Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Under the Olive Bough

Honey Khor had always dreamed of castles. Ever since her formative years in her small northern Malaysia town, Honey had fantasised of visiting a European castle. Being born in South East Asia, she had little hope of those dreams becoming a reality. Still she yearned, even as a novice painter grappling with her desire to be an artist and the vagaries of growing, learning and finding her way amidst the nay sayers and those incredulous at her chosen career.

Some decades later, Honey has her dreams come true. Not only has she been an active artist for over twenty years, but now has the opportunity to have her forthcoming exhibition of sketches in a castle. The castle is the Monteruzzo Castle in Castiglione Olona, Lombardy, Italy. This is coupled with yet another exhibition of her recent artworks, called ‘Under the Olive Bough’, at Palazzo Branda in the same town. She has worked vigourously towards these two exhibitions, burning midnight oils and two-ended candles to complete the work in time to catch her flights.

These European exhibitions follow on from Honey’s other successes in China, the Philippines and Spain last year (2015). This demonstrates not only the artist’s love of life, but her very stringent work ethic. The vibrant new work melds her bubbling imagination, her keen observations and her artistic aptitude in a flurry of acrylic and oil paintings concerning her two favourite Mediterranean destinations – Lombardy (Italy) and Catalonia (Spain). Doused in local Mediterranean symbolisms, Honey’s undoubtedly poetic mind has re-created consensus reality, transforming it into a flamboyantly flagrant Mielism where nature and man coalesce, metamorphose under the influence of the artist’s own Joie de vivre.

Olives are known to be at least 6,000 years old, according to fossilised leaves found in Athens. Honey, using an olive tree in this set of paintings is emblematic of many of the Mediterranean countries including the Italian Republic. Olives are representative of strength and resilience. Honey’s use of olive symbolises not just Hebrew mythology as an icon of peace, but also of prosperity, resurrection and hope in her vibrant paintings. She has embraced a very nexus of myths from Greece, Italy and Spain. The Greek philosopher, Democritus, had associated myths of immortality with olives. The Greek poet Homer referred to olive oil as liquid gold and the first Olympic torch was a burning olive branch.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Luo Qi and my two essays

My two essays in this book, published in Korea

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Shock of the New - National Gallery, Singapore, a Review

(With all due respect to the late Australian Art Critic Robert Hughes.)

In this case the 'new' is both ‘old’ and ‘new’. 

The 'new' Singapore National Gallery was opened on 24 November 2015, and is housed in the former 'old' Singapore City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, originally designed by Frank Dorrington Ward between 1937 and 1939. Those buildings stand in front of the historical Padang grounds (playing fields) in Singapore. 

The new National Gallery Singapore was designed by Jean-Fran├žois Milou of StudioMilou and represents an amalgam of those preserved Colonial buildings in the heart of art Singapore. Of course there are contemporary architectural nuances, curtesy of StudioMilou and their local consultants (CPG Consultants), replete with a sculptural entrance sheltered by a curving canopy made from gold filigree metal and glass which hangs over the entrance and a glass and metal roof structure supported by an avenue of architectural ‘trees’. The buildings feature ionic-style columns, an oxidised copper tower and pale grey stonework, while the new galleries attempt to give insights into South East Asian Contemporary and Modern Art.

The Gallery's website offers this insight.

National Gallery Singapore is a new visual arts institution which oversees the largest public collection of modern art in Singapore and Southeast Asia. The Gallery is housed in two national monuments—former Supreme Court and City Hall—that have been beautifully restored and transformed into this exciting venue in the heart of the Civic District.

Reflecting Singapore’s unique heritage and geographical location, the Gallery will feature Singapore and Southeast Asian art in its long-term and special exhibitions. It will also work with leading museums worldwide to co-present Southeast Asian art in a wider context, positioning Singapore as a regional and international hub for the visual arts.” 

