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Thursday, 29 September 2011


"Hey Hasnul, give me your ten all-time greatest pieces of art". Perky Kevin Mark Low, like many creative thinkers, do know how to disturb and activate (if not annoy) lazy or complacent chakras. I could not give him straight answer. He whacked me good (verbally of course) for that. Even Sali could not give straight answer either (which made me feel less vulnerable).

"I can't believe your guys, come on! I give you guys a week to come with at least one".

Sali and Kevin, are two new friends that I met during the the Thinkcity Design Conference last July. They were in town again last Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday. I was not able to hang out with them long enough during the Conference because I had to entertain my old pal, Najjar Musawwir (who came all the way from the USA to MGTF USM as our residence artist). When Sali told me that she's coming back to Penang, I was more than happy to offer my help in bringing her to few new galleries in town. 

Sali, trained in graphic design at Royal College of Art, works for Cities x Design ( I think). Born in Yokohama, Japan, Sali has been living in France since she was a baby. She is currently serving as a consultant for UNESCO on creative cities (based in Bangkok) and has since, been flying from one city to another around the world - a global citizen perhaps. In fact, she was in Jakarta before she flew to Penang.

Kevin on the other hand is more a philosopher-thinker and an artist than an architect (at least for me). His  lively presentation during the Conference was very insightful and extremely pertinent. Anyway, better not distort what he said in the presentation, so I'm not going to touch it. Those interested can try to poke him themselves. 

I went to pick Sali and Kevin at Gallery 29 along the China Street. I brought TC Liew with me as my google map. The rain was pouring. When I met the friendly owner of the gallery, Rebecca, I told her that I am a bit embarrassed for being rather ignorant about the gallery. Warm and pleasant Rebecca told me its ok, but not without an honest pinch - "USM people don't come here", which is sadly true indeed. Well, USM people (in this regards, those in the arts and culture) perhaps didn't go to most of the more than 20 galleries in Penang. I hope I'm wrong.

As she was talking to Sali and Kevin, I remember reading about Rebecca, her gallery and her place (which is next door) somewhere. Then, I realized that I once watched a documentary on ASTRO about her unique house in Pangkor, where she used to live with her family. 

"So you are that Rebecca, very very happy to meet you then, Rebecca."

I spent too little time in Rebecca's warm and cozy gallery, so it won't be wise to write about it. But I will definitely be back to spend more time and really enjoy it. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend those who come to  Penang to drop by at her gallery. It will be a time (or better, money) well spent.

I took Sali and Kevin to 3Quaters Studio (actually a photography studio) to meet with few of the young creative people of Penang who define themselves as XY Cusp youngsters (born 1975-1991). Amongst them include TC Liew himself, Win Win Chew and her sister Okui Lala, Sharifah and few others (sorry guys, too many of you for me to remember). There were few Win Win students from KDU (Kolej Damansara Utama) when we reached the place. Laila (curator at MGTF), Shafiq and As (my graduate students) were already there to join us. The show at 3Quaters Studio is also a part of the 1MCAT : INSIGHT PENANG 2011.

The place is having a freshly different kind of photography show (as compared to predominantly painting exhibitions here in Penang). The show is called "A Place Called Home". Selection were probably based on cronism and nepotism in the spirit of Malaysian political climate. Since I didn't bring my measurement instrument, I was not really into looking for a particular 'standard'. Most of the subjects of the works are Penang-centered. Some works are conceptual, like TC's. Some with a touch of mangga pop, some lyrical. Sharifah's work is surreal and haunting. Others are akin to 'cinema verite' (as it is, ala Ismail Hashim), and one in particular, very commercial approach. 

The works are not 'out of this world', but at least we were saved from the typical parade of 'ikan koi'. All the works are quite distinct from each other, which makes the show an enticing one. The curatorial strategy had to dance with the structure of the rented house though, perhaps a marriage between photography, installation, interior design and architecture. A bit make-shift feel, yet all the works are well-placed fittingly. The light reminds me a bit of a museum ambiance. Most of all, I could sense a good positive vibe dwelling within, perhaps a hint of more to come in the future. Congrats to all involved.  

Since Win is also teaching at KDU (and her students were around), we talked (more like lamented) about the Malaysian education system, and the place of creative arts in it. Kevin even asked me if I would want to have my own 'non-formal' learning place. Yes, that would one day be in "Tanah Tok Cha" in Balik Pulau.

