Khamis, 29 Mac 2018

House of Love


Elena Koshy, 'House of Love', New Sunday Times (Sunday Vibes) Art,
 March 25, 2018, pg 12-13.

THE installation of thousands of tiny scaled-down houses piled in the centre of the lobby stops me in my tracks. It’s not exactly what I’d expected to see.

But perhaps, it’s enough of a show-stopper for anyone who’s stepping into the National Art Gallery to anticipate what else this behemoth building can possibly contain. Palestinian artist Bashir Makhoul’s Shift explores the ideas of displacement — something he’s well acquainted with, as a “Palestinian in exile”.
The houses, reminiscent of fragile tin shacks in shanty towns — often built and inhabited by migrants — depict the precariousness of life as an oft-unwelcomed resident in a country not his/her own.
There’s so much to absorb at the Kuala Lumpur Biennale and curator Faizal Sidik agrees. “Most biennales held around the world revolve around lofty themes that the normal man in the street wouldn’t be able to identify with. We wanted to be different.”
By being “different”, he tells me the theme of Belas or Be Loved revolves around the unifying feeling of love, compassion, pity and empathy. Something every Malaysian can identify with. “The concept originated from Professor Hasnul Jamal Saidon, a prolific artist and former member of the National Art Institute board,” reveals Faizal, before adding that the current climate in Malaysia is a result of the eroding unity and the familial ties once shared by all Malaysians regardless of race. “It seems we’ve forgotten our humanity,” says Faizal drily. “We wanted this exhibition to showcase works that would evoke those feelings again.”
The arts, Faizal continues, have the power to cultivate hope, to engender and communicate solidarity, and to help transform current issues into hopeful reminders that beauty and good still exist, “... so Belas/Be Loved was birthed out of those concerns.”
The Kuala Lumpur Biennale is the first of its kind in Malaysia, celebrating 100 prolific local artists including Awang Damit Ahmad, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Bibi Chew Chon Bee, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Jeganthan Ramachandran, Hayati Mukhtar, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Shooshie Sulaiman, Noor Azizan Paiman, H. H. Lim, K. Thangarajoo, Lisa Foo, Abdul Muid Abdul Latif, Saiful Razman, Anniketyni Madian and many more. The Biennale also includes the works of 11 international artists from across the continents. “It’s the largest exhibition of its kind in this nation,” confirms Faizal.
“It’s pronounced bi yan naa lay,” explains Faizal straight-faced when I pronounce it wrong for the umpteenth time. Italian for “biennial” or “every other year”, it’s a term that’s most commonly used in the art world for large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions. The term was first used by the Venice Biennale which was held in 1885.
The art exhibition in Venice immediately became one of the most important exhibitions in the world — a prestige which maintained to this day. The ability of La Biennale to anticipate new trends in art while at the same time to present works and artists of every period, is undisputable.
Countless masters have been invited to present their work at the Venice Biennale; important critics and art historians curated the main exhibitions; an expansive list of important figures in the history of 20th century art have contributed to generate and develop the pluralism of voices in the art scene, which has been the central character of La Biennale di Venezia since its inception.
The first Venice Biennale introduced another key innovation, one that has persisted to this day: biennials are forms of cultural exchange between nations, enacted at a regional centre; specifically, they encourage negotiation between local and international art worlds, conducted at distances within both. “It puts the artists on the world map, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do with this Biennale,” confides Faizal.
“The Venice Biennale is one of most important contemporary art showcases in the world. It’s like the Olympics of the art world!” he quips before sharing that one of the main objectives of the Kuala Lumpur Biennale is to drive the development at international level of the country’s contemporary art industry. “We have incredibly talented artists on par with international artists and this Biennale aims to promote that fact while elevating the nation’s creative industry to be competitive with the global creative industry.”
“Would you like a tour?” asks Faizal with a smile. The excursion into the cavernous gallery doesn’t disappoint. Pioneer Malaysian artist and former Royal Painter of Johor, O. Don Peris’ stark Portrait of My Wife In Her Wedding Dress (1933) takes centre-stage circled by son Eric Peris’ breathtaking photographs displayed in light boxes of his mother’s flowers from her garden. This photographic series titled Flower Does Not Talk showcases Eric’s tribute to his mother in conjunction with her 99th birthday. A small garden left by his mother serves as an inspiration for Eric to express his love for his mother who had left an indelible mark in his life.
A series of laser-etched straw mats with haunting images hanging at the gallery comprise Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam’s Kalpana Warriors — a tribute to Kalpana Chakma, an indigenous rights activist and feminist from Bangladesh who has been missing for more than two decades. The process involved in creating the images were rooted to the everyday realities of the hill people, the Paharis, whom Kalpana championed.
It was often said that Kalpana owned no furniture but slept on the floor on a straw mat. “Rather than print on conventional photographic media, we decided we’d use the material that was part of Pahari daily lives. The straw mat became our canvas. The fire that had been used to raze Pahari homes also needed to be represented, so a laser beam was used to burn the straw, etching with flames, the images of rebellion,” writes Shahidul of his work.
Dirgahayu Negaraku by Mohamad Ismadi Sallehudin features a striking installation of our Jalur Gemilang using discarded planks, some of which he had taken from his ancestral home. The installation, created out of wood, metal and gold is his attempt to make the audience “recognise the importance of our national unity.” He writes that various sizes of the planks reflect the multiracial nature of Malaysian society. “Whether we realise it or not, each one of us, regardless of our racial, ancestral, generational and age backgrounds, plays an important role in building and protecting the nation.”
It was easy to overlook Shin Pui San’s miniature art installations entitled Not So Far Away. “Take a look at this!” Faizal beckons, leading me to the corner of the gallery where tucked between walls lies a tiny lit up piece of square. Something I’d have easily overlooked had he not called my attention to it. He hands me a lighted magnifying glass and I gasp in amazement. The micro diorama of a kampung house so carefully etched and constructed swims into view. “Tiny art can draw us in closer, so that we really pay attention,” remarks Faizal. “If you’re walking up some streets, may you walk slowly, be observant and understand that history need not be prestigious. Otherwise you will miss them again,” urges Shin.
A breathtaking painting by Tan Wei Kheng entitled Penan Hunter depicts a portrait of an old Penan Man with haunting eyes squatting in his kitchen. The painting highlights the artist’s concern about the plight of the gentle Penans and their uncertain future in light of illegal logging and poaching that have affected their livelihood.
Mahen Bala’s 222KM comprising a collection of 40 contact prints, is a product of his ambitious Project Kita, a platform he started to document the history of our railways. For more than a year, he traversed across the country photographing railway stations, recording memories and documenting the lives of the men and women of our railway lines. The striking monochromatic pictures feature original station signboards arranged in sequence from Gemas to Johor Bahru while the second set below showcases familiar nostalgic-evoking railway scenes that have formed part of the Malaysian everyday life.

