Contemporary art is supposed to get in your face and elicit strong emotion.
JUST when one felt it was safe to go back into an art gallery, the abrupt removal of two works at the Bakat Muda Sezaman (Young Contemporaries) 2013 prize presentation ceremony on Feb 12 leapt out of the woodwork, sexing up an otherwise comparatively ho-hum edition of the awards.
The “offending” works were Cheng Yen Pheng’s Alksnaabknuaunmo (acrylic on canvas) and Izat Arif Saiful Bahrin’s rack of T-shirts emblazoned with the Arabic words “Fa Qaf”, which is also its title. In English phonetics, it takes on a scatological sound and slant.
On the night of the prize-giving, Cheng staged a protest in front of the blank wall where her work had been hanging at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) since October. She kept reiterating and repeating (with a rather tired-sounding salesman’s pitch) to initially startled onlookers as she held up a pamphlet folded to a picture of her work that, “This is my painting. Last few days still here. Now no more.”
With the testosterone-charged clusters of condom-like neon balloons, the work looked to me to be more erotic than anything political, but it took on a new dimension and trajectory when she sprayed the graffiti “ABU=ASHES” onto it during the judges’ interview, a ploy perhaps to circumvent an outright rejection. She had claimed later that her use of the “stirring slogan” was purely because it had traction, but her act had transformed her work from sexual innuendoes about male power and chauvinism into political Viagra, a political statement.
She could have painted an idyllic kampung scene for that matter. The message of the graffiti had become The Thing, with the painting becoming a carrier, and her “protest” a ritual to memorialise its absence. She first showed works with similarly rendered balloon-ey images at her solo exhibition, PRICKED! at the Wei-Ling Gallery’s contemporary exhibition in 2012.
In the case of Izat, it was cheeky of him to use the ubiquitous T-shirt as a canvas to communicate the message. But even Arabic words in a non-religious context could become a provocative barb what with the festering kalimah Allah issue lately and the banning of J. Anu’s I Is For Idiot last year. (Anu’s work, from his Alphabet Soup series that has been documented into a book, was removed from the M50 Selamat Hari Malaysia exhibition last year at MAPS Publika, Kuala Lumpur, purportedly for insulting Islam, but the artist has since been cleared.)
But the NVAG has been known to be inclusive of dissenting voices. In May 1992, the Malaysia-British Association took down Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam’s work, Friends In Need (1986), but the institution, then known as the National Art Gallery, duly reinstated it. The work railed against Western imperialism in Africa (specifically apartheid) with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan cast as villains in the Purwa wayang kulit repertoire.
But these double belated censorships have cast an ominous pall on the Young Contemporaries (BMS) awards. Such is the nature of the art of the young, oft associated with angst and aggression, and the nature of “Now Contemporary Art”, which is unapologetically provocative, dissenting, off-putting, scatological and In-Your-Face!