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Monday, 29 October 2012

GO AHEAD, TOUCH IT


Go ahead, touch it 

By CHRISTINA CHIN


In an effort to make art exhibitions come ‘alive’, visitors to ‘Other Stories’ are free to give immediate feedback on the works they see.

Unlike in London and Europe, most museums and galleries in Malaysia tend to be – well – “dead”.

While we have excellent, quality exhibits worthy of any international show, the way we present them really leaves much to be desired.

Often, exhibition openings are stuffy affairs and the shows themselves, quite unimaginative in their presentation. Thus, despite having a wealth of acclaimed talents, their works remain quite inaccessible to the average Ali, Ah Seng or Samy.

Hence, it was with much enthusiasm that I trotted to the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) recently to catch “Other Stories” – an audience-interactive exhibition that features artworks by prominent Malaysian masters and new talents.

This is the first time the museum and gallery was organising an exhibition encouraging visitors to share their immediate feedback and interpretations by posting sticky notes and jotting down their thoughts on acrylic plaques and whiteboards placed next to the exhibits.

Visitors leave their comments on sticky notes next to a painting. – RONNIE CHIN/The Star
 
Museum director Hasnul Jamal Saidon tells me that the museum and gallery is “getting back on course”.

“We are reaching out to the public – even to kindergarten-going children. At the end of the day, we are a university so we are education orientated. Somewhere along the line we lost track of that so now we must rejuvenate interest in the arts again.

“The best way to do this is to make art accessible and interesting enough for people of all ages to want to come. This audience-interactive approach is definitely something we want to continue. To educate people in the arts, we must first get them interested enough to want to come back to galleries.

“I wish I could claim full credit for this whole audience-interactive concept but the truth is, I got the idea from workshops conducted by experts involved in the running of international museums and galleries. Whatever inspired me, I adopted because I think it is important for exhibitions to be perceived as being ‘alive’,” he explains.

The works featured are recent additions to the USM Fine Art Collection.

Unfortunately (due to the apparent lack of space), only 88 works by 49 artists were featured during the exhibition despite the museum having acquired an impressive 136 pieces by 70 artists in the last five years.

Art lovers, however, will get a very rare opportunity to see some of the late Rahime Harun’s impressive collection. The artist, who passed away in March this year, has donated 35 of his prints – the largest collection ever presented to MGTF.

Among the other gems to look out for are Ibrahim Hussein’s Red & Purple Interludes – generously presented to the museum by AmBank Group chairman Tan Sri Azman Hashim recently.

Azman, who during the exhibition’s opening said he bought it more than a decade ago, has since seen the piece’s value soar to about RM500,000 in the market because Ibrahim rarely paints nowadays.
Red & Purple Interludes may just be one of the many paintings he has in his private collection of more than 200 local artworks but it must surely rank as among the most interesting with its bold and vibrant energy.

I like that the exhibition is systematically categorised into eight main themes or collections, namely MGTF Pioneers; Tribute; Self, Identity & Social Critique; Cult of the Young; Prominent Artists; Post-Formalist Abstraction; Figurative Tradition & The Picturesque; and The “Other” Artists.

Harun Mokthar’s Sidai 3 (2005), featuring a traditional Malay house, is recreated into a 3-D image and placed right next to the original. Quite a fun and novel way to appreciate the masterpiece, I must say!

Books and catalogues on these artists are left lying around for visitors keen on a little reading. The whole setting was rather informal – not something one would expect of an exhibition featuring some of the country’s brightest and most influential artists. But then again, that is exactly what makes this exhibition such a unique experience.

Hasnul tells me more than 70% of the visitors to the museum and gallery are children and young adults.

Children had a field day ‘writing on walls’ (actually, whiteboards). The ‘girl’ on the left is a life-size cutout of Anina, daughter of MGTF director Hasnul. She appears all over the gallery to let visitors know their comments are welcomed. –K.T.GOH/The Star
 
“That is what we want. With “Other Stories”, we acknowledge the opinions of our visitors no matter how young they are. By allowing them to record their thoughts, we are in a way validating their opinions.

“Instead of having a curator tell you about a painting, we let the visitors form their own interpretations of the artworks and we give them an avenue to share that thought with others,” he says.

Indeed, some of the jottings may simply say “saya suka – saya mahu datang lagi” (I like – I want to come back) or “lukisan ini membuat saya gembira” (this painting makes me happy) but these unpretentious comments by children (some as young as seven) are precisely what the art scene needs – refreshing honesty based on a true appreciation for arts rather than what the elitist society dictates as art. It made me smile to note that kids, if given the chance, can show much maturity in their acceptance of creative ideas.

Hasnul agrees.
“Children are very truthful. They either like it or they don’t. They don’t try to say the right things because they think that is what society expects of them. I was genuinely surprised that they could relate to video art – a relatively modern and conceptual media.

“That said, children do relate better to realistic images. One thing I have noted since we adopted an interactive approach was that instead of just walking through the exhibition, our visitors are now very responsive because they are given the chance to participate in the show. They are not merely observing, but actually participating,” he says, adding that all the feedback is collected and recorded for the MGTF archives.

Stacks of art paper are also on hand for inspired visitors. These are scanned into the MGTF website before they are put up in a special corner for all to see. Little jigsaw puzzles of the paintings featured are placed on the floor and visitors are encouraged to form a “new” piece of work by mixing and matching these paintings into different formations.

More than just an exhibition, I found “Other Stories” to be utterly refreshing – a fun-filled (and educational) way to spend the afternoon indeed.

This exhibition will appeal to the average Malaysian – not necessarily those formally schooled in the arts.

Indeed, “Other Stories”, while comprising some highbrow works, is not intimidating. It is for passionate art lovers who appreciate unbridled expressions of thoughts, philosophies and emotions through creative explosions of colour and sound.

But perhaps Ludwig Museum (Cologne, Germany) director Kaspar Konig sums up the “Other Stories” experience best: “I think a museum always needs a kind of historical distance. It’s not a studio. It’s a place of formal presentation where you are always aware that it’s a museum ? So it has a lot to do with a contentious medium of presentation, representation and display ? Showing art is a very decisive, responsible moment of taking something seriously. It is not the art itself. It is about showing the art.”

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