Exhibitions must evolve to remain important, say Malaysian art gallery owners


Closer to the masses: The Back Room KL exhibited artworks outside its gallery space, using the balconies of the Zhongshan building to display art from its 'Carving Reality' show last November. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

The past year of multiple rounds of movement control orders (MCO) and gallery closures has hit the Malaysian art gallery community hard. It has been an uphill task for some art spaces just to keep afloat, with many curve balls thrown their way.

But behind those closed doors, many art galleries around in the Klang Valley have been working hard to rise above the crisis, mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their businesses and keep art appreciation alive during these trying times.

Liza Ho, founder of The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur, recalls how there was a lot of anxiety when the first MCO was announced in March last year, not only for the gallery but for the safety of everyone.

“During the first MCO, we extended the then ongoing exhibition and then reshuffled our exhibition programme. It did seem like the pandemic wasn’t going away soon, so we tried to stay flexible in our programming, ” says Ho.

No doubt, it was a year fraught with disruptions, uncertainty and short-lived gallery reopenings.

Exhibitions were cancelled or postponed, and travel plans had to be put on hold.

But in its place, new projects and ideas emerged and art galleries took this time to explore new ways of presenting art, increase their digital content, reexamine their audience engagement and social media strategies, and recalibrate their plan for the year.

The Back Room, for instance, embraced the sensibilities of sanitation and social distancing with Wonderwall, a window display of 12 artworks while their doors were closed to the public last May.

“Another pandemic project was Kyphosis, Through A Looking Glass, by Chong Yan Chuah, a digital installation where visitors were given a video game controller to move from one virtualised gallery space to another exhibition space, ” says Ho.

Like many other galleries, The Back Room shifted their focus online and engaged more with the public through social media.

“It also gave us the time to set up our e-commerce website, something that was in the planning for a long time. The website allowed us to showcase our exhibitions and also for audiences to discover new artworks and purchase online, ” she adds.

Dealing with pandemic fatigue

Over at A+ Works Of Art, the gallery turned the spotlight on the stark reality of the pandemic situation with its group exhibition Ready But Postponed Or Cancelled in August last year, which featured artists from projects that had to be postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic.

The gallery also launched its first Online Festival Of Video Art last year, with another one in the plans for 2021.

A+ Works Of Art founder Joshua Lim notes that among the more frustrating challenges were the pandemic fatigue and the uncertainty due to certain government directives.

“We fully appreciate the need for movement control orders, but the changing rules have not always been communicated clearly enough. And while we are very grateful that a number of people have stepped up, from collectors to artists, what happens is that after a while, even though the problems haven’t gone away, everyone, understandably, gets fatigued. But we are managing, and we do so by being flexible and responsive to the fast changing circumstances, as well as to the new opportunities that arise, ” he says.

Perhaps most importantly, amid new opportunities, change and virtual ventures, Lim notes that they must never lose sight of the fundamentals.

“We are a gallery because we truly believe in the artists and collaborators that we work with, and we believe that we have great value to offer collectors, new, established or institutional, ” he says.

Forgoing a physical space?

Part of KL gallery Artemis Art’s strategy in weathering the storm is closing its physical space at Publika in mid-January this year, with plans to focus on collaborations with galleries overseas, for physical exhibitions there as well as virtual/online shows.

“Our lease ended and we thought it wouldn’t be prudent to renew for another two years minimum. There is a lot of uncertainty in the coming months, revolving around the possible imposition of more MCOs, the effect of this on the economy and on footfall, and so on. Having a permanent space is ideal, of course, but for now that is not a priority consideration for us, ” says Jamal Al-Idrus, co-founder of Artemis Art.

Last year, the gallery was closed for around six months in total due to the MCO and related restrictions.

Lim Wei-Ling, founder of Wei-Ling Gallery and Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, says the lockdowns of the past year has allowed the team to regroup, regather, adapt and think about doing things in new ways.

For her gallery spaces, exhibitions and programming have continued despite the lockdown, albeit with some necessary changes.

“Evidently with the ever-changing circumstances of 2020 and 2021, things have not always gone according to plan. For example, certain exhibitions took place during the full lockdown, when we could not accept any visitors to the gallery spaces. What we ended up doing was to work on videos that showcased the journeys of these respective artists. This allowed a better insight into the respective artists’ practices. This has value added to the artist, their practices and in turn the exhibition in question.

“When there’s uncertainty, there’s bound to be anxiety and fear of the unknown. However, I think the team and all artists have adapted remarkably well to the storm that hit us last year. I am a firm believer that you must turn adversity into strength, ” she says.

The gallery, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, was part of the second edition of Singapore’s contemporary art showcase SEA Focus in January.

“The artworks can travel but we cannot. The irony!” says Wei-Ling.

She adds that one of the positive outcomes of the lockdown has been that artists have been active and prolific in their studios.

“We have seen monumental and seminal artworks coming out of various artists’ studios, and this has proven to be a most productive time. I certainly cannot complain about that, ” she concludes.

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