CON­VER­SA­TION PIECE

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT MINDY TEH

Glas­gow-based Malaysian artist Teh Hock Aun was in Kuala Lumpur re­cently in an­tic­i­pa­tion of his solo ex­hi­bi­tion at Balai Seni Vis­ual Ne­gara later this year. He talks about his works, art ed­u­ca­tion and chal­lenges in a con­ver­sa­tion with art dealer Pa­trick Davies of Pa­trick Davies Con­tem­po­rary Art and Liezel Strauss of Sub­jec­tMat­terArt.

Glas­gow-based Malaysian artist Teh Hock Aun was in Kuala Lumpur re­cently in an­tic­i­pa­tion of his solo ex­hi­bi­tion at Balai Seni Vis­ual Ne­gara later this year. He talks about his works, art ed­u­ca­tion and chal­lenges in a con­ver­sa­tion with art dealer Pa­trick Davies of Pa­trick Davies Con­tem­po­rary Art and Liezel Strauss of Sub­jec­tMat­terArt.

Teh Hock Aun’s sig­na­ture sense of colour and move­ment is ap­par­ent from his very ap­pear­ance. Dressed in a bright yel­low shirt and paintsplat­tered jeans, the artist has fash­ioned neck­laces in bright pri­mary colours from chil­dren’s plas­tic bead sets. He speaks an­i­mat­edly, hands mov­ing fer­vently in an at­tempt to ar­tic­u­late him­self fur­ther. His is a boom­ing voice, high­light­ing a cu­ri­ous Scot­tish and Malaysian-ac­cented English with a frank­ness that is re­fresh­ing.

A small, arty group has con­vened to lis­ten to one of Malaysia’s no­table artists speak in an­tic­i­pa­tion of his solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Balai Seni Vis­ual Ne­gara later this year. Not that he needs any in­tro­duc­tion. Teh, now based in Glas­gow, has had his works dis­played in var­i­ous cities around the world and is as much an hon­orary son of Scot­land as he is a na­tive of Malaysia.

His ac­co­lades in­clude be­ing se­lected by the Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice in 1995 as one of the sub­jects of the My Bri­tain se­ries of doc­u­men­tary films. In 1997, he was se­lected by Glas­gow Mu­se­ums to study tigers in their nat­u­ral habi­tat in In­dia. In 1980, he re­ceived a Com­men­da­tion of Merit from the Robert Colquhourn Memo­rial Ex­hi­bi­tion.

His par­tic­u­lar brand of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art draws in­spi­ra­tion from an­cient, revered T’ang cal­lig­ra­phy even as it is hailed as ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism. He ex­plains his works, art ed­u­ca­tion and en­cour­ag­ing young artists in a con­ver­sa­tion with Pa­trick Davies of Pa­trick Davies Con­tem­po­rary Art, and Liezel Strauss of Sub­jec­tMat­terArt, both of whom rep­re­sent him, with the lat­ter here in Malaysia.

Strauss: Pa­trick, you and Hock Aun have been work­ing to­gether for more than 20 years. Can you tell us how your re­la­tion­ship de­vel­oped and how you met?

Davies: Well, Hock Aun had a deal in Ed­in­burgh. I’d seen his work and sort of knew the dealer who was look­ing af­ter the art­work. I said to Andrew, I’ve got to meet this guy. I just love what I’ve seen. We met and just clicked in­stantly, but it wasn’t just about the sell­ing el­e­ment. We all need to sell. It’s re­ally about whether I ac­tu­ally be­lieved in what he was mak­ing. I knew that how­ever tough the times would be, we’d be in it to­gether for the long haul. Teh: It’s been very per­sonal. Davies: The best re­la­tion­ships with the peo­ple you work with be­come per­sonal and that’s been fan­tas­tic for me and very in­ter­est­ing for us. Teh: As an artist, you have to trust the dealer and not think that they’d take ad­van­tage of it. I can con­cen­trate wholly on my work and, as Pa­trick said, once I fin­ish my work, I don’t look at it, I move on to the sec­ond one. Davies: He knows I need to do my job and I know he needs to paint. I rep­re­sent three artists ex­clu­sively and I’m mar­ried, so I’d say I was mar­ried to four peo­ple (laughs). For me, what I like is that the sell­ing is al­most a by-prod­uct. I like mak­ing the stuff hap­pen. Teh: It’s also im­por­tant to have an art dealer who knows you, your work and ev­ery­thing about your life; oth­er­wise it’s not about pro­duc­ing pic­tures and

