Malaysian video artist highlights his medium's societal, cultural impact

To kick off its 40th anniversary, Five Arts Centre is presenting a contemporary “wayang pacak” experience with multidisciplinary artist Gan Siong King’s My Video Making Practice (MVMP) opening on June 20.

This unique “mash-up video” event will take place at the long-standing arts collective’s indoor venue at the GMBB creative mall in Kuala Lumpur. The programme, tied to the video screening, will also engage both the arts community and the public, offering an innovative and collaborative experience.

“As a project, MVMP is actually a screening plus a dialogue. It is not just a video essay, and it doesn’t work if it’s only a screening. The video essay serves as a catalyst for the post-screening dialogues. The video and dialogue cannot be separated,” says Gan, 49, a painter and video artist, in a recent interview.

MVMP is my attempt at community engagement. It’s a project that is actively looking for a collaborating host to reach different communities,” he adds.

In MVMP (83 minutes), Gan expands his research-driven practice by remixing seven videos of Malaysian artists at work from the past decade. By combining these with his personal materials and memories, he critically and humourously reflects on the pleasures and pressures of making art in Malaysia and growing up in the 1990s.

His video essay works include contemporary Chinese calligrapher Ong Chia Koon, graphic designer and cycling activist Jeffrey Lim, electric guitar amplifier maker Nik Shazwan, the team behind filmmaker Liew Seng Tat’s 2007 feature film Flower In The Pocket, and indie musician Takahara Suiko.

Together, these essays offer intimate insights into the artists’ work, lives, and motivations, highlighting different creative directions, while not forgetting to entertain the viewer.

The post-screening dialogue at Five Arts Centre will feature a different arts practitioners each night.

‘A career in the arts is no longer a fool’s errand. Everyone has become a brand,’ says Gan. Photo: Chuah Chong Yong ‘A career in the arts is no longer a fool’s errand. Everyone has become a brand,’ says Gan. Photo: Chuah Chong Yong

This Thursday, the dialogue session begins with producer/director Mark Teh; June 21 features filmmakers Rahmah Pauzi and Chloe Yap; June 22: Five Arts Centre members Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, Lee Ren Xin and Syamsul Azhar; June 23: curator and educator Roopesh Sitharan; June 27: Five Arts Centre members Janet Pillai and Marion D’ Cruz; June 28: art curator Beverly Yong; June 29: filmmaker Sharifah Aleysha, theatre practitioner Ali Alasri and Yangon-based curator Diane Hwte; and finally, June 30: Singaporean visual artist Yeo Tze Yang.

“The dialogue component can range from the technical to the philosophical side of art and art-making. And I work with the host to decide on a specific topic of discussion that is meaningful for the host’s community. Basically, they have a big say in what the focus should be. They are equal partners,” says Gan.

“Put simply, I make the art, they do the staging. MVMP x Five Arts has (a personal record of) eight dialogues. These dialogues are programmed mainly by Mark Teh, a member of Five Arts, and my former frequent collaborator. So, you can expect a Five Arts spin, which I welcome, especially because 2024 is the collective’s 40th anniversary,” he adds.

From a Five Arts Centre standpoint, MVMP resonates very much with its programme this year of artists opening up their practice and methodologies, and engaging in dialogue with fellow arts practitioners.

"As far as starting off Five Arts' programme this year with MVMP - it's really more serendipity than anything else. The collective tends to be quite atypical in how we mark major anniversaries. We're quite resistant to the sentimentalist 'greatest hits' retrospective typical of such milestones," says Teh.

"At a time when there are more productions than ever before in the Klang Valley, we felt it was important to focus this year on sharing, exploring and highlighting art-making processes instead," he adds.

While Gan thrives behind the camera or in solitary artistic pursuits, his ability to engage and captivate audiences through public speaking is equally impressive.

In early 2022, he presented his “video exhibition” titled All the Time I Pray To Buddha, I Keep On Killing Mosquitoes, which featured insightful dialogue sessions. The well-received pandemic-era exhibition at PJPAC, supported by Japan Foundation, KL, featured Gan’s residency series in Yokohama, and also a love letter to Tokyo.

Talking video art

Gan, who has been making videos since 2009, remembers working on his first few Five Arts Centre projects nearly 30 years ago.

“Technically, I became an artist when I graduated with a diploma in fine arts, majoring in oil painting from Malaysia Institute of Arts (in 1996). Or I should say, I learned how to make art there. But being an artist is something that involves the community and is a role or identity that’s constantly evolving,” says Gan.

