Saturday, 24 January 2015

My article about the Asia&African&Mediterranean Art Exhibition published in China

Hangzhou Highlights International Modern Art

by Martin Bradley M.A.

Towards an Understanding

Four thirty pm, October twenty six, 2014, saw the opening of the 11th Asian & African & Mediterranean International Modern Art Exhibition, at the Shang Kun - Luo Qi Museum of International Modern Art, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, literally gleaming with modernity and with at least one eye firmly fixed on a bright new future.

Thirteenth Century Italian traveller - Marco Polo highly regarded Hangzhou as “the city of heaven”, and “the finest and most splendid city in the world”. And, for those of you who had forgotten, Hangzhou has been a Member of the Creative Cities Network and UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art since 2012. Hangzhou is famous for its silk, seal engraving, Longjing tea, porcelain, handicrafts and has been nominated as a National cultural & creative centre. That, along with the founding of an arts academy, has led Hangzhou to be one of the most important arts centres in China.

In October, 2014, as maple leaves around the stunningly beautiful West Lake, Hangzhou, were beginning to reveal a gamut of painterly colours, from green to yellow and mauve artist, academic and entrepreneur Associate Professor Luo Qi (뤄치) once again brought international modern art back to Hangzhou. Ever since the founding of the Hangzhou National College of Art, in 1928, that city has housed some of the finest modern art in China. Luo Qi, in his eleventh annual Asian & African & Mediterranean International Modern Art Exhibition, was once more instrumental in bringing a coterie of exciting international modern artists, and their works, to grace and excite his home city.

While the southern Chinese province of Zhejiang has been renown for its superb ink and brush art since the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 to 1279), it was with the founding of the National College of Art, by Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培), of the Overseas Art Movement Society (in 1928), that modern art and Western art techniques originally came to the province. Ideally situated by an inspirational lake, the college of art, ever a promoter of Modern Art, was later to be renamed the China Academy of Art (1993) and that is where Luo Qi had studied, taught and exhibited before establishing the annual Asian, African, Mediterranean international Modern Art exhibition, in 2002.

Professor Luo Qi, overall curator, founder and benign father of the series of annual international modern art exhibitions, has long been part of an offshoot of Chinese Literati painting called “Calligraphyism”. There had be a resurgence of Literati painting in China during the late 1970s associated with the Chinese avant garde. Luo Qi, and painters with like minds, began developing “Calligraphyism”, calligraphic abstraction, in the 1990s. In Sacred Secret, T.J. Morris writes “In China, during the 1990s an abstract calligraphy movement known as “Calligraphyism” came into existence, a leading proponent of this movement being Luo Qi”. Luo Qi’s works have travelled far and wide. Not just to the countries he has included in his latest exhibition but also to America (US of A). The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, University of Kansas, University of Minnesota, the Cleveland Public Library, Ohio, and the Seattle Center for Culture & Art Exchange have all shown Luo Qi’s exquisite works in their galleries. 

The new ‘Luo Qi Museum of International Modern Art’, rests in one part of the first floor, of a freshly constructed mega-building, the kind of new wave architecture that Hangzhou is becoming famous for. The building, constructed by Shang Kun Construction Company Limited, with Chairman Li Zheng We at the helm, is triangular in design, which each ‘corner’ of the triangle blunted, rounded like a snooker ball rack, reminiscent of the rounded corner building found at Myrtle Avenue at Bleecker Street, Brooklyn, USA. In time, one whole floor of that spectacular building will be devoted to arts, led by the Shang Kun - Luo Qi Museum of International Modern Art.

Bringing it all Together

Having walked through a ‘hall of fame’, featuring posters from past exhibitions, a virtually life size photographic blow-up of the previous year’s group photo, and been faced with large black and white images of those involved in the latest exhibition, upstairs the visitor came face to face with a chipboard wall. On that wall, in three dimensions, the words “Shang Kun - Luo Qi Museum of International Modern Art” reached out. It was, and is a large space. the words are down lit, painted black, and quite naturally project from the natural colour of the chipboard. To one side stood the doorway which eventually led to the exhibition. On the opening night a table stood with the PA equipment, a laptop at the rear, controlling the ambiance.

The feverishly frantic day before the opening, in the freshly constructed, well lit and unusually spacious gallery, a room stood, housing crates, packing cases, large wooden frames and wrapped, sealed, protected artworks. Some international artists had shipped over their artworks, others carried their precious cargo with them on their various international flights. Artists had begun arriving a few days before the opening of the 11th Annual exhibition, to give plenty of time for the hanging of their unique works. One day before the opening night saw the sort of intense, but well-ordered, international cooperation only artists can extend towards each other, as artists from countries as diverse as Australia, Italy, Korea, Malaysia, Mauritius, Réunion Island and Thailand extended the hand of friendship and co-curated the 2014 exhibition with aplomb.

