I'm currently struggling to finish a commissioned essay on
new media art in Malaysia. In the course of finishing it,
especially in regards to textual materials for
the study or research on contemporary art practice in
Malaysia, I can't help but to stumble upon phrases such as
'not enough materials to refer to', 'lack of substantial
materials', 'lack of critical writings/analysis', 'absence
of criticism', so on and so forth. Perhaps, these phrases
are partly true, yet they are partly questionable too.
Sometimes, I wonder if these generic and sweeping phrases
came out of extensive period of reSEARCHing based on an
empirical study, or just a lazy assumption from in front of
a laptop on an office desk.
After about 20 plus year of dwelling in the field of art, I
have discovered a diverse range of textual materials that
can be utilized, including in this case, for the study of
new media art in Malaysia (I use the term E-art). Ya, not
all fall within what can be narrowly defined as 'academic
research' (according to scientific paradigm most of the
time), yet, all are pertinent for many different reasons.
The following is an excerpt from a draft summary of
literature review for the commissioned essay. It might be
handy for students who are interested in researching about
electronic and new media art in Malaysia.
Perhaps, it can be handy for me too, especially in
soliciting constructive comments to further improve it from
anybody out there.
Summary of Literature Review
Other than relying on various forms of primary data including participative observation and direct engagements, this study and essay also rely largely on textual materials from local scholars and writers. Their writings are highly instrumental for several different reasons and purposes, and have been referred and quoted in providing contexts, describing and interpreting case examples, instigating questions, probing into themes and issues, sparking and exploring different perspectives, supporting arguments, and most importantly, shifting paradigm.
Seminal writings by the early generations of writers such as Syed Ahmad Jamal, T.K. Sabapathy, Redza Piyadasa, Krishen Jit, Sulaiman Esa and Zainol Abidin Ahmad Sharif are critical in providing contextual grounding for this study and essay.
Their writings, especially in chronicling the history of modern art in Malaysia, are important pre-requisites for this study and essay, without which, the idea and notion of ‘shifting-return paradigm’ and ‘contemporary art’ would be meaningless. Seminal works such as Vision and Idea (1994) and Rupa Malaysia (1999) are two important references for this study and essay. In a way, they have performed as the master-narrative of modern art history in Malaysia, other than laying the foundation and establishing a paradigm for modern art in Malaysia to be further developed (and shifted!).
Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Rupa & Jiwa (Form & Soul) (1978), Sulaiman Esa’s The Reflowering of the Islamic Spirit in the Contemporary Malaysian Art and Ruzaika Omar Basaree’s Kesenian Islam – Suatu Perspektif Malaysia(Islamic Art, A Malaysian Perspective) (1995) serve as important references in probing into early examples of ‘localization’, ‘decolonization’ and for some ‘indigenization’ of modern art in Malaysia. Their writings can also be taken as a negation of Western historical and aesthetic tradition, representing Malaysia’s version of post-colonial reflex, framed within the context of the political, social and cultural economy of nationalism, centred on the Malay-Islamic tradition.
The other version of such negation, especially in regards to the notion of ‘otherness’, is Piyadasa’s critic of what he termed as ‘Malay-Islamic proclivity’ is his Rupa Malaysia. In this essay, Piyadasa also highlights several key artists and artworks that may not easily and conveniently fall within the State-defined construct of national identity and culture. Piyadasa himself produced several works that questioned the fixed notion of identity and culture. Other counterpoints are Zainal Abidin Ahmad Sharif’s Towards Alter-Native Vision: The Idea of Malaysian Art Since 1980 (1994) and T.K Sabapathy’s Merdeka Makes Art or Does It? (1994). Perhaps the most controversial example of negation of Western aesthetic, beyond nationalism and ethnic preoccupation would be Towards A Mystical Reality by Sulaiman Esa and Redza Piyadasa himself.
Even though these writings and their contents may have been framed within a post-colonial discourse, they can also be ‘re-visited’ as early preludes to critical regionalism and post-traditional theory.
