6. Key Developments after 1990
Multiple and intertwined trajectories
Malaysian contemporary art scene in the past 15 years, especially during the 1990’s, has been predominantly preoccupied by ‘future shock’ brought about by the above-mentioned catalysts of change. In responding to the above-mentioned catalysts, artworks by new generation of Malaysian artists that emerged during the late 1980s and 1990s, have reflected an emergence of various intertwining and multi-disciplinary trajectories for contemporary art practice in Malaysia, thus making the process of identifying, demarcating or classifying contemporary art works more difficult to handle. Amongst the most identifiable key trajectories are:
Angst-ridden expressionism - Expressionist impulse driven by loud and dark existentialist rage, angst, boldness, immediacy and urgency, mostly employing international neo-expressionist style and using human figure as a central subject-matter
Formalist expressionism - A slightly softer or sober combination of surrealist, pop, lyrical and romantic version of neo-expressionist style, using an eclectic combination of human figure, landscape and objects, signs and symbols as subject matters
Neo-dada - inclination towards a mixed bag of comedic absurdity, ponderous literalism, indiscriminate appropriation, random deconstruction and a riots of mockery, satire, parody and cynicism, mostly through installation, performance and site-specific experimental works
Conceptual – a more cerebral, investigative, research-based, methodical, inter-textual, deconstructive and semiotic approach, with a touch of humor, parody, satire and even mockery.
Post-formalist concerns – continuation of experiments and explorations with new materials and techniques of painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking.
Key Themes – social concerns and reflecting postmodern encounters
The future shock in the 1990’s was marked amongst many, by a sudden pressure to change. It has also brought changing lifestyles and unveil critical issues related to the politics of representation, identity, culture, ethnicity, religion and gender in Malaysian and the Southeast Asian region. Repercussions of globalization, media imperialism, sustainability of the environment, impact of new media, and even the historical and stylistic notions of modern art itself have been used as issues of concern.
In Malaysia, the term ‘issues based art’ (IBA) has been coined to explain artworks with more pronounced political and social concerns.(68) Contemporary works done by many Malaysian artists and others from the Southeast Asian region since the early 1990s have also been marked by IBA as well. But certainly not all engaging art must be a politically and socially ‘issues based
art’. Furthermore, contemporary art in Malaysia since 1990 has also been diverse, and accommodative to works that feature other concerns such as aesthetic, tradition and spirituality.
Generally, artworks since the 1990s feature multiple engagements of Malaysian artists with several key issues or themes. In expressing their thoughts and feelings on these issues, they have become the epitome of modern and postmodern encounters that reverberate with ‘clashing voices, contradictions, suspicions, skepticism, angst, paradoxes, cynicism, ironies and all the typical markings of a rapidly changed post-industrial, media and market-driven society’.(69)
These key issues will be further discussed in tandem with several works and artists in the following part 7.
Sentiments and Working Strategies – Oscillating Between Modernism and Postmodernism
The sentiments and working strategies of many contemporary Malaysian artists that emerged in the 1990s have been generally informed by post-modern irony and paradox. The irony and paradox have been marked by post-modern raves where loudness, irony, parody, sarcasm, cynicism, satire, pun, intervention, subversion, protest, and mockery have been favored. Pastiche, appropriation and deconstruction have also been employed as working strategies.
Several Malaysian writers such as Zainol Abidin Shariff, Dr. Tan Chee Khuan, Niranjan Rajah, Zanita Anuar, Safrizal Shahir and Sarena Abdullah have given their comments about Malaysian version of post-modern raves.(70) Several writers have associated it with the age of ‘anything goes’ in which everything can be continuously deconstructed or turned into a spectacle, superficial façade, endless play and pastiche.
Consequently, several young Malaysian artists have been showing their interest in riding on the riddles of postmodern dissonant raves. The raves have been amongst the most common sentiments used by many contemporary Malaysian artists, especially through installation or other alternative art forms. These raves have seemingly become a ‘house style’ for many young artists in Malaysia, especially in the 1990s.
Such ‘house style’ has to be read within the framework of several key theories. Generally, the term postmodern has been used to explain and identify some of the key changes and repercussions of globalization, free market capitalism and ICT revolution. It many ways, it has been employed to explain some of the new trajectories in the Malaysian contemporary art practice after 1990. The term, other than signifying a break from the framework of modernist art historical narration, also signifies several paradigmatic shifts in the way contemporary art is approached.
Postmodernism itself, is a lengthy if not paradoxical subject to be discussed in this essay. Furthermore, it can be argued that most of the contemporary art works in Malaysia, despite its postmodern posture and appropriation of deconstructive stance, have mostly been framed within the context of modernist ‘mythifying’ impulse as discussed in the earlier section of this essay. Even some of the so-called alternative methods of making art have eventually been framed by gallery-based modernist context, with individual artist being very central in the discourses.