Malaysian and Korean Professors, normally to be found holding forth in lecture theatres, or hold up in offices, were up ladders attending to the delicate business of hanging large, and small, works of art. The keen observer would have noticed that this was tackled with a seeming ease, also demonstrated by the rest of the newly formed group. An Aladdin’s Cave of a tool chest was brimming with exhibition utensils, gleaming steel wire, hooks, nails and vital exhibition construction implements, curtesy of Luo Qi and his decades of exhibition experience. This access to vital materials enabled the smooth mounting of disparate objet d’art. Those canvases not needing stretchers, or frames, were stapled onto freshly painted white walls, their exhibiting reflecting the nature of the works themselves, as modern, contemporary, fresh and exhilarating.

While Australian Aboriginal art was being hung by a team consisting of Italian artists, an Australian curator and a British art critic, elsewhere a Malaysia artist was extending her canvas onto the square column forming a support for the gallery ceiling, and a Mauritian painter was aiding a Fauve artist from Réunion Island. While some artists had met at other annual international exhibitions, many had come together for the very first time. Luo Qi had provided the right venue, a new venue, for a varied selection of international artists to bond together and form a formidable team to successfully build a physical exhibition for himself and the people of Hangzhou.

An Exhibition of Superb Creativity and Imagination

Grant Vincent Rasheed, half Irish, half Libyan, and a prime example of the exciting mix of races Australia now presents to the world, had brought Australian Aboriginal art to Hangzhou. Dreamtime, the dreaming, Rasheed’s Aboriginally painted canvases brought complex narratives of outback life, history and culture to the Luo Qi Museum of International Modern Art. Earthy colours, once originally of earth but in modernity acrylic, became patiently dot painted onto intriguing canvases, blurring boundaries between man and environment. Ancient tribal stories permeated indigenous memory stretching from pre-history, revealing the interconnectedness of man and his environment. Floral mandalas, mandalas dot mapped in our minds, tribes interconnecting like atoms across the vastness of outback dryness, were all revealed in two gallery sections.

In other parts of that spacious gallery, Milanese enchantress Emanuela Volpe exhibited white calligraphic poetry clouds drifting across a bright blue sky delight. Words, thoughts, ideas had become as light as air, drifting to gather weight, eventually to fall like rain as sentences, paragraphs and astound with their moment and magnitude. Ms Volpe’s countryman Marco Cascella’s two large paintings reflected both airiness and vertigo. The viewer practically tumbled into “Blue Sea with dark Land”, modern day Alices falling into Cascella’s surrealist fantasy. On an adjacent wall, Cascella’s lighter piece, heavily reminiscent of Dali’s Catalan landscapes, caught the viewer in a dreamy delight, with consciousness adrift in Phantasos’s surrealistic dreams. Cascalla’s smaller, oval pieces danced with other worldly plankton, wisps of wind-tossed Turneresque cloud and seascapes which invited keen observation of those miniature works. Lastly, but be no means least of the Italian trio, came the sophisticated works of the Italian architect Alessio Schiavo. Schiavo had produced three intriguing canvases of stylised fish shapes, almost flat colour, but keen observation revealed modernist brushstrokes with acute dynamism within the seeming simplicity. These canvases seemed to echo Schiavo’s earlier black and white images of swimming fish. Those earlier pieces were gathered under the title - Pelagos, meaning sea. The newer images reflect Schiavo’s renewed interest in colour, particularly colour combinations found in the works of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (Michelangelo).

From the small French overseas territory island of Réunion, adrift in the Indian Ocean, nestling adjacent to both Madagascar and Mauritius, came the indomitable les Fauves painter Charly Lesquelin. Lesquelin’s two large canvases were stapled onto the gallery partition, both were statements concerning man’s dichotomous relationship with his environment. One was Gaya herself, trying to inhale pollution to heal her Earth. The other was a Green Man figure whose world was being eroded by pollutants and the over industrialisation of the planet. In the famed N8 Club, once  a swimming club for Mao Zedong, and now a playground for Hangzhou’s elite, two more works by Lesquelin hung. One a portrait, the other an exquisite Fauve landscape revealing all the heat and passion of his beloved Réunion Island. Back in the Museum gallery, during the opening night, Lesquelin painted a live portrait of the beautiful Mrs Li Zheng We, which he not only managed with ease, but with distinct flair.

