May peace prevails upon all beings on the earth and beyond. You may scroll down to browse the contents of this blog.

Sunday, 29 September 2013


Thanks Sabapathy, for the fatherly hug.


I found myself disagreeing strongly with some points in some of the essays in the recently-launched Volume 2 of the Narratives of Malaysian Art project, edited by Beverly Young and Nur Hanim. Some arguments can be contested. But of course, that does not mean that the editors and writers should be hated and taken as my sworn enemies. The difficult and tedious efforts to publish a confluence of diverging or contesting takes, thoughts, opinions, sentiments, interpretations in regards to the contemporary art practice in Malaysia, in a civilized way and in good spirit, should be commended and encouraged, not despised. Its okay to question and disagree, or not sharing similar 'neural patterns'. Its human to be so. Congrats Bev and Hanim.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Still Water
Producer & Original Concept : Hasnul J Saidon
Editor : Anderson Ee & Shamsul Ikmal Mansori
  • Online
Hasnul J Saidon/Anderson Ee/Shamsul Ikhmal Mansori


Hujan Emas Hujan Batu



Tuesday, 17 September 2013


Datuk Syed yang dikasihi, Rupa mu telah tiada, namun Jiwa mu masih bergema.(untuk lebih cepat, terus ke bahagian tengah hingga hujung)


Al-Bukhary International University, a model university for the 21st. century. I pray and wish you all the best Tan Sri Dzul (currently AIU Vice-Chancellor), my ex-boss (used to be USM Vice Chancellor) and mentor. Perhaps one day we can work together again in the future. 

Title : AIU (Al-Bukhary International University) - A Humaniversity
Year : 2012
Concept : Tan Sri Dzulkfili Abdul Razak
Director : Hasnul J Saidon
Editor : Shamsul Ikhmal Mansori 

"ABADI" (ETERNAL), 1987-88

Title : Abadi (Eternal)
Year : 1987
Song, lyric and vocal : Hasnul J Saidon
Recorded at : Kebun Bunyi Corner (Garden of Music Corner), Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)

Specially-dedicated to my fellow comrades UiTM (1984-88/1985-1989) especially those who had passed away (with Al-Fatihah).


Title : Zikir Masa (Invocation of time)
Year : 2012
Original song, lyric, composition, arrangement, vocal : Hasnul J Saidon
Performed by : Kebun Bunyi
Video by : Shamsul Ikhmar Mansori


Visual essay version of "Unveiling the Warrior" (work-in-progress) in collaboration with Sarah Ameera. Still working on it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013


Sejak kebelakangan ini, terlalu kerap saya melihat Van Gogh mengenyit matanya.


Bang Ramli Sarip, lu memang 'super otai'. Lu punya "Kamelia" live di Dewan Budaya USM malam semalam memang buat bulu roma dan segala jenis bulu gua meremang dan darah rock kapak gua menyirap.

Tahniah pada Prof. Kamarudzaman dari Unit Perdamaian USM (adik lain mak dan lain bapak Ramli Sarip) atas perlantikan sebagai Professor, dan atas inisiatif membawa dan menjadikan Abang Ramli Sarip sebagai Duta Perdamaian. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


Adik-adik, nak jadi kaya (harta benda) takpa. Jadilah. Bagus jadi kaya-raya. Tapi janganlah 'miss the point'. Semuanya amanah yang dipinjam, termasuk NYAWA.  Kalau semua orang faham konsep yang mudah ni, insyaAllah kita semua perolehi kedamaian dunia akhirat.


Adik-adik, jangan jadi jurujual tak berbayor, masuk perangkap viral ciptaan borjois sesat dan kapitalis kota haloba. Dia popular, dapat perhatian dan kaya, kamu hanya dapat saka 'amarah' dan semakin miskin jiwa.


2.2 Absorbing Future Shock (or ‘Syiok’, as coined by Ooi Kok Chuen) (14)

Rama In Cyber World” (RICW)(1996), is another example of your engagement with the notion of cultural identity, especially in relation to information revolution or implosion of ICT. As Malaysia braves the challenges of globalisation and free market liberalism, the fate of her rich and diverse cultural traditions is uncertain, or perhaps bleak. Will such traditions be marginalized, sidelined or pushed to the periphery with the influx of global capitalism?

