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.

Monday, 24 November 2014

No Photography

It was Sunday, in some countries a traditional day for visiting art galleries and museums. We drove the half hour from our home to Malaysia's National Art Gallery, now cleverly renamed the National Visual Arts Gallery, to see a retrospective exhibition by one Malaysia's elder arts statesmen - Choong Kam Kow. We arrived at lunchtime. We hadn't eaten.

The National Visual Arts Gallery's eternally leaky roof had been replaced, but the cafe had vanished. In its stead was a miniature National Portrait Gallery. We enquired, in the diminutively sparse bookshop outside the main building, but were told that the gallery had no cafe, nor restaurant, anymore. We were advised to drive out from the Gallery's grounds, eat or drink our fill, and drive back. It just didn't seem right somehow. 

There was obviously no chance of a sudden meeting of the like minds of art lovers in the gallery cafe then. No arts bantering, no half serious discussions about art, literature and the current state of philosophy ala Parisian cafe life. The social side of arts was quite obviously not being catered for, in Malaysia's National Visual Arts Gallery.

Before leaving, and despite vigorously rumbling tums, we decided to seek an art book. One of my friends from China had held an exhibition at the gallery, and a book had been produced. I am helping him with some research and sought to purchase his book. The place laughingly referred to as a book shop had fewer art books than most Malaysian book shops, and they have a bear minimum. Many of the books published by the gallery rubbed shoulders with a meagre amount of tubes of paint, other gear more suited to a craft shop and a naked postcard stand. Behind a counter more resembling a miniature fortress stood a bemused sales clerk, who was quite obviously unused to visitors. The majority of the minuscule selection of books were poorly printed (digital printing), while others were 'perfect bound' which is notorious for books falling apart without to much effort. The book we sought, published by the Gallery itself was, of course, out of stock.

Sitting in a dour looking Secret Recipe franchise, some ten minutes from the Gallery, forking a nondescript Malaysian Cornish Pasty into ravenous mouths, we seriously thought about forgoing the pleasure of the eminent artist, and not going back to the National Visual Arts Gallery, but we had left our car there, and were driven by one of our Chinese business friends to seek sustenance.

Pakhruddin and Fatimah Sulaiman (of Malaysian sculpture collection fame) were in the National Visual Arts Gallery foyer when we arrived back after lunch. I didn't get the opportunity to greet them as they were obviously engaged in conversation. So, it was onward to the show…..

And it was about here in my writing, that had I intended to write my review of Choong Kam Kow’s retrospective exhibition. It is absent, due to one zealous gallery guard who prevented me from taking non-flash photographs.

There is no review.

I can never quite understand why some galleries in Malaysia prohibit the taking of photographs. I could understand if they had postcards of the displayed works, and wanted to protect their sales or, like some, sold slides (transparencies) of said artworks for the same reason. Or, and big or, if the gallery sold posters, and again wanted to protect their merchandising, but no. The National Visual Arts Gallery sells very few merchandising items. There were no postcards, transparencies or posters available for Choong Kam Kow exhibition, not even a catalogue or book. I could even understand if signs said no ‘flash’ photography, though there is compelling evidence from 2013, by Dr Martin H Evans (
that flash photography does no harm to objects in galleries.

Galleries that do not allow photography do themselves a great disservice. In our Social Media crazy age, selfies with an artwork backdrop do more good, via free advertising, than all the paid advertising put together. Casual shots of artwork shoot off across cyberspace within seconds, drawing great interest from recipients, potential visitors to an exhibit. No selfies, no causal shots, no free advertising and the huge gallery opens for no one or, like the Sunday we visited, to a bear handful of people who dropped off the tour bus.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Luo Qi China's Quest Come of Age

International, but Chinese born, artist Luo Qi, from the renown art city of Hangzhou, the largest city of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China, has already established himself on the world’s stage as an academic, poet, writer and avant garde artist. In his artistic endeavours, Luo Qi investigates Chinese calligraphy with his dynamic artistic movement Calligraphyism (aka Characterism). Luo Qi was taught at, and has lectured in, the well established China Academy of Art (est. 1928), Hangzhou, beside the stunning phenomenon of the city’s West Lake. Over many years Luo Qi has developed a fresh way of inquiry into pictorial pictogram representations, which bind the inquisitive viewer to the object, and yet which also remain referential to historic Chinese pictograms and, in particular, those carved into ancient oracle bones (for divination, used 1500 to 1000 BCE).
   In Derridean terms, artist Luo Qi deconstructs the familiar concept of Chinese pictograms, where each pictogram reveals a single thought rather than a collection of letters from an alphabet, and reconstructs them as abstracts, into fresh forms, which undoubtedly echo back to their Chinese antiquity.  
   In China, Luo Qi’s Calligraphyism has grown alongside a revival in Chinese Literati painting, deemed the New Literati movement. It is a renaissance, a signifying evocation of the breakaway moment in antiquarian Chinese artistry and literature - Literati. Back in 1998, Zhang Yiguo had written (in Brushed Voices:Calligraphy in Contemporary China) that “Luo Qi, defies accepted conventions in a more controversial manner. In some of his works he denies traditional calligraphic strokes and characters entirely, adopting instead a “universal line” that forms abstract images”.
   With these excitingly modern works of artist Luo Qi, it is the fusion of Western ideas, and methods, with those of China that Chinese art has so been longing for. Ever since the early part of the last (20th) century, China has maintained a profuse interest in Western Modern Art, its ideas and techniques. In Luo Qi, a questing Chinese art has finally come of age. It has blossomed into a fine peony, showing the world that a Chinese Spring has well and truly arrived, beautiful and exceedingly bountiful.  
  Viewers of Luo Qi’s work might be forgiven for recalling ancient Sumerian texts (26th century BCE), and the world’s first known writing system. There are similarities, particularly in Luo Qi’s ‘Love Writing’ series. It is the simplicity and beauty of both the Mesopotamian cuneiform and Luo Qi’s creations which lead to visual delights and a soupçon of intrigue. Yet,  within Luo Qi’s works there is also reference to modernity. Echoes of the late Keith Haring, with his iconic quasi-primative graphic imagery seem to haunt Luo Qi’s imagery. But where Hering’s icons are drawn (literally) from simplistic figures, ala underground comix, Luo Qi reinvents Chinese calligraphic pictograms with a complex, wonderfully pictorial ’language’ of their own.
   Luo Qi’s latter works zing with colour. Using contrasting colour, like red against green or green against red, he makes his canvases resonate with colour, forcing a visual engagement. Luo Qi manipulates shades of orange, contrasted in early icons marked with mid green, or orange upon yellow, speaking in terms of colour, formulating a fresh visual language. 

   The use of rounded shapes, and lines ending in curves, lends a degree of humour to some of the works, which echoes the playfulness of the Surrealist Joan Miro and, perhaps, shades of some of the more playful 1960s Pop Art. There are also reminiscences of imagery found on China’s own celadon glazed archaistic vases, hidden within Luo Qi’s profound referential system. Luo Qi’s oeuvre blends with a keen Post-Modernist agenda, with astutely observed historical reference, within his decorated canvases. Luo Qi’s Chinese pictograms are defined so broadly as to encompass not just traditionally brush-stoked ideas, but an entirely new spectrum of symbols and phenomena ripe for any phenomenologist to decipher.

The Chinese artist Luo Qi