A number of Malaysian artists were represented in that exhibition - print makers, painters, and Dr Cheah Thien Soong, a master Chinese ink and brush painter from the Nanyang school, and his characteristic paddy field birds. His student, up-and-coming Malaysian artist Honey Khor was also featured with a painting taken from her forthcoming solo exhibition in Malaysia. While other artists were content to hang, or staple their works onto the walls or partitions of the gallery, Ms Khor chose to exhibit on one of the pillars joining ceiling to floor, and extended the bounds of her canvas beyond its frame and onto the pillar itself, with watercolour paint. The effect was remarkable, and remarked upon.

Korean artists ink brush painted large Daliesque black ants, Muangjan Subin, a Thai artist, presented his watercolours and a young Russian artist, Evgeny Bondarenko, had hung his sketched architecture. Together, the collection of artists from differing countries presented a cornucopia of art, and artistic styles, to delight visitors to the gallery. Luo Qi’s own inimitable work graced his gallery, revealing complex works of symbols which were, perhaps, both ante and post language.

In that Shang Kun - Luo Qi Museum of International Modern Art there was a diverse exhibition of paintings from myriad countries. Once again, the artist, poet, writer, professor and entrepreneur Luo Qi had sleekly engineered a show fit not only for the discerning of Hangzhou, but for everyone. That diverse show, in the new Museum gallery, heralded a new beginning, one which will bring even more art from even more countries to astound, delight and educate the citizens of Hangzhou.The gallery museum represents the first phase of a planned art floor, the first floor of the exciting new building. Over time the people of Hangzhou, and their many visitors, will have greater access to a wide variety of international Modern Art, and learning about art, with thanks to initiatives from the local government, interest from Hangzhou businessmen and to Luo Qi himself.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Malaysian Arts 2014 - A Review

While in his 1967 film, Bob Dylan advised us all “Don’t Look Back”, it is the New Year, and there will always be a fondness for the year which just slipped past our reach. So for the sake of “auld lang syne”, and as a taste of what might be to come, here is a brief Malaysian art encounter with 2014, the year recently departed.

Last year (2014), should there have been any doubt, has further demonstrated that all things to do with Malaysian ‘Art’ is currently on the rise. While there were somewhat silly stories of famous Chinese film stars having their portraits constructed of chopsticks, in general the making and selling of Malaysian art, both Modern and Contemporary, and the promotion of art by Malaysian Galleryists, at home and abroad, grew to a brand new maturity.

Last year saw a slight return of well respected expatriate Malaysians, H.H.Lim, and Rajinder Singh (both at Wei Ling, The Gardens), bringing their intriguingly thought provoking artworks ‘home’, to some contemporary applause and much plaudits, by some. Returned, and now deeply entrenched, expat Malaysian artists, re-making their marks on the Malaysian art scene in 2014 included Ivan Lam (Wei Ling Contemporary), Lim Kim Hai (Vallette Gallery) and Jolly Koh (The Edge Galerie).

There continued to be a great surfeit of art galleries, art auctions, art exhibitions and art expos all vying for our brief attention, with up to three exhibition/display launches on the same day, ensuring that there was, indeed, ‘Art’ for everyone in Malaysia, in 2014, as the Malaysian Tourism Board would have us believe. It was not as though Malaysian art had stayed static. It most assuredly had not. Last year witnessed ’Guru of Colour’, a posthumous exhibition of artworks by the prestigious artist - Syed Ahmad Jamal, delighting European audiences while on show at Zagreb’s Museum of Arts and Crafts, Croatia.

Elsewhere in the occident, ’START Art Fair’, London, hosted by (some say) the most respected, (others over rated) Saatchi Gallery. Therein were a tricolour of arts from Malaysia, including The Prudential Global Eye Malaysian component; Galeri Chandan (KL) and Richard Koh Fine Art (KL/Singapore). This art fair gave another opportunity for younger Malaysian artists to shine abroad. The Prudential component came from a selection of artists; Zelin Seah, Kow Leong Kiang, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Sabri Idrus and Anne Samat who had participated in the Prudential Malaysian Eye exhibition at mapKL Publika. 

At ‘START’, Malaysian Galleryist Richard Koh sold a large Tryptych by Natee Utarit (from Thailand) for $480,000 USD, demonstrating that all aspects of the Malaysian art business were alive and thriving. Galeri Chandan held the second stage of their ‘Cheritera’ exhibition, at ‘START’, featuring Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Azrin Mohd, Chong Ai Lei, Fadly Sabran, Haris Abadi, Haslin Ismail, Kow Leong Kiang, Marvin Chan, and Stephen Menon.

On the other side of this increasingly minuscule world from London, the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) had promoted “Discover Malaysian Art’, launched in Melbourne, Australia, while in China; ’The Malaysia Art Activity Centre’, in Beijing, and the ‘11th Annual Asian, African and Mediterranean International Modern Art Exhibition in Hangzhou’ continued to assist Malaysian artists extend their Asian foothold.