To counter-balance and triangulate, writings by Jolly Koh, Suhaimi Mohd Noor and Ooi Kok Chuen have also been referred to. Jolly Koh’s Some Misconceptions in Art Writing in Malaysia refutes the writings of Piyadasa and Sabapathy on Malaysian abstract expressionism and the authenticity or originality of ‘Malaysian modern art’ itself; while Suhaimi extends the historical root of modernism in Malaysia (or Malaya) by including ‘modern’ illustrations and publications by local artists and writers during the colonial period. Ooi Kok Chuen on the other hand, extends (or perhaps end) the ‘history’ of Malaysian modern art with the inclusion of the ‘syiok of the new’ as a pun on the ‘shock of the new’ through his essay, A Comprehensive History of Malaysian Art. In extending the historical ‘root’ or ‘origin’ and the ‘tail-end’ of modern art history in Malaysia, and in questioning a part of its construction, these writers have provided critical forms of alternative ‘shifting’ forces within the dominant discourse of modern art in Malaysia. Another important source is Australian-based Michelle Antoinette’s, Different Visions: Contemporary Malaysian Art and Exhibition in the 1990s and Beyond (2003). Her essay provides a much-needed survey on several major shifts that have taken place in the contemporary art practice in Malaysia after 1990.
Perhaps, the most crucial ‘shifting-return force’ can be traced in the writings of Ismail Zain. In fact, most of the theoretical references related to E-art come from the writings of Ismail Zain, supported by Redza Piyadasa and Krishen Jit, especially through Digital Collage(DC)(1988) and Ismail Zain Retrospective (IZR)(1995). Both perform as key theoretical references for this study and essay.
In reviewing DC, it is quite apparent that Piyadasa plays a complimentary supporting role to Ismail Zain’s intellectual probing. Ismail Zain’s seminal Ucapan Nada Idea and Masa Depan Tradisi: Dikhususkan Kepada Pengalaman Kuno di Malaysia can be taken as two of the most important and early textual sources in providing a conceptual grounding and theoretical framework for E-art, especially in regards to technology.
Central to Ismail’s writings and works are the linguistic and semiological dimensions of visual culture, both from structuralist and post-structuralist positions. They epitomize the shifting paradigm of nationalism to critical regionalism, of modern to post-modern, even post-traditional. Ismail Zain’s theoretical scope is wide-ranging, often placing the practice of contemporary art within the discourse of language, media, communication and cultural anthropology. His proposition of Frampton’s ‘Critical Regionalism’ as a response to the imperatives of information age has been referred to by several writers, including for this study and essay.
A much more focused body of reference on E-art in Malaysia comes from writings by Niranjan Rajah and Hasnul J Saidon (the author), both collectively and individually. In fact, this study and essay is a delayed extension and up-dated version of their previous survey on E-art, mainly the 1st. Electronic Art Show (1997) and E-art ASEAN Online (2000).
Niranjan Rajah is one of the forerunners of internet and new media art in Malaysia and South East Asia. He has also written, presented and published numerous writings related to E-art in seminars and conferences, mostly outside Malaysia (see bibliography for his list of publication).
His body of writings can be summarized as highly theoretical and philosophical, mostly focusing on the internet and relying then on a small pool of concrete evidences, mostly from his own works, other artists’ and even his students’ to articulate his points. His proposition on post-traditional theory is compelling and pertinent, especially in regards to the practice of E-art in Malaysia and South East Asia.
In rertrospect, writings by Niranjan Rajah and Hasnul J Saidon are perhaps known for their articulation on the practice of E-art in Malaysia vis-à-vis regional and international arena, including language of new media, geo-political forces and transnational power structure that underline the practice of E-art regionally and internationally. Their body of research and writings have also been wide ranging. Yet, through their individual articulations of E-art practice in Malaysia, several recurrent themes, frameworks and underlying concepts can be ascertained. Amongst them include paradigmatic shift, E-art and its fusion with information system, cybernetic theory, mind studies, consciousness and quantum physic; trans-disciplinary approach towards contemporary art especially the convergence of art and science; and shared principles between E-art paradigm with many forms of Eastern cosmology and Islamic arts. These themes are explained through myriads of case examples that include their own artworks as well as by other local artists, E-art exhibitions and events. Central to their writings have always been the need to address, repond, contextualize, understand, articulate and pro-actively react to the imperatives of profound changes or transformation, in short, ‘paradigm shift’, brought about by information technology, according to local and regional cultural terms.
