponsors the Tate and they still put on stunning, globally-anticipated exhibitions, so why can’t Petronas Gallery or BNMAG be better? But to dilute care for the arts to the sleekness of an exhibition neglects to realise that this superficiality is the same factor that probably drove Bank Negara and Petronas to set up evidently pointless galleries in the first place.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts looks good. It allows corporations to have their names associated with something highbrow and cultured; it is an attraction that mystifies and distracts from the essentially base, exploitative, and frankly boring activities of capitalism at work. The difference between our Malaysian art institutions and Euro-American art institutions is that Malaysian art institutions don’t try hard enough to look good. The new money slipped out and revealed its coarse hometown accent.

Right now, all over the world but especially in Malaysia, accepting corporate funding for the arts is one of the best forms of funding available, if you’re lucky enough to get it. Many artists rely on corporate commissions and patronage. In Malaysia, the consequences of this seems to be that art suffers from a lack of care from being reduced to a vehicle for flaunting wealth. We suffer from commissions that produce boring art and do not exhaust the full capacities of artists. Gallery exhibitions and public programmes that are executed as formalities rather than out of any real interest. On a wider scale, the consequence is that we are always stuck in a contradiction where art fails to reflect the world we live in. The domain of art is relegated to the domain of looking, but not necessarily impacting: the domain of art fairs, biennales, galleries, ever glossier and exciting “shows”.

In an article for The Guardian, Michelle Wright puts forward a fear that if one becomes too involved with tracing and subsequently protesting the money that funds the arts, then our art institutions will start to die out. Corporate funding is already on the wane, as corporations turn to funding services they consider more obviously beneficial to the public, like charities, education, or health services, where its members aren’t encouraged so much to ~express themselves~. I understand. I obviously understand, and I obviously want all the people passionate in the arts—artists, curators, and the other people like me who work for them—to continue having the funding to do what they love. But I’m not sure how long art can live within the contradiction before artists and the general public just become tired and cynical of what art can achieve. The argument against not making things “political” is the argument that art for art’s sake is possible—is the only art possible—and I’m just not sure how tenable this argument is. If you can’t stop people from trying to express themselves, then there are two options for deadening the noise: you can censor them, or you can disempower the institutions in which they express themselves, make these places irrelevant to the general public’s daily lives, so that the force of their art stops short at the eyes and does no further damage. This is art for art’s sake, incapable of meaning.

I think the Federal Art Project was getting at something, even if it had to be forcefully born out of desperation. It’s possible for art to be transformed into something a bit more democratic and meaningful, especially if we have the faith to believe in its capacity to be so. I just want to think a bit more complexly about art, and money, and exploitation. Of what art can do beyond just looking good and enabling a screen for money to disappear. 

In writing this piece, I aimed to consider the ways that corporate galleries fail art in Malaysia, but I also wanted to go a bit deeper and question the involvement of exploitative and oppressive industries within the arts on a wider scale. To blame the failures of Bank Negara Museum and Gallery on Malaysianness and the government doesn’t go far enough, for me, in interrogating the role of banks and corporations in the arts. It doesn’t do enough to answer to the gap between what art relies on, and what art purports to achieve.

✨🍆 In convo w/visual artist LITH NG on her show @ Urbanscapes 2018 🍆✨

[Disclosure of potential bias: Lith is my friend.]

When I sit down to talk to Lith Ng, we’re in a small, dimly-lit back room and she’s intently stabbing a dick with a hand drill. The dick is made of resin and was moulded into its shape by pouring the resin into a condom (which she bought in bulk off Lazada) and leaving it to harden. Inside the dick is a strip of paper containing an anonymous confession that she got by crowdsourcing on the Internet. On her worktable are numerous other dicks, all in various stages of being completed and in the middle of hardening.

On the day we’re meeting, it’s still a week left until the first day of her show as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition currently being held at Ruang on 2 Hang Kasturi. She’s drilling with a look of intense concentration, alternately stopping abruptly to answer my questions thoughtfully and then just as suddenly returning to drilling the holes again. The holes are for her to screw hooks into, for the dicks to be hung up on the ceiling of Ruang.

