There is no better moment to reflect upon the importance of art than now. After three months of lockdown, resourceful Malaysian art galleries are finding ways to get pandemic-era creativity out to the masses.
As the art scene slowly begins to reopen during this recovery movement control order phase, several galleries in Kuala Lumpur have already set a path for long-term survival, with new exhibition strategies and a fresh way to approach to selling art in place.
There is always the virtual exhibition option, the hybrid online/private gallery visit, or the use of a gallery space with all the public safety requirements met to hold an exhibition.
Getting back to basics
A+ Works of Art gallery has reopened with a group exhibition Back To Art, featuring works from 18 artists, and the launch of the gallery’s online viewing portal.
“I think the whole world will collapse without a better way of thinking, and the art eco-system is no exception. But at the same time, art practices and art workers have always been open, diverse, flexible and have always aspired for better ways of thinking. I believe these core values don’t change because of the pandemic. So when we say, Back To Art, we mean getting back to these values, ” says founder Joshua Lim.
Back To Art has a charity element in the form of Virion, an artwork by American-born Malaysia-based artist/academic Ray Langenbach. It features 84 unused masks encrusted with the seeds of the local sandbur plant, a nod to the virus itself, SARS-CoV-2.
Virion marks the 84 days (to date) of the movement control order (MCO) and its extensions. The masks are going for RM100 each, with all proceeds to be donated to non-profit organisation Tenaganita. Upon purchase of the work, a receipt will be provided by the gallery with a “Certificate of Ephemeral Virtue”, signed by the artist.
Other artists in Back To Art are Agus Suwage, Azizan Paiman, Chan Kok Hooi, Chong Kim Chiew, Do Thanh Lang, Gan Siong King, Hà Ninh Pham, Ho Rui An, Mella Jaarsma, Noor Mahnun, Phuan Thai Meng, Roslisham Ismail (Ise), Samsudin Wahab, Tan Zi Hao, Tawatchai Puntusawasdi, Ugo Untoro and Yim Yen Sum.
Lim comments that if the pandemic has changed the world, then it has also changed the art world. And a big challenge is the overall drop in support for the arts. Many people think it’s no longer important and collectors seem hesitant, he says.
“Yes, maybe art is not a high priority (to some), but it is vital now. Art contributes in many ways to sustain our spirits in difficult times, and artists do need support to continue doing their work. But art doesn’t need our charity, it needs our support, ” he adds.
In the coming months, A+ Works of Art will proceed with physical exhibitions and at the same time expand its online activities, including virtual viewing rooms and special events, such as its Online Festival of Video Art in July.
“Gallery visits are by appointment only. Some visitors have expressed to me their concerns about safety, and I hear them – ensuring theirs as well as our safety and peace of mind is essential, ” says Lim.
Only one set of visitors will be allowed in the space at any time, defined as one individual or a small group of up to four persons who live together. Visitors must wear face masks, not touch anything, and practise social distancing with gallery staff.
The Back To Art exhibition runs till Aug 1.
The virtual road ahead
Jamal Al-Idrus, owner of KL-based Artemis Art gallery, will be the first to tell you that work hasn't slowed down one bit since the MCO came into effect in March. It has been a real challenge for the small team at this independent gallery to rethink how visual artists share and sell their artwork.
"In terms of selling, we have relied mostly on regional art fairs and regular collectors. But we had been closely monitoring this transition from physical art space to virtual space... I admit the lockdown accelerated the whole process for us in launching into the online art marketplace," says Jamal, who equipped himself with hours of video editing tutorials while learning to use virtual exhibition space platform Artsteps.com.
After all the DIY digital upgrades, Artemis turned out to be one of the busiest galleries in KL during the MCO period, with three online exhibitions rolled out and a webstore launched.