Twenty fourteen saw non-figurative Malaysian art take the lead at a variety of art auctions throughout the year. While some auctions appeared to be avidly favouring Awang Damit Ahmad as star artist, it was the more established artists, Abdul Latiff Mohidin and Ibrahim Hussein who were undoubtedly shining brighter last year. The late Ibrahim Husein’s ‘Red, Orange and Core’ (1984) fetched an impressive RM 797,500 at one Henry Butcher auction, while The Edge Auction saw ‘Seascape’ (2013) by Abdul Latiff Mohindin reach RM 572,000. KL Lifestyle auctions throughout the year produced RM 451,000 for Abdul Latiff Mohindin’s ‘Landscape’ (Gelombang 1991 series), RM253,000 for ‘Tao Landscape’ (Homage to Lao Tzu, 1999) and RM246,400 for his ‘Mindscape’ (1983). In Hong Kong, the previous year (2013) Abdul Latiff Mohidin’s ‘Pago-Pago’ had reached an incredible1,230,000.00 HKD

Those pieces available by Syed Ahmad Jamal felt decidedly under valued, especially after the artist was lauded and applauded during his Croatian one man show. Sad to say, during the Henry Butcher Malaysian & Southeast Asian Art Auction, November 2014, only ‘Berenang’ (1965) did well, realising RM 179,200, a paltry sum when compared to Ibrahim Hussein’s RM 797,500. In the same auction Syed Ahmad Jamal’s ‘Set Untuk Keris i’ (2007) achieved RM11,500, and ‘Set Untuk Keris ii’ (2007) achieved RM10,925.

Obviously Malaysia is not seeing the staggering prices at auction that Hong Kong is. As the Malaysia art market is relatively young, and comparatively small, there were some baby steps up the ladder this past year. The key is, as ever, education. The more art is understood, the more it will be valued.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Artworks from the Cusp ....or Brilliant Turkish Art

Original text......

The Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia, in Jalan Lembah Perdana, Kuala Lumpur, has launched an exhibition, Tradition, Culture and Modernity: Contemporary Art from Turkey. Its a collaboration between the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey and, of course, the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia.

Turkeys most influential writer - Orhan Pamuk, had written thusly about artists (in his book about his city, Istanbul): If you could have seen how thrilled Turkeys most famous artist was that some people had finally turned up at his door to buy a painting, or what ridiculous airs he put on to hide his pleasure, or how he practically swept the floor with his bowing as we left with his painting in our hands, or how unctuously he bade us farewell, you wouldnt wish becoming a painter on anyone in this country, my son.”  Indeed how times have indeed changed.

The FT (Britains Financial Times), in November 2010, began an article (Turkeys contemporary art scene) with… “Few doubt that Turkeys contemporary art scene is one of the liveliest in the world. Galvanised by the Istanbul Biennial, which kicked off in 1987, the city has witnessed an explosion of commercial galleries…” While the New York times (February 2012) in The Istanbul Art-Boom Bubblementioned In New York it feels like the best years are behind usin Istanbul it feels like the best years are yet to come.Art Radar too (November 2014) delighted in the successes of Modern and Contemporary Turkish art and the continuing art fair aptly named - Art Istanbul. The article suggested that Istanbul might become an art capital of the future

The phenomenal success of Turkish Modern and Contemporary art continues to be witnessed around the art world. Christies (The Art People) Dubai ended an October 2014 sale, totalling 12,510,875 (USD), of Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian & Turkish Art. There is yet more success as Sothebys currently holds the record for many of the Contemporary Turkish artistssales and, back in Christies, a work by Fahr El Nissa Zeid (Break of Atom and Vegetal Life,1962), sold for an impressive $2,300,000 in 2013 (Dubai).

Amidst all this interest in art from Turkey, it is no wonder that Kuala Lumpurs Islamic Arts Museum decided to host the current exhibition - Tradition, Culture and Modernity: Contemporary Art from Turkey, from 2nd December (2014) until 31st January (2015). Its launch was an impressive affair, with many serious (mostly) men in equally serious dark jackets listening attentively to speeches in Turkish and English. As nourishment for the body, as much as the art works are to the soul, a mixture of Malaysia and Turkish food was available to stave off the pangs after all that speechifying.

This current exhibition is, without a doubt, a tour de force of art from Turkey. The central Bank of the Republic of Turkey has enabled those of us being in Malaysia to witness works by many of Turkeys renown artists. Not to diminish any of the other artworks, nor any of the other artists, but the one work which struck my attention on entering the exhibition, was  Locus of Extremity(1982) by Erol Akyavas. It is a large piece, some 265 x 178 cm, and its combination of green, turquoise and silver leaf poignantly capture all that is beautiful about Istanbul, if not Turkey. Neither the comprehensive catalogue, nor my pathetic iPad picture taking, could capture the sheer brilliance of this piece and its dominance over the entire show.