I arrived on Wednesday, by taxi, at the Coleman Street entrance, to a distinct lack of signage. At that moment the most vital piece of information was, where in this new art Gallery is the loo. The Ladies was quite convenient, a hop and step away to the right. The Gents, however, was a long convoluted trek past the minimalist merchandising area, past Galley & Co, around the back of the Keppel Centre for Art Education and along past lifts and grey slate walls to yet another Ladies without an art poster, banner or adult piece of art to be seen anywhere along the circuitous route. I had to backtrack slightly to notice the minimalist male figure, barely noticeable from the surrounding walls. It was a good loo, but it wasn't a good start.

Gallery & Co was a cafe, of sorts. The counter area was minimalist, as were the dubious delights on offer. I opted for a canned fruit drink, sat and used the WIFI to download the National Gallery Ap. It installed quite quickly, but was little help. I guess that I had expected something like Waze to guide me around. The Ap. didn’t.

The (no doubt) ingenious design of the combined Colonial buildings was entirely lost on me as I struggled to find where the art gallery actually was. At this point a large sign saying WELCOME TO SINGAPORE’S NATIONAL GALLERY would have helped, with maybe a painting or two just to emphasise the fact that we all were, in fact, within an art gallery. Even the Gallery Map depicts the fusion of architecture on the cover, rather than a painting, and the mini brochure National Gallery Singapore At A Glance has the domed Supreme Court on the cover. Art enters only on page two, with a minute image of Lui Kang, ‘Life by the River’, 1975 being dominated by a huge photograph of yet another architectural feature of the new Gallery (pages one and two).

Exiting the cafe and merchandising area (Gallery & Co.) I was confronted by a huge hall of emptiness (on two levels no less) with not an artwork in sight. I wanted to be informed. I wanted to be wowed, I wanted to have my breath taken away, not by the architecture but by the content of the Gallery. I was quickly realising that I was entering hallowed halls where artworks were sacred objects, to be hidden way and revered. While the architecture was both Colonial and contemporary, the Gallery’s approach to museology seemed staid, archaic. We were back to the days of reverential silence, with the curator as high priest. 

I sidled over to join the queue for tickets. It turned out to be a queue for information, tickets  ($20, concession $15) were down the escalator. The understated signage, while being sleek contemporary and very designerish, was beginning to get bloody irritating. And that, I am afraid, was my overall first impression of this freshly constructed Singaporean behemoth - enormous, empty and uncommunicative, with a huge sense of Alice’s tumble. I wondered, and started to look for the White Rabbit.

Tumbling down the escalator, metaphorically not physically, eventually I landed at the Earthwork (1979) exhibition, by Tang Da Wu. And a most impressive beginning it was too. I stumbled into other galleries wrapped by grandiose law accoutrements, majestic polished wood, magisterial chair, antique cases containing some history of the region. But any learning was minimised by the sheer weight of that wood. It seemed that the ancient wood had as much power as the contemporary glass and metal, enough to wrench any glory from mere pictorial art.

Only ‘Beauty Beyond Form’, an exhibition of Wu Guanzhong’s works, was able to stand up to that crushing weight of architecture. In 2013, I had seen some of those works, at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM, opened 1996), in a showing called ‘Seeing the Kite Again’ but it is always a joy to see them again.

Like most national museums or national galleries, it is inadvisable to attempt to see everything in one shot, foolish in fact to think that you can. I left off with much more to see, than had been seen.

That evening, an American Surrealist friend (living in Singapore) had asked me, over a most refreshing Mint Berry Gin Fizz (Gin, Creme de Cassis, Pressed Lemon) in Dempsey House, Dempsey Road, just what I had thought of the new National Gallery and, before I could answer, he chipped in "underwhelming?", and he was right for so many reasons. I could have retorted no! Not underwhelming! But overwhelming if we are talking about the architecture, but held back to listen to his opinion.

Not really wanting to compare the gargantuan new National Gallery with Singapore’s contemporary art museum, SAM, which is just about right in size and approach; however, it is difficult to imagine the need for such a large space as the National Gallery for Singaporean art when there is so little of it. At best you might claim just over 100 years of art making in Singapore, hardly enough to constantly fill such a huge space with rotating artworks and, of course, if not rotated, staid.

