Haris Abadi takes on social media through his art

Beware Of The Birds (acrylic on canvas, 2015) is part of Haris Abadi's effort to make his musings on the nature of the Internet seem more like a fantastical adventure rather than a technophobe’s paranoia. Photos: Galeri Chandan

Contemporary artist Haris Abadi is trying hard to grasp and understand the Internet – and the certain unease that comes along with social media culture – in his solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.

With his Cosmic Playground exhibition, he takes on a story of two child astronauts embarking on a journey, which takes them to dystopian and gloomy neighbourhoods. These astronauts, says Haris, are his children, and in Cosmic Playground, the adventures are fun and tellingly cautionary.

This artful voyage – spanning paintings, silkscreen prints, sculptures and multimedia installations – also exudes a feeling of parental worry.

“I’m concerned about how kids deal with their real life, on the Internet. There is some anxiety here,” says Haris, 34.

The father of two – a son, five, and daughter, four, – says he uses a parental perspective to present a different (artful) take on social media. Haris has a favourite quote by Jurassic Park’s depressive mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm on how mass media swamps intellectual diversity: “Put five billion people together in cyberspace and it will freeze the entire species. Everything will stop dead in its tracks. Everyone will think the same thing at the same time. Global uniformity.

haris abadi
Haris Abadi

"After finishing this new series and sharing it, I think I have made my concerns clearer through visual representation,” says Haris, who is also a Fine Arts lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan.

He began the Cosmic Playground series in 2014, a year after the birth of his daughter, starting with Mountain Doorway (acrylic on canvas) depicting the two child astronauts before an ancient door carved with wayang kulit designs and modern cues like wall sockets and a framework of USB wires. The Kota Baru native, who now lives in Bachok, Kelantan, weaves imagery from his hometown into all his works: from bunga raya and ikan keli to the beat up old Mercedes that were the de facto choice of many a local taxi driver.

Haris explains the decision to marry the space theme with local images came from the realisation that his children were physically in the East coast state, yet at the same time, they could be telepresent anywhere else online.

This naturally lent to fantastical paintings; the child astronauts adventuring through foreboding dreamscapes, staring into a giant handphone’s black mirror (a nod to narcism and selfie-addicts), them beating away giant cat-fishes and fighting angry Twitter-birds.

“Though people may think I’m doing pop surrealism, but my art is mostly based on snapshots from my life. The ostrich (in Beware Of The Birds) is from when Universiti Malaysia Kelantan bought some ostriches. It caused a small controversy in campus, but my kids love the birds,” he reveals.

Haris admits he did not intend to portray his children directly. However, as he developed this series, their influence on the art grew.

Clouds (acrylic on canvas, 2017) by Haris Abadi.
Clouds (acrylic on canvas, 2017) by Haris Abadi.

“The child astronauts are representative of the generation born into the Internet’s space,” says Haris. “Without telling them, they’ve figured out the characters are them – yes, abang and adik. In a sense, they enjoy seeing themselves having adventures, just like in a children’s adventure book,” he adds.

The seven paintings in Cosmic Playground are decidedly gloomier than a children’s book though. They are done in sharply detailed black-and-white style of German woodcuts.

“I think this style was originally used for propaganda posters,” he says, adding that he sometimes regrets the gloomy colour scheme as he wanted to make the toy series more colourful, but ended up prioritising consistency. The images do inherit some intrinsic sadness.”

Haris also made three types of “toys” for this show. Warp Boy In Unfathomable Space and Followers (both resin cast sculpture, cardboard boxes, 2017) and Online Angel (digital print, artcard paper) have, to say the least, a certain sort of cynicism.

Essentially, through these works, Haris is saying that “imaginary toys” seem more “real” than the online games that children are glued to nowadays.

Haris Online Angel (digital print on cardboard, plastic - 2017) uses toys to highlight the central concept of Cosmic Playground, and how his children informed his approach to explore the concept of the Internet.
Haris Online Angel (digital print on cardboard, plastic - 2017) uses toys to highlight the central concept of Cosmic Playground, and how his children informed his approach to explore the concept of the Internet.

Though this is his first solo, Haris is no slouch in the field of multimedia arts. He debuted back in 2009 with a video-mapped sculpture, in the group exhibition OuterinterX at the Threesixty Art Development Studio in Ampang, Selangor, and he was selected as a finalist in the Bakat Muda Sezaman competition in 2013 at the National Visual Arts Gallery (for his electronic work Artificial Tide).

For the work in the Cosmic Playground series, Haris also says he expanded his artistic range and the mediums of expression.

He first started with acrylic paintings, then silkscreen print wrapped onto box-like 3D canvases, then actual sculptures, before finally integrating videos into the sculpture on Death Magnetic (LED screen, toy parts, plastic, metal and single channel video, 2017).

“I don’t have to be restricted by any specific method. There are always other ways of making art. Under modernist thinking, you don’t need to be limited to a medium,” he says, mentioning that he is a big fan of how British artist Damien Hirst’s works spanned across various mediums, but he still kept his core ideas.

Asked if any one piece was more challenging to make, Haris says both traditional and advance media have their limitations.

“You have to wait for oil paint to dry and videos to render,” he says with a smile.

Cosmic Playground is at Galeri Chandan in Publika, Kuala Lumpur till March 9. Opens from 11am to 7pm and closed on public holidays. Head to www.galerichandan.com for more information or call 03-6201 5360.

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