In fact, postmodern traits, upon reaching a sign of hegemonic or dominating presence, may eventually be deconstructed and contested. The sustained presence of highly modernist, conventional, narrative and realistic painting, as well as aesthetic abstraction, is suggestive of such contestation. Artists like Fauzan Omar, Yusof Ghani, Jailani Abu Hassan, Hamidi Hadi, Daud Abdul Rahim, Sabri Idrus, Wong Pern Fey, and Choy Chun Wei are amongst the major proponents of painting in the contemporary Malaysian art practice.
There has also been a lingering desire for a sense of centrality or pillar in discussing about Malaysian contemporary art, providing another example of ironic reaction against postmodernism. Beverly Yong for example, states:
“I think some sort of art destination, some respectable pillar would centre the idea of art in our society.”(71)
In fact, modernist context is still needed to sustain the market value (and thus the career) of contemporary Malaysian artists, no matter how postmodern she/he wants to be.
New Forms of Expression and the Sustainability of Painting
Contemporary Malaysian artists have also displayed an interest in exploring new and multi-dimensional ways of making art, including alternative use of video and industrial materials, as well as installation, site-specific and new media technology. The following is a list of several non-conventional forms that have been employed by several contemporary Malaysian artists after 1990:
Installation art including site-specific
Video art and video installation
Web or internet art
Sound art and sound installation
Performance and situational art
Digital photography and alternative prints
Ready-mades, ephemeral, intervention art
Children’s and naïve art
The annual (now biennale) Malaysian Young Contemporaries competition cum exhibition organised by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia continues to serve as the venue for young Malaysian talents to showcase cutting-edge works.
Despite the emergence of these non-conventional, experimental, multi-disciplinary and alternative new forms, traditional forms such as painting still persist. In fact, painting (in its many variations) has continued to play a central role as an important form of contemporary expression in the Malaysian art scene.
Emergence of New Writers-curators
The multi-tasking tradition of writer-curator-artist was later carried by younger artists such as Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Yap Sau Bin. In addition, since 2005, Nur Hanim has been publishing another art magazine called Sentap! which was selected to be included in the magazine section of the recent Documenta 2008 exposition. Both Nur Hanim and Sau Bin have also been active in the so-called alternative art spaces, the Rumah Air Panas and Yayasan Kesenian Perak respectively.
For the past few years, young writers such as Carmen Nge, Sharon Chin, Li-en Chong and Adeline Ooi have also been active in writing reviews of exhibitions. On the other side of the spectrum are gallery-based writers-curators such as J.Anu (Petronas Gallery) Shahnaz Said (Petronas Gallery, now freelancing), Beverly Yong (Valentine Willie Fine Art), Zanita Anuar, Ameruddin Ahmad and Majidi Amir (all with the National Art Gallery) who have written in exhibition catalogues and curated several exhibitions. Others such as Safrizal Shahir, Zainon Abdullah, Badrolhisham Tahir, Sarena Abdullah, Izzadin Matrahah, M. Hijaz, Suhaimi Md. Noor, Mohd Johari and Zulkifli Mohamad are university-based writers who have also begun to make their mark in the local art writing scene. Younger writers such as Tan Nan See, Tan Sei Hon, Roopesh Sitharan and Nizam Esa represent a new generation of writers that will hopefully sustain and further augmented the discourses of contemporary art in Malaysia and beyond.
The writings styles and curatorial approaches of all the individuals mentioned above have also been diverse, ranging from light writing for public reading to academic approach for specialized target readers. Their writings may also differ in terms of language, content, method, argument and sentiment, depending on institutional, commercial and alternative forces. Thus, their writings have become a part of territorial contestations within matrix of Malaysian contemporary art scene.
Even though the mother-tongues of many Malaysian contemporary artists are Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese, most writers ironically prefer to write in English to increase visibility and numbers of readers. In fact, it can be argued that English art writings by certain clusters of writers have been perceived as the major source of reference on contemporary art in Malaysia. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that several writers have been known to write only in Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese language. Chai Chang Hwang for example, has been active writing in Chinese publications, while Hasmi Hashim and Azman Ismail write reviews and commentaries in Bahasa Malaysia. Others such as Zanita Anuar, Hasnul J Saidon and Nur Hanim Khairuddin have been writing in both Bahasa Malaysia and English.
Curatorial issue and the quality (and quantity) of art writing in Malaysia has been under constant criticism for the past few years. The fact that not all writers were formally trained in art history and curatorial studies indicates the need for institutions of higher learning in Malaysia to provide formal training in art management, art history, curatorial studies and art writing at undergraduate and graduate levels. Until now, none of the existing institutions in Malaysia provides specialized undergraduate and post-graduate degree programs in these critical areas. Another lamented fact is that not many local writers are interested in writing for international publications, thus making contemporary art in Malaysia less visible in the international platform. Furthermore, several curators and writers are also attached to private galleries, thus rendering their reviews and writings questionable.(72)
Notwithstanding the criticism, these writers-curators have in many ways, contributed in enriching the discourses of contemporary art in Malaysia since 1990.
