Free Market Capitalism
Forces of free market capitalism should also be taken into consideration in reading contemporary art in Malaysia. As the world becomes one market, demands for artworks from Asia are growing. The growth is further fueled by the shift from national to multi-national capital. The ‘ecosystem’ of the global and regional economy cannot be simply brushed aside. Art markets in China and Indonesia for example, have been booming rapidly in recent years. In fact, the ‘reservoir’ of Malaysian contemporary art market has to be seen in relation to the regional and global market. The participants of the local ‘reservoir’ has to engage with their ‘international counterpart; they can’t hide under the coconut shell anymore.(64)
The economic setting during the eighties until late nineties in Malaysia had created a competitive contemporary art market in Malaysia - aggressive, progressive, innovative, thriving, heated and never short of ironies and polemics (65) From being marginal initiatives that rely on government funding, the Malaysian contemporary art scene was gradually boosted into a thriving business enterprise before the balloon burst in the late 1990s. Luckily, this was only a temporary setback. In the past few years, the market has resumed its thriving disposition. Artists, especially those who belong to the ‘cult of the young’ have increasingly been taken as brands (superstars, cultural heroes) striving for a commercial success and fledging career in the competitive art scene.
Nonetheless, the ‘ecosystem’ of international art scene in the era of globalization can also be ironic and paradoxical. Often, the pros and cons are entwined and partitioned by a very delicate veil. For example, even ‘leftist’, ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-conformist’ stance can possibly be exploited as a viable form of brand positioning (or ‘differentiation’) to increase market value. Such stance can also be augmented by the tendencies of the international art circle (and English-speaking discourses) in highlighting artworks with socio-political bend.
Despite their sometimes postmodern, alternative and critical stance, many local artists have begun to turn into full-time professionals, thus entailing them to be highly perceptive towards the forces of the market. Many have learnt to be fluent in dwelling with the economics of income, earnings, revenue, proceeds, turnover, profits and loss, as much as branding and promotional strategy. The act of creating is not anymore contained within the contexts of idea, concept, form, aesthetic, emotion and personal sentiment, but must also include perceptiveness towards the engulfing market, and the ability to network or ‘get connected’ with the ‘right cluster of people’. Even the notion of success itself is not anymore dependent on the quality of the artworks, but also the ability to rapport with major players and movers in the art market.
Several artists may have even learned to look at their artworks (perhaps themselves too albeit discreetly) as a commodity striving for a competitive market value, sometimes at the expanse of personal sentiment and emotion. Spiritual, social, artistic, cultural values and the general significance of critical knowledge might have been subtly spread thin, or re-branded in order to be more hip and competitive for the open market.
Consequently, several artists and curators have established a close rapport with commercial galleries and individual collectors, creating a matrix of players and movers that have been at times intertwined or overlapped. Clusters of players and movers were formed, most of the time by shared sentiment. Other than artists, the players and movers include gallery owners and promoters, curators-writers, buyers or collectors, and individuals in the media (editors of magazines, newspapers, websites, etc). Initially the clusters were distinctively demarcated by institutional, commercial and alternative fronts. Over the years, the clusters have been at times fused, with players and movers moving in and out of these different fronts. Academicians have sometimes been roped in if needed, to provide additional validation, if not credibility. English-speaking foreign curators-writers have also sometimes been invited, again to add more value and credence.
The matrix of contemporary art in Malaysia today is marked by contesting fronts and territorial forces, based on combinations of different agendas and sentiments. At times, they may appear elusive or obscured. At some other times, the agendas and sentiments may appear explicit and obvious. Sometimes, common agendas have been set to allow different clusters and fronts to work together for common causes. At some other times, specific agendas have been set, creating a clear demarcation in terms of preferred artists, type of art works, genre, style, themes, issue and sentiment. Many sentiments and personalities may at times clash, creating a thriving art scene that has never been short of drama and intrigue, as much as gossips and petty talks. SMS and MMS have further fueled a more speculative environment in which image, posture, impression, assumption and perception may be taken as the basis of popular discourses on contemporary art in Malaysia.
Galleries such as Petronas Gallery, Wei Ling Gallery, Valentine Willie Fine Art, Art Salon, Taksu Gallery, RA Fine Art, Artcase,12 Artspace, and Pelita Hati House of Art have been active in exposing and promoting contemporary Malaysian art and artists. More new galleries have emerged in the past few years, including in other cities such as Penang and Johor Bharu. By working with several international partners such as Australia High Commission and the British Council, these galleries have also served as a bridge between artists and collectors and have been instrumental in providing exposure and financial stability for contemporary artists.
In compliment, private collectors such as Fatimah & Pakhruddin Sulaiman, Aliya & Farouk Khan and Dr. Steve & Rosemary Wong have begun to build their own substantial private collections of contemporary Malaysian art. In fact, private collectors have at times influenced the market too. In addition, it can be argued that some of the best contemporary artworks (especially paintings) produced since the 1990s, can be found in the private collections of private collectors rather than institutions. Other collectors such as Ng Sek San & Carolyn Lau, Angela & Hijas Kasturi, Raja Ahmad Aminullah and the late Rahimie Harun have (had) been quite influential in augmenting the productivity of contemporary artists and playing a highly pro-active role in enriching discourses as well. In recent years, more young professionals are beginning to collect contemporary artworks.
As a result, contemporary artists are no longer solely dependent upon government support. In addition, they can also rely on corporate patronage, sponsorship and purchase from corporations such as Tenaga Nasional Berhad, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas), Sime Darby Berhad, Esso Malaysia Berhad, Shell Malaysia, the Phillip Morris Group of Companies, Penjanabebas, as well as several commercial banks such as Bank Negara of Malaysia, Malayan Banking Berhad (Maybank), Public Bank, Bank Bumiputra (now CIMB), Oriental Bank, Hong Leong Bank, Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporations (HSBC) and ABN-AMRO.
In doing so, they have to operate within an urban and international context as dictated by the ebbs and flow of free market capitalism and the novelties of information and communication technology. They also have to be media savvy and smart in branding or positioning themselves. Even trans-national cosmopolitan lifestyle itself has to be adopted since it can be perceived as a form of industry and a money making business. Anything local may be perceived as parochial.
Gallery-oriented trends of commercialization and corporate endorsement have also been at times entwined with government validation as epitomized by several projects organised by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. Several exhibitions such as 12 ASEAN Artists (2000), and Identiti: Inilah Kami (Identities:Who We Are) (2002) for examples, involved collaborations between Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery with the National Art Gallery and support from corporate sponsors. Interestingly, the National Art Gallery had been used as a venue for solo exhibitions of several artists who might have been labeled as ‘dissident’ or not conform to the so called government-prescribed notion of national art.
Increasingly, it has become more pressing to identify the clusters or constituents (groups of key players and movers) within the matrix of Malaysian and Asian art markets. Even the role of the National Art Gallery in ‘value-creation’, legitimizing or validating artists and art works has to be seen in relation to this matrix. Perhaps, it is now pertinent for these constituents to be looking at ways of working together in a more pro-active and supporting manner in order to create a dynamic and thriving market for Malaysian contemporary artists beyond the Malaysian border.