In this work, your main visual text ‘Rama’, one of the main characters in the traditional Kelantan shadow puppet or ‘wayang kulit’, is placed as a dark silhouette in almost the middle of the pictorial plane. He seems to be at odd with an array of assorted images of modern gadget such as CPU circuits, a hand phone, a dollar sign and graffiti-like floating writings. The mood is hectic, active and dynamic, as if intending to negate the presence and dominance of ‘Rama’.

The painting appears like a collage in a pop expressionist rendition. The colors are rich, red, cream peach, black, orange and yellow ochre with subdued white. Rama’s low key silhouette is contrasted against a white background, flanked by a high intensity red to create a dramatic contrast. The surface quality still retains your preference for a rough canvas. The space and composition are flat, shallow, cluttered and confusing.

Interestingly, instead of relying on your typical raw expressionistic quivering, the work seems to toy with semiotic, perhaps through the binary pairing of ‘Rama’ and the MSC’s (Malaysia’s and Mahathir’s Multimedia Super Corridor) logo. Your sentiment borders on parody.

I suspect that you were not too happy with media imperialism, hegemony and control, and lament the impact of popular culture and rampant consumerism towards our rich cultural traditions. Knowing that you have no qualm about using or employing new media technology in producing your video art, I guess you might have experienced a paradoxical dilemma in engaging with technology. How do we face the emergence of net or cyber generation?  How do we engage with the future consumers of media technology and the future prosumers of global lifestyles? Your voice through this work sounds like a patriotic and concerned Malaysian.

Many local artists including me have responded to media technology and the emergence of cyber world. Ahmad Shukri’s “Insect Diskettes series II”(1997) and Long Thien Shih “Bar Coded Man” (2001)  are two examples that I can recall. In fact, following Ismail Zain’s “Digital Collage” solo exhibition (1988) and the “1st. Electronic Art Show” (1997), we have witnessed the emergence of video and digital art in Malaysia.(15)

Of course, it has to be noted that the Malaysian art scene in the past 15 years, especially during the late 90’s, has been predominantly preoccupied by ‘future shock’ - changing realities brought about by globalization, capitalist free market liberalism, information revolution and digital technology.  I refer to the future shock as post-modern raves, which include critical exposition of new media and its influences.(16)

My friend Masnoor,
“Cinta Dewa Dewi” (CDD)(2007), also features two ‘wayang kulit’ characters, in this case taken from the Jawa and Thailand traditions. But “CDD” may not be your direct response to the future shock, even though it may be related to post-modern challenges encountered by us in the Southeast Asian region as we position ourselves in facing the imperatives of the 21st. century. I this regard, I recalled Niranjan Rajah’s proposition for a Southeast Asian paradigm in responding to globalization.(17)  “CDD” also relates to what Michelle Antoinette refers to as “a broader range of socio-cultural issues and problems” as stated in the previous section.

“CDD” is a textbook example of semiotic and appropriation at work, in which visual texts taken from diverse sources are placed together to unveil new readings. Other than the two ‘wayang’ characters, “CDD” also features two forms of landscapes rendered in Persian miniature and Chinese scroll painting styles. In appropriating distinctive Oriental styles, you may intend to remind your audience of our very own Southeast Asian forms of pictorial recitation and story-telling. Appropriating visual texts from the ‘wayang’ tradition can also be seen in the works of Nik Zainal Abidin and Khairul Azmir Shoib.

The mood in “CDD” is tranquil, quiet and cool, but not without a hint of a confrontation lurking beyond the calm ‘oriental’ setting. It connotes nature, and denotes the notion of nature as rendered or interpreted by Eastern outlook. The ‘wayang’ characters at both ends of the pictorial plane can be read as the guardians of the forest. The title suggests an idea of heavenly love, perhaps towards one’s own land. “CDD” may also imply the lurking crisis of urbanization that may negate the interest of preserving the rich cultural traditions and natural environment of Southeast Asia.

In “CDD”, you still retain your surrealist undertone, but with a much tighter composition and arrangement of pictorial elements. The color treatment is more lavish and grandeur. There is a cool range of monochromatic blue with white in the middle, dark silhouette of trees, yellow ochre and deep brown with creamy skin tone and green in various value keys. Most of the colors are secondary mix except for the blue. The texture is more intricate perhaps due to the rich patterns on the ‘wayang’ attires and the intricate ornaments created by the rendition of the trees, branches, twigs and leaves. The spatial treatment is a mixture of atmospheric perspective with isometric or shallow space treatment commonly found in a Persian miniature painting. The forest has a Chinese scroll vertical orientation while the placement of two ‘wayang’ characters at the far ends of the painting creates a lateral orientation.

