PEACE PREVAILS

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Sunday, 18 August 2013

MASNOOR RAMLI-THROUGH THE 'EYES' AND 'HEART' OF A FRIEND (PART 2)




Part 2
  
MASNOOR RAMLI
THROUGH THE ‘EYES’ AND ‘HEART’ OF A FRIEND
Hasnul J Saidon



2. THE REVIEWS

2.1 Awakening the ‘Alter-Native’

I found that most of your earlier paintings are abstract, dominated by some kind of organic forms and inspired by the symbiosis between humans and the natural environment. I guess you were probably inspired by our trips to Sarawak in the late 80’s, initiated by our lecturer Fauzan Omar. For a city dweller, they may appear ‘primitive’ or ‘alter-native’, but yet retain the crude expressionist and surrealist undertones that you and your Matahati buddies have been known for in the 90s. Of course, you can link this interest with Azhar Manan’s early works “September 1989 – Aku Lihat Warisan Yang Hilang”(1989) and Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s “Bujang Berani”(1991).

Zanita Anuar outlines this interested as being “mindful of a local-regional perspective in the strive to understand Malaysia’s post-colonial identity…”(8)  Michelle Antoinette explains it as being “attuned to a broader range of socio-cultural issues and problems”. In commenting on the “Malay-Islamic revivalist propensities in art during the late 1970s and 1980s” as allegedly propagated by the MARA Institute of Technology (UiTM), she notes that the “Matahati artists were less interested in privileging expressions of their Malay ethnicity through their art”.(9)  Masnoor, perhaps you may want to relay your response to her.

I can’t relay your personal experience as a student in UiTM but from my experience of being a student at MARA for 4 years (1984-88), a part-time tutor for another year (1989) and a lecturer in 1994, I could not recall being forced to conform to a particular ‘Malay-Islamic revivalist propensities’. I guess my gurus then (yours too) such as Fauzan Omar, Ismail Zain, Ponirin Amin, Awang Damit, Amron Omar, Choong Kam Kow, Joseph Tan, Tan Tuck Kan, Ariffin Ismail, Zakaria Awang, and Ruzaika Omar Basaree were less interested in forcing down my throat such propensities. Fauzan Omar for example, was more interested in ‘expanded painting’ than the alleged propensities. Ismail Zain was more interested in the juxtaposition of cross-cultural elements brought about by the mass-media.(10)

Anyway, the mood and temperament in “From Ngsebang Pelaik to KL”(FNPKL)(1991), is indeed suggestive of an ‘alter-native’ vision as coined by Zabbas. He coined the term ‘alter-native’ in his essay in “Vision and Idea” to refer to the return to ethnic-based concerns within and beyond what has being constructed by the National Cultural Policy.(11)  

Formalistically, “FNPKL” is mysterious yet dynamic, probably due to your deployment of sharp, curvy and diagonal forms. At first glance, it looks like a squeezed rectangular shape, or a convergence of two triangles (to create a third one). The use of constructivist and assemblage approaches makes it appear like a relief or wall sculpture, reminding me of Latif Mohidin’s “Langkawi” series in the 70s, and Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s wall sculptures, “Coaches” (1995).

