(This writing were published from the book titled SEZAMAN 'Young Contemporaries 2010' published by National Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 2010. ISBN 9-789-833-497-515)
The Young Contemporaries, YC for short, is the most vital and prestigious Malaysian contemporary art competition and award. It has been coordinated by the National Art Gallery (NAG) since the 1970s as a forum to discover young emerging artists. It is considered the highest and most important award in the career of a local young artist.
In order to initiate an annual event, in 1974 the NAG launched an art competition cum exhibition which was then called the Young Contemporaries Exhibition and was normally held at the year’s end. Its introduction stemmed from the NAG’s awareness of the crucial need at that time to stage an art show catering specifically for local young artist under the age of 30 (now the age limit has been increased to 40) to help them advance further.
The truly conceptual front cover of the catalogue for the first Young Contemporaries in 1974
The idea is moreover motivated by the need to provide more specific exhibition spaces for the increasing number of young artists graduating from art institutions who wish to present their works before the public could gauge their creative talents and skills they gained from those art institutions. YC is thus an arena very much anticipated and awaited by young artists, as well as a critique forum for the general public to analyse the development of Malaysia art.
Apart from its actual intention to gather under one roof supposedly good artworks by young artists, YC could also be viewed as a critical yardstick to measure the quality of art graduates churned out by those art institutions. Via YC we could see whether this stream of art graduates are aligned with contemporary requirements and standards or are still very much tied up to the rigid rules and conventions of art academies. Motivation and incentive provided by the NAG by staging YC for almost 40 years now should be highly praised.
There are some other similar award exhibitions at the state level, for instance, Shah Alam Gallery’s Selangor Open and Penang State Art Gallery’s Penang Young Contemporaries (both held since the 1990s), and the Selangor Young Contemporaries which was recently launched by the Selangor government. However, these state-level programmes still cannot surpass YC which has reached maturity in defining future course of Malaysian contemporary art. YC is presumably the oldest award within the region of Southeast Asia, or perhaps the entire Asian continent. The question now is whether it has achieved its aim to shape the direction of this country’s art as it should be.
Some other countries also organised art award programmes specifically for young artists. Among the most prestigious ones are Tate Modern’s Turner Prize in Britain, National Museum of Modern Art’s Centre Pompidou’s Prix Marcel Duchamp in France, Kandinsky Award in Russia, Hamburger Bahnhof Contemporary Art Museum’s Preis der Nationalgalerie fur Junge Kunst in Germany, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s The Vincent Award in Europe which is named after the famous Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Several awards are sponsored by corporates such as Gugenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize, and Deutsche Bank and Deutsche Gugenheim’s Artist of the Year.
Our neighbour Singapore recently unveiled its President’s Young Talents, organised jointly by Credit Suisse and the Singapore Art Museum. We notice that most of these award programmes are arranged by each country’s major art institution. This indicates that the highest art organisations in many countries support the effort to give proper recognition, in the form of monetary incentives and prize awards, to visual artist as have been done for some other professions.
YC is largely meant to raise of provocations, controversies, bravado and debates advantageous for contemporary art, which in turn could enhance public interest in the appreciation of contemporary art in our country. The Young Contemporaries apparently emulates the British contemporary art award, namely Young Contemporaries Exhibition, introduced in London in the 1960s and later changed to Turner Prize in the 1980s in honour of J.M.W. Turner, the great British Romantic naturalist painter, Turner Prize is the most eminent in Europe of the present day.
Turner Prize is instigated and run by a group of art patrons who call themselves Patrons of New Art. The group was formed to acquire new artworks for the collector of Tate Gallery, and also to boost public awareness towards contemporary art. Throughout its history, YC too had once received corporate sponsorship from oil and gas companies such as ESSO, and other corporations like Malaysian Airline System and Malaysian Tobacco, around 1980s and 1990s. This proves that major companies did assist the art activity in this country. Perhaps our local art patrons featured in the ‘Thirty Collectors’ show should also emulate their efforts.
The combination between Tate Gallery as the organiser and Patrons of New Art as the sponsors seemingly brings a great success for Turner Prize. Among other things, this award leads to the rise of a group of young artists dubbed as Young British Artists (YBAs), some of whom had won this award such as Damien Hirst (in 1995), Douglas Gordon (1996), and Martin Creed (2001). They are major leading artists in the world today.
Seminal art exhibitions orchestrated by the YBAs, who were essentially under the patronage of Charles Saatchi who owns most of the artworks by major British young artists, together with controversial shows like ‘Sensations’, which showcased art collection belonging to the Saatchi Gallery, unleashed a new phenomenon unto the world of British contemporary art, particularly around London which was then considered outdated in comparison to art scene in New York.
