Ja­panese-born, Thai­land-based artist Ken­taro Hiroki ex­plores South-East Asian cul­ture and iden­tity through na­tional arte­fects, and turns to Malaysia for his lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion.

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT NEDA AL-ASEDI PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JA­SON LEE

Ja­pane­se­born, Thai­land-based artist Ken­taro Hiroki ex­plores South-East Asian cul­ture and iden­tity through na­tional arte­fects, and turns to Malaysia for his lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion.

The façade of A+ Works of Art gallery in Sen­tul gives noth­ing away of what lies in­side, ex­cept for a small sign on the glass that spells out the name and dates of the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion. All you can see beyond the glass is what greets vis­i­tors as they step into the gallery: pris­tine white walls save for small stripes of red, blue and yel­low that are only vis­i­ble af­ter you take that first step into the gallery. On the far wall ahead, one sin­gu­lar frame, set dead cen­tre, beck­ons at vis­i­tors to take a closer look.

That sin­gle frame con­tained the cover spread of Malaysian Ci­ti­zen­ship, a law book writ­ten by the late Tun Mo­hamed Suf­fian, for­mer Chief of Jus­tice of Malaya and for­mer Lord Pres­i­dent of the Malaysian Fed­eral Court. More ac­cu­rately, the frame held a re­pro­duc­tion of the front and back cov­ers of Malaysian Ci­ti­zen­ship, though it isn’t im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous un­til you look closer. Ev­ery de­tail, from the ex­act shade of the timeyel­lowed pages to each tiny tiger stripe on the na­tional coat of arms, is recre­ated al­most ex­actly, and only the pen­cil strokes on the front cover re­veal that it is, in fact, a work of art.

Har­mony – that’s the key­word that Ken­taro Hiroki fo­cused on when he took on the mam­moth nine-month project that even­tu­ally led to his first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Malaysia. Af­ter liv­ing in Bangkok for more than a decade, Ken­taro took an in­ter­est in Thai­land’s na­tional an­them. The rev­er­ence that the Thai have for their an­them, and the re­spect they show it with­out fail twice each day, was some­thing for­eign for Ken­taro. He grew up in Os­aka dur­ing a time when Ja­pan did not have a legally recog­nised an­them, and his years as an artist in Europe never showed him such na­tion­al­ism ei­ther. Iden­tity for the artist was more cul­tural than na­tion­al­is­tic, and his re­search into Thai­land’s na­tional an­them opened up the rest of South-East Asia and how the re­gion’s cul­tures and iden­tity have much more in com­mon

than he first thought.

“Melody stays with the peo­ple and they carry it across oceans,” Ken­taro said as the rea­son he chose to fo­cus on na­tional an­thems. But Ne­garaku proved to be a dead end be­cause there is no con­sen­sus on who com­posed the orig­i­nal melody. How­ever, Ken­taro’s re­search brought him the book that fea­tures as the sub­ject of his art. “It was com­pletely by ac­ci­dent, a co­in­ci­dence,” he ex­plained, de­scrib­ing how he ex­plored Am­corp Mall’s week­end flea mar­ket and stum­bled upon Malaysian Ci­ti­zen­ship.

His chal­lenge then was to con­nect the le­gal doc­u­ment to the mu­si­cal be­gin­nings of his ini­tial ex­hi­bi­tion. “Nor­mally, mu­sic has har­mony. So, I wanted to make some­thing with the idea of har­mony. As a painter, I went back to this pure con­cept of prin­ci­pal colours. The book text is in black, so I de­cided to cre­ate the black by mix­ing the three pri­mary colours of red, yel­low, blue.” That these three colours also sym­bol­ise so much more to Malaysians, as the main colours of our flag, was not Ken­taro’s in­ten­tion, and nei­ther was the per­fect tim­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion. He only planned on ex­hibit­ing in the lead up to Malaysia Day, but the cur­rent spirit of new Malaysia, with its re­newed faith in the Malaysian iden­tity was, once again, a fate­ful co­in­ci­dence.

In fact, he tries to avoid the pol­i­tics, in­stead fo­cus­ing on the ma­te­rial and aes­thet­ics of the ob­ject over the sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cances, hence his choice to painstak­ingly re­pro­duce the book. Re­mem­ber­ing the nine months he spent on this project is big­ger for Ken­taro than the happy ac­ci­dent of per­fect tim­ing. “I want (the au­di­ence) to feel the time of pro­duc­tion is beyond that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment (of view­ing), that it’s an ac­cu­mu­la­tion,” he said.

Though the artist doesn’t in­tend it, I feel it that even that is a fit­ting les­son for us to keep in mind as we cel­e­brate a new na­tion as Malaysian cit­i­zens, and steel our­selves for the work that has yet to be done.

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