If you would recall, our future shock in the 90’s was marked by a sudden pressure to change within a short time span. It has lead to a lost of balance, especially in several delicate issues concerning the sustainability of our natural environment and diverse cultural traditions. Some of us were not ready to adapt to the imperatives of change, and risked being left-out or marginalized.

Other than our natural environment and diverse cultural traditions, the future shock has also brought changing lifestyles and unveil critical issues related to ethnicity, religion and gender in this region. You, like many other artists in the 90s, were very much into responding to these issues.

In Malaysia, the term ‘issues based art’(IBA) was coined to explain artworks with more pronounced political and social concerns.(18) The concerns may sometimes not be openly debated, but the heat is still lurking underneath. If you look at contemporary artworks done by several artists from the Southeast Asian region in recent years, you will probably notice IBA as well. There are many examples. In fact, you can see IBA in almost any contemporary exhibition. It seems like you need to have ‘an issue’ to be a visual artist today. It has become almost a ‘by default’ pre-requisite to enter into the ‘big scene’ especially in international exhibitions.

But certainly not all engaging art must be a politically and socially ‘issues based
art’. In fact, some IBA can be very pretentious and superficial.(19) Furthermore, we would surely want our contemporary art scene to be more diverse, and accommodative to works that feature other concerns such as aesthetic, tradition and spirituality. Even if issues were deemed as important, there are many more to be put forward, such as sustainability and the convergence of art and science. Certainly, there many new findings in various disciplines of knowledge that can inspire our local artists.
Anyway, it is interesting to note that your voice in “CDD” is not anymore ‘Malay-centered’ or ‘Malaysian-centered’, but embraces a more regional cultural concern. Perhaps you want to emulate ‘glocalism’.  

2.3 Responding to Post-modern Raves

Do you agree that we are surrounded by post-modern irony and paradox? I called it post-modern raves where loudness, irony, parody, sarcasm, pastiche, indiscriminate appropriation and deconstruction are favored. I have commented on such raves in my two essays on Malaysian Young Contemporaries. Other writers have commented on our local version of post-modern raves as well.(20) Some of them despise the raves while some others welcome them. Some prefer to stay ‘in between the lines’.

The raves are commonly linked to the so-called ‘independent’ art spaces and groups as well as the so-called ‘alternative’ artists. Inclusive in the raves are the many faces of our local ‘underground’ sub-cultural elements. These art groups such as Rumah Air Panas and SpaceKraft “have sought to detach themselves from the establishment”.(21) 

For some, we are in the age of crisis and deconstruction of our very own ‘national’ value system. They fear the loss of ‘center’ or something common that can be used as an anchor. Some would call it the age of ‘anything goes’ in which everything can be turned into a spectacle, superficial façade, endless play and pastiche. Several local artists are riding on these.

            Interestingly enough, especially in the 90s, you and your Matahati buddies were very much into the raves. I’m not sure whether you were interested in riding them, or using and commenting on them. Nevertheless, you response to the riddles of post-modern raves is no less interesting.

One example is “Documentation”(1997), a painting that features a silhouette image of a ‘mat rempit’ (a local version of street dare-devil racer) in his trademark ‘superman’ (flying) riding style, seemingly racing towards his own death (an image of a corpse wrapped in white cloth). Despite the pronounced reminder of death, the work ironically has a touch of pop, pastiche, parody and comical feel to it. It is rough, crude, raw, bold, playful, defiant, direct and aggressive – characters that one would associate with the ‘rempit’ sub-culture, or even post-modern itself.

Another example is “Festival” (1999), in which you used video as a form of political satire. It also seems to be a parody of the banality in our local political fiasco (and spectacles). Shahnaz Said explains how your installation of flags and buntings “lead us to two video projectors facing back to back, each facing a wall. On the walls are projected montages of close-ups of a mouth ranting. A steady sequence of close-up images of the faces of two different people as opponents continues. Clearly the two people are addressing each other. The dialogue increasingly breaks down and rapidly deteriorates into the ubiquitous punch-up; the only common ground.”(22)  I remember responding to almost similar political fiasco through my video installation with internet in “kipASAPi”(1999).

