If you believe that first impressions count, then the first exhibit that greets you at this year’s Art Expo Malaysia (AEM) in Kuala Lumpur suggests that you are in for an interesting, albeit slightly off-kilter, experience at the fair.
How else would you describe looking into someone’s eyes while his limbs stretch out from under a pile of leather handbags? This is Dutch-Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s wearable sculpture The Carrier, and it is just a little bit strange (in a good way) despite its commentary on consumerist culture.
This is the South-East Asia Art Lab segment of the AEM, the 100sq m space that aims to give a bit more freedom as to what goes on the walls, or comes off it. So there is perhaps no better place to get all avant garde fashion show on us.
Never mind that Malaysian artist Tan Zi Hao’s fibreglass and metal exoskeletal sculpture Makara, looms heads and shoulders above visitors just across from The Carrier, looking every inch like it just escaped from a natural history museum.
Tan's work, a commissioned piece for the Singapore Biennale 2016, is based on a creature from Hindu mythology that is a half-terrestrial, half-sea animal. Head of a crocodile and elephant, tail of a fish: on paper, it sounds like the stuff nightmares are made of. But in person, Tan has made the pieces fit together so naturally.
At the AEM's preview on Thursday, this section, presented by homegrown A+ Works of Art, was a big hit with visitors.
The AEM, the region’s longest-running art fair, shines the spotlight on South-East Asian art this year, with many established local galleries included in the line-up including Artemis Art, City Art Gallery, Core Design Gallery, G13 Gallery, Gallery des Artistes, Li Chi Mao Art Museum, Richard Koh Fine Art, Segaris Art Centre, Taksu and Tiny Rose Gallery, among others.
Feedback from last year’s fair indicated that the Japanese galleries were a crowd draw, so the organisers decided to go all out this year with a Japan Pavilion.
It doesn’t disappoint: there are many gems to uncover in this space, from Kanae Shiki’s soulful oil on canvas works (Gallery Class) and Kunihiko Nohara’s cloud sculptures (Gallery UG) to Akihiro Fujimoto’s quirky sculptures (Gallery Ishikawa). Fans of Yayoi Kusama - yes, the artist who is obsessed with polka dots - can check out some of her smaller works at the Japan Pavilion too.
According to AEM co-founder and fair director Sim Pojinn, this year’s edition aims to reach out to as many people as possible, including first-time visitors.
“We worked around the idea of how art should be for everyone, so we hope that visitors will find this year’s showcase accessible and relevant. Another thing to note is that besides the emphasis on South-East Asian representation and the Japan Pavilion, there are more sculptures this year - in particular, life-size ones - than in previous editions of the fair,” says Sim.
Indeed, they come at you fast and furious around every corner.
Singapore-based Linda Gallery's spread stretches out across the middle of the hall with a selection of brass and copper sculptures by Indonesian sculptor Nyoman Nuarta and bronze pieces by Chinese sculptor Jiang Shuo.
Nyoman weaves wispy lightness in Rush Hour II and offers a mysterious, yet alluring, take on the well-known temple in Borobudur IV.
Singapore’s Mazel Galerie has brought in French sculptor Quentin Garel's bronze animal sculptures that are as remarkable up close as they are from a distance. Bronze they might be, but they look so much like wood sculptures that the assistants at this booth are getting a kick out of asking visitors to guess what material Garel works with.
If it is sculptures you are interested in, there is plenty to go around at AEM. But with 60 participating galleries (of which 20 are newcomers) and over 1,500 artworks on display, Sim really did mean variety when he said there is something for everyone.
Amid all these sculptures, there is a tiny four-piece video work by Indonesian artist Eldwin Pradipta at the Lawangwangi Creative Space (Indonesia) booth. Other Parts Sold Separately (#1 #2 #3 #4) is small, succinct and sharp, visually dreamy and almost hypnotising, and stands out in a fair where colours and heft rule supreme.
It is canvas, stretchers and paint free-falling within a small screen. In the fourth part of the series, we zoom through the bristles of a brush. But Eldwin is a new media artist who says he does not paint, so what gives?
“Paintings, more than another other art form, seem to be very popular in this region and Malaysia. This new series is my response to the commercial aspect of the art world, a commentary on how art is too often treated as a commodity and not very much more,” shares Eldwin.
Perhaps Sim can sound so confident about there being something for everyone at the fair because we all look for different things.
As one visitor who was taken with a Joan Miro artwork commented, “I don’t really find this aesthetically pleasing, but I am interested in it because it does something to me. I’m returning tomorrow to take a closer look.”
Whether you are at the AEM to buy art, to wander about or simply be entertained, it isn’t hard to imagine that something will catch your eye.
And maybe you just might find something that touches you inexplicably, just like that gentleman who can’t quite put his finger on what Miro does to him - but he knows he is coming back for more.
Art Expo Malaysia 2019 is on at Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 13, 11.30am to 9pm (Oct 12) and 11.30am to 7.30pm (Oct 13). Admission: RM15. More info: artexpomalaysia.com.