Na­ture of con­tem­po­rary art

Con­tem­po­rary art is sup­posed to get in your face and elicit strong emo­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ART - Com­ment by OOI KOK CHUEN star2@thes­tar.com.my

JUST when one felt it was safe to go back into an art gallery, the abrupt re­moval of two works at the Bakat Muda Seza­man (Young Con­tem­po­raries) 2013 prize pre­sen­ta­tion cer­e­mony on Feb 12 leapt out of the wood­work, sex­ing up an other­wise com­par­a­tively ho-hum edi­tion of the awards.

The “of­fend­ing” works were Cheng Yen Pheng’s Alk­snaabknu­aunmo (acrylic on can­vas) and Izat Arif Sai­ful Bahrin’s rack of T-shirts em­bla­zoned with the Ara­bic words “Fa Qaf”, which is also its ti­tle. In English pho­net­ics, it takes on a sca­to­log­i­cal sound and slant.

On the night of the prize-giv­ing, Cheng staged a protest in front of the blank wall where her work had been hang­ing at the Na­tional Vis­ual Arts Gallery (NVAG) since Oc­to­ber. She kept re­it­er­at­ing and re­peat­ing (with a rather tired-sound­ing sales­man’s pitch) to ini­tially star­tled on­look­ers as she held up a pam­phlet folded to a pic­ture of her work that, “This is my paint­ing. Last few days still here. Now no more.”

With the testos­terone-charged clus­ters of con­dom-like neon bal­loons, the work looked to me to be more erotic than any­thing po­lit­i­cal, but it took on a new di­men­sion and tra­jec­tory when she sprayed the graf­fiti “ABU=ASHES” onto it dur­ing the judges’ in­ter­view, a ploy per­haps to cir­cum­vent an out­right re­jec­tion. She had claimed later that her use of the “stir­ring slo­gan” was purely be­cause it had trac­tion, but her act had trans­formed her work from sex­ual in­nu­en­does about male power and chau­vin­ism into po­lit­i­cal Vi­a­gra, a po­lit­i­cal state­ment.

She could have painted an idyl­lic kam- pung scene for that mat­ter. The mes­sage of the graf­fiti had be­come The Thing, with the paint­ing be­com­ing a car­rier, and her “protest” a rit­ual to memo­ri­alise its ab­sence. She first showed works with sim­i­larly ren­dered bal­loon-ey im­ages at her solo ex­hi­bi­tion, PRICKED! at the Wei-Ling Gallery’s con­tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion in 2012.

In the case of Izat, it was cheeky of him to use the ubiq­ui­tous T-shirt as a can­vas to com­mu­ni­cate the mes­sage. But even Ara­bic words in a non-re­li­gious con­text could be­come a provoca­tive barb what with the fes­ter­ing kal­imah Al­lah is­sue lately and the ban­ning of J. Anu’s I Is For Id­iot last year. (Anu’s work, from his Al­pha­bet Soup se­ries that has been doc­u­mented into a book, was re­moved from the M50 Se­la­mat Hari Malaysia ex­hi­bi­tion last year at MAPS Pub­lika, Kuala Lumpur, pur­port­edly for in­sult­ing Is­lam, but the artist has since been cleared.)

But the NVAG has been known to be in­clu­sive of dis­sent­ing voices. In May 1992, the Malaysia-Bri­tish As­so­ci­a­tion took down Nir­mala Dutt Shan­mughalingam’s work, Friends In Need (1986), but the in­sti­tu­tion, then known as the Na­tional Art Gallery, duly re­in­stated it. The work railed against Western im­pe­ri­al­ism in Africa (specif­i­cally apartheid) with Mar­garet Thatcher and Ron­ald Re­gan cast as vil­lains in the Purwa wayang kulit reper­toire.

But these dou­ble be­lated cen­sor­ships have cast an omi­nous pall on the Young Con­tem­po­raries (BMS) awards. Such is the na­ture of the art of the young, oft as­so­ci­ated with angst and ag­gres­sion, and the na­ture of “Now Con­tem­po­rary Art”, which is unapolo­get­i­cally provoca­tive, dis­sent­ing, off-putting, sca­to­log­i­cal and In-Your-Face!

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