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Monday, 4 March 2013


School heroes, 2013.

Can a gallery-based, one dimensional, singular discipline, modernist, linear studio practice be pertinent, relevant and effective in engaging today's audience or the public at large with a particular contemporary issue of concern? 

In such an exclusive (if not elitist), passive, one directional and monologue gallery setting encounter with an artwork for example, how can the audience or public at large (meaning non-art-related audience) pro-actively participate in discoursing a particular theme or issue of concern claimed to be embodied by the work? 

Can a gallery space really become a participative, inclusive and discursive space that contributes in generating sustainable knowledge capital (or currency, to sound more hip) for the public at large? 

Or can it be argued that a modernist studio practice, curatorial exercise and gallery activities are increasingly becoming a  ritualistic space for economic exchange of desired commodity (or objects) meant for pleasure and identification (for the upper-class section of our population/community and its feeding open market), fast cash and short term economic gain? Even the so-called 'knowledge building' activities such as research, data collection, study, analysis, forum, discussion, lecture and talk can be flattened and co-opted into the market as a part of developing and elevating a brand profile. In some cases, the language and discourse between the common network of artist-curator-scholar-gallery owner-collector have become increasingly incomprehensible to the general public at large. So, can it be argued that a typical gallery space today has become a closed, exclusive, isolated, ritualistic space that engages in a discourse that does not reach the general public at large?

Still, it has to be acknowledged that such scenario contributes significantly to a thriving 'art market or industry' and our nation's economy! 

In such an 'open market' scenario then, how do we define a 'good art' or 'good artist'? How does such open market decide a good art and good artist? Who or what plays the determining role in identifying and acknowledging good art and good artist in such an open market? What are the criteria of evaluation? What kind of values can an open and thriving art market cultivates other than 'market value'? What happens then to other shared and core values, such as spirituality, morality, social, aesthetic, cultural and historical? 

Some would argue that an open market can flatten anything according to the whim and fancy of those who has the largest capital to invest. In such market, can capital power and dominance be used to control, dictate and influence what can be taken as good art and good artist? Can a collector or groups of collectors do this? 

If the answer is yes, are art students and young artists trained and geared up to enter such market? If so, can the present curriculum in art colleges (that I suspect is mostly not designed to be a feeder for the open market system alone) prepare them for that? Or does such curriculum exist? 

If art students and young artists are lined up like factory products to enter the modernist gallery matrix (instead of many other related fields), can a lofty claim that visual artists are critical reflectors and commentators of of our society be taken seriously without pertinent questionings and testing? 


On the other hand, the claim may carry some weight if tested on activities done outside the existing modernist framework. Archival and participative curatorial methodologies for example, have the potential to de-construct passive gallery space into a multi-dimensional discursive space in which the visiting audience or public at large may become active contributors of an exhibition content, theme and issue of concern. 

Trans-disciplinary studio practice and the resulting artworks (especially those that employ electronic and new media technologies), plus diverse range of archival objects, can be reproached as discursive tools for the visiting audience or public to engage in a particular issue of concern in a more interactive, inclusive and effective manner. 

In this model, artists and curators (young and old) are not the centre of attention or concern, or the controlling producer of meaning. Instead, they act more like a facilitator and instigator. 

Many community art projects also employ similar multi-dimensional discursive model, often equating the audience or a particular community as an important and integral component of an exhibition content. Such model places emphasis on developing a sustainable ecology that encompasses many players within a community or society, not just the closed and guarded network of artist-curator-scholar-art gallery-collector. 

This new multi-dimensional discursive model provides an alternative and pragmatic counterpoints to the commercial role of most art galleries, whilst contributing significantly to the nurturing of the nation's knowledge and intellectual capital. It secures intangible and intrinsic cultural as well as historical values that are more valuable that any art object.  

Public galleries that are funded by public fund (local, state or federal government) should emulate this alternative model as its blue ocean operational and curatorial strategies, instead of merely following the framework of commercial galleries in a 'catching up' game. Such game will only left them as a mere follower (if not loser). 

On the hand, lofty claims (by artists, curators, art galleries, art collectors for example), especially those pitched as slogan or hidden within a brand proposition, should always be tested and questioned in a civilized and scholarly manner. 

Clearly, public art galleries and museums (and those 'commercial' fronts that actually use public fund) are at a critical junction or cross-road in deciding its direction for the future. They should focus on the interest of the larger 'public' or 'audience' and the overall knowledge ecology, not just performing as surrogate mothers for artists alone. That role has perhaps be taken effectively by commercial galleries. 

Along this line, it is pertinent also to note that even several commercial galleries have even invested in developing their own knowledge capital and intangible values as they enhance their brand profile through their active participation in the art market. Still, such role should have been taken pro-actively by public-funded galleries and museums due to its 'non-profit organisation' stance.  

(With thank you and lots of luv to my recent 'feeders' and 'mind openers', namely my sifu Dr. Sulaiman Esa, my ex-students Tan Hui Koon and Tan Sei Hon, my friend Yap Sau Bin and new friend Mishko, current acting Director General of the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia, Mr. Haneed, curators and staffs at the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia, and members of the Board of Trustee, National Visual Art Development especially Assoc. Prof. Ramlan Abdullah)

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