In comparison, the use of ethnic-based motifs taken from our diverse Southeast Asian cultural traditions can also be traced in the works of many local artists from the senior generation such as Patrick Ng Kah Onn (“Spirit of Earth, Water and Air”, 1959), Anthony Lau (“Spirit of Fire”, 1960), Nik Zainal Abidin (“Wayang Kulit Kelantan”, 1961), Chuah Thean Teng (“Musim Buah”, 1967), Ahmad Khalid Yusof (“Alif, Ba, Ta”, 1972), Sulaiman Esa (“Nurani”, 1983), Fatimah Chik (“Meditation # 1”, 1986) , to the younger generation such as Mastura Abdul Rahman (“Interior No. 29”, 1987), Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim (“The Warrior”, 1988), Kelvin Chap Kok Leong (Belawing, Keramen, Mamat”, 1995), Shia Yin Ying (“Penghormatan Untuk Alam Yang Kian Pupus”, 1997), Chuah Chong Yong (“Hun Li Wu Yu Series”, 2001) and Khairul Azmir Shoib (“Kala with Guard”, 2007). J.Anu has produced several important works that chronicle the Indian community such as “Running Indians and the History of the Malaysian Indians in 25 Cliches” (2001), while Niranjan Rajah produced his provocative “Telinga Keling” (2002) that touches on the delicate inter-ethnic relationship and stereotyping in Malaysia. Yee I-Lann’s large-scale collaboration with Pakard Photo Studio Melaka “Through Rose-Coloured Glasses”(2002) marks a more inclusive approach towards our rich and diverse multi-ethnic heritage. Of course, there are also numerous other artists who still paint Chinese landscapes or scenes, or infuse elements of such style including Chinese calligraphy in their contemporary works.(12)

Nevertheless Masnoor, it has to be noted also that through post-modern revaluations, many canons, monuments and meta-narratives of modern Malaysian art have been purposely and indirectly shackled or shifted.  Such revaluations have instigated a return to what was previously tagged as ‘pre-modern’ or ‘primitive’ and ritualistic forms of local traditional art and cosmology.

When I initially looked at the work, I felt as if I was encountering a rudimentary or some primordial forms of nature with its complimentary pairing of order and chaos. At times, it appeared like a kind of artifact, or an amulet that carries hidden codes obscured by tribal symbolism beyond my comprehension. I guess it was meant to capture your own encounter with some forms of tribal arts in Sarawak. The title hints at the idea of a distance or a degree of separation. Indirectly, you may have implied a kind of binary pairing of two opposite values - between living or breathing art and exhibiting art (in Kuala Lumpur), between rural and urban, between belief and practice, religious ritual and commodity, between humans and the natural environment.

For new city dwellers like us who were ‘privileged’ to ‘study art’, being ‘at lost’ when we encountered the so-called ‘primitive crafts’ by ‘other natives’ might be a healthy dose of ‘rude awakening’. We are blessed with rich and diverse cultural traditions, only to unfortunately reduce and marginalize them by a highly blinkered cultural view. I guess all of us may be at some points of our lives, guilty of being chauvinistic in regards to ‘other culture’. Sometimes we did it by choice, sometimes ‘by default’. But I guess it is easy to point and allege ‘others’ as being prejudice and racist rather than pointing at ourselves.

Masnoor,
If  “FNPKL” was meant to capture a ‘rude awakening’ in regards to your cultural worldview, “The War That Never Ends” (TWTNE) (1995), seems to capture a rather dark and gloomy existentialist sentiment towards your own ‘native’ cultural setting.

“TWTNE” features a silhouette and somewhat hazy image of a keris (Malay dagger) that is enclosed by a triangular shape and rounded form. The work emits a sense of isolation, separation, detachment or even loneliness. For some, it may appear like a close-up shot from a ritualistic episode. It also emits a dreamy and haunting post-apocalypse feel that retains your penchant for a mixture of surrealistic and expressionist undertones.

The overall visual reminds me of several gothic and dark animated shorts from German that I’ve seen few years ago. Perhaps, it is due to the use of low key register in a predominantly constrained monochromatic range. The surface is occupied by clashing brush strokes that create a rough, chalky and hazy texture. The space is shallow, as if I was looking down at a ground or soil or a partially cleared land. The focus seems to be on what is contained within the triangular shape and protected by the rounded form.
 
I presume that this piece reflects your introspective lamentation of the state of your native cultural backdrop or setting, as implied by the ‘keris’. I suspect that it is akin to a mental or emotional index, or a visual account of your inner encounter with your own notion of being a Malay. Perhaps, it reflects your personal conundrum of being politically-constructed or ‘encircled’ as a ‘bumiputera’ (son of the land).