Teh: To me, there’s no dif­fer­ence be­tween body and mind. Davies: I think you can see the cal­lig­ra­phy run­ning through his work but you also dis­cover the ab­stract and pure colour. Hock Aun was very good in cal­lig­ra­phy. He stud­ied here un­der a mas­ter in Taip­ing. Teh: I learnt how to write with a brush when I was in pri­mary school! Davies: But some­how he knew some­thing was miss­ing – as won­der­ful as it was that you at­tained great­ness by beau­ti­ful brush marks, there was al­ways some­thing miss­ing…

Strauss: The colour. Davies: Ex­actly!

Strauss: Ex­plain your daily prac­tice to us. Are you very set in your day? Teh: I paint ev­ery day and I need ab­so­lute si­lence. Once I get into it, I won’t even hear a phone ring. When­ever you paint, you’ve got to do it with your mind, your fo­cus. You only need the sound of your own breath­ing and the sound of the brush in con­tact with the can­vas – only two sounds. Then you re­alise that art and you be­come one, oth­er­wise you can­not pro­duce. Halfway through, your body will tell you that this will be great art – but some­times you can’t get it. Strauss: Was that (creation) a mat­ter of ex­pe­ri­ence or did that come later in your ca­reer? Teh: I think later in my ca­reer I un­der­stood my­self. Ev­ery day, I wake up and im­me­di­ately un­der­stand what kind of mood I’m in – it’s very im­por­tant. When I go to the stu­dio, I smell the brushes and the wa­ter, the paint. It ex­cites me and then I work. It doesn’t mat­ter how long it takes for me to fin­ish the paint­ing. The time has noth­ing to do with the qual­ity of the paint­ing – peo­ple think you have to do things longer and longer un­til it’s there some­thing. Also, when I fo­cus, my mind sees shapes and colour, and then I yearn to re­lease when paint­ing.

Strauss: When you ti­tle your work, does it come to you be­fore you start your work? Teh: The baby comes out first but

the ti­tles, for me, are very im­por­tant. It’s a key to get­ting into the gar­den. Some­times, ev­ery­thing can get an emo­tional re­sponse, like through a con­ver­sa­tion, and that gives me in­spi­ra­tion. Davies: I think it’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion be­cause his ti­tling is very lit­eral, but then you’ve got the paint­ing and there are no clues. All it is is a way in and then it’s what you make of it. Af­ter that, it’s en­tirely up to you, and there are no rights and wrongs about it. The ti­tles are the way through his life – mem­o­ries, ex­pe­ri­ences, etc. But what he’s giv­ing you is the most un-lit­eral sense of that and it de­pends on what you make of what you will. Strauss: so tell me about the prepa­ra­tion for the KL Bi­en­nale and your solo show at Balai Seni Vis­ual Ne­gara. How does that dif­fer for an in­stal­la­tion or smaller piece? What are the ups and downs for such a big prepa­ra­tion? Davies: Loads of ad­min­is­tra­tion! We had a meet­ing yes­ter­day with the na­tional gallery and it is funded by the gov­ern­ment body, so things move very slowly. This ex­hi­bi­tion has been five years in the mak­ing un­til last year, when we were for­mally in­vited. We go into the meet­ing and he’s (Hock Aun’s) not in­ter­ested. I’m be­gin­ning to dis­cuss the space they are to make for us and I could tell he was get­ting bored of that. It’s no dis­re­spect to the work but, once he’s made the piece, he’s on to the next one, so a great deal of what I do is to make this stuff hap­pen in the most ef­fi­cient way. More im­por­tantly, make sure that the show is dis­sem­i­nated to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.

