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Friday, 31 May 2013


From Mass To Multi Media – Malaysian Art in an Electronic Era

Hasnul J Saidon and Niranjan Rajah

This essay was originally published as a hypertext essay in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Pameran Seni Elektronik Pertama at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in 1997. Part of the original text is in Malay, and has been translated here by Sarena Abdullah.

The Beginning

Computers were brought into the field of Malaysian fine arts from outside circles. In 1983, Kamarudzaman Md. Isa, a lecturer in Industrial Design at Institut Teknologi MARA began to use BASIC programming language on an Apple IIe platform with the capacity of 64KBRAM to create images. A year later, he used the same programming platform on a Commodor64, to produce the work "Self-Portrait”, which was exhibited at ITM’s Art and Design Faculty. Since dot matrix printers at that time were limited to producing black-and-white prints, Kamarudzaman recorded the images from the computer’s eight-colour display screen in the form of coloured photo prints.

In the late80s, the emergence of digitizers allowed the use of black-and-white cameras with an RGB filter lens to record images directly into computers. At the same time, DeluxePaint software enhanced the capabilities of computers to produce and process images. With the help of Commodore Amiga1000 computer with its 500KBRAM capacity and far more sophisticated color display, Kamarudzaman produced "Cini" (1987) and "Tribute to Father" (1987).

Ismail Zain must be described as the visionary of Malaysian computer art. Although he was not the first to apply digital imaging technology, he was without doubt the first to produce a consolidated body of work in the new medium.  He constructed a theoretical framework for the absorption of advanced technology while maintaining a critical disposition. As an artist Ismail Zain was not a victim of the historical time lag, vis-à-vis international trends, that tends to afflict modern art practice in Malaysia. He was alert to new ideas and theories and was able to manifest these in his art well before the ‘dust had settled on them’. 

Far from the formal and perceptual concerns of modernist art, Ismail Zain’s work is essentially semiotic in its approach.[1] From the early “Woman Crossing The Stream – After Rembrant” (1967), to the later “The Detribalisatino of Tam Bte Che Lat” (1983), form, content and technique are all put to the service of an articulation of signs. Ismail Zain revealed his grasp of the semiotic implications of the digital image, in his distinction of the manual photo collage from the computer generated one.[2] In a digital collage “there are no harsh outlines”. The new medium is “much more malleable, like clay”.[3] The computer allowed him to dissolve the oppositional or structural aspect of the play of signs and to develop what he called “user friendly” images. 

In Ismail Zain’s “Digital Collage”, images and texts from varied sources are merged in order to release their latent meanings. “Al Kesah” (1988), for instance, constitutes a playful yet critical response to the penetration of global mass media into the local culture and consciousness. Ismail Zain was also very critical of the heroic status of the artist and in this series of piquant computer prints, he seems to delight in the downward mobility of the artist that results from the computer’s indifference to skills of the hand. Ultimately, Ismail Zain must, himself, be ‘read’ as a signifier for the transition from formal to contextual concerns and for the criticial assimilation of new technology into Malaysian artistic practice. 

The Late Arrival of Video Art

The fact that computer art enters our local scene before video art is a testament to the foresight of Kamrudzaman and Ismail Zain.[4] It is also, however evidence of the unfortunate inertia of the local scene with regard to engaging with experimental and critical approaches. 

Liew Kung Yu won a Young Contemporaries minor award for “A Passage Through Literacy” in 1989. In this work, a TV monitor displaying the image of a dancing figure (Marion De Cruz) overlaid with text was contained within the form of a broken egg. This ‘sculpture’ was placed on a low plinth. White cloth wrapped around the monitor emerged from the egg and rose to the ceiling, articulating the space between the sculpture and its site. 

The first show of the Galeri Luar Pusat, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), curated by Lim Eng Hooi in 1989 included American artist Ray Langenbach’s synchronised video installation “The Language Lesson”.[5] Two ‘talking heads’ on television monitors, mounted on rattan clothes-modeling torsos faced each other across a field of cycling neon lights. The conversation of the two ‘video heads’ one a woman the other the artist, begins as a simple ‘language lesson’ then progressively broaches issues of cultural imperialism, political and sexual exploitation, religious conflict and racism. 

