THE X AND Y(S) OF MEAA 2013/14
It is heartening that the Malaysia Emerging Artist (MEA) competition which began in 2009 has grown from strength to strength to become a much anticipated bi annual event that commands serious attention from the many younger art practitioners who sees this as a golden opportunity for exposure as well as a fair shot at gaining some sort of recognition, not to mention generous rewards for their artistic labors. What started out as a simple but focused collaborative effort between Galeri Chandan and HOM Art Trans to the discovery, introduction and promotion of emerging artists under the age of 35 has now become a significant event supported and acknowledged by the Malaysian visual arts industry.
However, winning competitions does not guarantee successes or longevity of an artist’s career, judging from the many previous winners of other competitions in the past whom we have not heard from since securing a much coveted prize, usually in the form of cash, some complemented by other ‘goodies’. Therefore, to ensure that artists, especially the younger generation who are just starting out on an often time testing and challenging career path, the prizes from the competition are designed to be nurturing in nature. In the competition, 5 artists with the highest votes given by a panel of judges comprising members from the local art industry including curators, artists, collectors and academicians, will be awarded cash prizes, voucher for art materials, a 10-day travel grant to a neighboring city in Southeast Asia which includes visits to artist studios, art collectives, museums, private collections as well as contemporary art galleries as part of its itinerary. Furthermore, importantly, these 5 artists will be given a winners’ showcase the following year and even an opportunity for each to do a solo exhibition the year after. Opportunity to break into the local and international art scene is also part of the package. Such is the all out support which shows that the organizers of MEA Award are indeed serious about their self-initiated undertaking to ensure that young emerging artists are motivated for the long haul.
Both Galeri Chandan and HOM Art Trans, which also has the support of 30 Art Friends, a loose group of art collectors from Malaysia and Southeast Asia, must be commended especially for their generosity and faith in the younger generation of art practitioners. Given time, their efforts will bear encouraging results for all involved and will lead to significantly positive outcomes for the local art industry in the long run.
With each passing year, the MEA Award continues to attract and uncover numerous talents, with a sizable number of local graduates from the country’s handful of art colleges and universities. It even manages to draw those working quietly under the visual arts radar. Admittedly, the MEA competition is very much a paintings-dominated affair. For the many submissions it receives, the variety of styles and approaches however are limited to that handful of popular, accessible and ideological differences, if any, which are negligible. This says much about the scope of interests and influences that shapes or informs the artistry of the different age groups under 35. To be fair, each generation is a product of its time, and Gen(eration) Y (age18-33) is no exception. At a glance, there are a large number of skillfully executed pictures (and some objects) in approaches that straddle between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Most of the current ‘ism’ favored by today’s young artists ending with the word ‘realism’ are fairly represented.
Objectively speaking, the MEA competition and exhibitions are good old fashion events to honor good old fashion image/ object makers and celebrate good old fashion image/ object making. The end objective of this endeavor is to serve the needs of a particular segment of the local art market. Still, it is exciting and encouraging for it proves that there are no dearth of skillful local talents, much to the delight of art lovers, collectors, fellow artists and art students.
Indeed, for that we should be grateful.
The five winners of MEA 2013 are Shafiq Nordin (25), Sabihis Md Pandi (26), Hilal Mazlan (27) Ong Xing Ru (28) and Cheong Tuck Wai (35). This year, they are given that promised winners’ showcase at MAP KL, Publika. A quick overview of their works, one comes across private musings, keen observations, youthful indignations and also celebration of the spirit of rugged individualism underlying their artistic outputs. It may not be obvious initially from a superficial reading of the forms and images alone, but upon closer inspection and conversations with each of the winners, their interests and concerns becomes more visible and the motivations behind the metaphors, symbolism and imageries which have been carefully thought out and skillfully rendered are illuminated. Among the 5 winners, some may not be vocal or articulate in explicating their thoughts and intentions as expressed through their works, however, it does not mean that they are not receptive of the events taking place around them.
The youngest of the five, Shafiq Nordin have been most uncompromising and hard hitting in his works. Instead of producing paintings about the victims and casualties of geo political games like many unimaginative and lesser painters, Shafiq goes straight for the jugular, launching his scathing attacks on the victimizers. An assortment of chimeras, usually skinless muscle-bounded beasts that represents certain nefarious forces, especially those behind the many manufactured conflicts and naked transgressions around the globe carried out to serve their capitalistic agendas, are depicted in various unflattering situations, further augmenting the freakishness of their monstrous nature that are driven by imperialist ambitions, insatiable greed and all that is inhumanely base. To Shafiq, the utter absurdity of it all are the effects of pure lunacy and the polka dot patterns on parts of his many cretinous beasts as comical effects, underscores the ludicrousness of the whole farcical situation. Citing the works of Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Yuko Shumizu as inspirations, Shafiq’s works are noted for the strong imagery expressing his indignation and for his stylistic approach, where thick coarse outlines of his subject matters, usually placed in front of repeated patterns and forms which supports the wicked notions of the situation depicted, are painted to slightly resemble woodcut prints, the common medium used in proletarian political art. By doing so, it somehow provides Shafiq’s well composed satire some sort of link to the political art of the past, especially the prints of German Expressionists.