For us, this is a non-sell­ing show, it’s a re­flec­tion of Malaysia and its cul­ture. We want as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to see the show and to present it as a good thing for Malaysia. I think the [Malaysian] cul­tural land­scape is chang­ing right now and there are roots be­ing put down and that’s how you get stuff go­ing. In 20 years’ time, you would have some­thing that’s fan­tas­tic. Strauss: Who can Malaysia look up to and how do you think we can bring in more art? Teh: I think cities should en­cour­age artists or art shows. Davies: You need to get the sys­tem right. If you take Europe, for ex­am­ple, they have lots of art schools and in­fra­struc­ture in terms of en­cour­ag­ing the arts. They have grants – it’s as much about the learn­ing as it is about the jour­ney and, if you get that in­fra­struc­ture right, at the end of the day. you’ll have peo­ple com­ing out of that with mean­ing­ful things to con­tribute. Teh: And the artists be­long to the cities and that in­spires the next gen­er­a­tion to do art. If the cities don’t buy art, there won’t be any art mu­se­ums or art ac­tiv­i­ties. Davies: There are many things wrong with the United States but one of the things they got right is called Per­cent for Art, where if there are pub­lic funds for con­struct­ing a build­ing any­thing over USD10 mil­lion, they have to spend a per­cent­age of the bud­get on pub­lic art. Strauss: In the UK, there’s an art fund called OwnArt, [where] you can buy art up to GBP10,000. Sub­jec­tMat­terArt be­longs to it and we, as a com­pany, re­ceive the money im­me­di­ately and you pay us back in in­stal­ments. Be­cause it’s gov­ern­ment­funded, it’s in­ter­est free and the sys­tem works re­ally well. What we’ve done is brought in in­stal­ment plans out­side of the UK, so we of­fer in­stal­ments plans world­wide be­cause we re­alise that your first pur­chase is es­pe­cially tricky. But once you’ve bro­ken the seal, it’s like get­ting a tat­too – you’d want more art.

Davies: I think it’s some­thing that’s more fun­da­men­tal – that peo­ple have to be en­cour­aged to think that art is im­por­tant. Mu­se­ums prob­a­bly have to get that right and get their in­fra­struc­ture right so that peo­ple want to go. Once you’ve cre­ated that in­ter­est, the other stuff feeds into it. It is ab­so­lutely about in­sti­tu­tions en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple. China, as an ex­am­ple, is go­ing to be a ma­jor player, if it isn’t al­ready. That has changed in 20 years or less, and partly to do with the gov­ern­ment be­ing less abra­sive about what is ac­cept­able to what you can do.

That has also cre­ated a prob­lem be­cause some artists in China are now su­per­stars, and other artists are look­ing at them in­stead of try­ing to es­tab­lish their own iden­tity (as each coun­try needs to have its own iden­tity). They ape what’s go­ing on in the West. They need to start to find their own iden­tity. That’s their value. Teh: I dis­cov­ered in Malaysia and, in fact, in many high schools here, that they don’t have many trained teach­ers – the head­mas­ter would ask the ge­og­ra­phy teacher to teach art. It wouldn’t help Malaysia to be very creative be­cause there’s no reg­u­la­tion, so ev­ery­one can set up art classes in com­mu­ni­ties just to make money. They don’t care about art de­vel­op­ment. So, what I did for my high school (I al­ways like to give back to my high school), I went to China to look for the young grad­u­ates of fine art and em­ploy them in my high school in Malaysia. When I came back to Malaysia, I trained them and gave them a spe­cific pro­gramme called ICE (Imag­i­na­tion Creation Ex­pres­sion). I also dis­cov­ered that a lot of schools don’t have a spe­cific cur­ricu­lum, so I de­signed a pro­gramme for Forms 1 to 6 that stretches week to week. I know how I want the class to be taught and what kind of re­sult I want to see within months. Davies: What Hock Aun de­scribes is a tiny egg. One of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that we will have be­cause of the Balai Seni Vis­ual Ne­gara ex­hi­bi­tion is that we would like to say, “Look at Hock Aun now”. Teh: Be­cause Kuala Lumpur is far from Taip­ing, where there’re no good art mu­se­ums, I also ar­range in­ter­na­tional school ex­pe­di­tions ev­ery two years so stu­dents can see and en­gage for them­selves – Davies: – and it’s all self-funded! Imag­ine if you could get help from the gov­ern­ment. Teh: The money comes from pri­vate ini­tia­tives. Davies: And that sort of lit­tle ecosys­tem that they’ve cre­ated down there (in Taip­ing) is an ab­so­lute tem­plate of how you can do it.