Multi Channel Video Installation

Baharuddin Arus presented video art and kinetic sculptures in response to Marshall McLuhan’s notion of “the medium is the message”. His installation works exhibited at USM in 1989 used TV monitors that showed various video footage transmitted simultaneously from a number of different sources, including a live video transmitted by a moving video camera.[6] He exploited this remote technology to control the movement of his sculptures. In this work, Baharuddin used the electronic medium to comment on the medium itself.

Video Art

"Sook Ching" by Wong Hoy Cheong combined live performances, painting and video projection.[7] The video is produced in the form of a historical documentary, recording people's plight under Japanese occupation through the experience of several individuals. This documentary approach tries to legitimize personal history and place it within official national history. Showed for the first time in conjunction with the International Video Art Festival 90, this effort might be seen as an early introduction of video in the context of a multimedia presentation.[8]

Liew Kung Yu’s “Who Am I”, was featured in galleri MIA’s Two Installations curated by Wong Hoy Cheong in 1991. This installation of prayer alters and multiple video monitors set on the floor, was accompanied by a performance and questioned the permanence of Chinese traditions. 

Liew Kung Yu’s “Sing a Song for Ah Kong and Ah Ma” initially shown at the Sony Video Art Festival 1994,[9] won first prize in the video installation category at the Malaysian Video Art Festival in the same year.[10] In this work, the domestic TV viewing situation is the setting in which multi-channel video delivers a layered narrative that represents the cultural gap between two generations living under the same roof. Although cultural identity and its transformation with the passage of time are ostensibly the content of this installation, it is the impact of the TV medium itself that is the subject of this reflexive and critical work. 

During the Gulf War, Ray Langenbach organised at group show called “Framing War”at the Balai Seni Lukis Negara. Ray himself presented a feedback installation in which a video camera ‘monitored’ the viewer on a TV screen with the text, “Responsible for the War” superimposed across his or her face.

An anonymous collaborative (Ray, Latif Kamaluddin and Gunabalan Krishnasamy) and multi faceted installation at the Balai Seni Lukis Negara in 1992-3, involved the use of video. This unnamed work sought to effect a critique on the facelessness of propoganda as it juxtaposed a humanist response to the deaths of children in Iraq, against the ‘spectacular’ death of the Soviet ideological system. 

In an installation at Galeriwan in 1993, called “Mao of All Nations”, a video stream of old films of Mao Tse Tung played in the center of a kolam made with seeds and beans. A ceiling fan threatened to blow away the kolam.  At the end of the exhibition, the kolam, which depicted four images of Mao Tse Tung, was taken outside and left for the birds.  

“Bernafas Dalam Lumpur”(1994) was a performance and installation work by Noor Azizan Paiman that used video as a recording medium. The work is seen in the form of a documentation, yet it persists as a medium of expression that has its own visual language.

“White Cloth” by Khairul Aidil Azlin and Hamzah Tahir features a similar approach, except here video has become dominant. This video work won Second Prize in the Young Experimental Video Award category in the Malaysian Video Awards3M VHQ 1994 organized by VideoHeadquarters.[11]

Video also made an appearance as part of "Skin Trilogy" (1994), an experimental multi-media presentation by FiveArts Centre.[12] Based on text by KSManiam and directed by Krishen Jit, its integration of visual and performing arts included the work "Something Fishy" by Hasnul JSaidon. This multi-channel video installation work was one of the elements helping to generate improvisations by the actors, musicians and singers

Faizal Zulkifli emerged with a one-channel video work that won a small prize in the Young Contemporaries Competition in 1996.[13] His work entitled "No Art Please" caught the attention of the jury with its casual approach, and cynical take on the position of art education in the eyes of society. Although presented in the form of a video, the images were produced by using a computer. Faizul combined the image processing and non-linear editing software on the Macintosh platform to produce his work. His work"Road Runner" exhibited in the same competition, used the analogy of electronic games to describe the obsession of certain sections of society with “speed, racing and numbers”​'.

Video in Theatre

If the field of fine art has been somewhat limited by deep modernist traditions and conventions, the performing arts and government and private-sponsored ceremonies have perhaps provided a space for the use of the latest, advanced, expensive technology free from the shackles of history and out dated theories.

It is interesting to consider that the use of video projection in the context of stage performances was triggered and sponsored by the world of politics. For example, in the theatrical presentation "40 Years of UMNO Women" (1989) produced by the CentreStage, director Normah Nordin had no hesitation in marrying video technologies and live performance to bring a Proton Saga out from a video screen on to the stage in the manner of David Copperfield.