From the start, his career wasn’t strictly art gallery-based. Instead, it included theatre- based works, community engagement initiatives and writing. The ideas behind MVMP can be linked back to some of those early projects at Five Arts, reflecting similar aspirations and inspirations.

“A part of my practice has been shaped by and benefited from my work on those Five Arts projects,” Gan reflects, reminiscing about the friendships he has forged in the Malaysian arts and culture scene over the years.

“Technicalities aside, there’s also an emotional dimension that is hard to describe. My last project with Five Arts was 20 years ago. So, enough time has passed. Yet, certain ideals and aspirations remain. Working on something together again feels like meeting an old friend. So, there is much to say,” he says.

Gan's return to showcase his works is especially meaningful, given his contributions to the history of Five Arts Centre.

"Gan worked with Five Arts Centre several times over the years, particularly between the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, and there is excitement to reconnect with him and his practice via MVMP," says Teh.

MVMP has been showcased in Singapore and Bandung (Indonesia), but to date, it has only been presented in Malaysia to limited audiences at the SeaShorts Festival 2022 at Multimedia University, as well as at Sunway University.

From previous screenings of MVMP, Gan noted that audience feedback, both local and regional, resonated deeply. Questions arose about sustaining a career in the arts and the categorisation of artists like Gan himself.

Gan (centre) discussing his 'My Video Making Practice' project with an audience at the Singapore Art Museum in early 2022. Photo: Singapore Art Museum Gan (centre) discussing his 'My Video Making Practice' project with an audience at the Singapore Art Museum in early 2022. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

“People are generally curious about how MVMP is put together. I think it’s because MVMP looks and sounds fairly complex, although it’s not. People are also curious about what I’ll be making next which is a welcome question because it denotes interest in process or the long view which I think is important in art appreciation.

“There are also many discussions about how to sustain a creative practice. A career in the arts is no longer a fool’s errand. Everyone has become a brand. In that sense, MVMP can be seen as a very elaborate business card."

To Gan, there is less space to make “useful mistakes” in the arts world these days. The discussion about strategies on navigating the push and pull between commerce and creativity is also common.

“But there’s also confusion and puzzlement. What is this? Is MVMP a documentary, video art or experimental film? And what are you? An artist, video artist or filmmaker? Which is always something fun to discuss because so much of our perception of reality is based on convenient classifications or visual cues,” says Gan.

“But these classifications are not precise although they work in most situations. Unpacking these visual cues can reveal our biases and blind spots. A big part of MVMP is to serve as a catalyst for these unpacking,” he adds.

Between two mediums

Gan seamlessly manages both painting, typically a lone pursuit, and video-making, known for its collaborative nature, without any compromises when asked about the differences between the two.

“My paintings and videos are counterpoint to each other in my practice. I don’t think one can exist without the other. They serve different purposes and have different functions,” says the artist, born in Segamat, Johor, who preferred BMX bikes and sports, notably tennis, during his teenage years.

"The arch from a beautifully executed single-handed backhand, cross-court passing shot with just the right amount of topspin was more important to me than the quality of a hand drawn line. I wanted to be (tennis player) Stefan Edberg,” recalls Gan.

A scene from Gan’s video essay, featuring contemporary Chinese calligrapher Ong Chia Koon. Photo: Chuah Chong YongA scene from Gan’s video essay, featuring contemporary Chinese calligrapher Ong Chia Koon. Photo: Chuah Chong Yong

Interestingly, his last painting exhibition in KL last year, titled Pictures Of Things, saw him reconnecting with grids and lines. In contrast, Gan's videos have consistently involved collaborations with a diverse array of individuals.

“My paintings are reserved mainly for ideas and concepts. It’s something I do when I want to be alone with my thoughts. It’s appealing to a side of my personality. They reference slightly different sources and require the audience to have a different visual vocabulary.

"I have no qualms selling them. In fact, the sales of my paintings have been funding my video-making,” he says.

The screening of MVMP at Five Arts Centre, known for its commitment to cultural representation, authenticity, and inclusivity in addressing the Malaysian identity, provides the ideal platform for Gan to showcase the breadth of his video work.

“They (his collaborators) are often foreground stories not concepts. There’s also a more evident sense of place. They are Malaysian pictures.

"Part of the appeal is being outside with others, negotiating and improvising so it does require a desire to engage because it’s about finding overlaps in perspectives or meaningful differences with others. I suppose, it’s a way to locate myself in this place we call home,” he concludes.

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