While SAM remains somewhat romantic and accessible, the new Gallery makes the same mistake as many major institutions. First impressions (which are usually those you remember most) are that the National Gallery is more concerned with its own impressiveness than it is with visitor communication. It produces large spaces to show how  powerful the institution is, minimalist signage and lack of posters/banners which  emphasises not the artistic merits of works housed there but, once again, the Colonial and Contemporary architecture. SAM holds that delicate balance of conservation, preservation and visitor contentment. To date the National Gallery fails in all but its concentration on architecture.

The fresh visitor to any gallery or museum needs to be informed from the outset where they are, what there is on offer and how to get to see it. The National Gallery, London, elects to drape long banners to remind you where you are, just in case you missed the text outside. The Scottish National Gallery, in its present incarnation, has something similar telling what it is and what to expect. It is a pity, for the National Gallery, Singapore has some outstanding contributions to museology including the Crossing Cultural Boundaries gallery, but these gems are not advertised as the visitor walks in, especially through the Coleman Street entrance - visitors arriving by taxi or from parking their cars. Too much attention had been paid to architecture and not enough to signage, to assist the visitors who currently pay $20 for the privilege of being confused.

I can understand that if what we now see is only a beginning. There is plenty of room for the National Gallery, Singapore, to grow, as grow it must. But there is the feeling that the doors were opened too far in advance and that the Gallery needed a test run before opening to the public. As of my visit, a week hence, and some four months since its opening, the National Gallery, Singapore remains somewhat bipolar, architecture vs visual art. At the moment architecture draws the visitors, but does not sustain enough interest to pull visitors into the environment and lead them through the various galleries, as interesting as they may be. It was a brave idea, but needing a tad more thought. Meanwhile, I shall always visit SAM, a more homogeneous environment.

Nota Bene
Why, in its South East Asian inclusiveness of Burma, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and of course Singapore, does Cambodia get excluded. Just a thought.


On the label to 

Victorio C Edades, Galo B Ocampo and Carlos “Botong” Franciso (b.1895-d.1985, b. 1913-d. 1983, b. 1912-d. 1969; Philippines)
Mother Nature’s Bounty Harvest
Oil on  Canvas

There is the inscription “….Sinuous, asymmetrical lines reflect the artists’ interest in Art Nouveau.”

Its a small point but shouldn’t that be Art Deco. A style that was rife in Manila and Bandung during the 1930s. Also no mention is made of the influence of the Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera, whose style the picture clearly emulates.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Love Me in My Batik

Love Me in My Batik by Joseph Tan, and author Martin Bradley
For a long time I thought that collage artwork by Joseph Tan was called Love Me and My Batik, perhaps some sort of lovers ultimatum - if you love me, you’ve got to love what I am wearing too. I was wrong. 

ILHAM gallery, Levels 3 & 5, ILHAM Tower no 8, Jalan Binjai, 50480 Kuala Lumpur, who opened their doors for the first time last year (2015) have presented, in their still pristine galleries, an array of Malaysian and Indonesian batik art works called - Love Me in My Batik, the actual title of that 1968 work by Joseph Tan.

In the book ‘Batik Fabled Cloth of Java’, (2004) Inger McCabe Elliott mentions;

The roots of batik are ancient, everywhere, and difficult to trace. No one knows exactly where and when people first began to apply wax, vegetable paste, paraffin, or even mud to cloth that would then resist a dye- But it was on the island of Java and nearby Madura that batik emerged as one of the great art forms of Asia. Batik is known to have existed in China, Japan, India, Thailand, East Turkestan, Europe, and Africa, and it may have developed simultaneously in several of these areas. Some scholars believe that the process originated in India and was later brought to Egypt. Whatever the case, in A.D. 70, in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder told of Egyptians applying designs to cloth in a manner similar to the batik process. The method was known seven hundred years later in China. Scholars have ascertained that batik found in Japan was Chinese batik, made during the Tang Dynasty.” (p22)

Exhibition poster
Previously (1964) Nik Krevitsky, in his book ‘Batik Art and Craft’, had this to say about Batik;