 “Independence”(2004) is another video parody in which you deconstructed the celebration of our Nation’s Independence to unveil the binary pairing of war and peace (or war within peace). Through this video, you make a comment on the spectacle of independence (fireworks) that may ironically diminish or even deconstruct the very idea of independence or freedom itself. The work is mesmerizing and hypnotic but not without a pinch. It teases our notion of ‘real time’ and makes a point about how ‘reality’ itself can be highly relative.

            Interestingly, both “Festival” and “Independence” were presented in a form of installation. Installation can be taken as one of many forms of post-modern raves. In this regard, and in commenting on Matahati’s decision to use the term ‘zoo art’ to label their installation-based works in Matahati : PL,  Shahnaz Said writes :

            Zoo is in immaculate disparity with art. Through the use of precise images, a clarity of expression is won. The word zoo is imaginistic and impart a strong scent that threatens the rarefied world of art”(23)  Yap Sau Bin proposes that “zoo could connote a quality of raw, unrefined and coarse – thus legitimizing the artists effort of producing work that challenges the audiences’ aesthetic sensibilities and demand critical exploration and reading of the content instead.”(24)  Tengku Sabri poses several questions to such rave :

            “It seems that Matahati does not really care about the exhibition’s space or place! What’s the significance of GALERI PETRONAS with PL’s Exhibition? But, should it be like that? Should they consider the ‘place’, or they just need to fill the ‘place’ with their artworks like the many previous exhibitions?”(25) Were you just filling up the space?

Other than installation, the presentation of both “Festival” and “Independence” also involved the use of video which could be seen as quite distinctive in comparison to Matahati’s general preference to painting and installation. In this context, and in comparison to your other Matahati buddies, you were perhaps more inventive. Your videos may also be taken as your response to media implosion in Malaysia. The implosion is full of ironies and paradoxes – key features of post-modern condition. One example is the fact that despite such implosion, many would have no reservation in lamenting on the lack of what they refer to ‘freedom of speech and expression’ in the local media. But the global media is far from being free or independent too.

Video is then an obvious choice, and I suspect that you were then interested in using it to comment on the state of political affairs in Malaysia.   

Not many write about video art in Malaysia, even though some may pretend to behave like experts who are not shy in making dubious comments about it. Other than the National Art Gallery and Universiti Sains Malaysia,(26)  I can’t find any other institution or private collectors who collect video art. Despite such limitation, video art in Malaysia emerged years before her neighboring countries, and has been quite a regular feature of many contemporary exhibitions.

Several young artists have employed video in expressing their ideas and feelings.  I believe that you are a part of a group of artists who posses a more open-ended attitude towards their visual art practices such as Faizal Zulkifli, Noor Azizan Paiman, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Lau Mun Leng, Liew Teck Leong, Low Yii Chin, Roslisham Ismail, Kamal Sabran, Rini Fauzan, Tengku Azhari, Idora AlHabshi, Vincent Leong, Sharon Chin and Khairul Azmir Shoib.  More established artists such as Wong Hoy Cheong continues to employ video and new media which include several of his recent international projects.

Recently, video has also become an instrumental tool for art collectives, cultural activists and groups, alternative spaces as well as small scale exhibitions, private screenings and community projects,  with collaborative engagements and networking that often reaching out beyond the national border (towards regional collaboration).

My friend Masnoor,
I think your videos capture the temperament of a Malay artist who belongs to a screen or TV generation (not a computer generation). Your videos were perhaps previously obscured by other prevailing forms of visual art expressions in Malaysia. Historically, since there was no extended model of video art as a viable practice of fine art in Malaysia, those who wish to use video to express their voices had no reference to look for. Therefore, your engagement with video may pose many intriguing questions in regards to media implosion, both locally and internationally.(27)

2.4 Voyaging Into The Shrouded Selves

Other than responding to the notion of culture and identity, future shock and post-modern raves, I noticed that your artistic journey also displays another distinctive trajectory. This trajectory seems to be moving away from the external cultural conundrum to an inner voyage. It moves deeply inward, suggesting a more personal and idiosyncratic voyage into the subconscious. It also resonates with a sense of cathartic release. Such trajectory appears to be the preferred direction of you and your Matahati buddies during the 90’s.