Akyavas had studied under Ferdinand Leger, in Paris, in the early 1950s, and yet in the exhibition shown at the Islamic Museum in KL, it is another Turkish artist - Adem Genç whose work more closely resembles Legers Tubism. Gencs Why are Things as They are(2008) and Why are Things as They are(2009) have the distinctive Leger tonal tubes/machine-like aesthetic (marvellously depicted in the film La Ballet Mechanique, 1923-24) coupled with Gencs brush abstraction in the background. The current exhibits range from a small serigraphtitled Composition(1965) by Sabri Bekel (40 x 70 cm) to the aforementioned Locus of Extremity(1982) by Erol Akyavas, and Requiem for the Last Voicesalso by Akyavas. The latter is a superb mixed mediaon canvas. 

One galleryist, who had spent a decade living in Istanbul, nudged me over to see the two works from Devrim Erbil. One, a large mixed media on canvas (180 x 160 cm) called Istanbul Watching(2008), the other (larger) was simply called Abstraction(180 x 180 cm). Erbil's works are often made into carpets, mosaics/ceramics, and he delights in producing the sketch-like images on larger surfaces, which reflect his home city, its birds and its mosques.

This exhibition presents a rare opportunity, do see this if you can.

Friday, 19 December 2014

What goes up.......or Bubbles

Latest article in The Edge

Here is the original...........


Where, once, thoughts of ‘art bubbles’ may have conjured visions of artist Sir John Everett Millais’ famous painting “A Child’s World” (used in 1890 for advertising Pears soap), or singer Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee companion, now the art world remains in ever tense alert at the mere mention of the term.

Bubbles appertaining to any form of finance are serious matters. Bubbles speak of, what used to be referred to as economic ‘boom and bust’; defined as “a situation in which a period of great prosperity or rapid economic growth is abruptly followed by one of economic decline”. 

In November 2013, Forbes was questioning “Contemporary Art: End Of A Bubble Or Already Bust?”. After speculating that the art market was slowing down, citing poor showings in both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London that year, the conclusion was that people had left it too late. Perhaps Forbes had jumped the proverbial gun as American POP artist Jeff Koons, in November 2013, went on to break all records for art sales (by a living artist) for his "Balloon Dog(orange)“, which went for a record $58.4 million USD (approximately RM 202.764 m).

Yet, despite the obvious successes of art sales, early in 2014 there was still grave concern of an art bubble ripe for bursting. In February, Bloomberg Business Week was concerned with the practise of ‘art flipping’, the buying and selling of up-and-coming artists’ works for an obvious quick profit. Bloomberg considered this a “a sign there may be a bubble in the contemporary art market “. In May this year, The Guardian ran the headline “Christie's racks up $745m in one night – and the bubble keeps inflating”. The numbers were huge - $84.2m for a rare Barnett Newman abstraction, and $80.8m for a Francis Bacon triptych (at current exchange rates that’s approximately RM290m and RM276m respectively). Despite that initial slowdown in 2013, 2014 had proven to be a bumper year for art sales and the bubble, if there is one, continues to inflate yet.

While the art sales figures, in Malaysia, are nowhere near as astronomical as those in other countries, there are poignant signs here too of a rapid growth in the art economy. Abdul Latiff Mohidin, artist and poet, saw his “Seascape” (2013) realise RM572,000 at The Edge Auction 2014, of Southeast Asian Art. In November this year, Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers cited an accumulation of RM 2.98 million in its 9th November sale. Chong Siew Ying with “L’été” reached RM89,600, while it was estimated to reach only RM28,000 – RM40,000, and a record price (RM50,400) was set for Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s “Somewhere Last Spring” (1965), for a work on paper.

The Wall Street Journal (in Malaysia’s Art Scene Is Changing With New Auction Houses, October 16 2014) reminds us that Malaysia now has four art auction houses; The Edge Auction, KLLifestyle Art Space Auction, Masterpiece Auctions and the Henry Butcher Art Auctions. The number of art galleries have grown exponentially, and continue to jostle for position amidst the stratification of Malaysia’s art world. Stories abound of unscrupulous art galleries marking up prices of Malaysian artists’ work, and of price hiking of popular Malaysian Abstract Expressionist works, while Malaysia rides high in the wake of a tsunami of Asian art buying, lead by China.