I brought Sali and Kevin to AWAS (Art Work Art Space) owned by Sherry (Sharifah Mazwani) and her hubby, a well known painter, Drew Harris. What a pleasant visit it was. AWAS is situated in a posh Dato' Keramat area, along a line of single unit houses or bungalows. The long driveway serves as a very inviting entrance (with anticipation). The interior is airy and the lighting is perfect.

AWAS is showing "Beautiful Junk", showcasing works by several artists that are said to be based on the concept of recycling (or rejuvenation, if not deconstruction and reconstruction of existing materials/objects/concepts/ideas). Sounds similar to USMcares (Creative Arts Embrace Sustainability) currently showing at MGTF USM. 

Sherry was there to welcome us with her usual smiley self. Initially, she mistook Sali for a graduate student researcher. For me, it was a compliment for Sali. 

Shirley (my ex-student at USM) was also there to show her mandala-inspired digital prints. It has been quite some time since the last time I saw Shirley. Her works are a meditation of time, the empowering of the NOW and HERE. Graphically well-designed, clean, intricate and meditative. But I'm not sure where the 'junk' fits into it. Perhaps in the use of clocks (or watches?) in the works.

Chunwoei's work are also interesting, if not fitting with the ubiquitous 1Malaysia chant. Luckily for him, his wonderful work is not hijacked by the Ministry of Tourism, or the Ministry of Culture. Both Sali and Kevin were visibly interested in some of the 'folded' paper-based 3D characters (of Malaysian people from various backgrounds). Chunwoei, by the way, is no stranger and already well-known in the Malaysian graphic design world. The work is very well presented and placed (at the comfy space of the entrance lobby). But, again, I'm not sure though where the notion of 'junk' fits into the work. Recycled paper?

Sherry's work is cute, interactive, inviting, intimate, friendly and warm, very much like her, using existing 'throw away' fabrics I guess. Since I'm not a trained fashion designer or any field related to it, I better not try to be clever here.

Syed Bakar's "Play Anyway" project, is placed in one room, with one wall fully occupied by drawings by Shirley's little son (or daughter?). Syed Bakar (Sherry's father actually) is the Obi-wan-Knobi of the show (metaphorically and literally, since he has a handsome white beard). The D.I.Y children toy project is the outcome of his residency at USM, initially shown at MGTF.

Drew Harris came up with witty and cynical conceptual piece made of an amalgamation of several found objects. Kevin was surprised to see such work coming from Drew. I rather enjoyed the piece. It was anyhow, Drew's response to a speech given by Ng Yen Yen, Malaysia's Minister of Tourism during a high profile launching of 1MCAT in George Town recently. I leave it to Sherry and Drew to carry the burden of explaining the details.

Maizul's works fit nicely with the junk concept, visibly showing the use of discarded or used box papers to construct his works. Maizul uses comic visual language and narrative structure to construct what he refers to as 'popaganda' - a witty combination of 'pop' and 'ganda' (double up). 

We went through Shelly's and Drew's workplace on the 1st. floor, greeted by Sherry's pampered cat. Okui mentioned about her rabbit, which inspired me to grab Sherry's Fender guitar and churn out improvised jazzy piece....."Okui has a bunny rabbit, like to shit, like to shit, like to shit" applaud.

On our way up, Kevin was mesmerized by a painting by Drew's friend. "So intense" he said. 

So spooky for me. Sali agreed. 

We saw a giant poster of Ahmad Zaki's nude figure exhibition. Animated and frisky Kevin got excited again and began explaining about Zaki's work to Sali.

There is also TC Liew's tame drawing piece in the show. Kevin advised TC to focus on using pencil or dry media, to push and go deeper and explore it to the highest possible level. For a person like TC, that would be a challenge.Good luck.

The next day, I brought Sali and Kevin to my wife's place at Rozana's Batik and Rozanas Fine Heart Gallery. The gallery showcases the works of my three children and Rozana herself in a homely set up. Their works are complimented by works by walk-in visitors, thus the unofficial tagline, "a gallery where you are the artist". Rozana's Fine Heart encourages inclusiveness, participation and immersion, other than doing "art from the heart", which is the title of it's showcase there. Sali tried her hand on tie-and-dye. 

Then I brought them to Gallery 27 to see a conceptual show by a bunch of lonely men (yours truly, TC Liew, Kelvin Chuah and Izmer). TC Liew again? He seems to be everywhere. 