Emergence of New Spaces & Young Movers
For the past few years, several Malaysian artists have begun to establish their own ‘abode’ or some sort of personal sanctuary as an alternative space to not only produce their artworks, but also exhibit them. Perhaps ignited by the need to be independent and free from institutional trappings and commercial constraints, the sanctuary normally serves as a space with multiple purposes. By having his or her own space, the artist aspires to enjoy artistic liberty and creative freedom minus suffocating institutional politics and stagnating bureaucratic policies to abide to. Other than as a home or personal dwelling space, the sanctuary can also serve as a studio, a workshop and an exhibition space, sometimes complimented by a custom-made garden, a resource room, and an open space for myriads of activities.
In some cases, the sanctuary was purposely built or set-up outside the city (KL) parameter as if to function as a site of rejuvenation. Romantic and cliché it may sound, there will always be this tempting and alluring desire amongst urban artists to escape the rampant yet seductive consumerism that typifies Malaysia’s rapidly changed post-industrial, media and market-driven cosmopolitan society – a society struggling to adapt to the challenges, irony, contradiction and concurrent paradox of pre-modern, modern and post-modern values.
Renowned Malaysian printmaker, Juhari Said for example, established his abode Akal di Ulu to function as a home or a house for himself and his family, his workshop, studio and an open gallery as proven through his innovative international Off the Wall sculpture exhibition. The exhibition also engaged his immediate neighbors and local community as an integral part of the project. His sanctuary has also been used as training site for several potential young artists as well as a site for young people’s art camp. By doing so, Juhari has extended the pretext and context of ‘fine art’ practice beyond the confine of a gallery. Not all the pretext and context can be safely demarcated within a ‘wall’ or a ‘frame’ of a ‘picture plane’ or ‘painting format.’ Most will probably fall outside the secured vision of fine art as a practice safely demarcated by the modern tradition of drawing, printmaking, sculpture and painting. It may also fall outside the revered proclamation of fine art or modern art as a generic term for a proper entry into the contemporary art practice.
Several more artists have established their own alternative space for independent art practice, critical discussion, public education and exhibition. Amongst them include Matahati’s Matahati Hom, Ahmad Shukri’s and Umi Baizurah’s Patisatu Studio, Roslisham Ismail’s Parking Project and Hamir Shoib’s Gudang. Other young movers such as Yeoh Liang Heng, Tan Sei Hon, Hasmi Hashim, Rahmat Haron, Susyilawati Sulaiman, and Muid Latiff have formed collectives or alternative fronts such as Rumah Air Panas (RAP), Shiemaya-Art-tria, Spacecraft, Lost Generation Space, Yayasan Kesenian Perak, Komuniti Jalan Kempas, Universiti Bangsa Utama, Urban Creatures, Wondermilk, Space in Cheras and Digital Malaya.
These ‘independent’, self-funded collectives have churned out several experimental projects that have not only signified an increasing interest amongst younger generation of Malaysian artists in political and community activisms, but also in issues that transcend ethnic proclivities. These interests can be traced in several projects organised by the collectives such as Artists’s Pro Active’s Apa?Siapa?Kenapa? (What!Who?Why?) (1998), Shiemaya-Art-tria’s Apa Gendai (2000), RAP’s SPACE(S) Dialogue & Exhibition (2003), Lost Generation’s Notthatbalai Festival, and Spacekraft’s Chow Kit Fest. The National Art Gallery of Malaysia had also responded to the need to provide a space for experimental project by funding Sonneratia (2001) and (2003), a youth art camp and exhibition.(73) The maneuver of these alternative fronts is marked by some of the paradigm shifts listed in fig.1.
Emergence of New Institutions
Other than UiTM and Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), the emergence of several new government universities and private art colleges have also contributed towards opening other trajectories in the practice of contemporary art post 1990, especially in regards to new media.
The Faculty of Applied & Creative Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) for example, was very active in engaging, researching, exhibiting and publishing new explorations in electronic arts and new media from 1994 until 2000. In fact, artworks by several students and lecturers from the Faculty were exhibited in the Screen Culture and Virtual Triennial sections of the 3rd. Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia in 1999.
The Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, other than re-establishing its Art Centre as The School of Arts, has also recently renovated and rebranded its Museum and Art Gallery as Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah in facing the imperatives of the 21st. century. Other than actively organizing exhibitions and outreach activities, the gallery has also revitalized its purchasing activity by collecting contemporary video and digital-based works by Malaysian artists.(74)
Several other institutions such as The Centre for Advanced Design (Cenfad), Faculty of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia University, The One Academy, Limkokwing Institute of Creative Technology (now a university-college), and New Era College of Art & Design, have contributed in encouraging new ways of engaging with the contemporary art, such as new media, installation and cross-disciplinary approach. Indirectly, these institutions may potentially be instrumental in charting new narratives and discourses for the practice of contemporary art in Malaysia in the future. Several significant paradigmatic shifts in these higher institutions of learning in response to the imperatives of change may also contribute in providing new momentum and fresh impulse.