The Saatchi Gallery brought the ‘Sensation’ to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. The show in Australia, however, was cancelled due to public protest and complaints. Nevertheless, the exhibition managed to foster a fresh interest in art among the general public and at the same time mould their cultural makeup. What about here?
Artworks record past events and they reflect the periods we live in. Derived from social, economic and political milieus of a civilised society, artworks can be viewed as mirrors of human conditions. The Young Contemporaries constitutes part of narrative representations of visual experiences encountered by modern Malaysia, a country just like any other Southeast Asian nation who strives to keep up with all the changes occurring in this world. Tracing these experiences will lead us into an area not often explored in the effort to re-examine our country by way of its contemporary art.
New Scene + Obscene Conceptualism
Any discussions about YC with reference to Malaysian contemporary art will certainly touch upon events in the 1970s. That decade witnessed the arrival of internationalist style derived from the canon of the Euro-American art history. Apart from the art sphere, Internationalism also engages with other cultural, social, political and economic contexts. The 1969 group exhibition titled ‘The New Scene’ can be seen as the occasion that triggered the emergence of contemporary art in Malaysia. It was staged as response to the May 13 Incident, whereby racial unrest erupted for four days, resulting from a poor showing of ruling parties in General Election held that year and the Malays’ discontent with their weak control of the economy. The book ‘The Malay Dilemma’, published in 1970, outlines a few solutions to these political and economic problems.
The artists in this exhibition were not interested in discussing societal issues. They focused instead on formalistic concerns, trying to solve the whys, hows and whats concerning art. They merely concentrated on creating multidimensional artworks in order to construct a sign system. They also attempted to redefine painting and sculpture, hence formulating a new definition with regard to the identity and status of different art genres. They presented a radical concept and ideology with the intention to challenge and rediscover the aesthetic value of Malaysia art.
The horrific incident made the government aware of the country’s economic disparity. In 1971 under the premiership Tun Abdul Razak, the government launched the New Economic Policy (NEP) that grants special right to Malays and Bumiputeras. As an outcome of the NEP a congress was convened from August 16 to 20 in the same year. The congress drew up the National Cultural Policy (NCP), which the Malay culture is recognised as the national culture.
When we now review the 1970s decade we will definitely link it with the ‘Towards A Mystical Reality’ (TMR) show held in 1974 at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. This joint exhibition between Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa was reaction towards the National Cultural Congress. By rejecting Western art theories both of them aimed to liberate Malaysian artists from their dependence on Western influences. They assimilated Western and Eastern cultures in a new framework that treated art as a kind of scientific inquiry. They examined aspects of mental, meditative and mystical in Asian philosophies, particularly Taoism and Zen.
This exhibition provoked a polemical discourse regarding spatial, material and temporal dimensions of ordinary objects and texts employed to induce mental experiences of space, shifting events. It injected such a new idea into Malaysian art. However before TMR, Sulaiman Esa had already produced an artwork imbued with the concept rather similar to TMR. The mixed media piece won the major prize in an art competition organised by the NAG in 1973. The ‘Man and His World’ exhibition, though very rarely discussed, can be considered the first thematic group show ever organised by any of the country art institution before it was replaced with The Young Contemporaries.
The front cover of the catalogue for second Young Contemporaries 1975
Important episodes and exhibitions during the 1970s, as mentioned above, very much influenced the tone and bearing of YC held in the decade. Started in 1974 as an invitational show and began to open its participation to any young artists a year later, YC in the 1970s nevertheless had not yet been swayed by the concerns of the National Cultural Policy that upheld the Malay civilization as the basis for national culture. In his essay “ A Criticism of Young Contemporaries Exhibition 1974” in the catalogue written for the first YC, Sulaiman Esa had highlighted this point. He noticed two tendencies among young artists then. While the first group was more inclined towards easel painting and picture making, the second group leant towards formalistic and conceptual considerations. Being largely fascinated with the Internationalist style, this second set of artist was more interested in ideas and not creative skills.
Lee Kian Seng, “Permainan Poker” / “Process in Poker Game”, YC 1975 ( NAG 2000-003)
The surfacing of formalistic and conceptual leaning opened new chapter in Malaysian art which prior to that was dominated by Euro-American modern art trends like Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and Pop. In their search for something fresh and more challenging, some local artists welcomed this new tendency as a form of protest against the forces of art prevalent at that time. For them, art is essentially dynamic and always shifts from time in keeping with human experiences. The definition of art should go beyond the artifacts found in art museums to be reviewed as historical documentation materials.
