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Sunday March 8, 2009

Printing reinterpreted

Go see this exhibition and find your idea of printmaking changing.

WHEN we think “print”, we think “flat”. Printing is two-dimensional, the impression of an image made on a surface. At least, that was my assumption, which was why I was blown away by Go Block: Five Contemporary Malaysian Printmakers at the Galeri Petronas, KL.

Here the prints rise from the ground, jut out from the walls, and drop from the ceiling. You can walk around them, and through some others. Many, you can interact with.

“As printmakers, we had already experimented with taking things to new levels,” says Izan Tahir, one of the five Go Block artists. For this exhibition she and the other four – Juhari Said, Ng Kim Peow, Shahrul Jamil, and Zulkifli Yusoff – talked, visited each other’s studios, and took things even further.

Ng Kim Peow’s works examine our disappearing environment and heritage.

Izan, who recently returned to Malaysia after spending most of her life in Europe, says she was lucky to grow up in England where creativity is valued and nurtured in young people.

“I wanted to express myself in some way, I’ve always had these things bursting inside that need to come out.” Among the things that her art has helped her cope with is the loss of her father a few years ago. “The more time that has passed since his death, the more difficult it is for me to picture him.”

This, and the familiar feeling of arriving in a new country, feeling invisible, served as inspiration for a curtain of transparent plastic faces. In this crowd, at first glance they all look the same, but by taking the time to examine them, it becomes apparent that each one is different, has its own personality.

Go Block encourages printmakers to re-interpret their thoughts on printing. In many cases, this involves repetition, the creation of identical or near identical images.

I was particularly fascinated by the work of Shahrul Jamil who, at 30, is the youngest artist in the exhibition – the other artists are all in their 40s.

Shahrul has taken five “things that make us human”: communication, religion, time, the economy, and individuality. “Those are the blocks,” Shahrul says. “We are the prints.”

Izan Tahir’s What Culture is a collage of phone text messages, town plans, and book titles around the edges. She and her students constructed it in the gallery itself. – Photos by AMY DE KANTER

Shahrul’s take on communication is the first thing one sees upon entering the gallery. His niece helped him with this, allowing him to dip her hand in loose wax then into water to create moulds. He then poured cement into the moulds to create a full sentence – “Making sense can sometimes get out of hand” – in hand-sized sign language that greets visitors and convinces them that it may well be worth taking the rest of the tour.

I never tire of hearing the thought process behind artwork and am fascinated by Shahrul’s Face Value, reflecting the economy. “Faces on coins started with (Greek conqueror) Alexander the Great,” he explains. “It was a way of making people become aware of him.” The tarnished coins in the display case look old enough to be antiques until you see the number 2008 on them. On the “tail” side of the coin is an exclamation mark. On the face…. “Look closer,” Shahrul says encouragingly. The coins are arranged on a mirror so when I bend down over them it is my own face I see first.

His interpretation of religion is one of the most striking pieces in the gallery but, hidden behind the curtain it can be missed. Find it, see it. At the far end of a small room is a barrier built like those made around trenches during war. Only, instead of barbed wire, prayer beads are strung along the frame. In front of the barrier is a stern sign: “Private Property.”

Izan, Shahrul and I are deep in a discussion about whether religion belongs to an individual, whether it is “private”, whether it can be questioned, when suddenly the lights go out. The frame and the sign are no longer visible, but the prayer beads glow in the dark like a constellation.The “politics” of religion have disappeared behind the simple and beautiful spirituality.

Izan is pleased that Shahrul’s work invited discussion. “That is what artists strive for, she says.“(For Go Block) we weren’t going for beauty, we were going for ideas.”

Sharul Jamili believes communication is one of humanity’s building blocks. This is his intriguing Making Sense Can Sometimes Get Out of Hand.

Much of the work manages to achieve both, like Ng’s In Preserving and Conservation of. Again, you need to come very close to these plaster casts, solid white blocks on the floor with light bulbs right above each one. Ng says it’s about “our gradually disappearing heritage and living environment”. By looking closely “into the void”, you will start to see familiar old things from our past, now fading from memory: old buildings hidden in one, plants and trees in the second, people in crowds, individual figures reveal themselves in the next two, and in the last, a bicycle and chair.

Whereas our past are fading white-on-white images, our present is shown in bold contrast. Ng’s Field joins the growing crusade against plastic bags that are “undigested by the environment”. He asks friends to donate their bags to him so he can recycle them in his print work, then imprints them thickly on white paper. “They are all the same and yet they are all different,” Ng says. He has laid the prints on the floor, “like most of the rubbish on the street”.

As always, there is a strong temptation to describe or at least give credit to every artist and every piece in the exhibition here. But the best thing is to enjoy the mind-broadening experience of Izan, Ng, Juhari, Shahrul, and Zulkifli’s works in person.

  • ‘Go Block: Five Contemporary Malaysian Printmakers’ is on at Galeri Petronas (Level 3 of the Petronas Twin Towers) until March 15. Admission is free, and gallery hours are 10am to 8pm daily (closed on Mondays). For enquiries, call 03-2051 7770 or go to