The dicks come in various sizes; some are hung up while others rest flaccidly on pedestals. As a project, it lends itself to humour and double entendres in their interpretation. Even as I watch Lith drill the dicks it’s hard not to laugh about it. Speaking about the hook, she says angrily, “it won’t fit!” The “flaccid” dicks on the pedestals are literally rendered useless, failing to perform, as they are made from resin. The dicks are castrated and contain their sins (in the form of the confessions), never to be relieved. The dicks are on exhibition like a street flasher, but now the power dynamics are changed as a young female artist is the one in control. It’s objectification without a victim. It’s dicks on the ceiling, hanging low enough to brush your face when you walk through. It’s funny or disgusting, depending on your temperament, and it’s both light-hearted and serious at the same time.

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image via artist’s Instagram

Lith’s goal in making these dicks is to encourage young women to talk about their sexuality. Having been raised in a tight Chinese community, she tells me about the various forms of bullying and sexual shame that young girls were subject to, and about the boys who were allowed to freely joke and talk about sex, while any girl who did was ostracized for it. Girls even had sexual rumours started about them as a form of bullying. (She tells me about a rumour started about a classmate of hers who went to a bathroom with a pen.)

Thinking about it now, Lith understands the psychology of children, in that when one bullies another about something, it would usually be a subject that the bully was insecure about and felt shame for. Her goal in making the dicks then, is to offer a platform for women to speak about their sexual experiences (good or bad), with the anonymity allowing them to say anything they want without fear of stigmatization or shame. It’s a medium for young women to say everything they want to say deep down but can’t, and for any (straight) male viewers to reflect on and possibly use as a catalyst for change in the way they think about sex and female pleasure.

“I’m afraid of high school friends following me, but I also kind of want them to follow me [on Instagram, where she posts her work]. I hope that when they see my stuff, it’ll be an eye-opener for them,” Lith says, making it clear that the toxic environment she grew up in continues to inform her adult creative life. It’s a testament to how long-lasting of an impression childhood can leave on a person, especially a childhood of shame, guilt and repression. She laughs. “There’s only like three people from high school following me. I don’t know what they think, maybe they think it’s fucking gross. But who knows, who cares.”

Maybe it’s because of the closeness of our friendship, but she talks in a warmly offhand manner, clearly as someone who’s confident and fully comfortable in her self. Her experiences growing up may inform her work, but the shame and self-consciousness no longer imprisons her. She doesn’t care about offending people with her art. The only thing she seems self-conscious about now is being original.

“I just don’t want to make cliche shit la. […] I’m just really stuck in the whole ‘I don’t want to make cliche art, but I don’t have any inspiration of my own’ loop.”

From here, I ask her about her inspiration and influences. This whole time, as she alternately starts and stops drilling at the dicks, she’s also been alternately sitting and squatting on her chair, in her own Thinker’s pose. She pulls her legs up now so that her whole body is on the chair’s seat, and with her knees reaching her chin, she scrolls her phone looking for the names of her influences. Louise Bourgeois is a big one, along with Annicka Yi, Tracey Emin and “Sarah… Sarah what-the-fuck-is-her-last-name… Oh, Sarah Lucas.” In describing each artist’s work, she keeps coming back to a central point: rawness. Rawness either in their messages (Bourgeois, Lucas), or in the materials they choose to use (Yi), and/or both (Emin).  She admires unboundedness, unself-consciousness, not giving a fuck.

To wrap up our interview, I ask her what, if given a limitless budget, she would want to do and experiment with. She answers immediately, “I want to make a fucking huge-ass large-scale installation, man.” But her ideas haven’t gone further beyond that, because she believes she’d never really have the funding to carry out anything on such a large scale. It may involve ice. She has a fascination with unpredictable materials, such as ice and resin, and earlier in the interview she’d shown me a few dicks that didn’t turn out as she’d liked them to—air bubbles caught in the resin, condoms that couldn’t be pulled off properly and reacted badly with the resin, etc. When asked to think limitlessly, she’s only certain about two things: it has to be massive and it has to be unpredictable. She doesn’t believe it will ever happen, but I hope it will.

