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Sunday, 16 October 2011


1          Prelude

First of all, please be warned that this is going to be more like a rambling rather than a sober academic essay. I’m supposed to write about a group of artists, but naaaa.....I will rant about other things as well. I’m doing this for free, so I’m free to write whatever I like. And please bear in mind, artists don’t exist in a vacuum ok.

I write as I fly, getting high and getting real simultaneously.  So here we go.

2.      CORE what?

Few months ago, sweet Anniketyni Madian from CORE Design Gallery dropped an fb message seeking me to write for a group of artists – Ali Nurazmal, Raja Lope, Mohd Faizal and Sham Asmawi. “Here we go again,” I said. I have often been a part of this ritual of preparing a ‘write-up’, I lost count already. Ironically (and luckily for some), I have not lost my interest. It’s a curse actually.

I told Anni, “ok!” mostly because I know Ali Nurazmal, one of the artists whose works I am quite familiar with since his days with Di Kala Jingga. I don’t know much about the other artists, even though their names appear on my fb friends list. I don’t know much about CORE Design Gallery either.

But thanks to social media (fb of course), I heard and saw many interesting shows and happenings coming from this new gallery. Stalking through the posted pictures on CORE fb albums, the shows do appear to stand out, well, at least the titles. Other than the expected servings of young and emerging artists’ works, I also saw what appear to be experimental performances of some sort too. To be fair, after exhausting the ‘anything goes’ phase of post-modern ‘balunisme’ (no need to search for this word in dictionary la!), visual art exhibitions may need catchy titles and enticing supplementary side-dishes to be noticed.

KL art scene (including in Subang Jaya) can sometimes be too saturated and ritualized up to a point that nothing surprises me anymore. Most of the time, it is more like business as usual, instead of unusual. Plus, I do have this cliché (if not romantic and arguable) idea that new and fresh happenings mostly occur on the periphery or margin (like somewhere in Gelugor, Penang), not in the centre (like KL, for examples). 

Sadly, I have to self-correct myself again. Now, even the so-called ‘sub-altern’ and ‘underground’ elements on the margin have mostly been co-opted, neutralized and capitalized into the mainstream. The small (if not elite) circle of contemporary visual art audience is immune already. Observing contemporary art practice in Malaysia now is more an exercise in cultural studies (with its adjacent critical theories) rather than mere aesthetics and formal appraisal.  

Still, this is just a cruel rambling that came out of stalking fb pictures. Ok, I know, it is not really a reliable way of ‘experiencing’ and writing about art. So, feel free to strike the lame observation above.  To sound like a ‘clever-clever’ people, the observation is based on secondary source, not primary. I need primary data to validate my observation and interpretation, if not to remind me that I am an academician, by profession. In short, I need to know who the heck are behind this gallery. Who are the owners? I need to see them, to be with them, the feel their vibes, to get their sides of the story. I need to bypass the interface (Anni), and go straight face-to-face. 

3.      The ‘sermon’.

So I gave Anni a hard time for not being ‘professional’ enough in requesting an essay from me. “Your boss is too busy to ask for the essay from me directly ka? I’m also damn busy, got hundreds of things to do. I don’t want to deal with her gallery assistant. I want to deal with your boss. Give me her number, I’ll call her myself after I came back from my solo in Hong Kong.”  

I called the boss, Scarlette Lee, and gave her a boring sermon on professional practice (like I’m so pro, hah!). 

“Malaysian art scene is so small, if your fart everybody can hear it. It’s not just about competing and selling, but also about servicing, about supporting each other, bla!bla!bla!”. Poor Scarlette had to be the ears for my ranting. On second thoughts, it was perhaps my sub-conscious way of getting even after agreeing to do it for free. Partly, it might have been my male ego ( I call it ‘hijab’ or veil) trying to reclaim its pride. 
Ego aside, when one seeks and asks, the universe will provide, through synchronicity. Few days after coming back from Hong Kong, Scarlette Lee and Chun Hooi Tan (the ‘bosses’ - two young owners of CORE) happened to be in Penang. I met them, finally.