Formal Revivalism In Search of Lost Soul!
In 1963 in Indonesia, a group of writers and artists associated with LEKRA (People’s Cultural Board), an organisation linked to Indonesian Communist Party, came under attacked from those who issued and supported the Cultural Manifesto (Manikebu) in the face of LEKRA’s suppressive stance towards artistic freedom. For this latter group, cultural movement formed part of the people’s struggle that led to the Indonesian Revolution, which among other things, was meant to remove foreign cultures and revive their own native culture. Although not exactly in the same vein as the Manikebu, a comparable affair also took place in Malaysia. Introduced in 1971, the National Cultural Policy (NCP) was intended to rediscover our indigenous artistic forms albeit with an emphasis (NCP) was intended to rediscover our indigenous artistic forms albeit with an emphasis on the Malay civilisation as the core element of Malaysian culture.
After the introduce of NCP, however, there was not any art exhibition bold enough to respond to that cultural policy. Many young artist’ decision to keep silent about this matter raised a question regarding their stand on this policy. Only at the end of 1979 there emerge some attempts, even though imbued with Islamic nuances, to translate and express the essence of NCP, During that time, the triumph of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in overthrowing the pro-Western ruling monarchy and replacing it with an Islamic Republic spread Islamic political systems to other nations including our own country.
The effort were initiated by Syed Ahmad Jamal who then served as the Director of the Asian Art Museum in Malaya University. The ‘Rupa dan Jiwa’ (Form and Soul) exhibition curated by him, which largely featured Malay and Islamic aesthetics, encapsulated the initial steps to revive artistic forms of the Malay world. This seminal show had a great impact on the local art during the 1980s as evident in the artworks presented by young artists in YC.
Zakaria Awang, “Al-Rahman” YC 1982
From another angle, the success of the Iranian Revolution also ended the oil crisis which started in 1973. With the advent of the revolution in 1979-1980 the oil prices surged rapidly, thus generating higher incomes for oil-producing nations like Indonesian and Malaysia. A windfall from the export of this ‘black gold’ improved Malaysian economy, and with that the government managed to implement various socio-cultural programmes for the benefit of the populace.
During the 1980s Mahathir Mohamed invited Anwar Ibrahim, an influential leader among university students and Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia,ABIM), to join his administration , Anwar’s charisma and his intimate relationship with other leaders of the Islamic world helped the government to curtail the activities of radical and volatile youths including young artists. In the context of Malaysian art, this move even drove many artists to embrace the concern outlined by NCP and hence to instil local identities in their artworks.
Nasir Baharuddin, “Dari Satu Keujudan” , YC 1984
In the early 1980s artists began to create art infused with local cultural nuances in response to the ‘Rupa dan Jiwa’ showcase. This tendency was clearly apparent in YC and other subsequent exhibitions. Traditional and native artistic forms were fused with contemporary art practice. This set off the Revivalist movement that advocated a resurgence of indigenous arts, myths, legends, crafts and so on. Traditional forms were not copied directly but altered using contemporary idioms. By fusing Malaysian modern art with the images of the great tradition, contents and meanings of these new artworks were remarkably permeated with philosophical and spiritual values.
Jailani Abu Hasan, “Catan Orang Kampung IV” , YC 1985
The anti- American sentiment prevalent during Mahathir Mohamed’s premiership caused the country to steer clear of Western Anglo-Saxon cultures and influences. It also triggered the government to draft a new policy in an attempt to emulate the progress of other Eastern nations particularly Japan. The Look East Policy introduced by Mahathir successfully turned Malaysia from an agricultural to an industrial society. With its relatively low tax rates and labour costs, in major cities here. This industrialisation process activated a large scale migration of young people from rural regions to urban areas of job opportunities during the 1980s.
Mohamed Akif Emir, “House To Let: Rent, Free of Charge , YC 1987 (NAG 1987-100)
Swift urbanisation process shocked this young generation. Moreover, poor and erratic urban planning by the government generated another problem, namely the presence of urban ghettoes. Mansor Puteh, in his review of the ‘Kembara Seniman Jalanan’ movie writes: “Throughout its 128-minute time frame, the film managed to portray the deprived lives of young people who roamed backstreet lanes in search for food, or for shelter in dilapidated houses to be demolished soon to make way for skyscrapers.” This young generation, who previously drank only Hang Tuah coffee but now Coca Cola and Pepsi, could not avoid urban popular culture. If in villages they listened to the music of keroncong now they frequented rock and heavy metal concerts.