Kevin was definitely not into 'text as art', and I ended up having to answer his questions. TC was not around, so he escaped Kevin's 'interrogation'.

Finally, we went to MGTF USM. I showed them around the USMcares exhibition. 

Sali and Kevin gave me a good advice on keeping things simple as they criticize the 'theme park' look of MGTF's stair to pre-historic cave section. Better keep things simple (ya, especially with my 'toilet budget'). It was a sudden change of mood for them too. Thank you for the professional advice. I returned the favor by 'fooling' them around with MGTF's mind games and tricks. 

Both of them were very interested in the traditional performing art section, and our 'traditional village' section. I could not remember how, but we ended up talking about how the regional history, heritage, legacy, culture and tradition have been sadly hijacked and abused (or more likely, used and exploited) locally  to serve narrow socio-political and economic ends. Phuuuhhh!

To freshen up (or show off), I showed Sali and Kevin MGTF's conceptual visuals of proposed future plan for its science and technology section.  The proposal is nevertheless, still a proposal, waiting for money to drop from the sky.

Kevin had a good time making fun of my pre-rebonding look when I brought him and Sali to my office.

To Kevin and Sali, thank you for being such great guests. I had a good and well-spent time with you guys.

And by the way Kevin, my answer to your chakra-disturbing question, would be Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and his last painted self-portrait (with his piercing eyes), both of which I used (actually deconstructed) in two of my works.

My chakras are back to normal again.



Tuesday, 27 September 2011


An exhibition with no 'artwork', or the artworks are 'text and diagrams'?

Some say this exhibition is too geeky or nerdy for the visual art scene in Penang. I would say that it is very pertinent, relevant and fitting (to be shown in a 'university'). 

But,.....whattheheck! just taste it first. 

Excerpt from the curatorial text by TC Liew and Kelvin Chuah

Exterior of Galeri 27 at USM.
Entrance to the gallery.

The history of text and its evolution may be read in great detail from the developments of cultures, linguists and artists, amongst others, who since time immemorial redefined their form of reading and writing. Take for instance the marked simplification and revolution of Chinese text from ancient manuscripts to contemporary publications. Fundamentally, text may be understood as a structural form for manuscripts, books and newspapers. Text in today’s context is essentially the wording in published/online writings that give shape to form and meaning of ideas. There are but many ways to decipher interpret and understand the writings and messages from authors of texts.

What about text in visual art?

Front sinage, notice the space between 2 and 7 on the logo.

Text in visual art generates detailed explication of the works of art, narrating and elaborating further the intention(s) and concepts of the artist(s). The explanation and contextualization of art writing defines the perimeters in which the visual operate; hemming the reading within frameworks that encompass but is not limited to socio-economic and political connotations. Text and their meanings also allow for further discourse and multiple trajectories with which visuals may be discoursed, positioned and interpreted (depending on locality and conditions that the art works are produced).

Caption for "Rumination" (2011) by Dr. Izmer Ahmad
"... of Malaysian Art" (2011) by Kelvin Chuah
A black border, a list of names, and information......who creates the narratives of Malaysian art, artists or writers? Who gives the conTEXT?
From Kelvin's work to Dr. Izmer's parade of cows (towards left).

So what happens when text IS the work of art? Or rather text is developed into a form of encoding, where text is no longer text but something else? How then do we read text, or is it art (not text)? Take for instance, a quotation from a passage is printed on the surface of a canvas, what then are the limits before plagiarism becomes an issue? 

Legally, copyright requires the quotation be cited. In a polar view, lines on an art work can be contested as art and not citation.

Encoding has possibly transformed the way messages, or text is interpreted. Structurally, the ‘text’ becomes metaphorically embalmed, possibly necessitating new methods of breaking codes. As in a piece of abstract painting contains of varied marks, strokes and colour which refer as the artist’s ‘text’ to express and convey his messages. Through the study of formalistic quality of artwork, basic elements such as dots, lines, shapes, forms, textual, colours and etc. are identified and unveiled. If those elements are tool(s) or ‘text’ that make meaning to a piece of painting; scientifically those are similar to a bit – the basic computer unit which able to entangle the gigantic databases; or microtubule associated protein (MAP), the tiniest element in human being brain that sparks complex thoughts and ideas. Those visual databases are graphically plotted, diagrammed and mapped into graph and chart format to show multiple layers of information. Diagram is another visual forms share similar function as ‘text’ does.

Again, what happens when diagram is the work of art? 