4.      Meet The ‘Core’

We met for a breakfast at Kopitan (not kopitiam) at Sungai Dua, in front of USM main campus. To my pleasant surprise, Scarlette and Chun look more like young creative couple rather than business executives, definitely not the ‘kiasu’ type. Both look younger than their age, casual, friendly, easy-going and comfortable to hang out with. They emit good vibes. We talked about many things. It was a short time well spent. 

Chun the husband is small built, but big in idea, vision and passion. He is the pillar, and having trained as an architect (or is it interior design?), fits nicely as the mediator between science and art, objective and subjective, left brain and right brain, business and passion, get real and get high. 

It is also worth reflecting upon his decision to position the gallery as a ‘design’ gallery and to fuse his design practice with contemporary art. He is the embodiment of the future of design and contemporary art in Malaysia. Contemporary art, if one looks beyond the confine of the sedated formalism, has become an integral part of cultural phenomena (and cultural studies). I refer to it as a spectrum of organic, transient and living emotional design network. Chun possesses that nice mix of nerdy yet creative, offbeat, silent and cool thinker look. Chun is the ‘Yang’.  

Scarlette speaks fluent Malay, and told me that she was trained as a pharmacist. She decided to shift to art out of passion. Scarlette is again, another good living case of science meets art that I often like to theorize, write and talk about. She emits an air of people person, sociable, independent, seemingly outgoing and knows how to make others relax and be themselves. In her eyes, I see a wild and potent energy, perhaps hinting at more exciting things coming out from the ‘CORE’ of her dreams in the future. Scatlette is the dreamer. She is the ‘Ying’. 

5.      University-Industry  
Scarlette asked me about courses in management, curation and business of art in colleges and universities. Sadly, I think such left-brain, objective and rational side of the arts is rather marginalized in the rush towards churning out artists and designers. At the end, we have large surplus of right-brain type artists and designers who are always ready to ‘get high’, but not enough people who can ‘get real’ - good researchers, theorist/thinkers, curators, writers, business and brand managers, promoters, publicists (or spin doctors), publishers, accountants, lawyers and many more left-brain type of people in the arts. 

Even fine art studio training can possibly get staid in its own comfy zone, perhaps at the expanse of getting in touch with what really happens outside the campus walls. ‘Balunisme’ abounds, especially when the nurturing of fluent theorists and thinkers are considered not commercially viable. This is quite puzzling because in a long term R&D sense, business needs good theorists and thinkers to provide big pictures, connect things and strategize. Colleges and universities that offer fine art education should engage actively with the ‘industry’ instead of confining themselves in their lofty comfy zones. 

In fact, it seems like the contemporary art ‘industry’ (including private enterprise driven by a combination of passion and business acumen) is doing more in propelling the Malaysian contemporary art scene rather than institutions. Anyhow, I have been lamenting about this ‘get high-get real’ dichotomy for so many years already, so no need to add salt to the wound here.

Luckily, here I have right in front of me, two potent and living case studies on the imperatives of getting high and getting real simultaneously – Scarlette and Chun. Next step is to experience CORE myself. Concurrently, I can meet all the artists and see their works. I need to go to Subang Jaya.
Again, synchronicity unveils itself. I needed to drive to Shah Alam to pick up Delly, my eldest daughter. It was a perfect reason to drop by at CORE in Subang Jaya.

6.      Feel the CORE

Early in the morning at 6.00 am, I drove off south with Ana my wife and Nina my youngest daughter. By 11.30 am, we reached CORE. We were greeted by Anni and Scarlette, then all the artists – Ali Nurazmal, Raja Lope, Mohd Faizal and Sham Aswawi. CORE is a terrace house, so it has a homely feel, instead of business. As I entered, I imagined that exhibitions and other events would probably feel like an occasion for family and close friends. 
To be frank, I was more attracted to the design of the interior rather than the art works. I can’t help it. Years of directing a museum and gallery as well as doing curatorial works have conditioned me to look at the big picture first. I was more into the space that contains the artworks. Immediately I sensed intimacy, probably due to the size. 

