There are not many artworks that manage to be more bewildering to the casual art gallery visitor than those comprising a single dot, a lone squiggle, or a puzzling splotch of red paint.
But at Mapping: Malaysian Modern Art History, an exhibition now showing at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur, there is an artwork that might just surpass the reputation of these usual suspects: a blank canvas hanging on one wall, with its accompanying caption boldly confirming: “Canvas Kosong/Empty Canvas”.
This work is from the Towards A Mystical Reality show by Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa in 1974, featuring works that were a stark departure from common artistic expectations of the time where abstract expressionism was the new black.
This exhibition, with the two artists adopting an “anti-formalist and anti-aesthetic” stance, displayed a slice of the mundane everyday, like ashes from a mosquito coil, a pile of human hair from a barber shop, a raincoat, a chair, a birdcage. Collectively, these objects, and the way they were presented, highlighted the concept of ephemerality (transient existence) based on Zen/Taoist ideology and spanning the vast dimensions of time and space, light and shadow.
But the 1974 exhibition is not just remembered for its daring departure from the norm.
In a surprising turn of events, writer Salleh Ben Joned, overcome by an apparent – and dramatic – visceral response to the show on its opening day, unzipped his pants and brazenly peed onto one of the exhibits.
Some accounts stated that he urinated on the show’s manifesto.
Others, however, indicated other objects of choice, ranging from a potted plant installation to the relatively vague “a corner of the room”.
In more ways than one, the show earned a place in the modern Malaysian art narrative, alongside many other works now on display at the Mapping exhibition, a commendable effort from NVAG to draw focus on the country’s important twists and turns in art.
“Sociopolitical changes in the late 1960s resulted in the emergence of new artistic practices where artists moved away from emotional expression and delved into epistemology and philosophy. Towards A Mystical Reality is a controversial and significant exhibition that explores conceptual art practices rooted in Eastern philosophy and experiences,” explains Baktiar Naim, one of the NVAG curators involved in Mapping.
Mapping is a project that sets out to provide an overview of the history of modern Malaysian art, from the era of British colonial rule till the present day. It is an ambitious undertaking developed in stages, with a planned completion date in 2017.
Right now, some 200 pieces from the NVAG collection are being exhibited on two floors, covering the first two periodical segments of Mapping, namely “Formation” and “Transition”, that span works from the late 19th century to the 1970s.
The works are not arranged chronologically; instead, they are displayed according to art collectives and movements, which translates into a more coherent “mapping” – conceptually and aesthetically speaking – as the viewer walks through the gallery.
When completed, this project will have two more segments, “Assessment” and “Synthesis”, that will round up the country’s modern art journey. The plan is to make this a permanent exhibition, a first for our national art gallery.
“Mapping aims to promote an understanding of Malaysia through visual art, a long journey by pioneers in the industry, whose bravery and hardship helped shape the identity of this nation,” says Tan Hui Koon, from NVAG, who is also one of the project curators.
“It is also a response to an urgent need: there are researchers and curators, as well as young artists and the general public, who want to study Malaysian art history but do not have an entry point,” she adds.
This in-house curatorial effort, which took two years to plan and execute, features three NVAG curatorial teams, totalling 21 staff members.
As it stands now, the exhibition provides the viewer with an idea of how artistic inclinations in the country evolved over time, from sketches dating back to the colonial era in Malaya (where they served mainly to document observations in a foreign land), to the colourful optimism of independence and the jarring impact of the 1969 racial riots and its influence on the creative output of artists.
The pencil sketches and watercolour drawings from the late 19th century (mostly of landscapes, vegetation and people) by British colonial officers such as Frank Swettenham, William Samwell, George Giles and William Daniel are indeed very different from the hard-edge abstraction, pop art and colourful oil works of local artists that emerged in later years.
After independence, the Malayan Arts Council, formed in 1952 by a group of expatriates and local advocates (including Mubin Sheppard, Zainal Abidin Haji Abbas, P.G. Lim, Kington Loo, Peter Harris and Nik Ahmad Kamil) pushed the art agenda further.
“The most significant effort initiated by the arts council was establishing the concept of founding a national art gallery to take on the role of collection, preserving and promoting local and international visual arts,” explains Tan.
The National Art Gallery, the first national art gallery in South-East Asia, was founded in August 1958 in Kuala Lumpur. It was renamed the National Visual Arts Gallery in 2011.
A newly-independent nation brought with it romantic optimism that was reflected in the artworks created in the 1950s, with vibrant colours and a general joyful undertone running through the works.
“Artists romanticised the idea and dreams that came with a new nation, and these emotions were translated into their art. There are literature reviews that refer to the newly post-independence period as a state of ‘euphoria’. There was a lot of attempt to merge the traditional and modern as well, to fit both into one frame,” says Tan.
But then the (May 13) 1969 racial riots happened, casting a shadow over everything and everyone. Art was not spared.
According to Tan, this was when optical illusions and geometric forms started gaining traction, in hindsight seen to be an attempt of artists to invest less, emotionally speaking, in their works.
The artists were riding a wave of great conceptual change, not just because they were responding to being abruptly pulled out from their new-nation “euphoria”, but also because artists who returned from studying art abroad brought with them new ideas and techniques.
These changes are noted in the exhibition.
In putting together a show as extensive as Mapping, Tan shares that a major challenge is the lack of resources and a proper art archiving system.
“We try not to leave anyone behind,” she says, referring to the gallery’s goal of making this exhibition an all-encompassing reflection of the country’s art history.
“But it is not easy. For example, there is not much written data of pioneer artists from Sabah and Sarawak.”
As to what the future holds for the local art scene, Tan hopes that there will be a better ecosystem, one that spans different disciplines and includes public involvement.
“Art is one big industry that includes management and curation, conservation, logistics, critics, literature and education,” she offers.
Mapping: Malaysian Modern Art History is on at the National Visual Arts Gallery, No. 2, Jalan Termerloh in Kuala Lumpur till Aug 31. Visit www.artgallery.gov.my for more information.