A sustained argument
The independent contemporary arts movement remains our most vital cultural movement.
ROGue Art continues its series of anthologised overviews on contemporary Malaysian art with its second volume, Reactions – New Critical Strategies on artistic responses to broad themes of nationality and identity politics.
The infamous Redza Piyadasa incident gets an early mention in the introduction, invoking the sometimes dramatic responses that Malaysian artists elicit from their peers, which ultimately describes what this book is about thematically and editorially.
(Piyadasa created a coffin wrapped in the Malaysian flag in 1970 in response to the May 13 riots the year before, and poet Salleh Ben Joned expressed his opinion of the work rather ... graphically.)
As with the first volume, Imagining Identities, Reactions was edited by Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Beverly Yong, with consulting editor T.K. Sabapathy. The curating of contributors and subject matter is impressive for the arts community it represents, chiefly drawn from and about the talented seam of critically celebrated artists associated with the Klang Valley’s independent visual arts scene, where much of avant-garde Malaysian art discourses and spectacles have been centred since Independence. even when their works are playful, the Malaysian artists and their myriad art practices documented in Reactions offer truly provocative responses to what it means to live in this country.
The effort on the part of the editors to focus on major milestones and eruptions in Malaysian art is commendable. Works by artists such as Yee I-Lann that continually questions Malaysian history, Wong Hoy Cheong’s installations on Ops Lalang, Mark Teh’s moving performance about Teoh Beng Hock (the political aide whose death was controversial) and Anurendra Jeganendran’s explorations of Indian identity within the nation’s racial politics are just a sample of the diverse range of works that get a look in.
It’s hard to fault the language and presentation of the book for being so unassailably academic; the gravity of the venture demands it – this is a serious, independent document of local art that needs to be acknowledged and deserves to be read.
Seen from another angle, however, the book is like touring the construction site of a monument dedicated to itself. It has an echo cham- ber kind of authority, itself a narrative that describes the increasingly insular world of Malaysian contemporary arts. But no matter.
Compared to the often asinine and tourpackaged official version of art provided by the state, the independent contemporary arts movement remains the most vital cultural movement we have – for the results have been incontrovertibly provocative and their wider effects on Malaysian society are still being felt.
Here’s an A+ for the mavericks who form the subject matter of this book and the editors for presenting a sustained argument in favour of their inclusion in the writing of the official narrative of Malaysian art. These are the rebels and mythmakers; these are the ones who dared mark the trajectories of their artistic journeys with critical bravado. The next chapter will be theirs.
Reactions – New Critical Strategies is available at MPH bookstores nationwide as well as other outlets; go to narrativesinmalaysianart. blogspot.com for details.
Proceeds from sales of the book will be used to develop and promote the Narratives In Malaysian Art project.