As well as a proliferation of art galleries and art auction house, Malaysia is host to a variety of art brokers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some private galleryists double as art brokers, brokering high-end artists’ work, such as Andy Warhol’s “Unknown Woman” (1984) retailing at $1.7M USD, and Warhol’s “Liza Minelli“ retailing at $ 5.000 000 USD. Others, concentrating on Modern and Contemporary, are encouraging Malaysians to invest, not in Malaysian art, but in art from China. One art brokerage company will escort potential investors into their small office, then flood the unwary with ‘Art Market Reports’, ’Art and Finance Reports’ and the ‘Deloitte ArtTactic Art & Finance Report (2013)’. They will wave mid-career Chinese artist portfolios, such as the works of Niu An (Ann), before their faces until visitors start to waver. At that point the CEO is brought in to clinch the deal, quoting an 86% increase in the art market over 12 years and a 120% increase in the Asian art market over the previous 5 years, and how the artists they are promoting, at that moment, will not be available tomorrow. Better get in quick before the opportunity is lost!

The potential art bubble, if there is one, shows little sign of bursting during the year end of 2014. Art prices across the world increase at an astronomical rate, seemingly little effected by similar bubbles in housing, which have already burst. While China proves to be a strong market, the Malaysian art market continues its slow climb into respectability. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

Ivan Lam - communication lacuna

I was unsure if the orange ‘long A4’ piece of paper, printed with black and stuck haphazardly on the partially covered walkway door was, perhaps, a temporary traffic control sign - “warning trouble ahead”, “caution attention” or even “road closed ahead” maybe. It was none of them, as it turns out. It was the only indication that the Wei Ling Contemporary (art) gallery had moved to its new premises.

I pushed the door open. It was raining. Malaysia has decided to have a winter. With no other signs to follow, I trudged along the damp, leaf strewn, path past a three dimensional sign which read “ravity” (the “G” was missing) and scanned to see where the newly re-nascent contemporary arts gallery was hiding. It was all so very soto voce, minimalist, down played. I dashed through a door to avoid undue exposure to the chemical laced rain that now falls in some parts of South East Asia.

Wei Ling has gone for the gallery as “temple of art” approach. A large, and a largely unencumbered, space with white painted walls hushes the voice, encouraging reverence. You could almost hear the church organ playing somewhere off in the pew lined distance, only there were no pews, just space, and no audible organ only the melody of the rain.

I was prepared. I had come to see an array of works by Malaysian artist, and former student of Lim Kok Wing, Ivan Lam. The exhibition, extending from December 1st to March 1st at the Wei-Ling Contemporary (a brand new space) is titled “Twenty”, it is a retrospective of sorts. This faux winter does seem to be the season of artist retrospectives. A gigantic billboard had hailed the exhibition, literally from the rooftops but, inside, signage was distinctly lacking. It did seem that you needed to be among the cognoscenti to know of the exhibition’s existence, even upon entering its doors.

Many exhibitions now have a panel of some sorts, albeit on ridged plastic or exhibition ‘mounting board’, proclaiming what the exhibition is and who is the creator, and maybe curators are. In the brand new Wei-Ling gallery there was no such sign. Now you can take this many ways. Either the minimalism was to now include a lack of communication too, or that Ivan Lam is so ‘famous’ in his Warholian 15 minutes that he needs no introduction or, finally, the whole ensemble was all done in a bit of a rush - the move, the party and oops we are open to a public who need not necessarily know of our existence, need they?

Lack of visual communication is endemic in Malaysia but, on the whole, art galleries have been getting better, though there are still problems with badly cut, or badly positioned art object labels. But, at least, there are labels now. In the past, in Malaysia’s prime gallery, labels would fall to the floor, or be completely non-existent. The-times-they-are-a-changing however, some galleries still fail to recognise that poor display does effect audience’s perceptions. If art is communication, then what are art galleries? Are they simply a (in)convenient wall space, there simply to hang, or screw the works onto? If art is ‘language’ how are the translations made? Or is there an assumption that we all have Douglas Adams’ “Babel Fish” in our ears, and those who haven’t are not worth inviting anyway? 

To not have the name of the artist, Ivan Lam, at all prominent within, or without, the Wei-Ling gallery, was either an absurd arrogance on behalf of those hosting the ‘show’, or a complete failure in communication. One which, I for one, hope is rectified sooner rather than later. As a frequent visitor to the gallery when it was downstairs at the Gardens Mall, in its new incarnation I was made acutely aware that this gallery was now demonstrating all those overt signs of eliteness, and residence of the cognoscenti that ‘Contemporary’ art exudes in buckets.

We cannot continue to decry the lack of interest in art, not just in Malaysia, but in the world at large, when we make no attempt to even adequately communicate to the public what we have, who it is that is making it, the when and the why. The lack of adequate signage is a problem, at this moment, for the Wei-Ling Contemporary gallery. While I might be able to comprehend the haste in which everything has been done, that haste should not have communicated itself to the gallery’s visitors.