Tumian Tasman, “Kebudayaan XVI” , YC 1989
Due to internal bickering, UMNO or the United Malayan National Organisation, the largest Malay political party, was declared an unlawful society in 1988. The party consequently split into two camps. One of the teams, led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, later founded a new political party Semangat 46. This episode destabilised t later the government for a while. A constitutional crisis involving the issue of the Malay royalty’s legal immunity later rocked the country. Mahathir initiated the move to revise the Constitution of Malaysia with the aim abolish the function of the royal institution that has been established since the Malacca Malay Sultanate. During this period themes related to the conflict of identity, the anxieties over the spread of foreign cultures among the Malays and the mythological text of Malay Annals apparently dominated YC exhibitions.
Zulkifli Yusof, “Tanpa Tajuk” /"Untitled", YC 1988
Idealistic and Multiformat Pluralism
Political stability achieved by the country in the early 1990s had a positive impact on the economy,. In 1991 during the tabling of the Sixth Malaysian Plan the government unveiled its Vision 2020. The government aspiration to turn Malaysia into an industrialised nation finally came to fruition to certain extent as can be seen in its success in establishing larges scale manufacturing industries such as Proton or National Automobile Enterprise an in opening the country to capitalist freemarket economics.
Rapid economic growth enjoyed by the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s put Malaysia as a moderate Islamic, developing nation. It was also taken up as a model for other developing countries, and hence was given the honour to organise diverse important international conference like ASEAN, G15, CHOGM, NAM and OIC.
Apart from that, as Malaysia could provide world-class infrastructure, we too were entrusted to coordinate international sports events, for instance, Commonwealth Games and Grand Prix motor racing.
Malaysia’s open-door policy towards freemarket economy brought in assimilation of foreign cultures. This scenario transformed the lifestyles of the Malaysian society, especially in urban areas. Among other things, it affected the patterns of our food, communication and inter-racial relationship. This cultural assimilation was not a new phenomenon because our region had come into contact over many centuries with Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic influences through commercial transaction and religious propagation.
The coming of postmodern era led us to the concept of Pluralism that celebrates different kinds of ideologies, cultural traits, philosophies of life, systems and theories of art, and so on. Pluralism regards art as something dynamic and always influx in line with current, varied artistic tastes and orientations.
Cultural pluralism in Malaysia art had been discussed previously by Zakaria Ali. He compared the phenomenon with Malaysia favourite dessert Air Batu Campur, ABC for short or mixed ice drink. Various ingredients that go into ABC, namely shaved ice, nuts, corn, grass, jelly, syrup, and milk, symbolise the diversity of Malaysian races and traditions that have been mixed and fused into one unique culture. Although the people here are different in terms of their skin colours, ideologies and faiths, they can live happily together.
Din Omar, “Kepelbagaian” YC 1990 dan “Antara Dua Hidangan” YC 1991(NAG 1992-003)
The 1997 Asian economic crisis brought chaos to the country. When Anwar Ibrahim, then the Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, supported the restructuring plan proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mahathir Mohamed decided to sack him in 1998. Due to Anwar immense influence and credibility not only within Mahathir’s administration but also among the populace, this incident astounded the whole nation and enormously affected the future development of Malaysian politics. Dissatisfied with the seemingly conspiratorial treatment of Anwar, many people, including artists and writers, criticised the government. So furious was Shahnon Ahmad with the situation that he wrote a political satire ‘Shit’ in 1999, making allegorical reference to the ruling establishment. The controversial novel, which stunned Malaysian literature world owing to Shahnon’s rabid used of large intestine and lumps excrement as lead characters, was later banned by the government.
New Paradigm > Regional Inter-disciplinary Electronic Practice
Globalisation process, spurred principally by the advance in telecommunication and computer technology, makes the communication between people living in distant places become faster, easier and more instantaneous. The government, in its aim to leapfrog Malaysia into the information and knowledge age, established the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) in 1996.
The MSC project does not only profit the investors in information-technology based industries that are allowed to occupy the MSC designated zone. The project, moreover, prompt the government to incorporate ICTs in its administration and thus develop its e-government initiatives. The shift into electronic-based administration allows the people to deal with the government sectors via e-mail, e-pay, e-form, and so forth. The population is now indirectly introduced to digital culture, the government devised several public campaigns and programmes such as ‘Celik IT’ and ‘Cintailah IT’. The arrival of digital culture has indeed changed the lifestyles of many Malaysians.
As a reaction to this transformation into digital cultures, Hasnul Jamal Saidon and Nirajan Rajah staged the First Electronic Art Show (FEAS) in 1997 at the National Art Gallery. The objective of the exhibition was to raise an awareness concerning the potential applications of new media not only in art but perhaps also in combination with other fields of creativity. FEAS tried to focus on the fusion between creative and scientific disciplines.
