Two artists explore civilisation and what it means to them through intriguing motifs.
HISTORY is replete with the high dramas of societies and kingdoms, played out in the pursuit of power. Much is gained but much more sacrificed at the altar of power. This has always been a part of civilisation, one of the main chords in this chaotic concerto that we call human history.
Using this notion as a foundation, two artists with distinct styles took to canvas to produce an illuminating series of works. Called Civilization, the exhibition at HOM Art Trans gallery in Kuala Lumpur showcases 13 art works by Kedahan Ng Swee Keat and Indonesian Nugroho Heri Cahyono.
“Both of them deal with subject matter related to power in Eastern and Western ideas and ideals about life, and ways of achieving it – that is, the foundation of civilisation,” says Bayu Utomo, gallery director and one of the local art scene’s leading lights himself.
He adds, “This traditional versus the modern, with their inherent contradictions, provides interesting comparison for reflection, and we hope the fortuitous pairing complements and enhances the powerful messages in the works of both artists.”
What makes this exhibition refreshing is not so much the subject matter, though, but how the artists chose to interpret it.
To convey his interpretation, Ng chose one of the great beauties from ancient Oriental history, Consort Yu, the concubine in the famous Peking opera that is referenced in Chen Kaige’s 1993 Palme d’Or-winning movie, Farewell My Concubine. Around her, Ng conjures flashes of love, intrigue and death. The close-ups of her porcelain face with her deep, intense gaze are simply mesmerising.
“When I was a small boy, I used to follow my grandmother to watch Chinese opera and one of the famous ones I watched was about Xiang Yu, the Hegemon-King of Western Chu in ancient China and his loyal consort, Yu.
“Nowadays, it is a rarity to see such performances, and the same goes for wayang kulit (shadow theatre). That is why I decided to use these two elements in my paintings. Apart from nostalgia, I also wanted to show the amalgamation of different races and culture in our country,” says the 35-year-old Ng, who was one of the winners of the 2011 Malaysia Emerging Artist Award that is organised biennially by HOM Trans Art and Galeri Chandan.
Besides the haunting countenance of Consort Yu and the deep red and amber that seem to burst forth from every painting, there is something else that makes Ng’s paintings arresting: Cast upon his muse’s face, in an eerie and intimate manner, are shadows of wayang kulit characters.
The full-time artist from Alor Setar says he chose these two elements as both Chinese opera and the wayang kulit offer heightened drama, and intrigue and mischief roam carelessly through them, much as they do in most political arenas.
“Initially, the idea was sparked by the current political tit-for-tat between opposing parties and their supporters in the country. However, it developed into something deeper.
“I feel that, in general, all these power struggles that are being played out now are like the performances in a Chinese opera or wayang kulit,” explains Ng, a participant of the gallery’s Adopted Residency programme last year.
Ng’s sentiments are clearly evident in Life Is Like A Drama 6 – Old House. The painting depicts Consort Yu holding what appears to be a directive written on a flag. In the background, a bulldozer is seen demolishing an old building.
“This is to depict the Jalan Sultan incident where the tenants were asked to leave the premises and whatever that happened after that,” explains Ng, referring to commercial properties along Jalan Sultan in KL that were acquired for demolition to make room for the Klang Valley MRT last year.
Heri (as he is called), on the other hand, chose to highlight old steam trains, at once bringing to mind the Industrial Revolution and, consequently, the subjugation and sacrifice of human lives by colonial powers. Interestingly, in the place of regular train coaches, though, some of the locomotives are pulling houses and buildings.
Heri, who was part of HOM’s South-East Asia Art Group Exchange Residency (Sager) programme, drew his inspiration from the train station next to his studio in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
“After I moved my studio next to the train station, I was reminded of my childhood, when I wanted to ride the train. My memories of this are somewhat romanticised, and that led me to explore the idea of trains.
“I looked at how the colonial powers used trains as a means of expediting development during the Industrial Revolution,” explains the 32-year-old.
Interestingly, all the steam trains in Heri’s art works are replete with skull motifs. This is an allusion to the thousands who were subjugated, exploited and sacrificed in the name of progress.
The piece Dahulu, Sekarang Dan Masa Yang Akan Datang Kita Tetap Kaya Raya (Before, Now And In The Future, We Will Always Be Wealthy) depicts an old steam engine on a railway track pulling a goods train. Scattered across the painting are mirror images of Indonesian words like makmur (prosperous) and sentosa (peaceful).
“Progress is supposed to make a country wealthy, now and forevermore. But sadly, that is not the reality in Indonesia. This is signified in the mirror images of these words about prosperity and peace,” Heri says, adding that he uses the print-making technique of woodcuts to make his works.
Another of Heri’s pieces speaks about the pursuit of one’s identity: To Enlightenment does not offer up its message as clearly as the others at first glance. But should you turn your fleeting look into a long and thoughtful gaze, things will suddenly fall into perspective.
The painting is simple: A grey steam train adorned with the same skull motifs is on a track heading somewhere. But where there should have been land beneath the tracks, lies what looks like a chessboard, and the sky is adorned with flowers, a common Indonesian motif. A juxtaposition emerges: the old and the new. The chessboard speaks of strategies.
“The painting speaks about the past life and the new in the light of modernisation. And the train is moving forward, trying to find the connection between the old and the new,” Heri says.
It is always interesting to look at the world through the eyes of another, especially those of artists. And when you actually gaze long and hard, and open up your soul to the art works of these brilliant artists, you will begin to see what they saw and perhaps gain a better understanding of civilisation – and maybe, just maybe, even find your self in it.
> Civilization is on until Feb 22 at HOM Art Trans gallery (6A, Jalan Cempaka 16, Taman Cempaka, Ampang, Selangor). Opening hours are 11am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 1pm to 6pm on Saturdays; the gallery is closed on Sundays and public holidays. For more information, visit homarttrans.blogspot.com.