Feng Shui is good (not that I’m an expert), enough natural light coming in from the open floor and roof. Hardware is not cluttered, so that more focus can be given to the soft (intangible/appreciation) dimension. Chun is clever in maximizing the space. When I asked him about his choice of favourite architect, he mentioned Kevin Mark Low. Mmmmm....this guy again. I owe this guy my list of ten greatest artists and artworks of all time (he asked me during his recent visit to Penang). So far I only gave him one. Anyhow, ya, Kevin is for me, more than an architect and designer, he is a thinker. I sensed similar vibe in Chun as well.  

With such a good mix of getting high and getting real, CORE is certainly a compelling space to be watched. It provides a perfect setting for Ali Nurazmal, Raja Lope, Mohd Faizal and Sham Asmawi to dream and showcase their ‘circus’ works. Yes, the show is to be called ‘Cirque du freak’. I told you before, CORE is not conservative when it comes to titling its show. Luckily, the guys were not that freaky. Instead, I might be the one that freaked them out a bit. They appeared a bit nervous to be interviewed.

“Rilek le brader!”

7.      The Underworlds Of Mohd Faizal and Raja Lope

My readings are coloured by my bias, so no need to get disheartened, or overtly excited. Everything is based on one’s premise or position, both objective and subjective. Mine has probably been jaded by cultural studies, seeking for cultural texts and inter-connected signification that form multitudes of possible meanings.

The works of Faizal and Raja Lope can be read as textual materials that perform as indexes. They  signify inclination (if not obsession) towards things unseen and obscured mental dimension. Perhaps they epitomize a society (young people especially) seeking emotional solace in a globalized Malaysia. Perhaps too, they signify Malay subjectivities gone awry. Their subjective (if not freaky) underworlds (if not ‘circus’) could probably be due to marginalization of critical inquiry, objective thinking and rational methodology in studying, approaching and practicing art.   
Mohd Faizal seems to be in a different world altogether, at least emotionally.  He has this Johny Depp gothic (blank and dead) gaze. But before Faizal starts to swell, I have to say that I’m not referring to his look.  He speaks gothic too, albeit in Malay. 

“I came from a self-sustain farming family. We are very close to soil. Naturally, I am attached to soil and farming. I like to plant. I can’t see an empty land, even a small one. I will fill it with plants. I look at farming and gardening as a metaphor for life. Life is like a vegetable, short but still manages to provide sustenance for others,” he said with his gothic gaze.

At some point while listening to him, I felt a sharp chill and sensed someone else looking at me, instead of Faizal. Immediately my sub-conscious verbal reflect uttered a respond, “you must be close to your grandfather.” “Yes, but he passed away already, ” Faizal replied. “Well, then he is even more free to be with you now, or perhaps, there are other intangible companions of him with you too,” I said, mostly without even knowing what the heck I was talking about. “Ya, I do encounter some disturbances as well.” At this point, I felt the sudden need to equip myself with psycho-analysis.   

To avoid meandering into the underworld of psychosis, I diverted back to the real world. Faizal continued, “I paint and draw from my daily activities, mostly related to gardening and plants. My studio in Meru is filled with my plants. I plant vegetables, so I draw vegetables. I draw and paint them symbolically, often relating them to the notion of death. I like to ponder about body and soul.  My father used to remind, life is short, so make yourself beneficial to others around you.”