Addressing the gap between tradition and the present youth generation, stage production"Rama & Sita" (1995) featured post-industrial and techno-pop scenography as a conceptual backdrop for the borrowed epic. In its staging, Janet Pillai used twenty television monitors, displaying video, computer animation, and other digital and electronic displays, highlighting a new generation operating on cyber technology platforms.

The bold approach in "Rama &Sita" was followed by several stage productions in other theaters combining the use of video or multimedia technology, such as"Storm" directed by ZahimAlbakri.

Light Art

While video and computer platforms have been the main channel of electronic media applications in the context of the fine arts, SyedAlwi Syed Abu Bakarhas chosen to use the flow of electricity through wires and LED as the primary element in his minimalist sculpture. Drawing on religious concepts of time, Syed Alwi’s approach appears to adopt values, ideas and tone of the "East" through the use of electronic light technology.

Computer Art

In the work "Surat Al-Insyirah 94" (1991), Ponirin Amin touched on the relationship between the Qur'an and the computer as a source of information. Here he used Deluxe Paint software on an Amiga platform to produce digital work embedded into woodblock prints. It is interesting to see this spark of technology appearing in printmaking, an established practice with rigid disciplines and conventions. In this work, Ponirin aptly chose two different media that are closely related, either technically or spiritually, to the dichotomy between technology and tradition.

The same situation can be seen in Bahaman Hashim’swork "Virtual Reality" (1993), where he used Adobe Photoshop software on a Macintosh platform to develop work that was presented in the form of silkscreen printing. Bahaman invited the audience to observe the shift in perceptual and representational media from the Renaissanceera (Durer’s prints) to the present period (windows on Macintosh’s computer platform).

In his "In a Minute" (1994) series, Suhaimi Tohid introduced several technical strategies directly related to commentary on electronic media, especially television. Through his work, Suhaimi tried to freeze time, with various layers of images that coming through the TV in a certain time frame. A horizontal format was used in order to show the chaotic narrative that has become part of the nature of television. Suhaimi combined the use of televisions, camera photography, computers (Macintosh and AdobePhotoshop software) and silk screen techniques in the production of his work.

"Domino Theory" (1994) by Zulkifli Che'Harris proves that computer animation was not solely created to become slave to the corporate logos that fly across our TV screens. Computer animation and multimedia software are also capable of encapsulating and expressing artists’ personal feelings on issues that affect them. Through this work, Zulkifli has made an interesting comment on the chain effect impact of forest destruction by humankind.

In1994, Hasnul J Saidon used video and computer animation in his installation"Kdek! Kdek! Ong! exhibited at"Culture in Context" in Kuala Lumpur.[14] Based on the Malay proverb "Katak Di Bawah Tempurung", the artist used the animation of a frog trying to escape from his new prison - the television. In another installation "Mirror, Mirroron the Wall..." (1994), a stiff and serious Van Gogh is brought back to life digitally to smile and wink at the audience.


For Ismail Zain, the computer is the best substitute for the sketchbook normally associated with artists’ or designers’ activities. This concept was clearly expressed in the exhibition "Malaysian Drawings" (1997) where his print works were accompanied by works of younger artists. Niranjan Rajah used the precision and completeness of the digital medium to produce a series of installation drawings (1993), which focus on the importance of design. Hasnul J Saidon exhibited a series of computer printouts(1996-97) questioning the boundaries between digital and hand-drawn painting. Nasir Baharuddin expanded on his religious-oriented conceptual approach through his work"The Sense ofWords" (1997), where the use of computers has enabled him to reject the intervention of artists’ hand(and ego) that might disrupt the flow of spiritual expression.


The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! went on-line in 1996 and was presented at Galeri PETRONAS as a part of Explorasi in 1997.[15] This work, a harsh parody of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnes, is an extension of Niranjan Rajah’s critical installation practice.[16] While interrogating the ontology of the image in computer mediated communication, this work also attempts to mark the problem of cultural constituencies in the Internet.

[1] In the Saussurean theory of “signs” the individual words that make up “speech acts” gain their meaning in relation to their context. This relatively of meaning led initially to structuralism’s methodical analysis of “systems of signs”, and ultimately, to the dismantling of these systems in deconstruction.

[2] One of the artistic consequences of the mass circulation of printed images was the invention of collage. The artists no longer had to hand-make an image but could now “cut out” two pre-existing images and combine them to generate another. The production of new meaning was achieved by appropriating and recontextualising found or readymade material.

