Visu­al­is­ing a dif­fer­ent map

Take a look at our coun­try from a new per­spec­tive with Bibi Chew’s What If ... ex­hi­bi­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Art - By TER­ENCE TOH star2@thes­tar.com.my

MOST of us can prob­a­bly tell where Malaysia is on a map. But when was the last time any of us re­ally took a look at the shape of our coun­try? We might be fa­mil­iar with the form of Malaysia’s gen­eral land mass, but what about the oulines and forms of the 13 states that make up the coun­try?

Can we recog­nise them at a quick glance?

An ex­hi­bi­tion by con­tem­po­rary artist Bibi Chew called What If ... at the Shalini Ga­nen­dra Fine Art in Petaling Jaya en­cour­ages view­ers to look at our coun­try dif­fer­ently.

The show, which is an in­ter­ac­tive mix of art, de­sign and ge­og­ra­phy, also serves as plat­form to dis­cuss is­sues such as na­tion­al­ism, iden­tity, cul­ture and belonging.

“If you look at the maps of some other coun­tries, they don’t have as many dif­fer­ent states as Malaysia does.

“And the ones that do, how their states are di­vided are not very in­ter­est­ing. They are like straight, or di­ag­o­nal cuts. But our coun­try is very in­ter­est­ing,” says Chew, 48, speak­ing about her first solo ex­hi­bi­tion early this week.

What If ... fea­tures 28 art­works and a site spe­cific in­stal­la­tion.

“When you cut up the states of the coun­try, you no­tice they have very in­ter­est­ing, or­ganic shapes! Their forms seem very alive and unique.”

Chew, who is also a lec­turer at the Malaysian In­sti­tute of Art (MIA), started work on this long-awaited solo ex­hi­bi­tion in late 2016.

Her Landed se­ries (14 pieces) was pro­duced in Nov 2016, while the in­tri­cate Where Have All The Rivers Gone? se­ries (14 pieces) and the site-spe­cific in­stal­la­tion What’s Up, Map Down were both fin­ished last month.

The KL-based artist’s pre­vi­ous works also form part of public col­lec­tions at KL’s Na­tional Vis­ual Arts Gallery (NVAG), Ga­leri Petronas, the Aus­tralian High Com­mis­sion and the Sin­ga­pore Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion and the Arts.

Back in 2000, Chew re­ceived the Ma­jor Award Re­cip­i­ent at the Young Con­tem­po­rary Awards (pre­sented NVAG). Since the mid1990s, Chew has shaped a ca­reer filled by thought-pro­vok­ing art, which has been in­formed by her var­i­ous res­i­den­cies abroad and cre­ative mind­set.

At the mo­ment, Chew’s Itu Malaysia – Bi­asa, O, Kaw Kaw, Kosong Cam & Ku­rang (2015) is

also show­ing at the Di Mana

Young? ex­hi­bi­tion at NVAG.

But it’s the What If ... ex­hi­bi­tion, which sparks healthy dis­cus­sion of iden­tity in th­ese na­tion­al­ist and post-na­tion­al­ist times, that has been mak­ing heads turn in the art scene here.

As Chew’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion, it is def­i­nitely con­tains a strong body of works, which is no mean feat, con­sid­er­ing her out­stand­ing show­ing in Eter­nal Du­ties: Duoa ,a joint ex­hi­bi­tion of the works with Sharmiza Abu Hassan in 2015.

What If ... is done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Bare­hands Vol. 1 Asian Artists Res­i­dency Project. It also marks the 20th an­niver­sary of her re­turn to Malaysia after leav­ing to pur­sue her stud­ies at RMIT in Mel­bourne.

“I had been ex­plor­ing is­sues of iden­tity since be­ing an art stu­dent in Australia. But it was such a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment there. I was look­ing at my own iden­tity from a dis­tance. It was in­ter­est­ing, be­cause I re­alised th­ese things as an out­sider, away from my coun­try,” says Chew.

“I came back (to KL) in 1998. I was fear­ful that I had to re-adapt my­self in my own home (coun­try). But I’m glad I had that over­seas ex­pe­ri­ence. In many ways, I had a chance to look back in again. After so many years, I still see so many things in Malaysia that makes us so unique. What if I never left the coun­try? Things would be dif­fer­ent,” she adds.

In­deed, Chew’s ex­hi­bi­tion in­vites us to rethink the na­tion’s land­scape. Her Landed se­ries de­picts the out­line of the states of Malaysia. Here, how­ever, they are all drawn to the same scale, with re­versed topo­graph­i­cal de­tails. Some states are very easy to iden­tify. Oth­ers take a while for their names to reg­is­ter.

Per­haps, the most eye-catch­ing dis­play in the ex­hi­bi­tion is What’s Up, Map Down, a site-spe­cific in­ter­ac­tive in­stal­la­tion con­sist­ing of the Malaysian states, laser-cut from fi­bre­board and mounted on wheeled plat­forms. Th­ese states (which are drawn to ac­tual scale!) can be moved around (in the gallery), and can in­ter­lock to form the shape of the Malaysia.

“What if we were able to move the states around? What if we could see things from a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion? Usu­ally, when you look at a map, you’re look­ing at a flat sur­face. Here, you look up,” says Chew with a laugh.

By look­ing at the states in this man­ner, the artist says, makes the viewer pon­der on many ques­tions.

“Why, ex­actly, did the bor­ders of states get that way? Did the rel­a­tive size of states have any im­pact on progress or cul­ture?” she asks.

The last part of the ex­hi­bi­tion Where Have All The Rivers Gone? is a se­ries of art­works de­pict­ing the out­line of the rivers of each Malaysian state, cut out on can­vas. Chew re­veals the work is a trib­ute to rivers, of­ten the places where civil­i­sa­tion be­gins.

“When I searched for the sig­nif­i­cant rivers of each states, I dis­cov­ered a lot of them formed such beau­ti­ful lines. They re­minded me of our veins, our blood­lines. And I started to think, what if we could move the rivers up, and see what was in­side them? And that was why I cut them out by hand.”

As this in­ter­view draws to a close, Chew pauses and gets philo­soph­i­cal about What If ..., her most am­bi­tious project, which merges her pas­sions in art and re­search.

“A lot of peo­ple for­get just what we have. I hope to give them a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at our lands. Don’t break them, we should be to­gether. In­di­vually, we are unique, but to­gether, we are strong,” says Chew.

What If ... is on at the Shalini Ga­nen­dra Fine Art Gallery, No. 8, Lorong 16/7B, Sec­tion 16, Petaling Jaya in Se­lan­gor till July 17. The gallery is open Tues­days to Satur­days, 11am-7pm. For more in­for­ma­tion, call 03-7932 4740 or visit www.shalin­i­ga­nen­dra.com.

‘A lot of peo­ple for­get what we have. I hope to give them a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at our lands. Don’t break them, we should be to­gether. In­di­vid­u­ally, we are unique, but to­gether, we are strong,’ says Chew, stand­ing with her What’s Up, Map Down site-spe­cific in­stal­la­tion. — Pho­tos: SAM THAM/The Star

Chew’s Landed 14 (acrylic ink on wa­ter­colour pa­per, 2016).

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