The art of batik has been known for centuries, but its origin, probably thousands of years ago, is still obscure. Briefly, batik is a resist technique for producing designs on fabrics. The process, in simplified form, follows these general steps: Selected areas of the fabric are blocked out by brushing melted wax or a special paste over them. After the wax is applied, the fabric is dyed by brushing dye over it or by dipping it into a dye bath. The waxed areas, repelling the dye, remain the original color of the fabric. To achieve more intricate designs with further combinations and overlays of color the waxing and dyeing process is repeated.” (p7)

For the purposes of the ILHAM exhibition, only local batik work (from Indonesia and Malaysia) were exhibited for, like all exhibitions, there must be focus. Batik from those countries simultaneously developing the craft up to two thousand years ago (Egypt, China, India etc), were held in abeyance, as were Contemporary Western batik paintings from the 1950s, most especially those from Professor of Design (University of California at Riverside) Mary Adrienne Dumas. Her intriguing batik work (for example ‘Wall Hanging’, 1952 and ‘China Shop’,1953, batik on silk) were produced a year or so before Malaysia’s, China born, Chuah Thean Teng began his batik ‘paintings’  at the closure of his batik cloth factory in Penang (1953).

One sector of the ILHAM Gallery
The new ILHAM gallery was not difficult to reach, using the Ap Waze to navigate from the Selangor wilderness to the Kuala Lumpur city heart, at Ampang. The ILHAM Tower has its own car park, and a separate lift which whisks the perhaps slightly wary visitor up to the aforementioned pristine galleries. Cornered concrete, jutting out at unsuspecting angles lent the sense of being in a human maze, the passages leading to the male toilet especially so. It was all very contemporary and, I understand, architecture is what ILHAM is all about. The main gallery, on the 5th floor was spacious, but seemed a tad clinical. Perhaps it had been a high powered CEO office space which had recently been vacated. The exhibition design was what you might have expected of Contemporary art galleries some 20 or 30 years ago but, perhaps, not of a recently constructed one.

Because of the spaciousness of the gallery, many of the works seemed dwarfed. Was the gallery, perhaps, designed to house large art works, sculptures, or to cater to huge adoring crowds on opening nights? If that be so then I understand the magnificence of that space, however the design of the exhibition ‘Love Me in My Batik’ was entirely unsuited to the large white walls of that space. 

Yee-I-Lan, Orang Besar Series, (detail)
Don’t get me wrong, it was a splendid attempt at the modern history of batik painting, and told the story well, with several obvious omissions. I was excited to see those wonderful works by Khalil Ibrahim, and am sad to have lost contact with him. I also revelled in the Ying-Yang Series - Soul and Form, by Lee Kian Seng, in all their psychedelic hippiness and was surprised to see Bambang ‘Toko’ Witjakson’s works, which I had previous presumed to be screen prints. But it was the design of the exhibition which, overall, made all the efforts seem a little lacklustre. I had a nagging Heath Ledger ‘Joker’ sinisterly rebuking Christian Bale’s Batman in my head, ‘WHY SO SERIOUS’. Many of the works called for a more lighthearted, or at least Contemporary, display. True, there were the gloriously large works by artists such as Yee-i-lan with her Orang Besar series, rippling in the air con, adding some movement to the overall static mounting but, ultimately, it wasn’t enough to take the starchiness from the overall display design.

Since the end of the eighteenth century, galleries and museums were places opened to the public, and where the public engaged and brought their life, their toddlers barely walking. Galleries and  museums were spaces in cities which replaced parks on rainy days, and were happy to do so. The concept of the pristine, wholly white, gallery came to us via the obsessions of Nazi Germany (1930s), as a symbol of purity, and it has stuck. Before the white cube, gallery walls would be painted to suit the pictures being hung. There would be more interaction between those elements of ‘gallery’ and the current exhibition. Modern exhibitions/displays in Malaysia need to move away from the concept of passiveness, pristineness and aim more towards inclusiveness and a social experience for the community.