[3] Noordin Hassan interviews Ismail Zain, Ismail Zain Retrospective Exhibition catalogue, National Art Gallery, 1995.

[4] As early as 1965 Korean artist Nam June Paik, who was a part of the Fluxus movement in the United States, had started using the first commercial video camera, the Sony Porta Pack Video as a medium for art. Since then, artists have approached this technology in a number of ways, ranging from electronic image experimentation to body oriented performance art and from conceptual art to video installations. Even the television documentary format, with its apparent verity to facts has been exploited by activist and critical artists to legitimise their messages as well as to parody the mass media.

[5] In contemporary Installation Art, the space and architecture of the gallery or other site as well as the social, political, historical, theoretical and critical contexts of the work are all treated as objects of the presentation.

[6] In the early 1990s USM students made robots which were exhibited at USM museum. In light of Islamic aniconism, the artists approached the simulation of animate beings more “in the manner of their operation” than in terms of their physical appearance. The works included a 10 feet tall Jentayu robot with wings that spread out and flapped and a “human-bot” that echoed human form just enough to provoke a humorous response.

[7] In contemporary Performance art, live bodily gestures are employed to take formal and conceptual ideas directly to the audience, outside the confines of museums and galleries. Unlike the conventions of theatre, here the approach is generally non-narrative and unlike the dramatist, the artist is, normally, the performer.

[8] The Malaysian Video Art Festival ‘90, curated by Dominique Chastres, UNESCO consultant to the Asia Pacific Institute for broadcasting development, brought to Malaysia a challenging selection of international video art. This show was also revealing of the moral and political context within which Malaysian art struggles to find its place. Stephen Teo’s Meditation: India and Aida Buyong’s Lion, Whore, Dinosaur were excluded by virtue of their criticism of “other societies” – Bombay and Venice respectively.

[9]SONYVideoArtFestival,heldatLot 10KualaLumpurin 1994. Forthisfestival, theorganizerlenta video cameratoa selectednumberof individualsfromvariousbackgrounds -theatre, fine arts, architecture, advertising, photographyand so on -toproduceworksaccording totheir own personal inclination. By presenting personal worksinapubliclocation, videocould be watched in a context apart from its common television usage.

[10]Based on the desireto explore video’s potential, MalaysiaVideoArtFestival94introducedvariouscompetition categories-computeranimation, experimentalvideo,andvideoinstallation. Thisfestival included workslikeDomino TheorybyZulkifliChe'Harris, Post-Colon…byHasnulJSaidonandSing A SongforAhKongandAhMabyLiewKungYu.

[11]In MalaysiaVideoAwards 3M VHQ94,for the first timeaspecial award– Young ExperimentalVideowasestablished to encouragethe participation ofartists not from the industry,video agencies oradvertisingagencies. The first prize was wonby the work Proclaim by Hasnul J Saidon. The awardalsoattracted a number ofentrieslikeGoodbyebyLohKokChee, and AmalgamationbyFaizalZulkifli.

[12] With the postmodern disregard for formal issues, the categories of cultural production have lost their definition. In the visual arts, “painting” and “sculpture” have been extended to incorporate architecture, text, performance, video and an expanding range of media and approaches.

[13] The annual Young Contemporaries competition organized by the Balai Seni Lukis Negara must be acknowledged for its important contribution to the experimental spirit in the Malaysian Scene.

[14]CultureinContext was held atthe AustralianHigh CommissionKualaLumpurin 1994. Thisexhibitionfeatured experimental works from ITM and Artists in Residence from Australia.

[15]Explorasi, the inaugural show of the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts UNIMAS, signaled a possible return to the conceptual and critical approaches of artists like Ismail Zain and Redza Piyadasa. The show included installation and video art as well as image processing, CD-ROM, computer animation and on-line works. Of particular interest is Fauzan Omar’s Pattern of the Earth in which the artist integrates painting with multi-channel video. That such an established artist, renowned for his formalist and process-oriented concerns has moved into electronic media must be a sign of the impending paradigm shift in the Malaysian art scene. The show’s catalogue is an interactive CD-ROM.

[16] There has been a conflation of primary and secondary productions in all areas of postmodern culture. Creative work has become multidisciplinary and has made a profound engagement with history and theory. Criticism has, in turn, ceased to be a matter of scholarly arguments about creative sources and has become a euphoric creative endeavor in its own right. 

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