In relation to cathartic release, I recalled a thesis on ‘visual amok’ or “Malay angst” by Niranjan Rajah in “Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa”.(28) He refers to the works of several Malay artists with expressionist undertone such as Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Raja Shahriman. J. Anu refers to the undertone as a “much more confronting version of a Malay aesthetic – one that is less concerned with niceties or politeness”. While acknowledging Matahati as a part of “key influences in the rise of figurative social commentary that has dominated Malaysian art, particularly Malaysian painting since 1990s” he proposes that Matahati’s reading of issues “are told from their very distinct Malay-Muslim and incidentally South East Asian point of view, symbology and visual vocabulary”.(29)

While still retaining the ubiquitous surrealist and expressionist undertones, this ‘inner’ trajectory has also lead towards a much darker rendition. Such rendition emanates a haunting feeling of despair, hopelessness, anguish, desolation, misery and sadness. Despite both Niranjan’s and J. Anu’s propositions, this particular trajectory of yours is devoid of specific cultural and ethnic index, at least visually. The trajectory seems to be more existential.

“The Truth Within”(TTW)(1995), “Once Upon A Time” (OUAT)(1996) and “Sign of Life Voyager”(SOLV)(1995) represent this trajectory. 

These works feature human figures in what I presume to be in a helpless state of grief and pain. “TTW” features bold strokes in vertical orientation while “SOLV” retains your clashing brushstrokes with thick pigment and dry brush effect. The key register in “TTW” and “SOLV” is predominantly low with mostly monochromatic gray scale, accentuated by the use of white and creamy flesh color to render the figures and schematic lines. “OUAT” features a high contrast between blazing hot landscape with a dark and cool interior. Spatially, “OUAT” can be divided into two parts – a wall with an arch, and a landscape beyond the arch. The landscape is filled with dead trees and what appear to be clocks.

Perhaps I can try my luck with an uncertified form of psycho-analysis here.

I believe that there is an intrinsic drive in each of us to voyage beyond the trappings of one’s shell and localized self. When we lost trust to our habitual gravitation towards physical desires, we usually yearn for a journey into our souls. We yearn to journey beyond the confines and confusion of our shrouded earthy selves. We begin to indulge into a ‘quantum state’ in which we become more engaged with our deeper thoughts and emotions. We may discover that our minds and emotions are more entangled, intertwined, closer and interconnected with each other than we thought. Not only that, they are also very noisy.

But we want to attain unity, perhaps by embracing diversity. We want to dissolve the binary forces of You and I, Right and Wrong, Positive and Negative, Ying and Yang, Rama and Sita, Shiva and Shakti, AsSham (Sun) and AlHillal (Moon). So we struggle to silent them in order to reach a state in which we simply dissolve into infinite rhythmic pulses, vibrating with different frequencies in the sea of a cosmic symphony. We dwell in the domain of ‘semangat’, ‘chi’, ‘prana’. We want to become pure energy reaching for Oneness.(30)

Quite mouthful isn’t it Masnoor.

But of course the explication above is easier said than done. In fact, many may just give up such yearning even before they embark on such voyage. Some of those who had succeeded in initiating such voyage may even enter into a state of delusional hell, turning their journey of love into a journey of extreme anger and hate. As we encounter our own demon, we may discover that all the anger, hate, sorrow, grief and pain that we normally point ‘outward’ (blaming on ‘others’) are actually residing deep within ourselves. For those who embark without a proper ‘spiritual cleansing’ and guidance from a master or guru, the journey may mislead one into a state of mental and emotional delusion or torment.

“TTW”, “OUAT” and “SOLV” seem to capture such torment, laden with a mixture of anger, sorrow, grief and pain. In fact, I have seen many ‘angry’ paintings done by other Matahati artists (and many other local artists) that feature similar visual torment. But ‘angry’ art can also be trendy and hip. Being angry and having an attitude can be a style and make one stands out amongst the subservient crowd. In art, we call it ‘angst-ridden’, probably to make it sound ‘justified’. So we ride on it (together with its seemingly unrelenting force). We feel strong and powerful. More anger, more hate, more sorrow, more pain, more grief, until we realize (if we were lucky, blessed our souls) that the force will lead us nowhere. It will even take control of our true ‘Self’. It veils us from knowing our true Self.

But still, the heck with it! Anger sells! Just like 9/11. No matter which side you are with (in response to President George Bush), anger sells.

