What price power?

Two artists ex­plore civil­i­sa­tion and what it means to them through in­trigu­ing mo­tifs.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ART - By DI­NESH KU­MAR MAGANATHAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

HIS­TORY is re­plete with the high dra­mas of so­ci­eties and king­doms, played out in the pur­suit of power. Much is gained but much more sac­ri­ficed at the al­tar of power. This has al­ways been a part of civil­i­sa­tion, one of the main chords in this chaotic con­certo that we call hu­man his­tory.

Us­ing this no­tion as a foun­da­tion, two artists with dis­tinct styles took to can­vas to pro­duce an il­lu­mi­nat­ing se­ries of works. Called Civ­i­liza­tion, the ex­hi­bi­tion at HOM Art Trans gallery in Kuala Lumpur show­cases 13 art works by Keda­han Ng Swee Keat and In­done­sian Nu­groho Heri Cahy­ono.

“Both of them deal with sub­ject mat­ter re­lated to power in East­ern and Western ideas and ideals about life, and ways of achiev­ing it – that is, the foun­da­tion of civil­i­sa­tion,” says Bayu Utomo, gallery di­rec­tor and one of the lo­cal art scene’s leading lights him­self.

He adds, “This tra­di­tional ver­sus the mod­ern, with their in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tions, pro­vides in­ter­est­ing com­par­i­son for re­flec­tion, and we hope the for­tu­itous pair­ing com­ple­ments and en­hances the pow­er­ful mes­sages in the works of both artists.”

What makes this ex­hi­bi­tion re­fresh­ing is not so much the sub­ject mat­ter, though, but how the artists chose to in­ter­pret it.

To con­vey his in­ter­pre­ta­tion, Ng chose one of the great beau­ties from an­cient Ori­en­tal his­tory, Con­sort Yu, the con­cu­bine in the fa­mous Pek­ing opera that is ref­er­enced in Chen Kaige’s 1993 Palme d’Or-win­ning movie, Farewell My Con­cu­bine. Around her, Ng con­jures flashes of love, in­trigue and death. The close-ups of her porce­lain face with her deep, in­tense gaze are sim­ply mes­meris­ing.

“When I was a small boy, I used to fol­low my grand­mother to watch Chi­nese opera and one of the fa­mous ones I watched was about Xiang Yu, the Hege­mon-King of Western Chu in an­cient China and his loyal con­sort, Yu.

“Nowa­days, it is a rar­ity to see such per­for­mances, and the same goes for wayang kulit (shadow theatre). That is why I de­cided to use these two el­e­ments in my paint­ings. Apart from nos­tal­gia, I also wanted to show the amal­ga­ma­tion of dif­fer­ent races and cul­ture in our coun­try,” says the 35-year-old Ng, who was one of the win­ners of the 2011 Malaysia Emerg­ing Artist Award that is or­gan­ised bi­en­ni­ally by HOM Trans Art and Ga­leri Chan­dan.

Be­sides the haunt­ing coun­te­nance of Con­sort Yu and the deep red and am­ber that seem to burst forth from ev­ery paint­ing, there is some­thing else that makes Ng’s paint­ings ar­rest­ing: Cast upon his muse’s face, in an eerie and in­ti­mate man­ner, are shad­ows of wayang kulit char­ac­ters.

The full-time artist from Alor Se­tar says he chose these two el­e­ments as both Chi­nese opera and the wayang kulit of­fer height­ened drama, and in­trigue and mis­chief roam care­lessly through them, much as they do in most po­lit­i­cal are­nas.

“Ini­tially, the idea was sparked by the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal tit-for-tat be­tween op­pos­ing par­ties and their sup­port­ers in the coun­try. How­ever, it de­vel­oped into some­thing deeper.

“I feel that, in gen­eral, all these power strug­gles that are be­ing played out now are like the per-

Mes­meris­ing: for­mances in a Chi­nese opera or wayang kulit,” ex­plains Ng, a par­tic­i­pant of the gallery’s Adopted Res­i­dency pro­gramme last year.

Ng’s sen­ti­ments are clearly ev­i­dent in Life Is Like A Drama 6 – Old House. The paint­ing de­picts Con­sort Yu hold­ing what ap­pears to be a di­rec­tive writ­ten on a flag. In the back­ground, a bull­dozer is seen de­mol­ish­ing an old build­ing.

