If you want to see everything in this Making Space: We Are Where We Aren’t exhibition, you will need to go traipsing around the city in search of fictional creatures.
Yes, you read that right – with a map as your guide, you will go a-hunting for illustrations of weird and wonderful animals that exist only because of human civilisation.
And when you find them, located in nine different public spaces around the city (excluding one in the gallery), there will be a short story accompanying each one – in English, Malay and Burmese.
Local Fauna, which features storytelling and street art, by writer Zedeck Siew, artist Sharon Chin and Myanmar-born poet/artist Maung Day, is one of the eight works at Making Space, an exhibition curently showing at Sekeping Sin Chew Kee in Kuala Lumpur.
The Local Fauna posters will be placed around the Jalan Pudu/Kota Raya area (in Kuala Lumpur).
“Hopefully these posters will look a little slapped on – like Room To Let ads,” says Siew, who is the writer of Local Fauna.
He comments that such pasted-on visuals and information offer a parallel and contrasting narrative to the meaning of the city – an unsanctioned, unauthorised view.
“After all, what do you have on the flip side? Big billboards, government advertisements, sponsored graffiti,” he adds.
As to the inspiration behind his animal tales, Siew started writing because he was interested in spaces we give animals.
“They occupy very particular spaces in our imagination,” he notes, explaining that we use animals as metaphors or tools to teach moral lessons.
“The squirrel is a fool that is asking for trouble; the dog is unclean; the snail is going extinct, a victim of human greed. We give them these meanings. But of course, they are also just animals: creatures with specific diets and morphology and habitat, occupying niches and exhibiting behaviour that don’t necessarily fit in the meanings we’ve given them. Animals make space for themselves to live in,” he elaborates.
That’s just one of the highlights of Making Space, a multi-disciplinary show curated by Ong Jo-Lene, which is on at Sekeping Sin Chew Kee (a 1920s residential building).
The exhibition logo presents the exhibition title as M_KNG SP_C_, prompting the reader to fill in the blanks himself (or herself).
This decision is more content-driven than style-driven, hinting at Ong’s curatorial approach for the exhibition in its entirety.
“Making Space comprises a congregation of works that questions privatising space as a means of freedom. But the concept of the show revolves around providing people with tools to think about the topic, or to spark discussions around the theme of privatising space,” says Ong, 34, who curated the last two MAP Arts Festivals in Kuala Lumpur, and the PUBLIKArt series of public art commissions under the direction of labDNA’s Nani Kahar.
Striking out as an independent curator, the Ipoh-born Ong participated in the 8th Berlin Biennale Young Curators Workshop and The Japan Foundation’s Run & Learn: New Curatorial Constellations last year. Making Space is her curatorial debut as an independent curator.
“It doesn’t tell you what to think – you can fill in the blanks yourself. We all live in this place, and the spaces are ours to make of together,” says Ong about this interactive exhibition.
Making Space was developed through The Japan Foundation’s Run & Learn short residency programme held in Japan last year, with participating curators from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.
The residency programme included a workshop in Tokyo, led by Mori Art Museum chief curator Mami Kataoka, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Yukie Kamiya and The Japan Foundation exhibition coordinator Yasuko Furuichi.
Besides Ong, two other Malaysians were shortlisted for this programme after an open call for curatorial proposals falling under the theme of Future Curation Now. Lee Cheah Ni and Harold Eswar are curating Re:engage: The People’s Court in People’s Court, Penang (till Feb 15) and Being MAPHILINDO in Sabah Art Gallery, Kota Kinabalu (Feb 7 to 22), respectively.
“A big part of curating has to do with thinking about art in an intellectual, critical way. It has a lot to do with concepts and ideas. But this workshop in Japan also taught us the practical side of things,” shares Ong.
Among other things, she says, the workshop addressed the importance of the curator conveying his or her ideas effectively to the audience.
Making Space is an exhibition that is meant to nudge, to prod a little, to encourage and stimulate thought and discussion revolving around privatising of space and freedom.
“To understand the world around us, we categorise – and often fall into convenient or sweeping dichotomies: savage/civilised, backward/modern, male/female, private/public,” she writes in the exhibition guide.
Does a space privatised necessarily translate to increased freedom? Who sets these rules? What happens when there are more privatised than common or public spaces? Are there other options to privatisation of space?
“I want to be able to say that my work as a curator lies in the in-between spaces; the spaces between the works and the theme that I set up,” says Ong. “And it is in these spaces, these gaps, where there is room for the viewer’s imagination to run wild.”
Inevitably, this theme extends into the boundaries of behaviour and conformity: what can we do – or rather, what do we think we can or should do – in public spaces, where we are open to the scrutiny of others.
How does moving into a private space change this, and why? When does public become private, and vice versa?
Judging by the works by eight collectives/artists in this exhibition, the questions raised will no doubt be as diverse as they come: Kontak!’s Peeterlizer is an experiment involving human waste fertilising, carried out first behind closed doors, then presented in the open (the backlane of Sekeping Sin Chew Kee); Okui Lala’s video As If, Home ponders on who are the first “real” inhabitants of a house; Goh Lee Kwang dabbles in sound, exploring the notion of space through audio recordings; Engku Iman’s three-part self-portrait, Aku Keturunan Perempuan, involves wax strips and love letters.
Daniel Chong’s conceptual (and wordy) work kicks hard on a bed of categorisation, while Jeffrey Lim’s photographic installation reflects on the duality of “entrance/exit.”
In The Name of Comfort, by Saiful Razman and Ilham Fadhli, is a piece comprising nine red plastic chairs – the kind of ubiquitous chairs you find in coffee shops and mamak hangouts.
The difference is that these two men would have taken a chainsaw to them by the time the public comes to the exhibition space. The chairs will still be recognisable – although maybe a wee bit wobbly and uncomfortable – and the artists want you to sit on them.
“Yes, what we want people to do is to try and sit on these modified chairs and try and get comfortable on them,” says Saiful.
This sounds like it might be quite a challenge, especially since the duo set out with a mission to make these chairs as uncomfortable as possible for the user.
“We are interested in human psychology, and we want to explore how people respond to an unexpected situation and how they adapt to a changing environment,” he says.
The inspiration for this work is something near and dear to many – for those who move from smaller towns to a busy city with crazy traffic conditions and equally ridiculous noise levels and light pollution, how do they adapt to this difference? And what happens when you don’t?
One wonders if a chair still looks like a chair, how much of a chair is it when its functionality is recalibrated?
“We dematerialise a simple plastic chair – an every day object that you find everywhere, particularly in settings that many people would probably consider lower-middle class,” says Saiful.
And then they wait and watch, while you stumble and fumble and try to make yourself sit.
Making Space: We Are Where We Aren’t is on at Sekeping Sin Chew Kee (No. 3, Jalan Sin Chew Kee, Kuala Lumpur) till Feb 9. Opening hours: 11am to 9pm. There is a curator’s walkthrough on Feb 7 at noon and 3pm. Register your preferred session at firstname.lastname@example.org. An artist sharing session will be held on Feb 8 at 3pm. For more information, visit runandlearn.net/my/makingspace/.