Malaysian exhibitions noted for their well designed displays might include Dr. Choong Kam Kow’s Retrospective Exhibition, at the National Visual Arts Gallery, and The Untiring Engraver, an exhibition of Loo Foh Sang’s works at Soka Exhibition Hall, but there have been, no doubt, many that I am not aware of.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

For Potential Art Writers

Roger Fry, self Portrait
A few pertinent words to potential art writers, probably quite lost on the young.

This year marks two anniversaries. It is the fifth anniversary of my arts magazine Dusun/Dusun Quarterly/The Blue Lotus, began in June 2011, and my tenth anniversary writing about Malaysian art (blogging at Correspondances since November 2006). 

During my time living in Malaysia I have written copious lengths of text, for various newspapers and magazines, both within Malaysia and without. I have, in my folly, written art books, given art talks and curated art exhibitions concerning Malaysian art, around the world. But the business of art writing never gets any easier, no more profitable (in any sense) now than it was ten years ago.

Malaysia, perhaps like many other countries, is full of art cliques, art gangs and art groups. To be in one means to be excluded from another, despite agreements made, eye to eye contact evidenced and handshakes shook there always seems to be mentally crossed fingers. These intangible rules are, of course, unwritten, but otherwise caste in some perverse cultural stone. 

Within a few months of one editor promising one writer an everlasting relationship with their newspaper, that same editor was no longer publishing the writer’s work. A chance meeting at one international exhibition confirmed the truth. The writer had written for an outside art gallery and was therefore excluded from that clique. To be an insider means to kow tow to whichever caste, creed, race or religion (in the broadest sense) that clique adheres to. To, metaphorically at least, swear in blood, wear the club tie or tattoo, or stand on one leg exposing your braces while simultaneously chanting some nonsense and eating satay.

Unprotected art writers, i.e. those not in the above groups e.t.c., like everyone else, become exposed to tittle tattle and jealous gossip about their good name. Some may point their finger and cry arrogance when a writer simply, and legitimately, stands up for themselves or their work. Social climbers may gossip with ill intent to art officials, thus blocking access for the art writer, others may simply cheat you of thousands of Ringgit after you have performed the tasks you agreed to perform.

Others, galleries, artists, want written text for nothing. They happily commission work for which they have little intent of paying for, sometimes to the tune of several thousand words, and therefore Ringgit, leaving the writer having spent time on research and writing with nothing to show for it. Even when the writer capitulates and accepts that they will no longer be paid for the work, the final insult is when written pieces are excluded from the national catalogues they were headed for. The writer ends up with nothing for their work, except the exhaustion.

Some artists, or their agents, approach art writers and, upon knowing the cost of that private writing, say they will get back to the writer. They seldom do. Art writing to them should be free, but not the paintings or prints the artists exhibit, or the food and drink they consume at their openings, and of course no printer prints a catalogue for free.

Of course there are highs as well as lows.

Standing, opening exhibitions and shows in China, is a huge high. As is being interviewed on Chinese television, or reading from your work in Manila, the Philippines. Or, there again, seeing your photo portrait large in a museum passageway, or your name on a book jacket. Or being introduced to a new audience in Spain, or a school in Italy. 

There are some, albeit few, artists and galleryists who truly value you and your work and understand that you, as an art writer, are an extremely important member of the art promotion team. In the past, art writers and critics have been responsible for naming whole art movements. In France Louis Leroy, journalist and art critic, named the Impressionists, Guillaume Apollinaire, writer, novelist and art critic, named the Surrealists. Roger Fry, English theorist and critic, named the Post-Impressionists and British Laurence Alloway, curator and art critic, named Pop Art.

Those are the instances when you love your craft, when all the money in the world could not buy you such happiness. And those are the instances which keep us welded to the craft and help us endure the opposite, the negative.

So to the brave (perhaps) young art writer, be stalwart, be brave, dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Learn your trade, and when you have learned, beware. There is always some Jabberwocky editor or frumious Bandersnatch of a gallery, or artist, you may have to heave your vorpal sword at. Know your material, sculpt your craft and sharpen your pen, because you never know just when you might have to use it.