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A curator and an art blog managing editor share their views on the contemporary art scene and the exciting things that are happening in the local art market outside the gallery system

Malaysia’s multicultural, multifaceted society has created a contemporary arts scene that is as diverse as it comes. Over the past few years, many new art galleries, art spaces and art collectives have sprung up. All manner of artists are creating different sorts of works every day, and their approaches are enormously diverse. Each artist in his own way reaches out to different segments of society, presenting his unique perspective on things. Simon Soon, freelance curator and managing editor of art blog Arteri, and Tan Sei Hon, curator at a national arts institution, share their views on the current art scene here, what’s distinctive about the works produced by our artists, and where art in Malaysia is heading.

Elaine Lau: How would you describe the Malaysian contemporary art scene?

Tan Sei Hon: I felt that the late 1990s and early 2000s were more exciting. There were seriously experimental works [and a] spare no expense kind of attitude. Later things slowed down a bit. And now when you talk about contemporary art, it’s mostly about paintings, stuff that is quite trendy and saleable. I feel there’s a lethargy, that the energy is kind of down. Those who can sell remain, they prevail. But those who can’t, some who did some really kick-ass work but couldn’t sustain themselves, they kind of dropped out.

Simon Soon: Basically part of the reason why [conceptual artist] Sharon Chin, [curator] Eva McGovern and I started Arteri is because we noticed there has been an increase in exhibitions and art activities in Malaysia. Whether the quality is there is a whole different thing, but we felt there was a need to cover this sort of thing. On top of this, the 2000-2010 decade is very much an Internet decade. The use of Internet has become so widespread that a lot of artists have also adopted the Internet as a platform to either promote their works or to play with the medium. And it is this area that we are quite interested in promoting and exploring. So in a way, in one sense Sei Hon is right, the contemporary art market does indeed focus on paintings, but there are a lot of exciting things happening outside of the gallery system. That is what we’re trying to highlight.

Sei Hon, this lethargy you were talking about, can you elaborate?
Tan: Put it this way, it’s like the underground music scene. In the beginning you have a lot of bands. Those that really stand out get signed up with a recording company. The rest of them either fizzle out or do their own thing, or it becomes just a hobby. The bands that are signed up are basically the ones who are pushing it.

Soon: I’d like to add that the current painting trend is either social-political commentary or very metaphorical or allegorical. This sort of work is very trendy now, but there are other ways of thinking about political art or how art and politics intersect.

An example of this, which I think is more interesting, would be the Facebook group started by Ronnie Khoo, What Would Zaid Hold. [It is] also a creative exercise that is so much more relevant, so much sharper, critical and to the point as opposed to dealing with it behind paintings or animal figures which may allude to some political figure.

Tan: Speaking about this online space where artists put up their works and stuff like that, it’s interesting if you look back to 1997/98. Hasnul Saidon and Niranjan Rajah came up with this project together called E-Art Asean Online, to document works using non-traditional media, especially electronic media, starting in Malaysia and around the region. This initiative was undertaken before Institut Teknologi Bandung in Indonesia started aggressively going into the area of new media. I think we in Malaysia more or less took the first step, but over the years there was no real follow-up. Things kind of went flat, which is sad. It partly has to do with the fact that new media, installation art, anything that’s non-traditional, not 2D and experimental, it’s very hard to get people to buy or support it.
Simon Soon, freelance curator and managing editor of art blog Arteri. Photos by Kenny Yap
Would that be the reason why the more well-known artists are painterly sort of artists, because conceptual works don’t pay?
Soon: Right now it’s safe to say it depends on which audience you’re talking to, who you’re posing that question to. If you’re someone young who has been overseas, your list of favourite artists would be the more conceptual bunch. Whereas if you ask a collector, he would name traditional artists. I think the Malaysian art scene has grown big enough to have all these different pockets. It’s not as small as we think it is, which is great.

It’s often said that if you want to know what the people of a country are feeling, look at its contemporary art. Would you say our artists are producing critical works that reflect social concerns?
Tan: If an artist paints a picture commenting on certain issues and it’s displayed in a gallery and it’s for sale, and the money doesn’t go to the target audience or the people that we’re supposed to be helping to save or the people that you’re commenting on, how does it reflect on the artist or country?

You can have an exhibition for charity, and the money will go to, for example, the Palestinian children in refugee camps. The painting submitted for this exhibition is, say, of a flower. By looking at this piece of work you wouldn’t know the artist’s political stand but by his gesture ... it’s the action that counts, not so much how the work looks. You can package image and rebelliousness and all that, but at the end of the day it’s the action that counts. If you’re an activist you’ll be judged as an activist. If you’re an artist concerned with issues, you don’t have to paint the issues or whatever you’re addressing.

There are artists who do that. If you look at Wong Hoy Cheong, Liew Kung Yu, Nirmala Shanmugalingam, quite a handful of them are very vocal and blatant in the sense of addressing the issues. But I think it’s very hard to say ‘yes, Malaysian artists are concerned about issues and all that’ just from looking at their work. There are a lot of traditional, old-fashioned-type artists who contribute without painting the issues.

