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Friday, 5 August 2011

HASNUL J SAIDON, CONVERSING WITH ZULKIFLI YUSOFF





Hasnul
I would like to focus on three different stages of artistic process.  In this case, I will use the time-based language of pre-production, production and the post-production stages. Let us talk about the pre-production first, by using your “Pelayaran Munsyi Abdullah” (Munsyi Abdullah’s Journey) as a case example. In regards to generating ideas, what is the significance of this work in comparison to your earlier works?

Zulkifli Yusoff
It started during my 3 months sabbatical at the Petronas Gallery Kuala Lumpur. I was thinking about approaching my work differently. Instead of relying mainly on the subconscious or intuitive and expressive impulses like I used to, I was thinking about balancing it with a more conscious and structured method. I felt that it was a proper time for me to shift my approach. I was thinking about linking it more to an academic model. After all, it would be more appropriate for me to focus my sabbatical on devising a new research method. In addition, it would be useful for my academic role in UPSI (Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris), especially as a potential model for my students. I felt that there was a need to approach art making process as a form of research. Artworks can then be taken as a form of solution to pertinent problems. I think we should rid this perception that artists are emotional bohemian type of people who just know how to daydream and compulsively express themselves like a drunken person.

Hasnul
I think such perception is increasingly becoming a myth.

Zulkifli Yusoff
Artists are also thinkers, they read books and use their rational mind too. Artists must engage with issues and commit to pertinent problems of the day. Issues are the foods for fine artists and they must show a sign of engagement or commitment with ideas.

Hasnul
So, do you think fine artists should also perform as a researcher?


Zulkifli Yusoff
I would prefer to approach my process of generating ideas as a form of research. If that qualifies me as a researcher, so be it. Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal used to ask me, “Zul, are you an associate professor or an artist?” I answered, “I am an artist first, then an associate professor. One has to be an artist first to become a professor.” Datuk Syed replied, “Good, that’s right!”
I believe that my art making process must have research values. But the values may differ from those from the sciences. Artists may devise a different method of identifying their problems and searching for solutions through their engagements with their works.

Hasnul
In that case, what method did you employ in initiating and generating your ideas, in this case, for the “Pelayaran Munsyi Abdullah”?

Zulkifli Yusoff
I began by referring to a textual material, a book. In this case I chose a specific book with similar title, “Pelayaran Munsyi Abdullah”. But I was not interested in the illustrative and narrative values of the book. I was also not interested in transcribing the textual narrative into visual presentation, or in short, telling stories. I was more interested in searching for certain codes of thinking, certain patterns or ways of looking that I could compare to what is going on today in our contemporary society. The book was meant as a catalyst, a spark, a path and road opener.  I like to use Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal’s term here. He refers to reading a book as a form of mind travel. In Islam, the term ‘read’ carries deeper connotations.

Hasnul
For me the term ‘iqra’’ or read is not just about reading text as in spelling and forming words and sentences, but also travelling, exploring, searching, experimenting, testing, hypothesizing, interpreting, reflecting and finding meanings.

Zulkifli Yusoff
I used to encourage my students to also use textual materials, books for example, to initiate or generate ideas, instead of just observation, or imagination or worse, simply churning out mindless emotional outburst.


Hasnul
You seemed to approach the book as your subject of study or your ‘text’ in a semiotic sense, instead of a part of your literature materials.

Zulkifli Yusoff
Perhaps both. Abdullah Munsyi himself, or his thinking, his observations, his readings became my subject. I read Abdullah Munsyi as an observer and reader of the socio-cultural and socio-political dimensions of the societies that he encountered during his journey. For example, he wrote about foods in Kelantan, about the attitudes of the Kelantanese people towards food hygiene and sanitation. He also spoke about how the Kelantanese people did not favour meat. He touched on the meeting or clash between local custom, norm and culture with Western values and influences. He also touched on the feudal system, the Sultans and their royal or court intrigues. I could compare his observations of these subjects with current situations regarding similar subjects.
Then, I searched for changes that have taken place between then and now on some of the issues, problems and subjects that Abdullah Munsyi had touched. 

But the book was also instrumental in regards to sparking questions and initiating further inquiries. In that way, the book may function as a part of my literature materials. But as I said earlier, I was not interested in the narratives or the stories. I was interested in the thinking behind it.

Hasnul
How did you respond to his thinking then?

Zulkifli Yusoff
I read Abdullah Munsyi’s thinking as visual codes or data that I could relate to other subjective matters. By approaching it this way, I could avoid from merely transcribing a story from the book. I could focus on how to extract certain visual codes or data, engage, experiment and explore them further, relate, link and connect them with what we are experiencing now in today’s living. In fact, that would be my main problem or research question, how to extract these visual codes or data from the main text. Another problem would be how to engage, to experiment, explore, relate, link and connect these visual codes or data with present situations, with contemporary experiences. These problems have brought me to engage with collage. But Zulkifli Yusoff’s collage must be different from Ismail Zain’s digital collage, or Fauzan Omar’s collage using expanded media. 