Faizal’s works are emotionally enticing for me, perhaps the most accomplished amongst the four. They are skilfully executed with passionate details in some parts. He uses ballpoint pen and pencil, carves on plywood and chisels on cement surface. Most are well composed without being too stagy. Some of his drawings are deceivingly straightforward, but not without a dark twist related to death. Some are sombre and haunting, while some others are simple exercises of acute observation. Occasionally, he pitches his organic forms with that of human body and organs, as if reminding his audience of the transient nature of life. His gloomy underworld nevertheless is not really rare in the local contemporary art scene. In fact, his world brings me back to the nineties. We might have seen variations of such world in the works of Tan Chee Kuan, Eng Hwee Chu, Chai Chang Hwang, Hamir Shoib, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Masnor Ramli, Sooshie Sulaiman and Chang Kok Hooi, to name a few.

“I like it when my audience can enter into and engage with my works. They are meant as a reminder to myself, and hopefully to others too,” Faizal said. 

Raja Lope also seems to dwell in the surrealist underworld, but his is a bit lighter, vibrant, colourful and upbeat.  If Faizal’s works remind one of Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow”, Raja’s remind one of James Cameroon’s “Avatar.” This Raja can also be interestingly compared to another Perak’s Raja, Raja Shahriman. Malay royal DNA is known for its inherited obscured companions or ‘protectors’. Even though both ‘Rajas’ share quite similar affinity to the domain of the intangible beings, Raja Lope’s underworld and creatures are perhaps more ‘human-friendly’ than Shariman’s sharp and fierce monsters. Surprisingly, Raja Lope didn’t mention Shahriman as his hero. He mentioned movie director Tim Burton and illustrator Drewstruzan (I hope the spelling is right). 

A self-confess movie enthusiast, Raja Lope told me that he is more into fantasy and imagination and considers himself a watcher and dreamer. He sources his imageries from childhood memories and enjoys good doses of humour other than laughing. He reads comedy and takes fantasy, imagination and laughter as an important part of human remedy. 

“My father is a sportsman and coach. I used comedy and humour to neutralize his strict regimented coaching style when I was growing up.” 

Raja excels in applying airbrush and masking technique on canvas, a tough feat to practice due to the textured surface of the canvas. His visual language leans more towards comics, camera framing, character conceptualization and storyboarding (in pre-production design) as well commercial illustration. They are unabashedly theatrical too. Such language reminds me of the proliferation of comic language and narrative tendency as well as appropriation of mangga-like characters in the local contemporary art scene. Meme’s works came into my mind.    

Raja Lope left me with a remark, “I hope my works can release my audience off their mental weight, so that they can get high too. Even the most serious person fantasizes.” 

8.      The Simulacrum of Sham Asmawi and Ali Nurazmal 

In contrast to the underworld of Raja Lope and Mohd Faizal, Sham Asmawi and Ali Nurazmal reflect their engagement with the world of simulacra – books, magazines, television, movies, advertisements.  

Sham Asmawi is a self-taught artist, well actually.....ustaz turned artist. He was trained as a religious teacher in Bangi. I found his background more compelling than his works. In fact, it would probably be more appealing if the riddles of his own ‘conversion’ so-to-speak were incorporated into his works. Sadly, it was not.

When Sham narrated his experience in dealing with the type of people and environment he came from, I was tempted to dwell into the position of religious and political institutions (read Malay and Islam) in shaping (or stunting, depending on one’s outlook) the thinking of contemporary Malaysian Malays today. But that would require a Phd thesis. 

While showing pictures of his older works and stacks of sketchbooks, Sham began to narrate, “I learn art myself, re-telling stories or whatever happens around me though paintings, including for example the Mat Sabu issue.”

Mat Sabu or whatever, I found that Sham’s repertoire of work since he converted into art expectedly thick with modernist stench, safe, and cliché. No doubt, he is very talented and skilful. Having dabbled in several styles, he seems to be very comfortable and competent with oil and acrylic. 

“For this show, I spent six months to prepare. I read a book on Duchamp, found him to be a very interesting artist who did many inventive things that were probably not well accepted during his time. I studied and sketched out images related to him, including his works,” Sham explained. 