Soon: Going back to your question, what I understand is whether or not Malaysian contemporary art itself reflects the social makeup of Malaysia. I’m going to say yes to that. Contemporary Malaysian art is quite fragmented — different artists come from different communities, backgrounds and classes, speaking different languages. It reflects how multicultural Malaysia is. Their concerns, their aesthetics, their style and the issues they bring out also reflect where they come from, what context they’re operating within.

Can you name some artists who you think are producing really good works?
Soon: I’m very nepotistic. I work with a lot of people I like. I really like Best Art Show in the Univers as a collective, as they inject humour and a sort of what the ****ness that really reflects what Internet and YouTube culture is. They create humorous works that build a new audience for contemporary art because they bring in people I didn’t know could possibly appreciate art. I find working with them really refreshing.

I really like [the group behind] PopTeeVee; what they’re doing is really great. They’re one of the first few groups that really understand social media platforms and how to use them, how to use these channels to seed out information to Malaysians. On more conventional art, I like Sharon Chin’s work a lot. It’s because I work closely with her but also she’s my sparring partner for ideas.
Tan Sei Hon, curator at a national arts institution
Tan: Actually, I wanted to say Sharon as well. She’s very interesting, very committed. I’m also interested in two young emerging collectives, Sebiji Padi and Findars. There’s room for them to develop and grow, and even though they’ve put up a lot of shows with paintings they are also interested in exploring different media. They don’t see themselves as painters. These guys are young, Net-savvy, and quite vocal about what they’re dissatisfied with. Findars is contemporary in the sense of the styles, images, and subject matter — there’s a lot of pop surrealism.

I also like Liew Kung Yu for his sense of humour, and Wong Hoy Cheong, who is very cerebral and also very sentimental.

Regionally, how do we compare with countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines that are producing really good works?
Soon: Because we are a Muslim country, we don’t drink enough like in the Philippines. (Laughs) In Indonesia, each creative city has a much stronger sense of communalism within the artistic community and they also have a bigger arts community. That’s why when they hold events there, it seems like there’s a lot more going on, a lot more energy, a lot more buzz — the support network is a lot better than here. However, I don’t think we are that far behind. I still think there’s a lot of really interesting stuff in Malaysia ... We have a lot of stuff going on here, we just don’t have the community vibe.

Tan: These countries you’ve mentioned, if you look back, Indonesia has had a tradition that began with the Dutch colonisation. I don’t know about the Thais, and if you look at the Philippines, they’ve got the Spanish. Malaysia, we don’t have that long a tradition.

Soon: That’s a really interesting point you’ve brought up. Because we don’t have so much of this tradition, our modern art, if you look at people like Latiff Mohidin and Ibrahim Hussein, had this Southeast Asian consciousness when they were painting. Even Redza Piyadasa was big on the idea of the Pan-Asian aesthetic. This sort of post-national idea is not so prevalent in other countries with such a strongly rooted local tradition which they are obviously proud of, hence they’ve become a bit more insular. Whereas in Malaysia we don’t have this historical weight, we’re more open to looking at the bigger region and trying to find a connection.

The artists you mentioned are established, veteran artists. Do artists today still have that regional outlook?
Soon: Yes, but it depends on the groups. For example, Matahati has been bringing young artists to Jogjakarta, and that forms a sort of network. SicKL has been liasing with Green Papaya Art Projects in the Philippines, doing network exchange. Rimbun Dahan’s three-month residency programme has been bringing in Southeast Asian artists in dance and contemporary art. Valentine Willie Fine Art has been showing Southeast Asian art quite a lot. There are a lot of these cross-country exchanges and collaborations going on.

Is this what’s distinctive about our art scene, that it’s varied and not so insular?
Soon: Whether it’s distinctive or not, I can’t say, but it is quite varied.

What then is distinctive about our art scene?
Tan: I don’t think we strive to be that international or universal. We do inject local realities, local elements and forms. I think that works well because, of course, the local collectors will buy and even non-locals would be interested. Because if you’re going to be painting the same thing that’s available overseas, and they have a tradition longer than ours, then what’s the point? A lot of our artists try to infuse local elements. That’s something I’m quite proud to highlight. They’re not like some of the Vietnamese artists who are making copies of old masters and selling them.

Soon: The artists that interest me are those that look beyond Malaysia as a country. They’re able to understand how this piece of land is part of this larger Nusantara region, and the pre-colonial Malaya is part of this maritime network. Because there’s this history of relationships with other countries, we have a shared heritage that can be explored, that can be looked at again. A lot of artists who look beyond the immediate rhetoric of what Malaysia is, I think they’re doing more interesting work that you don’t see in a lot of other countries. I think it’s a unique aspect of emerging art here.

Where do you see contemporary art in Malaysia heading?
Tan: I think it’ll be interesting coming from an institution point of view. There will be more experimentation if there is support from the establishment. Money has been pumped in and new competitions set up, stuff like that.

Soon: It’s hard for me to predict what’s going to happen, but I think one of the reasons why we invested so much time in trying to put up Arteri is that we aspire to create a larger audience, a community who engages with one another and to grow the audience pool for the arts. I really don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s uncertainty for us as well.

At what stage is the Malaysian art scene now?
Soon: In some ways, in the adolescent stage, still trying to figure out things for itself, different people trying to make things work using different approaches. The optimistic thing is that there’s a lot more going out. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing, but it means more people have the opportunity to encounter art — this can only be a good thing in the long run.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 809, Jun 7-13, 2010.

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