While on the subject of print, Sabihis Md Pandi may have found a fresh approach to that age old medium. Cutting half an image onto his woodblocks and printing that mirror image, which is in reverse, onto a canvas, Sabihis would then combine both block and print to form a complete picture. This by itself is interesting, not groundbreaking. But the questions generated from this approach are by far more fascinating. Is the block itself, which has been painted over to prevent it from being used again, the artwork or the one-off image produced by the block? However, when both objects are separated, it is seen to be incomplete. A copy and an original: copyriginal? The perceived dichotomy between original and copy, real and unreal, positive and negative etc becomes blurred and suspect when we extend this to the art of deception, which is clearly alluded to by the artist’s choice of subject matter. Skull headed figures dressed in chequered or diamond patterned costumes performing stunts, puppetry and tricks akin to harlequins; sophisticated comics or jesters with nimble physical agilities to amuse and entertain but whose real function is to trick, distract and thwart. The skull head is also a popular emblem synonymous with pirates, Hitler’s SS soldiers as well as the symbol of Death. Sabihis, who cites Juhari Said as an important influence on his works, wish to bring attention to the many ‘silap mata’ and sleigh of hands performed by those with vested interests. Though Sabihis has not been explicit in pointing out who these charlatans, illusionists or magicians are, a quick glance at the many colorful characters and players in the local and international political arena, we could probably identify a truckload of them, heavy with the stench of mendacity, loud with their snake oil rhetorics and ‘fat’ from their two-faced wheeling and dealing.
It is exactly these classes of criminals, the brokers, operators and conspirators in the corridors of power around the world who through chicanery (and in complicity with their cronies, proxies and lackeys) manipulates the system(s) and exploits the peoples for their own selfish and psychotic ends. From wars, environmental disasters and epidemic diseases, mankind’s imagined sudden obliteration are either due to divine punishment or due to the arrogance, incompetence and illogical decisions made by those in power, especially the superpowers with their weapons of mass destruction. Such a bleak scenario was envisioned as early as the 1950s, while natural catastrophes on a global scale have been documented and even predicted to take place again in the future by the numerous holy books of the world’s religions since thousands of years ago. In the case of a world wide nuclear devastation due to a national security policy aptly named MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), steps were even taken in preparation for what is called a nuclear winter, where atomic and nuclear explosions sends huge amounts of soot up to the atmosphere, effectively reducing sunlight, causing long periods of cold climate.
Apart from radiation, this also decimates plant life, causing food shortages for both animals and humans. When lush greenery turns to wasteland, mass starvation, cannibalism, madness and diseases follow. A good example of a nuclear winter can be seen in the movie ‘The Road’. Those who survived and continue with their lives in gray barren landscapes are usually the focus of popular fictions and films. From classic movies in the post-apocalypse genre like Mad Max, Le Dernier Combat, Tank Girl, A boy and his Dog, Salute of the Jugger, Water World, The Postman, Escape from New York/ L.A, etc there is a discernible pattern that runs through all, namely the spirit of rugged individualism. The post-apocalyptic scenario comes to mind when one sees the strange flying contraptions made by Hilal Mazlan, whose works would not be out of place in the nuclear ravaged world depicted in the above mentioned movies and popular fictions. Hilal is like an engineer or inventor who finds himself in such a desolated future, scavenging for mechanical parts, engines and what not from wherever he can to assemble together rickety flying machines. These ramshackle battery operated constructions are more than mere flights of fancy, for in actuality they symbolically reflects the artist’s personality and outlook; the strive for autonomy, the inventor’s pleasure of creating and the exhilaration from navigating dangerous terrain and thriving in a harsh environment, relying solely one’s own wits, abilities and guided by creative survival instincts. Hilal who admittedly is a fan of the ‘Mad Max‘ movies (starring Mel Gibson as its anti hero) also cites the works of contemporary Indonesian artist Heri Dono and the Dutch kinetic artist Theo Jansen as inspirations.