“We made it easier for the audience to connect and engage with the artworks and installations by dividing the main theme into five sub-themes,” explains Faizal. The sub-themes, he adds, are Nature, Animal, Heritage, Humanity and Memory and Spirituality. “The logo as you see it is in the form of a lotus flower — the symbol of love, purity and spiritual awakening,” he points out, adding that as the flower blooms, it opens up to five petals which comprise the five sub-themes that make up Belas/Be Loved.
Where many biennales around the world have had overinflated or inexplicable curatorial themes, it’s easy to argue that an oversimplified theme like Belas/Be Loved runs the risk of seeming too obvious. But as Faizal says, the gallery had wanted to bridge the gap between the lofty art circles and the Malaysian public. I have to confess I didn’t see everything. “It takes about two hours to cover the entire exhibition,” Faizal tells me with a grin. Nevertheless, I was impressed with the selected works I saw. But really, any large show truly comes down to the works that speak to you.
The exhibition offers visitors some spectacle, some immersive works and plenty of opportunities for quiet reflection. No two people see the same Biennale, given the expansive exhibits. The Kuala Lumpur Biennale is momentary, fragmentary, a hope of chance sights that will hold fast in memory. And perhaps in the hearts of Malaysians stepping into the hallowed halls of the National Art Gallery.
Just be sure to bring a pair of comfortable shoes.