Various contemporary trends and styles have been presented in YC. Young generation artist have incorporated in their art all sorts of new media and genres like multimedia, installation, electronic, video and digital practices. Joseph Tan once mentioned that a call since the 1970s for better interaction among ASEAN artist and better understanding of their cultures is now echoed in the art of the artists of this decade. The vigour to revive indigenous traditions, which began in the 1980s, sparked the awakening of the spirit of nationalism and regionalism. During the 1990s the art became more global. In this new millennium the scope of Malaysian art has been significantly widened.
Faizal Sidik, “Voice Without a Voice: King Rawana as Desperado” YC 2000 dan “Voice Without a Sound: Superpower” YC 2002
Despite moving into the new millennium, the opposition is still strongly critical of the government. The growth of various alternative media in the internet unlocks a new channel of information different from the government-controlled mainstream mass media. This situation, to some extent, resulted in the poor performance of the ruling government during the Tenth General Election in 1999. The popularity of Alliance Party dropped significantly among the Malay-Muslim voters. Owing to this unexpected scenario, Mahathir Mohamed decided to released his premiership and appointed Abdullah Badawi to replace him. Many believed that Abdullah managed to save the Alliance Party and regain the people’s trust as shown in the results of the Eleventh General Election held in 2004. This could be attributed to his promotion of Islam Hadari, or Civilisational Islam, with its emphasis on economic and technological development as well as eradication of corrupt practices.
Art too undergoes as transformation. Art consumers do not only observe objects displayed on gallery and museum walls. They can as well experience the sensual process of artmaking, and receive art knowledge directly from the artists. They can fell as if they are in the same spot as the artists creating the artworks. The concept of artist’s unique ego has been totally shattered. The audience are not anymore impelled to read visual language intensely; they are only required to enjoy the pleasure of aesthetic experience.
During this decade conventional mass media, for instance newspaper, radio and television, are not anymore the main sources of information for the people as they were in the period after independence. Nowdays the people can have access to alternative media that are more reliable and credible. With the advent of broadband which stretches to rural areas, interactive blogs and online television broadcast are preferred by majority of the people than biased mainstream media. The result of the Twelfth General Election in 2008 once again tremendously shocked the government.
…..YC = Contributions of Southeast Asian Local Identities to Global Interaction.
In conclusion, YC must be viewed in a wider framework, in a bigger picture. It must not be seen as an arena to compare who are the best and the worst among young artists. On the other hand, YC should be taken as a compass that can indicate whether our direction is right or wrong. Or it should be regarded as a radar that can detect whether our art is in the same frequency with the rest of the art world. From there also we can know whether our local art can make great contributions into the global interaction, just like Japanese sushi or Italian pizza which have become our staple food nowdays.
In analysing the progress of contemporary art in other countries, I would like to highlight the success of Japanese artist in introducing the concept of superflat which differs from the theory of flat surface expounded by Western art theoreticians. Influenced by the graphics of anime and manga, this superflat concept has been an influential trend at present not only in Japan but also in the West. I do not mean to point out Western artists’ recognition of the idea. What I want to stress, on the contrary, is for us to find our own ways and means to help enrich and aesthetic legacies that we can share with other people in other parts of the world.
If we scrutinise a billboard advertisement for a well-known bank with many branches in Southeast Asian region including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, we notice all the flags of those countries have white and red stripes. When we look at another billboard advertisement for the same bank, we realise that those countries have the same ‘king of fruits’, namely durian. Therefore, whatever similarities we possess we should share them with other Southeast Asian countries in the spirit of regionalism, and also with other people in other continents for the sake of our own regional arts an cultures.
The period from 1980s to 1990s and though to the new millennium is the epoch that truly guides the trajectory of Southeast Asian art. If we observe closely we realise that our local art during that period was in fact moving towards a right direction. The 1979 ‘Rupa dan Jiwa’ exhibition, curated by Syed Ahmad Jamal in response to the 1971 NCP, together with the catalogue published in conjunction with the show, had served as catalyst for young artist participating in YC to rediscover their identities. As written by Setiawan Sebana: “The scenario of contemporary art in the Southeast Asian region points to its movement to develop a new awareness, which in turn forms a new identity for the art of this region. There is a strong aspiration to represent the cultural existence of this region in the arena of increasingly globalised world culture.”
*Translated by Nurhanem Khairuddin from the essay “Revolusi Pengalaman Seni, Sosio-Budaya dan Politik Malaysia Menerusi Bakat Muda Sezaman 1970 an hingga Kini”