I can’t shake off the smell of UMNO. Like an over-concern parents, there seems to be a lingering force that is more than willing to contain, construct, position, define, protect and support me as a Malay. For these, I think you and I should be very grateful, appreciative and feel very blessed. Nevertheless, such force may also constrain, restrain, limit, separate and isolate us. But I have to say that such force has nothing to do with my keen interest in ‘keris’ as a beautiful but deadly form of traditional art. Anyway, that is my puzzle. Is it yours too?

Theoretically and thematically, both works can be placed within the framework of cultural identity. Culture and nature can be ideologically constructed and made to be taken as natural. As we are living in the age of ideological and cultural contestation, there is this lingering dichotomy between the center and periphery in regards to the notion of identity.

Perhaps, you would want to compare “TWTNE” to the recent London-inspired works of Bayu Utomo Radjikin (Solo exhibition “Mind Your Gap”, 2007), or Ahmad Fuad Osman’s paintings based on his sojourns in Vermon and South Korea (Solo exhibition “Dislocated” 2007). If you were tired of looking at their works, try pondering Mutalib Musa’s keris-laden “By Default”(2002) or Nur Hanim’s video art called “se(RANG)ga”(2005). You may also want to refer to the work of Hazrul Mazran Rosli’s “M.O.U : Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia”(2004) that reverberates with Malay ‘under siege’ nationalistic sentiment so prevalent during the eighties. Our guru’s work, Ismail Zain’s “DOT : The De-tribalization of Tam Binti Che Lat”(1983) is certainly worth referring too. Certainly, I would be very honored if you would consider viewing my own archaic video pieces entitled “Return of A Native”(1991) and “Kdek-Kdek Ong!” (1994) to revisit the “Malay Dilema”.

Not all Malay artists paint ‘kerawang’ or ‘arabesque’ to affirm their root and identity, or to comment on Malay fatalism. There are many other artworks and writings that you can refer to. Sadly, such works and artists (including you) seem to be underrepresented or not prominently featured in the regional and international art scenes. This makes me curious. Aren’t you curious too?  

Anyway Masnoor,
If you want to get ‘excited’, you can read Sulaiman Esa’s writings, or as an antidote, Piya’s. Or you may want to read Vallentine Willie’s and Jolly Koh’s points of view in “Malaysia Art Now”. Of course, we can babble indefinitely on this issue. In case you are interested, I have delegated the references in my footnotes.(13)

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

MASNOOR RAMLI - THROUGH THE 'EYES' AND 'HEART' OF A FRIEND



 The following is two parts of an original essay written for the book 'Matahati' published by Petronas Art Gallery in conjunction with the groups major show in 2008. It covers a repertoire of  Masnoor Ramli's works. Due to space constraint, this original essay was edited and re-edited to fit the editorial requirement of the publication. The following is a part of the original version. Other parts will be posted in sections.

MASNOOR RAMLI
THROUGH THE ‘EYES’ AND ‘HEART’ OF A FRIEND
Hasnul J Saidon


Good and beautiful things are normally not to be seen or touched. They are meant to be felt.

I think I might have taken the above quote from Hellen Keller. I believe that it captures the spirit of love and friendship that I have taken for granted in the midst of ‘sustaining a career’. It lingers in my mind as I’m writing this.

1. PRELUDE

1.1 The Riddles of Sustaining A Friendship

My dear friend Masnoor.
Thank you for inviting me to write about you and your work. Thank you for traveling to Penang to spend some time with me and to provide me with all the necessary materials. I will treasure them as a ‘trust’ that only a few privileged souls would be honored to keep. Thank you for your willingness to share your journey as an artist. I welcomed your invitation as an honor, but took it as a weighty responsibility. Anyway, thank you.