The Monochrome group show, a joint Malaysia/Indonesia art collaboration project, started the momentum in March, before the gallery hooked up with Denmark-based Malaysian artist Amir Zainorin for the Covid Surreality show in May, and most recently, exhibiting Japanese photographer Shinya Masuda's works in the Hanafuda Shouzoku collection.
These online shows at Artemis are all open-ended, especially Amir's lockdown photography series in Copenhagen, which is updated with new works. Shinya's show was planned earlier this year. Both artists are presenting limited edition prints at Artemis Art.
"It’s an effective way of exhibiting works by artists living abroad. The digital nature of Amir's artworks even facilitated how fast we managed to put the exhibition together, roughly three weeks from inception to launch. Covid Surreality is a product of the pandemic," says Jamal.
In terms of current themes, Jamal is expecting more Covid-related artworks in a group exhibition being finalised soon. It will be another virtual art project.
"It would seem strange if the art world is oblivious to the pandemic. Yet, I agree that we might reach a saturation point when it comes to Covid art, but when there is such a surge of creativity at work, you do feel that art will take its course and we will see the best of what artists have to offer in these interesting times," says Jamal.
Artemis Art is also not planning on any major gallery-based exhibitions in the coming months. Jamal mentions the gallery space will have a few general hanging shows, but everything else will be concentrated online until the art scene here stabilises.
Outside looking in
In response to complying with social distancing rules, group exhibition Wonderwall at The Back Room at Zhongshan building in KL has all the artworks showcased on the gallery’s window display, which means they can be viewed from the outside.
“I strongly believe that art must be seen to be experienced. The current exhibition is our response to social distancing while being able to view art safely,” says The Back Room founder Liza Ho.
The gallery’s new website was unveiled during the MCO period, with exhibition details and artwork viewing made possible online. Ho expects that fewer people will be visiting galleries for now, but it is important to stay connected.
“They can check out the artworks on the website, and should they then wish to see the works in person, the gallery is now open. Our exhibition programme will continue as usual, with the same opening hours as before. But there are changes of course, for instance, no opening receptions and instead, more engagement online or on social media. Like any other ecosystems, it is a reset of the way we think and do things. Many people rely on art to get them through this difficult time – whether in the form of music, literature, films and so on,” she says.
We have seen a surge in pandemic-themed art in the past weeks, and no doubt this trend will continue for a bit as artists respond to what is happening around them. Ho points out that it is what is affecting the artists at this point in time, so it is no coincidence that many galleries are showing these works now. Indeed, art imitates life.
Wonderwall participating artists are: Alvin Lau, Amani Azlin, Chong Yan Chuah, Jun Kit, Hoo Fan Chon, Mark Tan, Nadirah Zakariya, Poodien, Salman Soon, Syahnan Anuar, Tomi Heri and Xia Yi. The exhibition runs till June 23.
Timely and topical
The coronavirus outbreak has called attention to many ongoing issues, including that of undocumented people in the country. It is something that Tajrin Faruqi has been thinking about, enough to prompt him to invite people to share their thoughts on social media.
“This issue affects everyone because it is about us, about being human, about humanity. I don’t think I can just stay silent. It is good for us to discover, to think and investigate together. What is the true meaning of ‘pendatang’ and how do such gaps come to exist between fellow human beings?” he asks.
Instagram group exhibition Kita Semua Pendatang, Pendatang Dari Syurga was born out of this: a social media status update that sparked a conversation, which Tajrin then expanded into a virtual exhibition at Tenang Gallery by putting out an open call for artwork submission.
“You don’t have to be an artist to be part of this show, I welcome anyone who has something to say, something to share.
“The exhibition happened ‘accidentally’ and casually, just like how Tenang Gallery – which I see as a conceptual space for ‘investigation’ – came about during the time of coronavirus/MCO. I think social media has already played the role of gallery even before the outbreak, as it provides space for people to engage and share, ” he says.
Kita Semua Pendatang, Pendatang Dari Syurga features over 20 works (comprising paintings, photography and video) by 15 Malaysians and Singaporeans.