Other critical sources, especially in regards to ‘shifts’
or for some, ‘subversions’ within the social and political forces in Malaysia, can be traced from the writings works and discourses surrounding the works of Ray Langenbach and Wong Hoy Cheong, especially during the 1990s. Their pioneering works, especially their published conversation, provide ample examples for critical articulation of contemporary art as a site for shifting paradigm, discussed within the frameworks of social and political sciences, cultural studies and critical theories. In fact, one of Wong Cheong’s solo exhibitions is titled Shifts (2008), perhaps to position him as an epitome of shifting paradigm within the context of contemporary art practice in Malaysia and beyond. Furthermore, Ray Langenbach himself, is also critical to what he perceives as Niranjan’s and Hasnul’s “missionary desire to romanticize or redeem digital communication” that mimicked “Mahathir Mohammed’s strategy of appropriating the rhetoric of the local centre-left to criticize the very global capital markets to which he was nevertheless committed”(Sitharan: 2008, p46). Both are also critical of the notion of ‘Asian values’ and indiginization of the local arts, that can easily and conveniently be exploited as an extension of State-sponsored framing of national identity at the expanse of more inclusive social and cultural initiatives. The study of E-art in Malaysia would be incomplete without referring to their works and writings, including writings by both local and international writers on Wong Hoy Cheong’s diverse and multi-dimensional artworks.
Baharudin Mohd Arus, known also for his early video installation work done under the supervision of Ray Langenbach during his study at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in the early 1990s in Penang, has written on the convergence between art and technology in the early 1990s. His writings are complimented by the writings of Zanita Anwar. Three writings by Zanita Anwar are used by this study and essay, mostly for extracting several shifting modes in contemporary art practices by young artists through her review of the local Young Contemporaries Competition (1999); underlining key outcomes from the convergence of art and science in ALAMI (1999); and articulating ICT as a form of cognitive tides, based on the as ebs and flow of information or data that can be stored, retrieved and even erased in Flow/Arus(with Wayne Tunniclife)(2000). Her articulation, especially on the cognitive tides, relates to the epistimilogical shift-return and the deployment of a quantum model in this study and essay. In connoting the notion of information storage, retrieval and deletion to implantation and erosion of cultural memories, she also echoes the spirit of critical regionalism and hints on the need for a post-traditional theorization in facing the imperatives of ICT.
Writings by Beverly Yong and Adeline Ooi, especially their overview of video art in Malaysia, provide a complimentary, if not updated reading for the previous study on similar subject by Niranjan and Hasnul. Both frame the video art practice as an articulation of alternative visual language and exploration of newly emerging locations and spaces for contending discourses. Such framing appears to echo Ismail Zain’s call to look into the ‘conceptual and linguistic efficacy’ within the local responses to video technology. Beverly and Adeline also write about Wong Hoy Cheong, along with other writers such as Goh Beng Lan, Camren Nge and Shabbir Hussain Mustaffa. Beverly co-edited Between Generations (2007) with Hasnul J Saidon, surveying and comparing two generations of Malaysian artists, whilst discussing the different contexts and strategies between the two. Recently, Beverly co-edited another milestone publication entitled Narratives of Malaysian Art with Nur Hanim Khairuddin, as a part of a planned four volumes publication that will comprehensively cover various dimensions of Malaysian art practices. They have also worked together, with several other writers, in surveying several emerging practices in Malaysia.
Supplementing the materials from Beverly and Adeline are writings by Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim, Nasir Baharuddin and Badrolhisham Mohd Tahir. Tengku Sabri or TSabri is known mostly for his mapping of modern and contemporary art in Malaysia that he refers to as Seni Rupa Malaysia or in short ‘Serum’. Badrol’s and Nasir’s writings are more theoretical, yet are highly pertinent in regards to the need for a cognitive shift within the practice and discourse of contemporary art in Malaysia. In addition, Nasir’s own creative works deploy a linguistic approach to visual culture, whilst revisiting critical theories through Eastern spiritual and metaphysical lenses. In fact, Nasir’s conceptual stance is echoed by this study and essay. Except for Badrol, both TSabri and Nasir are currently university-based researchers, writers and artists.
Chai Chang Hwang, Majidi Amir, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Sareena Abdullah, Safrizal Shahir, Sharon Chin, Simon Soon, Tan Sei Hon and Yap Sau Bin, represent the younger generation of writers who have contributed significantly to the body of literature on current contemporary art practices in Malaysia, especially after 2000. As contemporary chroniclers, the range of their coverage corresponds to different trajectories of contemporary art practices in Malaysia today. Their writings are not anymore confined by modernist and nationalistic frameworks of the previous generation. Theirs are less concern with the ‘master-narrative’ of Malaysian modern art history, reflecting a shifting contextual grounding for contemporary art discourse and practice in Malaysia.