In Defence of Pleasure is on view at Ruang, 2 Hang Kasturi as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition from 3 to 18 November 2018. The dicks are for sale at prices between RM150-170, Lith can be contacted at yeeleng.n@gmail.com.

Art notes: “Lopung is Dead!” @ A+ Works of Art, Sentul

The foundational ethos of punk rock is speaking truth to power. If you look at the work of Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap (“pangrok” being a localization of “punk rock”, “sulap” being a Dusun word for a kampung hut), you can see their punk rock heart shining through and true. Several days ago, on the 4th of October, they launched the opening night for their first ever solo exhibition in A+ Works of Art, located at d6 Sentul. The exhibition is titled “Lopung is Dead!”, with “lopung” being another Dusun word for pythons, and which in Sabahan slang is also used to refer to lazy and irresponsible workers.

As their choice of names hints, the work that the art collective does is highly localized. Their work is influenced by current events and everyday life in Malaysia; their prints criticize political corruption, environmental disregard and governmental propagandizing, while also celebrating the strength, beauty and unity of the people, especially the orang kampung.  

When I entered the space, there was a huge semicircle of people crowded around two massive floor-to-ceiling canvasses, both of which make up the work “Sabah Tanah Airku”. This is perhaps their most famous artwork, since it was hit with censorship last year when the organizers of the Escape from the SEA exhibition at APW were forced to pull it down due to pressure from anonymous public complaints.

“Sabah Tanah Airku” presents two “Versions” of Sabah: on the left side, there is the postcard-perfect Sabah–a harmonious Sabah, a picture that rings somewhat true, a picture still worth making, but also a superficial one. In Version #2 on the right, we see the facade discarded. Farmers who are toiling happily in the former are depicted with angry, weary faces in the latter. The “prosperity” and modernization of the former shows its consequences with the privatization and environmental destruction portrayed in the latter. While the former is composed in a bottom-top arrangement, with the people depicted in the foreground receding into the back, the latter has a top-down arrangement that portrays the people aggressively dominating the picture and the land.

The two works that make up “Sabah Tanah Airku”

Over in the next section is a collection of prints grouped under the title “Ma=Fil=Indo”, depicting an internationalist vision of a Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian union as proposed by Filipino hero Dr José Rizal many, many years ago. The Malaysia of today seems wholly dedicated to be something it’s not, by incessantly importing foreign goods and corporations from those who used to colonize our region (America, the United Kingdom, Japan…), and so the Ma=Fil=Indo series showing solidarity with our neighbours is refreshing to see.

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One of the works in the “Ma=Fil=Indo” series

Pangrok Sulap works with woodcut printing, a medium that’s perfect for the collective’s political message–a message that is clear, frank and literally stated in black and white. Their art has the ability of being both elaborate and simple at the same time. “Sabah Tanah Airku” are massive prints of elegant complexity that are completely filled to all four corners with various allusions and symbols, yet the message is unmistakable. The snake-and-ladder “Ular Lari Lurus” prints are a literal game of symbols, but it’s an easy game, one that any Malaysian will understand and relate to. Like the punk rock music that inspires their name, Pangrok Sulap’s works show that sometimes the most effective way of fighting injustice is to say things as they are. In black and white, on a large canvas and in public.

Towards the end of the night, a few stools were brought out for five of the collective’s members to give a closing performance. One of them pulled out a guitar with a bright yellow sticker on it that proclaimed “WE CONSUME WE DESTROY.” They performed a couple songs, ending with one called “Orang Kampung”. Though the audience didn’t know the lyrics before they began, the song had such an easy, infectious chorus that people were soon singing along.

Speaking the truth, challenging corruption, showing solidarity and politicizing your guitar. Works about farmers and the land, exhibited in an art gallery in a commercial building in the capital city. Pangrok Sulap’s exhibition is a reminder that fighting injustice really can be as easy as the chorus to their song, if only we have the courage to say things as they are and the mindfulness to remember, always, the shared land and history that we are all indebted to.

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