Strauss: Have you spo­ken to the min­istry about this? Davies: Well, be­cause of the show, we are per­fectly po­si­tioned to. We have some­thing that’s done well. This

is not fan­tasy. This is not what we’ll do but what has been done. We have ev­i­dence and we will be in a much more pow­er­ful po­si­tion once that show starts. We have also ap­plied for fund­ing from Creative Scot­land as a con­tri­bu­tion to the show. Teh: There aren’t many art in col­leges in Malaysia but we do see stu­dents study­ing in com­mer­cial art. Graphic de­sign, not fine arts. There’s a dif­fer­ence and that’s not good, re­ally. They need some­one to teach them how to pick up a pen­cil and draw. They get a de­gree but they can’t draw. In chil­dren’s classes, they don’t teach them how to draw but how to copy. This isn’t good. Strauss: On the topic of Taip­ing and go­ing back to Glas­gow, you have this du­al­ity – do you con­sider Malaysia home or is it Scot­land? Teh: I don’t re­ally feel that I live in the west or east – I come home two, three times a year. My heart is al­ways here and I’m in a re­ally unique po­si­tion. I’m from here in the East and home is in the West. This op­por­tu­nity has given me a wider hori­zon and ex­pe­ri­ence to dis­cover and to suck in the essence of both cul­tures. Strauss: Pa­trick, tell us about the key chal­lenges and changes you’ve seen in the art world over the re­cent years. Davies: There are good and bad things. I think the world in which I ex­ist has be­come ex­tremely com­mer­cial, and I think a lot of peo­ple view value more than what the pic­ture is about. You would never buy a pair of cur­tains and ex­pect that to go up in value, and I say the same with art. If that hap­pens, it’s a happy cir­cum­stance but you buy it be­cause you love it.

I think the money, which is also im­por­tant, is at the mo­ment too pow­er­ful. Peo­ple are think­ing more about the money. I think the big­gest change is that it’s be­come a brand. When I first started out, you’d buy an art mag­a­zine and there were pages that were chalk-full about artists. Now, you have many ad­verts and auc­tions.

I think the good thing about it is that much younger peo­ple have be­come in­ter­ested. When I started out, peo­ple who bought art were 40 years old in age and even above 50. Now, younger peo­ple are think­ing about buy­ing art. So, the age de­mo­graphic for buy­ing art has be­come younger and that makes them tend to buy things as they grow up. They don’t buy things of the past – they go for artists of the same age, with the same cul­tures and in­flu­ences. That’s the good thing, I think.

I come from a very tra­di­tional back­ground, where you have shows at gal­leries and you’re mak­ing cases as to why it’s im­por­tant. Now, with this throw-away cul­ture that we have, peo­ple want to go to over a 100 gal­leries in five days, and what that means is that gal­leries take less risk be­cause it’s ex­pen­sive for them, so, again, this money is crush­ing a bit of the cre­ativ­ity. Some­how, we have to get back some­where in the mid­dle be­cause the peo­ple that go to art fairs, mu­se­ums and gal­leries are a mi­nor­ity. Teh: Art evolves all the time and, as an artist, you have to be sin­cere and hon­est to your­self, and pro­duce what you feel best. You have to be­lieve in your­self and your own work. Only then you’ll be able to push your­self fur­ther. Strauss: Pa­trick, what ad­vice would you give col­lec­tors and artists? Davies: I’ll tell col­lec­tors to trust their in­stincts – there are no fail­ures in terms of buy­ing art. Trust your in­stincts, don’t fol­low the herd. Do it be­cause you think it’s right. And learn as much as you can – use your eyes and ask ques­tions. Teh: En­cour­age stu­dents to make a mess and find so­lu­tions. This is how you en­cour­age stu­dents to do art – imag­i­na­tion. If you have good imag­i­na­tion, you have good art. Davies: No suc­cess sto­ries hap­pen with­out fail­ure. Teh: And in art, there is no such thing as fail­ure. It’s im­por­tant for an artist to not re­peat one­self. I hate when you go to ex­hi­bi­tions and see 30 or 40 paint­ings with the same colour scheme. Ev­ery paint­ing is a new chal­lenge and ter­ri­tory. Oth­er­wise, what’s the point of cre­at­ing it?

AnEa­gleFights Free, 2017

An in­ti­mate gath­er­ing at the res­i­dence of Liezel Strauss of Sub­ject Mat­ter Art. Strauss, Davis and Teh are front and cen­tre

01 Teh in his stu­dio in Glas­gow 02 Teh ad­dresses a crowd03 Child­hood Me­moriesRain Cloud­sBuild­ing Up, 2017

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