“This is to de­pict the Jalan Sul­tan in­ci­dent where the ten­ants were asked to leave the premises and what­ever that hap­pened af­ter that,” ex­plains Ng, re­fer­ring to commercial prop­er­ties along Jalan Sul­tan in KL that were ac­quired for de­mo­li­tion to make room for the Klang Val­ley MRT last year.

Heri (as he is called), on the other hand, chose to high­light old steam trains, at once bring­ing to mind the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion and, con­se­quently, the sub­ju­ga­tion and sac­ri­fice of hu­man lives by colo­nial pow­ers. In­ter­est­ingly, in the place of reg­u­lar train coaches, though, some of the lo­co­mo­tives are pulling houses and build­ings.

Heri, who was part of HOM’s South-East Asia Art Group Ex­change Res­i­dency (Sager) pro­gramme, drew his in­spi­ra­tion from the train sta­tion next to his stu­dio in Yo­gyakarta, In­done­sia.

“Af­ter I moved my stu­dio next to the train sta­tion, I was re­minded of my child­hood, when I wanted to ride the train. My mem­o­ries of this are some­what ro­man­ti­cised, and that led me to ex­plore the idea of trains.

“I looked at how the colo­nial pow­ers used trains as a means of ex­pe­dit­ing de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion,” ex­plains the 32-year-old.

In­ter­est­ingly, all the steam trains in Heri’s art works are re­plete with skull mo­tifs. This is an al­lu­sion to the thou­sands who were sub­ju­gated, ex­ploited and sac­ri­ficed in the name of progress.

The piece Dahulu, Sekarang Dan Masa Yang Akan Datang Kita Te­tap Kaya Raya (Be­fore, Now And In The Fu­ture, We Will Al­ways Be Wealthy) de­picts an old steam en­gine on a rail­way track pulling a goods train. Scat­tered across the paint­ing are mir­ror im­ages of In­done­sian words like mak­mur (pros­per­ous) and sen­tosa (peace­ful).

“Progress is sup­posed to make a coun­try wealthy, now and forever­more. But sadly, that is not the re­al­ity in In­done­sia. This is sig­ni­fied in the mir­ror im­ages of these words about pros­per­ity and peace,” Heri says, adding that he uses the print-mak­ing tech­nique of wood­cuts to make his works.

An­other of Heri’s pieces speaks about the pur­suit of one’s iden­tity: To En­light­en­ment does not of­fer up its mes­sage as clearly as the oth­ers at first glance. But should you turn your fleet­ing look into a long and thought­ful gaze, things will sud­denly fall into per­spec­tive.

The paint­ing is sim­ple: A grey steam train adorned with the same skull mo­tifs is on a track head­ing some­where. But where there should have been land be­neath the tracks, lies what looks like a chess­board, and the sky is adorned with flow­ers, a com­mon In­done­sian mo­tif. A jux­ta­po­si­tion emerges: the old and the new. The chess­board speaks of strate­gies.

“The paint­ing speaks about the past life and the new in the light of mod­erni­sa­tion. And the train is mov­ing for­ward, try­ing to find the con­nec­tion be­tween the old and the new,” Heri says.

It is al­ways in­ter­est­ing to look at the world through the eyes of an­other, es­pe­cially those of artists. And when you ac­tu­ally gaze long and hard, and open up your soul to the art works of these bril­liant artists, you will be­gin to see what they saw and per­haps gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of civil­i­sa­tion – and maybe, just maybe, even find your self in it.

Civ­i­liza­tion is on un­til Feb 22 at HOM Art Trans gallery (6A, Jalan Cem­paka 16, Ta­man Cem­paka, Am­pang, Se­lan­gor). Open­ing hours are 11am to 6pm Mon­day to Fri­day and 1pm to 6pm on Satur­days; the gallery is closed on Sun­days and pub­lic hol­i­days. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit homart­trans.blogspot. com.

ng Swee Keat chose the great beauty from an­cient China, Con­sort yu, as his muse, con­jur­ing flashes of love, in­trigue and death around her. This is a work en­ti­tled LifeIsLikea drama3. ng’s LifeIsLikead­rama6—Old­House al­ludes to the un­stop­pable march of progress.

nu­groho Heri Cahy­ono’s Toen­light­en­ment is about seek­ing one’s iden­tity in the face of change and progress.

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