Ahmad Fuad Osman’s mid-career survey at the National Art Gallery spans three decades, a collection of work that is for the most part, visually bold and sometimes quite startling in its presentation.
Peer around the screen in a corner of the room, and what do you see? Flowers in a vase on the table, a man in bed with an IV drip attached to his arm. Beside him, a chair. Here, your nose is assailed by the smell of antiseptic. Hello, hospital room.
You are almost convinced that you can hear the beep, beep, beep of a machine – if there were one.
Now walk a bit further, and you will see clothes hanging on a line. If there were a breeze in the room, they would flutter like they would in the great outdoors.
Around the next corner, a strange sight greets you. Not unlike sled dogs working hard in the snow, miniature versions on the floor drag a huge golden mountain - a stalagmite casting - behind them, and giant pigs with udders almost brushing the ground run circles around them.
At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important features many of Fuad’s paintings, videos, sketches and objects – both found and fabricated – grouped around the gallery.
But what will perhaps be the most memorable to the casual viewer is the unexpected way some of the installations jump out at you.
Fuad would probably be pleased if a visitor were to do a double take.
“Because how boring would it be, if art – or life – just passes you by, ” says the artist, who turned 50 in early October.
Most of the exhibits at At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important are on loan from private collectors, including Fuad’s iconic larger-than-life self-portraits created in response to the Reformasi movement of the late 1990s. It is a familiar sight, a nod to the “see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil” trinity of monkeys.
In comparison, his newer works seem less visceral, at least on the surface.
But Fuad comments that although the presentation may differ through the years, he remains the same person inside.
“I still relate to that guy from all those years ago, absolutely. But as time passes, I find myself drawn to more conceptual ways of expression. The rawness of the 1990s, the bodily engagement that was so much a part of my work then... I find other ways to express myself now, especially through installation pieces. I must say, though, that when I paint, I still feel the same kind of fire within me, ” he says.
The exhibition space allows visitors ample opportunities to rediscover this Baling, Kedah-born artist’s creative growth. At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important presents seven cycles of research within a largely chronological sequence, spanning three decades of Fuad’s career.
It starts off with Cycle One: Manimal’s Dream, that provides a glimpse into his early days – of being an art student, of getting acquainted with history, documentation and presentation.
Fuad’s love for storytelling started to take form here, a vocation that would see him through the many creative hats he went on to wear.
After completing his art studies – painting and printmaking – at the Mara Institute of Technology (UiTM), he ventured into filmmaking and theatre.
“Initially, it was just to make ends meet. It was a struggle to try and do that with just art. But eventually, I came to realise that all the elements I love about filmmaking and performance art, are similar to why art and art-making speaks to me, ” shares Fuad.
Even as a founding member of the Matahati art collective in the early 1990s, Fuad’s works used to stand apart, showing a pensive and philosophical side.
Of his mid-career survey, he says that it makes him feel nostalgic to see his works gathered in one place.
“Many of the artworks here, I have not seen for years, even decades. But I realise that I still remember every single thing about them: where each piece was produced, what sparked them, where I was at that time. Every piece, even a small drawing, is personal and precious to me, ” he says.
His Cock Fighting painting from 1993 serves as gateway to Fuad's immense catalogue of works, often deemed political in nature.
"I painted Cock Fighting with the intention of communicating a very specific childhood cockerel fighting experience (in Kedah) as well as how I was affected by televised imagery of the First Gulf War. Such conflicting images tussled in my head. The public walked in and interpreted the work differently. Abstraction, in that sense, has its limits. Maybe this is also the point I found myself engaging with the ‘political’.”
Fuad, currently in active mid-career form, divides his time between Bali in Indonesia and Shah Alam, Selangor.
“I prefer living in quiet places, far away from all the noise, ” he mentions.
The buzz, however, has been following Fuad this year. He has been busy, his art seen all across town. In the past two weeks, his works have appeared at the Ipoh International Art Festival’s Climate exhibition, while the recently launched The Body Politic And The Body exhibit at Ilham Gallery in KL sees his Recollections Of Long Lost Memories series – owned by Singapore Art Museum – back on home soil.
Notable recent exhibitions include the Sharjah Biennial’s Leaving The Echo Chamber and Blackout at Kunsthal Rotterdam earlier this year, Primitive at A+ Works of Art in KL (2018), Singapore Biennale: An Atlas Of Mirrors (2016) and Welcome To The Jungle: Contemporary Art In South-East Asia at the Yokohama Museum Of Art in Japan (2013).
Cycles of research
At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important, spanning more than 60 works, is curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, who is senior curator at the National Gallery Singapore.
“The process of exhibition building evolved intensely over 18 months (since August 2018). Fuad and I would meet in KL or in Singapore every month and talk for three days each time – nonstop. We would debate and think through each and every artwork, concept, gesture, ” says Shabbir.
“These conversations were structured in such a way – that I could systematically understand how Fuad “works” – what is his “process”...? Most of my exhibitions focus on highlighting artistic process – this then becomes a device/bridge for the public to understand the artist and his work.”
Over the years, Shabbir, as a curator, has developed different techniques of ‘listening’. The cohesion in the exhibtion is a result of this listening.
“The structure of this exhibition and the seven cycles of research emerged through this process of ‘listening’.
“Through this process of listening, I realised what Fuad is doing is research in its own right. Aggregating large quantities of data on topics and concerns – before the eventual artwork is realised. Fuad’s research is highly complex – and may well challenge the best of academics in the best of universities!) There is real depth here. That is why I call them “cycles of research”. I do not call them “sections”. The seven cycles of research are then a distillation of these conversations, ” he says.
This survey ends with Cycle Seven: Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project, an ongoing research-heavy work that Fuad has partially shown at the Singapore Biennale in 2016 and Sharjah Biennial earlier this year.
Comprising sculptures, oil paintings, parchments, maps, fibreglass and resin castings, and objects like ceramics, bullets, weapons and whale bones, walking around this space feels like a visit to the museum.
It is here that Fuad reflects on narratives and how stories are told, or history preserved. What is fact or fiction? What has been omitted or embellished in that account?
In digging up someone else’s past, taking it apart and analysing it, Fuad finds some lessons in his own journey in art-making.
“It was the curator who pointed out that in my youth I made art that felt very primitive in nature, as you can see in the beginning of the exhibition. With this ongoing Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project, which is where the exhibition ends, it feels like I have found myself back in a similar place. A journey isn’t just about looking forward, you really do have to look back into the past and all around you. You need to remember where you come from and what brought you to where you are today. It is when you truly understand your past that you can navigate, set sail, in the right direction, ” he concludes.
At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important is on at the National Art Gallery, Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur till Feb 28. Opening hours: 10am to 6pm daily. Visit www.artgallery.gov.my. Free admission.