"Rumination" (2011) by Dr. Izmer Ahmad. Left turn into the light.

The diagrammatic data encourage and suggest different reading of a piece of art. It informs on both macro and a micro level; as micro level address audiences with detailed information of formalistic elements. On the other hand, macro level audiences is able to trace the thinking and behaviourist patterns of the man behind the piece of art; perhaps in larger picture the diagram itself showcase the thinking of the artists (the visual interpreters). 

(Pictures above : Glowing light in the shape of love, illuminating the 'alpha cow' at the center. The alpha cow is eating a scroll of 'art text'. What happens to the 'text' after the consumption? Shit?)

Making interlocution between research and art making, this exhibition may be seen as an attempt to integrate the very contrary practises within the field of visual art. Artists deal with the necessity for text as writers/researchers’ engagement with the visual is elevated from detached readings and critiques of images to a sense of meaning in presentation and portrayal. Perchance, such tensions need be negotiated to fashion future interdisciplinary practices. It may also be viewed as an open ended dialectic; obliging contradictory ideas in within a conformed space.

 (Cowing around. From Dr. Izmer's 'rumination' to Kelvin Chuah's 2nd. piece " art no writing", 2010.)

In terms of visual art, this exhibition is groundbreaking in its scheme to work, rework and integrate the usage of text in art works. Recent memory has not recorded many such conceptual exhibitions in the country using texts. One may recall Wong Hoy Cheong’s Text/tual. Yet this is a proposition to address the domain of text and art with tangential concerns ranging from the historical to cognitivism studies. Artistically, the show is of significance, not in monetary concerns but to push the boundaries of conceptual art as portrayed and seen in Malaysia.

(In recognition and in appreciation to what? Another layer of 'text' to ponder)

Text and Diagram in cognition, to cognize in texts and diagrams. by 4 artists/researchers, namely Hasnul Jamal Saidon, Dr. Izmer Ahmad, Kelvin Chuah and Liew Ting Chuang @ TC. Where text is thrust to its limits as symbols of meanings or even iconography, to a configuration beyond conventional boundaries? All the participants of this exhibition are affiliated as staff or postgraduate students of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). The idea of presenting a conceptual show like this in an institution creates exciting possibilities for other collaborations.

Kelvin Chuah & TC Liew

The following is an excerpt from a description on the 2nd. part of the exhibition. The description is by TC Liew.

Through the study of formalistic quality of artwork, visual elements are tools that make meaning to a piece of painting; therefore those visual database are graphically plotted, diagrammed and mapped into graph and chart to show multiple layers of information. It is another experience of reading a piece of art.

Visual Sampling Method was invented by Assoc. Prof. Hasnul Jamal Saidon and Liew Ting Chuang since 2008, under Tuanku Fauziah Museum & Gallery (MGTF), Universiti Sains Malaysia. Currently Visual Sampling Method (VSM) 3.0 is being developed to unveil curatorial framework, exhibition design and thematic study of an exhibition. VSM 3.0 was expanded from its previous versions such as VSM 1.0, used experimentally for a fine art collection by a prominent private collector. VSM 2.0 is an improved version and was used experimentally utilized for Syed Ahmad Jamal (SAJ)’s retrospective (2009) to generate statistical data of SAJ’s institutional collection. Grafix In Reality (2010) by a group of Penang emerging artists called the Third-Eyes adapted VSM 2.0 to summarize their artworks into barcode-like patterns. Instead of reading in essay form, the patterns provided artworks information through info-graphic.

VSM 2.1 (upgraded version) is the analysis instrument for this showcase.

 (What if an artwork is taken as a code?)

 (An excerpt from Dr. Zakaria Ali's essay about an artist was converted into a QR code (to be decoded). A VSM diagram about an artist's work is placed on the wall, instead of the artwork itself. What are we experiencing? Artwork? Information about an artwork? What are we deciphering or decoding? What are we referring to, an artwork or information about an artwork? What if the 'coded information' is the artwork itself?)

What is happening cognitively in our mind as we engage with an artwork, or as we engage with 'information' about the same artwork via written text? Are they similar? If not, which one represents a better cognitive experience? Are we relying more on artworks or written texts to encode an experience and form meanings? What creates meanings? Information and experience embedded in text and diagram? Or information and experience embedded in an artwork? What instigate endless discourses, artworks or written texts? What constitutes 'an art education' reading art or reading texts? What makes an art degree (bachelors, masters and phds), artworks or written texts?