Nur Hanim’s writings are referred to for their articulations on shifting paradigm within several platforms, namely curatorial practice by a new generation of ‘multi-faceted’ curators in Malaysia; alternative stances taken by a network of artists, collective, groups and communities; and new artistic strategies taken by young artists today. Her review of Hasnul J Saidon’s The Smilling Van Gogh and Gauguin (1997)(2010) provides a valuable example of the application of critical theories in the analysis and criticism of a single E-art work. Her own art magazine, sentAp! provides a fertile platform for many writings by other contemporary writers, some of which are also referred to by this study and essay.
On the other hand, Majidi Amir, Yap Sau Bin, Tan Sei Hon, Simon Soon and Sharon Chin, despite their limited writing output, provide valuable insights to several alternative, obscured and less visible, yet emerging sides of contemporary art practice in Malaysia. Majidi Amir for example, has even organized and curated several projects and exhibitions that feature E-art works. Complimenting them are writings by Sareena Abdullah and Safrizal Shahir, both currently based in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), a local public university in the northern state of Penang, Malaysia. Sareena’s work is crucial in her explication of post-modernism in Malaysia, especially her thesis on the rise of the middle-class Malay and the corresponding effect in the shifting attitude amongst younger artists. Safrizal’s writings are critical in providing an appropriate theoretical framework for the discourse of contemporary art in Malaysia, echoing the need for critical regionalism and post-traditional theory in theorizing modern and contemporary art practices in Malaysia.
Roopesh Sitharan, Lim Kok Yong, Wan Jamarul Imran, Khariul Aidil Azlin, Hasnizam Wahid and Tengku Azhari represent a group of writers whose writings are rather obscured or less visible, perhaps due to their academic and specialized leaning towards E-art and new media technology. All are based in universities, local and overseas. Yet, their writings, academic or non-academic, are instrumental in providing insights for the study of E-art in Malaysia and beyond.
Roopesh’s writing in Relocations: The Electronic Art of Hasnul J Saidon & Niranjan Rajah(2008) for example, provide an in-depth review on the works of Niranjan Rajah and Hasnul J Saidon. His theoretical probings especially through post-colonial framing, are highly instrumental. His epistimilogical argument on the fluctuating and fluid nature of new media technology through his recent presentation The Doing of Media (2013) is also helpful for this study and essay. He also writes for his own solo show Fermentations (2010), whilst providing contextualization of his repertoire of video and interactive art.
Khairul’s proposition of ‘hybridity’ as the converging agent for both design and fine art practices is also pertinent, as far as the shift from disciplinary to transdisciplinary approach in creative practice is concerned. Hasnizam Wahid and Tengku Azhari write about electro-acoustic and video technology respectively. Hasnizam has been writing and presenting papers on electro-acoustic composition mostly outside Malaysia, using his own technical research materials as case examples. Lim Kok Yong, on the other hand, writes about his own interactive works, in a very probing and existentialist approach.
Complimenting the the above-mentioned materials are writings by Faizal Sidek, Arham Azmi, Fuad Ariff and Tan Nan See, perhaps to give a broad overview or picture of different trajectories within the contemporary art practice in Malaysia, especially those driven by young artists.
A surprise yet pleasant addition to the existing body of literature useful for the study of E-art in Malaysia is Ismail Abdullah’s Seni Budaya Media dan Konflik Jati Diri (Art, Culture, Media and Identity Conflict) (2009). In this book, he speaks about cyber-culture and its influence in creating a new cultural environment dictated by automation and machine. He argues on how technology has become a product of siginification and machine protocol. He explicates new media as a symbol of artistic modernization and trans-avant garde exploitation of multiple texts and sub-texts. He explains the impact of artist’s use of electronic eyes through digital camera lenses, LCD, CCD, CMOS and many other sensor technologies. One important point he has made, that should be taken into consideration as far as the history of media art is concerned, is the role of photography and photographers as the early preludes of E-art and new media art in Malaysia. Names such as Ahlmarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, H.S. Lim, Eric Peres, Shamsul Kamal, S.Y Yeong, Ibrahim Ismail, Yusoff Osman, Raja Zahabuddin Raja Yaacob, Ismail Abdullah (himself) and Soraya Yusof Talismail Ibrahim should be taken into account in surveying media art in Malaysia. The use of photography technology by prominent Malaysian artists such as Ibrahim Hussein, Redza Piyadasa Nirmala Shanmugalingam, Ismail Zain, Wong Hoy Cheong and Liew Kungyu for him, are also important factors and sites to articulate the role of media technology in shifting certain ways of approaching modern and contemporary art practice in Malaysia.
In supplementing the textual materials, this study and essay have also been greatly assisted by a very rare institutional collection of video art at the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang.