Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ghosts of a nation: Presenting 'freaky' art

Tan Zi Hao's Sejarah Melayu: Retention and Erosion at the Bank of a Running River explores how something can be both a cure and a poison.

Tan Zi Hao's Sejarah Melayu: Retention and Erosion at the Bank of a Running River explores how something can be both a cure and a poison.

Two artists ponder on disturbances – past, present and make-believe.

IT was on a train bound for Bangkok – and in the toilet , no less – that this graphic designer/illustrator found himself dreaming up a world where strange characters drift. They are naked, graceful, and from the looks of it, seem to have a tendency to contort themselves in mildly suggestive poses.

Jun Kit’s “freaky ink drawings”, as he calls them, are of a make-believe world where these curious characters roam free.

“They don’t really wear clothes, they are comfortable with the landscape around them, and don’t invent or build ‘man-made’ things. They are kind of natural, semula-jadi, like animals, free-spirited, and sort of dorky-looking with gentle souls,” he says.

Jun Kit is no stranger to the lands that stretch out beyond the train window on such journeys – a vast expanse of dense foliage – but this time it was different.

“Through that tiny opening of the toilet window, everything seemed more ‘real’ and crazy. Whizzing past me were sounds of insects, of leaves rustling madly, wind and wood and metal creating violent tangles of noise ... but in the distance further away from the tracks were images of calm,” the 30-year-old recalls.

Jun Kit's ink drawing, Hidung Disebalik Kekwa.
Jun Kit’s ink drawing, Hidung Disebalik Kekwa.

When evening shadows cast long shadows on the ground, he imagined what sort of beings may be inhabiting these landscapes. “They could be ghosts, or people-like creatures from a parallel universe, or things that cannot be seen, benign and playful creatures that co-exist peacefully with the land,” adds Jun Kit. 

These are among the works on display at Gangguan, an art exhibition presented by art consultancy/project platform OUR ArtProjects. Taking its cue from the disturbances (gangguan) found in our everyday lives, the exhibition at 67 Tempinis Gallery in Kuala Lumpur showcases drawings, videos and installations by two artists – Jun Kit and Tan Zi Hao, also a graphic designer by training, who is currently pursuing his masters in international relations.

Whimsy aside, Jun Kit relates that while working on his ink drawings, he pondered on our landscape, both literally and politically.

“I thought about what it means to kacau or intervene, why some people in society are considered a nuisance to the government, why some of us think the government is interrupting our lives, preventing us from living the life we want freely ... or simply how some mountains along the North-South highway are balding as the years pass,” he says.

His linoleum print series devoted to Mantin (in Negri Sembilan, where he grew up) is a tribute to his now “disrupted origins.”

“The series comprise four images with quintessentially Mantin-esque elements in it, meant to be like memories set in stone – except these are set in block print. During the process of carving the shapes out, I listened to my grandmother beside me talk. The prints, simple as they may be, remind me of a time when things were simpler,” says Jun Kit, who is now based in Kuala Lumpur.

Seeking identity: Soil and painted concrete fragments collected from various demolished sites come together in one of Tan Zi Hao's works from his Extraterrestrial Solids series.
Seeking identity: Soil and painted concrete fragments collected from various demolished sites come together in one of Tan Zi Hao's works from his Extraterrestrial Solids series.

If Jun Kit’s works could be considered whimsical and sentimental (his Mantin series is the one closest to his heart, reminiscent of growing up in the 1980s; of school holidays, striking rubber seeds on the living room floor to create sparks and collecting chicken eggs), Tan goes down the path of a hard-hitting political, and almost philosophical, commentary.

“In this exhibition, I deal predominantly with two subject matters – soil and language. Both seem to me to be the determining components in Malaysia’s cultural politics,” says the 24-year-old.

While soil quite easily relates, symbolically, to constructions such as “nation”, “belonging”, or “Bumiputra” (son of the soil), Tan shares that it is significant to him also because its mixture of diverse minerals, rocks and organic matter, is a complexity we cannot see with the naked eye.

“It is a medium that comprises living and decaying organisms; the space where living begins and ends; the space of germination and recuperation, as well as their opposites. The dialectics and contradiction between living and decay are something we tend to overlook in our discourse on ‘nationality’ and identity,” he says.

As for language, Tan offers two works that highlight the absurdity and inevitability of multilingualism and the primacy of a national language.

“In Malaysia, one might tend to perceive language as a standalone and exclusive ethnocentric entity sufficient to represent one’s identity when, within a language itself, there is an amount of loanwords as well as foreign influences. Can one really claim ownership to a langauge, something that is historically complicated and fluid?” he questions, adding that the same argument can be extended to soil.

Tan explores the migratory nature of Malay identity, culture and the community in Sejarah Melayu: Retention And Erosion At The Bank Of A Running River – an installation crafted out of drip stands, intravenous infusion sets, pots and soil.

“This is a clinical representation of the Malay River, the running water simultaneously a cure and a poison to the river bank, for the water retains the soil moisture yet leads to its potential erosion, ” elaborates Tan.

In the spirit of Gangguan, Tan brings to attention that the nature of being disrupted is bi or multi-lateral, and reciprocal.

And the forces that compel our actions – are they accidental or coincidental? How should one approach these forces in a diverse community such as in Malaysia?

“The artworks do not provide an answer, but they are responses. The more these issues are highlighted and clarified, the more they become problematic, incorrigible and incomphrehensible. It is of such nuance that my works intend to remind,” Tan concludes.

Gangguan, presented by OURArtProjects, is on at 67 Tempinis Gallery (No.67, Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur) till March 22. The gallery is open from Monday to Saturday (12 to 6pm daily) and Sunday by appointment only. For more information, visit or email

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , gangguan , jun kit , tan zi hao , our artprojects


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