His recent works are Duchamp-Dadaism, Dali-Surrealism revisited, in tired illustrative manner. It would be interesting to query on why Sham is attracted to Duchamp and Dali, but time was rather envious for me dig deeper. Too bad he decided to simply replicate and illustrate rather that emulate Duchamp’s ‘dadaist’ spirit and inquisitive mind. Perhaps he needed more than six months (with a guiding guru) to contextualize Duchamp and Dali within his own contemporary reality.   But the good thing is that he seems to be persistent and cool, having being in the art scene for more than a decade.  Perhaps he needs to get himself out of the suffocating modernism, while putting his grip on the critical side of contemporary art. For now, Sham has the biggest disclaimer (not academically or professionally trained), so I won’t whack him more. 

Ali Nurazmal speaks his own experiences through his works. Having been involved in music and theatre, he appears to be the performer in the group. For him, making art is a form of entertainment. He expounds his encounters with mundane and daily experiences through bold and outstanding display of realistically-rendered visual riddles. His style is a mix of dramatic realism and pop. His visual vocabulary and language are strongly influenced by world of print and screen media – books, magazines, movies, advertisement, etc.  This is not surprising, since he used to be involved in such world. He wants his audience to interact mentally and emotionally with his daily subjects.

“Sometimes I sketch first, sometimes the composing happens as I paint. Painting is like a puzzle, a game. I like to refer to popular culture.  I’ve gone through many genres and styles, including abstraction. But I never leave figure. I began to focus on using figures since three years ago. After leaving the commercial world, I retrain myself. I went back to my UiTM years to search and redefine myself. After that, I kept polishing my skill and visual language. For example, I painted a large apple. It reminds me of my early experience of learning to paint still life and natural objects, other than my childhood days when I was learning to read (A for Apple). I do like to see how people react to my works in first impression. My initial intention is to make people say, wow! But anyhow, I don’t mind how people react to my works. They are mere signs to entertain and spark further conversation.”

Sham Asmawi added by saying, “as an artist, I make signs, for people to see. I hope they also appreciate. If some people can appreciate and buy a Mercedes, why not painting. Buying art can be a form of therapy.” 

9.      A Space to Dream

Martin Lurther King, Jr. declared to millions, “I have a dream,” not “I have a goal”. 

“A creative environment promotes the freedom of a dream. A creative environment encourages the use of a blank sheet of paper and the question, “If we could draw a picture of what we want to accomplish, what would that look like?” 

The quote above comes from a small book by John C. Maxwell on “How Successful People Think” that I bought when I was waiting for my flight back from Hong Kong. Perhaps, the whole business of learning, making, exhibiting, sharing, appreciating, buying and selling art is about signifying the need to have a space for dream.

Scarlette ended my encounter with the following, 

“I see a sense of imagination as the common bond between all of them. It’s very nice to see and put the four of them together. Art is a sense of creativity and I cultivate that sense by digging into the artists’ mind. I want to give these artists a chance to show. I spent hours hanging out and talking to them. I came to realize that beyond the rational mind, there’s something more fascinating,” said Scarlette, affirming my own mantra of getting real and getting high in a complimentary way.

Perfect 10

Before driving off to Shah Alam and back to Penang again, my family and I were generously treated with a wonderful lunch by Scarlette and Chun. Thank you guys for the delicious salmon teriyaki! 

Another friend of mine, Anderson Ee came to join the entourage. While sorting out a design and video ‘assignment’ with him, Andy unleashed his whacky reading of modern and contemporary art by poking CORE to offer a course in “Mythmaking.” 

Andy my friend, that would be like teaching others to be merchants of dreams (saudagar mimpi).

Perhaps that is exactly what I’m doing right now.

Hasnul J Saidon
October, 2011

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1 comment:

  1. Broken link :

    Hasnul J Saidon
    October, 2011

    For pictures, click "

    New Link :