I needed to bring something new in regards to resolving the problems of collage.


Hasnul
Which brings us to the production part, how did you resolve those problems?




Zulkifli Yusoff
This is where technology came into the picture. Exploring, relating, linking and connecting were mainly conceptual problems first, not physical. So, I needed a technology that could complement my conceptual process, that could augment my thinking. Relying on physical sketching would be too tedious, time consuming, and unproductive. Thinking process needed to be fast and organic where ideas could be explored, tested, experimented in many ways.

Hasnul
You needed something that could cope with ‘thinking speed’.

Zulkifli Yusoff
That’s why I made it clear to myself that I would not use the same tools, materials, equipment and methods that I used when I was a student. Time has changed. I needed to change accordingly. In fact, I had to be ahead of time. As I said earlier, Ismail Zain was already using his Macintosh computer to create his digital collage in the late 1980s. Fauzan Omar had already invented his own collage methods using cut canvas in the 1990s. I needed to move beyond that in post 2000. I needed to move beyond the confine of A4 size paper and dot-matrix prints. My collage had to move beyond two dimensional planes. 

That was why I invested a lot on digital technology. My initial visualization method relied heavily on digital technology, especially digital scanning. As I read, I scanned, both mentally and digitally. I scanned relevant pages of visual data as many as I possibly could. I ended up having a massive bank of visual data that I could play with in so many ways. The whole process was very fast and ‘user-friendly’.

Hasnul
Other than scanning as a method of collecting and building up your visual data, did you generate your own imageries digitally? How did you approach this massive bank of visual data?

Zulkifli Yusoff
Yes I did generate my own imageries digitally, other than the scanned data. I approached the visual data as codes and patterns of thinking that can be arranged in many different ways to trigger various readings. I chose to focus on old newspaper clippings and other old printed images that carry many historical connotations. This was where I tried to resolve my problems through digital compositing or in Ismail Zain’s term, digital collage. I made conscious choices and resolved most of my conceptual and compositional problems digitally on my computer. 

Hasnul
From my own experience, when I digitally worked on conceptual ideas that involve the mental process of exploring, relating, linking and connecting a vast array of images, it saved me a lot of time. In fact, the more I engage with this process, the more intuitive it became. Looking at your digital method, I notice how you had induced digital logic into your working process, such as modular, non-linear, connectivity or links, multi-dimensional, simultaneity, convergence and trans-disciplinary. But maybe we can come back to this later. For the time being, can you elaborate more on your compositional approach.

Zulkifli Yusoff
When it comes to composing and arrangement, I took a meticulous approach. I chose images that could be placed together with others to trigger many possible readings. I remember Zakaria Awang’s statement in regards to installation as a problem of activating an actual or physical space. The key word here is ‘activating’ or ‘active’. I would like to extend this to activating the senses and the mind. I needed to move my eyes in all dimensions, fast. I needed to look into the fundamentals, in this case, the structure, the planes, the angles, the trajectories, the lines, shapes, forms, textures, the directions, movements, flow. I needed to come up with my own ‘hukum’ or ‘order’ so-to-speak, and even at times break from it. In my case, I employed a lot of symmetrical arrangements that I countered in later stage of the production. At this stage, I think my fundamental training on the formal aspect of art in UiTM was instrumental. Combining the fundamentals of art language with digital technology really helped.  But formalism alone in theory was not enough. This was where practical experience of engaging with formal problems came in.

Hasnul
Does this mean that you would encourage your students to include digital technology in their repertoire of tools, equipment and methods?

Zulkifli Yusoff
Yes


Hasnul
What about that old myth of artistic touch and serendipity, especially in regards to drawing and marks making. And also the physical aspect of engaging with art?

Zulkifli Yusoff
I would suggest the use of digital technology to augment the thinking process of testing out and generating ideas, especially in making conscious choices. It would be useful perhaps during the early phase of generating ideas. Personally I believe in striking a balance between both intuitive or the subconscious and thinking or conscious approach, between physical and conceptual. If we relied totally on digital method, we might forsake the intuitive and expressive dimension of art making. Similarly, if we relied totally on the intuitive and expressive impulses, we might forsake the more conceptual or thinking dimension of art making. We need both. I used both.

Hasnul
What about theory, would that be important for you? Where is theory in the whole scheme of research for you? In regards to your position as an academic, how important is theory to your art making process?

Zulkifli Yusoff
As I said earlier, I am an artist first, an academician later. My academic standing came from my experience of practising as an artist. I don’t just theorise and teach. I practise (which include research), theorise and teach. Each feeds each other in an organic manner. As an academician, I need to theorise or formalise my experience into research and teaching materials. As a practising artist, theory is to support or substantiate my practise. Theory is secondary. It is not my central concern.  My central concern would be my subject of study and problems, in this case, Abdullah Munsyi’s book, and how to extract visual codes or data from it in order to come out with an installation piece. 