I believe that everyone has surely experienced sorrow, anger, hate, grief and pain. But sometimes, we artists always have the tendency to make a big deal (or big bucks) out of it. Perhaps I’m wrong. I guess I have to admit, there is always this ‘drama queen’ (DQ) trait lurking within me. What about you? Or perhaps you might have noticed fragments of such DQ amongst your buddies. I assume that we do need DQs to make our lives more interesting. Nevertheless, and on the positive side, sincere expression or cathartic release of torment may allow us to peek into the normally obscured (or filtered) mental, emotional and spiritual states of us as Malaysians. They are not pretty all the time.

Masnoor, forgive my ‘expressionistic’ outburst.

2.5 Encountering Media Hegemony

            Another significant trajectory of your works is simulation or fabricated reality, which seems to affirm the post-modernist’s proposition that we live within the sway of mythology conjured for us by the mass media, movies and advertisements. Not everyone can agree with this though, especially those firmly rooted in the modernist ethos.

“One Dollar, one dollar” (ODOD)(2007), and “I dream of Rome” (IDOR)(2007),  remind me of Liew Kungyu’s recent digital collages, Ahmad Fuad Osman’s “An Eye For An Eye Will Make The Whole World Go Blind”(2003),   Illi Farhana’s ’s “Believe It Or Not”(2004), and Safrizal Shahir’s “Imej Sebagai Teks,…”(2004). It also reminds me of Nadiah Bhamadaj’s recent ‘manipulated’ photographs. These works seem to suggest that “meaning (about a particular subject or subjects) can be constructed as a system of thinking to a point that the thought system be taken as natural or inevitable.  They also imply that media and images have become sites of contestation in which culture, lifestyle and identity can be artificially constructed and hyped to feed a targeted mass and market”. A country (like Malaysia) can be the targeted mass and market. (31)

“ODOD”and “IDOR” may also suggest a poststructuralist interpretation that we live in a soulless or empty society. They remind me of an eerie link between media technology with political and economic imperialism, urbanization, popular mass cultures, advertising and branding with propagation of alternative metropolitan lifestyle. Such link can be exploited to further expand consumerist agendas, thus control of political, capital and market flow.(32)

As Zanita explains :

“We are now experiencing a media-saturated world powered and diffused by a select group operating within a post cold war mentality inherited from the West.”(33)

 “ODOF” is direct, bold, frontal and ‘on your face’. The mood and sentiment border on parody and sarcasm. The work is multi-textual, featuring a combination of signifiers. The images of two children, a Cambodian girl and boy denote innocence. They can be read as the subservient receiver (or victim) of global capitalism. War itself can be a profit making affair meant to further extend hegemony and power, justified by the interest of ‘bringing democracy’. Harm and wound that children have to endure can be delegated as “collateral damage”.

The binary pairing of the image of Buddha statue (from Angkor Wat) printed on
the boy’s t.shirt with the image of U.S dollar unveils new readings, perhaps implying that the local or indigenous belief can be substituted by ‘capitalism’ under ‘one’ (U.S.A) nation. The phrase ‘in God we trust’ is further given a new twist when juxtaposed with the image of Buddha and the action of the children that were forced to become street-sellers to make a living. The looming presence of U.S dollar prominently placed as the backdrop can be read as the ominous dominance of American foreign policies (and interests) in the global affairs. The juxtaposition also unveils a sinister proposition of railing the world under one unilateral power (a lopsided effect of the notion of being ‘highly independent’).

“IDOR” reminds me of cultural contestation and media hegemony. Perhaps emulating certain presumed traits of the global media, the work features a scene that was digitally simulated, artificially reconstructed and totally fabricated. The ‘simulacra’ scene itself can be taken as a field for cultural contestation (or confrontation), in which ‘Wak Dogol’ (a comedic character from the Kelantan shadow puppet) comes face to face with President Bush in a stormy desert. I think the choice of using ‘Wak Dogol’ to spar with Persident Bush was deliberate, as if pairing two ‘comedic’ actors on stage. In between them stands the Coliseum, perhaps hinting at a possible ‘battle of the gladiators or perhaps ‘fools’’. The incoming desert storm acts as another signifier, suggesting an approaching war or another ‘desert storm’. Looking like a scene taken from a fictional film, the panoramic view further adds drama to the whole pictorial scheme.

