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.


CAPSULE REVIEWS

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.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 1.25.38 AM
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.