Hasnul
There are many theoretical sources as well, depending on your take on art making process. I think yours would be more on the use of visual semiotics to trigger new readings of a historical text. The practice of installation and its tools, equipment and techniques also come with many different theories.  For me, theory, history and method of discourse or art appreciation are all supplementary part of practising as an artist. One final question before we proceed further to the production stage of creating your work. What would be the research values of your initial method of generating ideas?

Zulkifli Yusoff
I would say in the way the past and the present are connected or ‘collaged’ in many different digital configurations to trigger possibilities of new insights on certain issues that have been around since the time of Abdullah Munsyi; how much things have changed, or not. Here, a book can be approached as a ‘text’ or data that can generate many different readings and new subjective meanings.  This is where art is different than the sciences. Here, the values are not objective and conclusive, but subjective and open-ended, living and breathing, changing and always transient. 

Another value is perhaps on the possibility of looking at art as not merely as a compulsive activity, but a conscious effort of structuring thinking patterns. It can be used as a research model or a methodology. 

Hasnul
Now let us move a bit deeper into the production aspect of the work. I mentioned about inducing digital logic into your working process. I think one natural outcome of your initial process of digital compositing is the use of non-linear principle. Would you agree on that?

Zulkifli Yusoff
Yes. Non-linear and simultaneous because I was not interested in telling stories, but compositing thinking patterns or ways of seeing. My works also may require the audience to decode rather than reading a story.

Hasnul
In the case of “Pelayaran Abdullah Munsyi”, I see the audience having to decide how to engage with the visuals, or how to activate their mind mentally. What about modular?

Zulkifli Yusoff
 Perhaps because I could employ each digital image as a independent unit that can be arranged or combined with other units in many different ways, without losing its core character. Modular also relate to more practical solution, especially in regards to the logistics of transporting large scale installation for major shows outside Malaysia. After years of dealing with such problem, modular became a natural solution in de-installing and re-installing my work. My installation became more flexible. Modular here, was not just a formal strategy, but also logistical solution.

Hasnul J Saidon
Interestingly enough, principles such as non-linear, simultaneity, modular, inter-connectivity are not only inherent in digital paradigm, but also in our Malay traditional art. In a way, you are being a Malay implicitly, rather than explicitly. What about convergence and trans-disciplinary?

Zulkifli Yusoff
Convergence and trans-disciplinary came through my choice of combining techniques found in many separate fine art disciplines into a single installation to resolve my problems. I combined printmaking, sculpture, painting and drawing techniques. By doing so, I was freed from the confines of traditional fine art disciplines, but yet still respect and employ them. I was able to rid some of the territorial ego that might have inflicted some other artists, especially painters who like to define their works in terms of techniques or process, materials and mediums.

Hasnul
Your installation then became a platform of trans-disciplinary engagement, don’t you think so?

Zulkifli Yusoff
Yes, mainly because I was not approaching the different disciplines of fine art separately, but I engaged with them as an organic whole. Some people use the term cross-disciplinary.

Hasnul
I would also say that technically, you were also thinking in a collage sense, putting together different techniques from different disciplines. It was a logical extension of your version of digital collage. Would you agree to that?

Zulkifli Yusoff
Yes

Hasnul
In regards to “Pelayaran Munsyi Abdullah”, what were some of the more pronounced technique and medium?

Zulkifli Yusoff
I would say etching and the use of metal plates.

Hasnul
Why were you interested in these technique and medium?

Zulkifli Yusoff
I have always been experimenting with different techniques and mediums. I took it as a part of challenging myself and avoiding from being too comfortable and dormant. After working on the initial digital process, the next challenge would be converting the initial idea into an installation form. I challenged myself by proposing another problem. In this case, the problem was how to converge the sculptural quality of the metal plates with the tactile and print quality of etched and embossed surface.  I also employed silkscreen method as a part of the solution, especially in regards to scale or size.  Metal plates could also be linked or connected to old methods of reproducing images for books, newspapers, magazines and many other forms of printed and paper-based materials.

Hasnul
In a way, you were converging traditional print with sculptural form. In doing so, you had reinterpreted etched metal plates. In your case, they were not plates anymore, but tactile surface of planes and forms of your installation.

Zulkifli Yusoff
Yes. The plates became my work, not anymore means of producing editions or copies on papers. Instead of just a tool, they became a time index for civilization and change.

Hasnul
Let us move to the final part of the interview, the post-production part. What is the common response that you had normally encountered after exhibiting your works? Did you take comments about your works seriously?



Zulkifli Yusoff
That would be my social commentaries and the scale of my works. I can’t control how people response to my works, or how they interpret and write about my works. As for how I took the comments and responses, that depends on who is talking or writing. I like engaging in healthy dialogue about my works or the visual art in general. I just don’t like it when certain comments get too personal and bleeds into petty sentiment and gossiping. Perhaps now as I grow older, I would love to have people know more about my thinking process and pattern.

Hasnul
Well, let’s hope they do. Thank you so much for your time.

Zulkifli Yusoff
You are welcomed.





Conversation took place at the Sri Gala Art Village, Jun 2011.




1 comment:

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