READING BETWEEN THE LINES
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.
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.