As a visual text, the Coliseum can be read as an epitome of a mob hungry for the spectacles of violence and death. It connotes the bloody, violent and barbaric spectacles of the ‘highly cultured’ Roman Empire where actual killings of humans and their dignity were taken as afternoon entertainment. Perhaps it functions as an index for the global media and its consumers, always hungry for spectacles. To compliment the Coliseum, the binary pairing of ‘Wak Dogol’ and ‘President Bush’ may also perhaps suggest a clash between the ‘Apollonian’ and the ‘Dynosian’ idealism. Beyond the cliché U.S and Bush-bashing, it may imply the splitting paradoxes and chasm between the sacred and the secular, spirit and body, science and art, emotion and intellect, rational and sentimental, dialectic and compulsive, tradition and modernity, local and international.

Similar to Ahmad Fuad’s, Safrizal’s, Illi’s and Nadhiah’s strategy in the afore-mentioned works, your deconstructivist strategy reveals how certain meanings can be constructed by the media and repeated to make them natural. The constructed meanings may mask their opposite agendas. In some cases, deconstructivist strategy has been employed to reveal that history can be a myth and ideology can be masqueraded as truth. It can be used to question the power behind the representation of history, its linearity and the impact of ideology towards any narrative or style of historical writing.  Several artworks by prominent Malaysian artists such as Wong Hoy Cheong’s “Re-Looking”(2003) can be read according to this framework.

2.6 Knocking on the Spiritual Door

            Dear Masnoor,
For those who want to skip the highbrow field of expressionistic modernism and the dissonant raves of post-modernism, spiritual minimalism may perhaps be one possible avenue. After all, being over-engulfed by modernism and post-modernism can sometimes be hazardous to one’s health.

For some, the eventual rapture after an intense period of cathartic outburst may lead one to a state of spiritual yearning. This is another distinctive trajectory in your artistic repertoire.

Your work “Faith”(2004), features such spiritual undertone. It reminds me of Daud Abdul Rahim’s works in his solo exhibition called “Visual Invocation”. In “Faith”, the repetitive sound of our heartbeats “invokes a sense of visual chant that lures and invites” one to contemplate and meditate.(34)

The sound of the heartbeats functions in “the manner in which repeated verbal mantras help to silence the mind, body and feeling or desire in order to embark upon a deeper state of meditation. It provides a form of spatial and rhythmic constant needed to attain focus, concentration and eventually a total silence.”(35)

“As piously marked by our heartbeats, life is a virtuous invocation, blessed by the miracles of existence. Imagine seeing and listening to the repeated invocation of humans’ heartbeats, amplified without the pretentious differentiations of the localized body. As one inhales and exhales, one is engaging in the miracle symphony of the whole. One is the whole, and the whole is one.”(36)

In this video installation, the sound of the heartbeats is accompanied by an image of a candle light. The candle light is used to signify the yearning for enlightenment and Union. The television monitor itself is a source and form of light.

Light is an interesting and engaging subject of study. In fact, the nature of light as explicated by many spiritual traditions and Eastern philosophies may share many common notions with quantum physics, rather than the classical sciences.

The study of light can also be linked to bio-energy, aura, chakra, the power of intention, and many new findings in alternative medicines. The whole spectrum of ‘spiritual sciences’ may indeed be a very transformative area of study and practice. Sadly, not many artists in the local art scene are into it. I guess we are still framed and prefer to be conditioned by material sciences. Perhaps it is much easier to deal with tangible things. Of course, spirituality is best experienced than explained (it is beyond the confines of language). Plus, this is not the venue to indulge into the notions of light, be them spiritually or scientifically.

I remember seeing several video arts from Japan in 2003 when I was in Fukuoka, Kyoto and Tokyo for a research on the use of new media technology in Japan. Some of the videos that I’ve seen (especially those produced in the 70s) featured similar interest in spiritual minimalism. “Faith” also reminds me of some of Bill Viola’s videos.

Another work of yours that features similar spiritual minimalism is “Kantung”(2005), which according to you is your video interpretation of Rumi’s poem. It is marked by a circular base with a small pot placed on firewood as if waiting to be boiled. Water contained by the pot reflects a top view image of a man (from a video projection), trying to escape from his container. Rumi wrote in his poem :

“Though water be enclosed in a reservoir
Yet air will absorb it, for it is its supporter
It sets it free and bears it to its source
Little by little
So that you see not the process
In like manner, this breath of ours by degrees
Steals away our souls from the prison of earth”(37)

            Other than video installations, your personal version of spiritual minimalism can also be traced in “Alif” (2000) and “99 Names” (2007).