There is both horror and a strange comfort in the idea of the world coming to an end or the inevitable collapse of civilization. To some, it means a chance to start on a clean slate where humans can be truly autonomous, free from fear and tyranny to engage in non hierarchical associations while for others it is an opportunity to build a model egalitarian/ totalitarian society or to pursue a sustainable way of life. This wishful thinking is due to deep dissatisfactions with contemporary life and a society where on one hand, is seen to have grown restrictive, regressive and authoritarian while on the other, unlimited freedom, excessive hedonism and growing inequality. In Sigmund Freud’s classic study ‘Civilization and its discontents’, he observes that in order for humans to live together peacefully in large numbers and for society to function at an optimum, a set of formal and informal rules must be observed to regulate one’s speech, conduct and behaviour, especially the individual, in daily transactions with others. These set limits to what we are allowed to express, display or engage in public ensuring that each person does not offend the sensitivities, violate the privacies or transgresses the rights of another. In our stratified society with clear divisions of labor, such laws are formulated to ‘protect’ the interests of majority at the expense of the individual. However, it is also exactly such laws and restrictions that are antithetical to our very natures which are motivated by the so-called seven deadly sins namely lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride and envy. The root causes for our susceptibility to one or many of the above mentioned ‘sins’ can be traced back to instances in our childhood where we failed to recover from a deep shame, guilt or trauma of having our infantile pleasures unexpectedly curtailed, our willful recalcitrance punished and our childish tantrums ignored or ridiculed. We compensate for these psychological wounds by going overboard on either of the uttermost ends of moderation and the middle path, which is over indulgence or extreme abstinence. However, many of us began our tentative steps towards adulthood with unnatural restraint, in effacing self-denial while simmering with resentment behind personable personas. On the surface we masked our anxieties, fears and distress with a facade of conformity, uniformity and bland normality but underneath we grew morbidly curious, rapacious, pugnacious and narcissistic, unconsciously waiting for an opportunity to ‘act out’ with impunity. It is under such circumstances that Ong Xing Ru’s choice of cats (and to lesser extent other animals) to represent complex human behaviour makes much sense. Xing Ru’s works are very much influenced by the short stories and their accompanying illustrations in Chinese magazines which she avidly follows, and the narrative element in her paintings tells of the contradictions and struggles between one’s outward expression and hidden intentions which are driven by our natural inclinations. There is nothing natural about these cute and cuddly felines that populate Xing Ru’s world of artificial colors, plastic settings and equally dubious atmosphere of festivity. Standing upright on their hind legs, feigning disinterest at passing ‘fishes’, occasionally sharing their vulgar thoughts amongst themselves all the while quietly eyeing the object of their hearts’ desire. Because convention dictates, propriety dominates. It is as though the cats’ ‘acting out of character’ mirrors our ‘acting in character’ which we were trained to assume since young. But deep down inside, we all know that we are driven by our baser instincts, our wants, needs, irrational animalistic tendencies and appetites which we must suppress in order to maintain a facade of normalcy. However, is normalcy… ‘normal’?
Looking at the mixed media paintings of Cheong Tuck Wai, whose approach is noticeably different from the rest of his fellow MEA Award winners, one is not only transported back to a simpler time in the past, but also through several related themes explored by the artist, one is reminded the people, places and events which have shaped the very person that we’ve become today. There is a gentle acceptance of the inevitability of change, of impending losses, regrets but also unexpected gains that contributes to our growth and maturity. Being the only Gen(eration) X among the 4, it is not uncommon for that age group, some who are fast approaching 40, to develop nostalgic feelings and a sentimental appreciation for the past. People, especially family and friends, and places that hold much memory, bitter and sweet now acquire a new, special significance. Our past owns us, no matter how we may wish to be rid of them or to keep at bay certain unpleasing episodes. Nor should we bury our heads in the comfort of pleasant memories or to relive bygone glories just to escape an unbearable present or an increasingly unpredictable future. The past, like memories real or imagined, according to Tuck Wai, are like secrets, stories or incidents submerged and lingers underneath the ocean surface, which due to the tides, comes to us as fleeting, scattered or simultaneous and episodic segments like the forward movement of ocean waves to the shorelines. They come to us as reminders of our connections to the people, places and events that took place and touched our lives. To underscore the lack of coherence in our recollection of memories, like jumbled up snapshots or visual recordings cut and pasted together from various sources and of different time zones, Tuck Wai uses the collage method of cutting up images and photographs he had digitally altered which he then combines with painting into his works, effectively collapsing the barriers between mediums, real and illusory, past and present, dreams and memories etc akin to an unfiltered stream of consciousness. To further enhance the ghostly quality of his works, Tuck Wai would apply layers upon layers of transparent coating on the surface of his monotone colored outputs, producing the look of murky snapshots of former times. A few of Tuck Wai’s works show three different generations of a family which probably sums up his ideas behind this interesting exercise and experiments:
Be prepare to let go of the past, be grateful and cherish the present and be hopeful for the future.
And our sincerest hopes for the future of Malaysia’s contemporary art scene is that we may be blessed with many more new emerging talents who are able to survive the many challenges in the course of pursuing their career in this field and that they will achieve international recognition. Of course, we should also hope that our local art industry will grow exponentially so that there are more patrons, collectors and supporters to help sustain our artists as they soldiered on to greater success.
Whether their messages, observations or concerns are couched in subtle innuendos, loud condemnations, gentle ruminations or objectified into mind boggling contraptions, the sophistication of their artistry has been understated, and this winners showcase can serve the purpose of expanding our understanding and increase the appreciation for the works of the 5 winners. Any art competition and showcase, including the MEA, can be more than just an exhilarating commercial affair ending with trading and transactions. Malaysia’s emerging artists have much more to offer us than just nice artworks or pretty pictures that are expected to merely serve as status indicators, profitable investments, vanity pieces or as precious commodities. It can be an educational and eye opening experience at viewing afresh through the eyes of our young artists so that we may be able to see and discover more about ourselves and the world around us. With discovery, comes understanding, with understanding comes acceptance, leading to wisdom.
And that by itself, is priceless.
Tan Sei Hon
‘Self taught’ art writer and former institutional curator