Finally, it is an irony, is it not, that the one artist who has concerned himself with communicating, in an Esquire magazine (Malaysia) interview with Rachel Jena said - “You take that [the commercial side of things] out, and you’re an idiot.”

Monday, 8 December 2014

Imagination's Catalyst

Umbaizurah Mahir @ Ismail’s ‘Toys’ (Gerabak)

It wasn't Jim Morrison’s Love Street, but Jalan Duta Kiara, and “this store where the creatures meet” was The Edge Galerie and an exhibition of fascinating sculptures from the Pakhruddin and Fatimah Sulaiman Collection. But creatures there were. In that intriguing show contemporaneousness rubbed shoulders with surreality, three, or was that four, dimensional expressions and a monstrously darkened cubicle, enlightened only by torchlight.

If you were to ever spare a thought for Malaysian sculpture, and there is every reason why you should, the tortured metal ‘warriors’ of Raja Shariman might spring quickly to mind, but little else. A casual observer of the Malaysian art scene might be forgiven for thinking sculpture just did not fit in with the proliferation of Abstract Expressionist canvases, twee kampong scenes and seemingly endless paintings of fishing boats. But they would be wrong.

Certainly since Independence, sculpture has been an emerging part of Malaysian art making. Anthony Lau’s Spirit of Fire (1960) and Syed Amad Jamal’s The link (1963) being but two fine examples. The beauty of “For the Imaginary Space; selected sculptures & installations from the Pakhruddin & Fatimah Sulaiman Collection” is not just in the works put on show, but for the idea of demonstrating that Malaysian artists, inclusive of Raja Shariman (Raja Shahriman Bin Raja Aziddin), do produce meaningful dialogues in more than two static dimensions.

The first impression of the Edge Galerie, having sauntered through those magnificent doors, is of some radiantly white Jentayu (mythic bird), with its wings spread in perpetual welcome. Enmeshed in those outspread wings are the Sulaiman sculptures. In the Edge Galerie’s central space, its red brick walls is the Calder-like ‘mobile’ Centrifugal (by Abdul Multhalib Musa), hanging by five early steel sculptures from Zulkifli Yusoff (Yang Arif, Pemerhati, Sherif Masuk Penjara, Milang and Kebodohan). Perhaps those sculptures are a prelude to those by Raja Shariman. The scene becomes stage-set for our imagination, and the sculptures its catalyst.

Initially I had to fight some Pavlovian, or was that foraging, inclination to turn into the righthand gallery, and nudged myself into the equally valid lefthand gallery space. The left gallery is the slightly smaller of the two and, like its twin wing, painted a white which enables visitors to reflect upon its many presented objects.

Azman Ismail’s, primarily brilliant red, Ku Genggam Merdeka (Hold me Independence), nestled on the white tiled floor of that left hand gallery as an introduction, perhaps, to the various dialogues and narratives explicit or implicit in the works there. In my line of sight was Ramlan Abdullah’s Monument of Freedom, spiking up towards the gallery ceiling. Like many of the sculptures in those two galleries there was an abruptness of steel/iron, which, like the aforementioned Monument of Freedom, made me check my sensitivities. I experienced an uncanny viciousness from the metal sculptures, an unease akin to an extreme Dadaist experience, an unsettling power relationship in which I was the subjugated. Didn’t Matisse say “The essential thing is to spring forth, to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature; the shock, with the original reaction.” (Jack Flam; Matisse on Art)

From unnervingly spiky steel (and glass) to Ahmad Shukri Mohamed’s glass-fibre eggs (Incubator Series: Muse) and back to Umibaizurah Mahir @ Ismail’s The Sky House, ceramic and mixed media (very reminiscent of the American surreal artist Joseph Cornell’s assemblage boxes), there was a healthy variety in that left hand gallery collection. But even more so in the next.

For me, the most striking exhibit was the wooden display shelves, rooted by blocks of concrete, which formed the ‘case’ for Umbaizurah Mahir @ Ismail’s ‘Toys’ (Gerabak). Why intriguing, because of the incipient humour of those pieces. I was reminded both of the Spanish Surrealist Miro, and the English Surrealist Desmond Morris in their playfulness, only made tangible, ceramic with wheels and metal flowers. And so to the creatures….

Throughout the exhibition there was an undercurrent of risqué politics, but none more so than in the installation created to house Sharon Chin’s ‘Monsters’. Entering into a cubicle draped with black fabric makes you reach for the variety of torchlights, to hand, just outside. Seemingly, the ‘Monsters’ are a ghoul, a headless ghost, a gargoyle, a unicorn and a manticore. Or that is what we are encouraged to believe until, that is, we read the list of Malaysia’s banned books printed behind silhouette figures in what appear to be open books, and realise just who the real monsters are.