Instead of repetition, “Alif” appears more like a proclamation. The style is very graphic with intersecting patterns that create gradual tonal values. The space is purposeful flat and shallow while the surface is geometrical and mathematical. The composition is centralized to allow us to focus mainly on the letter ‘alif’. ‘Alif’ as an Arabic letter carries many spiritual significances in the Malay-Islamic tradition. Perhaps I should leave the explanation to other experts.

“99 Names” refers to 99 Names of Allah. According to you, the number is believed to be inscribed as the Arabic number 99 on humans’ palms. Humans’ palms are commonly associated by Muslims with ‘doa’ or prayer.

Despite the spiritual and religious undertone, the work is presented in a highly graphic, figurative and modern form. Spatially, the work displays an angle that positions the viewer as the ‘actor’ in the act of ‘doa’ while meditating on the Arabic number 99 inscribed on his or her palms.  

I think what makes your trajectory towards spirituality interesting for me is that you are not confined by the need to rely on the use of arabesque, commonly featured in what we normally refer to as ‘contemporary Islamic art’. Since you are not an expert in the Islamic art, be it traditional or contemporary, I think it is more sincere for you to rely on the medium that you know best and feel comfortable with. I also think that it is rather inventive to incorporate the use of video and digital technology in manifesting your spiritual inclination.

But instead of just knocking on a door, you may want to think about whether you are already ‘inside’ or still ‘outside’, as far as your spiritual state is concern. Perhaps, there is no such thing as being inside or outside, as well as being secular or spiritual. In this regards, I will leave you with another Rumi’s :

“I’ve lived on the lips of reason,
wanting answer, knocking on a door….
I’ve been knocking from inside.”

2.7 Returning to Love and Friendship

My dear friend Masnoor,
As evidently surveyed through this writing, your 19 years ‘career’ has been multifarious and features multiple trajectories. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, or whether you should think about focusing on one particular trajectory or continue to flirt with diverse directions. But regardless of whatever direction that you are heading, there should be a point of return as much as there should be a point of departure.

The word ‘return’ may indeed suggest a kind of finality, or an end of a journey. But such reading is based on a highly linear reading of time. A cyclical and multidimensional reading of time may indeed provide a different perspective. We may have ‘returned to love and friendship’ many times in our live. On the other hand, theories, writings and notions about love are not love, but a crude physical explanation and manifestation of love. Love has to be felt and experienced, as suggested by the opening phrase of this writing. As a Muslim, we are told to ‘be love’, to embrace and manifest it in every breath as we utter “Ar Rahman nir Rahim”. Once we attained unconditional love, we will be a step closer to Oneness and Union.

 In this regard, “Sahabat Karib”, 2007 is a very unassuming work that embodies the spirit of love and the path towards Oneness.

“Sahabat Karib” is not merely just about ‘friendship’ as implied by the title. I know that the work is based on a Malay proverb “cubit peha kiri, peha kanan terasa” or “when you pinch your left thigh, the right thigh will also feel the pain”. More than just a proverb, it captures the spirit of inter-dependency and sustainable co-existence. It is about acknowledging and submitting to the fact that we are closer to each other (regardless of our differences) than what we normally presume; that we are actually inter-connected in a highly symbiotic way; that we are a small part of the larger whole. To feel connected with each other and with everything through love (not the primitive assumption of being snobbishly independent), is to be a step closer to a higher state of unity.

“Sahabat Karib” is the most appropriate work that summarizes your precious 19 years journey with your Matahati buddies. In retrospect, how many times have you and your buddies returned to love and friendship as a point of return and a point of departure during the Group’s illustrious career?

            Dear Masnoor,
            It is ‘Asar’ now, and I can hear the calling of ‘bilal’ from a distant. In the Quran, there is a phrase that begins with “in the name of time” to remind us of the deeper significance of ‘time’. This writing is my way of honoring the significance of the 19 years you have spent as a visual artist.

Don’t worry about returning me the favor. But if you insisted, send me a ‘doa’. I need it. After all, I think I will get paid for writing this. I apologize for any inconvenience that may be caused by this writing. If you experienced any inconvenience, blame it on me. Don’t be shy to disagree with me. For the sake of knowledge, or some heavenly ideals that are bigger than my ego, I think I can tolerate working with people that I may dislike or disagree with. I’m not perfect and I can be wrong. You are welcomed to correct me. I can be stubborn, bias or prejudicial at times.

Lastly, I pray that your future endeavor will be propelled by the spirit of love and friendship that echo beyond the need to ‘sustain a career’.