The whole exhibition of sculptures from the Pakhruddin and Fatimah Sulaiman Collection, is both visually intriguing and encouragingly thought provoking. In fact, it is just what any good exhibition should be.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Whither Nanyang Style

The Edge, Malaysia, this week

While the Nanyang Style in fine art seems anachronistic in Malaysia today, the Singaporeans still embrace the spirit of it as part of their national identity.

The concept Nanyang Style sends art galleries all aquiver, and auction houses aflutter, therein is quality, recognition and ownership. Art historians nod in sagely awe, auction house operators rub gleeful hands and art gallerists smile all the way to the bank.

‘Nanyang Style’ is traced to 1979, to a catalogue documenting a retrospective show of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore (NAFA). The late Malaysian artist and writer Redza Piyadasa and Singaporean art historian T.K. Sabapathy jointly concluded that a trip by four Chinese immigrant artists, in 1952, was the catalyst for a new style of art, namely, the “Nanyang Style”.

Three of the four Chinese artists, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi lectured in NAFA, founded by Chinese educationist Lim Hak Tai, while the fourth, Liu Kang, was a fellow Chinese artist, living in Singapore, a friend and compatriot of Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang and Lim Hak Tai from the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai. That trip was to Bali.

According to Piyadasa and Sabapathy, the alluring haven of Bali so invigorated those four Chinese artists that it unwittingly empowered them to fuse Chinese and Parisian art styles with nuances gained from the indigenous Southeast Asian environment, creating a new style of art - the Nanyang Style

It is a fitting tale, a monomyth hero story worthy of Odysseus/Ulysses or Jason and the Argonauts who, having travelled far and wide, returned with a much needed golden fleece, to bolster a fledgling nation’s fine art.

According to Piyadasa and Sabapathy, the “Nanyang Stylehad revealed itself through six art contemporaries working in Singapore. Included in this number were the four from the Bali trip, plus Lim and Georgette Chen. Yet, the reality is, that the essence of a “Nanyang Style” was long in place before the famed Bali trip. From the outset NAFA, founded in 1938, had upheld a credo of incorporating Chinese art styles (ink and brush) plus Parisian art styles (oils) plus influence from the Southeast Asian region itself (Nan Yang, or South Seas in Mandarin). The intent was to bolster a new style of art, influenced by locale, as set out by Lim, an art educationist from the Xiamen School of Art in Fujian Province, China, at the very beginning of the academy he was instrumental in founding.

In an academy celebratory catalogue of 1955, Lim had written that a new art should include the fusion of the culture of the different races. Namely, the communication of Oriental and Western art; the diffusion of the scientific spirit and social thinking of the 20th century; the reflection of the needs of the local people; the expression of local tropical flavour and the educational and social functions of fine art.

“Nanyang Style” has been bandied about ever since its establishment. In time, like Roger Fry’s “Post-Impressionist” (1910), Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Surrealism” (1917) and Richard Hamilton’s “Pop Art” (1956), “Nanyang Style” has become a catchall, a convenient brand to indicate standard. One auctioneer even hinted at guilt by association. If an artist had once studied at NAFA, or was taught by an artist who had, there was an assumption of quality, a benchmark as it were. Nanyang Style, as a brand, resembles the popular American drink Coca Cola in which, originally, were both cocaine and kola nuts, but as society changed both essential ingredients became non-essential, and were excluded. The use of “Nanyang Style” becomes debatable.

In reality, there was no one Nanyang Style. It always was ‘styles’, plural. Teachers at NAFA, and their graduates, painted in various styles, some preferring oil on canvas, others pastels, ink and brush or watercolour, some were proficient in all. Chinese Literati painting was practised, as were neo-Impressionist, Expressionist and Cubist styles either fused or unfused and incorporating local elements. Without the vague umbrella term, “Nanyang Style”, would it now be difficult to ground disparate Malaysian and Singaporean approaches to the art of modernity?

While “Nanyang Style” continues to reverberate through Malaysian and Singaporean auction houses, and exhibitions like Nanyang Touch (Kuala Lumpur, 2014) and Nanyang Visionaries (Singapore, 2014) there comes a stray thought that, once again (as with Impressionism, Expressionism and Surrealism) we are really looking keenly to the past, and not to other, possible, futures.

Further, can “Nanyang Style” now ever be used authentically? May it be applied to up-and-coming professional artists, or is that label to be assigned solely to works of a certain era and, if it is, what is there to replace it? My feeling is that “Nanyang Style” has served Malaysian and Singaporean fine art well, but like the other “isms” I have mentioned, are resigned to the past. Art history will sort the rest out.