Masnoor my friend.
The word ‘friend’ can be a very elusive term in today’s age of instantaneous communication. A lot have changed for the past 19 years, especially since our youthful days in UiTM. Today, its not about ‘getting high’ (with youthful idealism), but ‘getting real’. As I had written to our fellow friend Hamidi before :

“We are living in a country that is anxious to reach its ‘vision 2020’. After all, most of us would readily subscribe to an urban lifestyle as dictated by the ebbs and flow of free market liberalism, globalization (read Western) and the novelties of information and communication technology. Even lifestyle itself can be perceived as a form of industry and a money making business”.(1)   

“Some of us would aspire to emulate the ways of a post-industrial society – contemporary, liberal, efficient, professional, high-tech, trendy, hip, and don’t forget – rich. It is a society of ‘spectacle’ in which impression, brand presence, positioning, business acumen and strategic planning are critical to one’s political, social, and economic survival. It is a society that is supposed to operate on a highly specialized, systematic, organized, rational, and objective system - a legacy left by the operational logic of industrial paradigm. Progress, development and success are highly equated by tangible material gains and numerical indexes”.(2)

Masnoor,
Today, friendship can be easily swallowed by the need to be highly perceptive towards the forces of the market. Instead of simply being a ‘friend’ and valuing our ‘friendship’, we may start to look each other “as a ‘commodity’ striving for a ‘competitive market value’”.(3)
           
Friendship in today’s age of ‘glocalization’ can also be very clinical. Even the term ‘friend’ has sometimes being elevated to ‘professional networks’. Sadly, you and I may begin to look at each other as either a ‘collaborator’ or a ‘competitor’. We may also equate a ‘friend’ within the framework of our ‘hidden agenda’, ‘promotional, marketing and branding strategy’, and the need to expand our ‘profit margin’. With our ‘mata’(eyes), we may begin to be suspicious of everything, and at the same time, always looking for ‘strategic extension’ of our ‘career path’.

With our left brain, we may plan rigorously and strategize regularly. Our mind will begin to breed on a claim of objectivity and being ‘independent’, which will then entail us to separate ourselves as the ‘observers’ from the ‘observed’. Consequently, we may grow an appetite to control or to dominate others (including our friends).

Instead of inter or co-dependency, we may proudly yell ‘independence’ (a delusion that has been proven ‘primitive’ by quantum physic). What we may not realize is that it will also create layers upon layers of veils to discriminate, analyze, differentiate, and separate. But who cares!, It will greatly assist us to dwell into the economics of income, earnings, revenue, proceeds, turnover, profits and loss! We need to get real, remember!

In the midst of all these, what will happen to our ‘hati’ (heart), my friend Masnoor?

Perhaps, with our ‘hati’(heart), we may begin to ‘veil’our soul with self-glorification, self-centeredness,  greed, envy, jealousy, and hate. Today’s friendship can be easily tested by these ‘lures’. These lures tempt every soul without discrimination. No matter how submissive we are to the stereotypical ethnic identification that we have inherited from our colonial legacy, these lures will tempt us regardless.  

Masnoor my friend.
Forgive my sarcastic ranting. I need to get it out of my system before I can write with a clear conscience. 19 years of friendship cannot be simply demoted to ‘a task’ or ‘an assignment’ or ‘a project’ with a given ‘dateline’. Forgive me for the apparent lack of urgency (some would use ‘professionalism’) and having to take (or waste) some time to ‘detoxify’.

Now, I hope I can engage and write peacefully.   


1.2 The Enigma of Transcribing the ‘Hati’(heart).

Masnoor,
Most of what I will write about will be based on my personal encounters with your artworks for the past 19 years. Most of the encounters were primary, meaning that I had spent some quality time engaging directly with the works when they were exhibited or screened. Some of the encounters came from secondary sources – your own documentation (videos, pictures, press reviews), and exhibition catalogues. Of course, I will add some spices by employing several theoretical frameworks and contexts. I know that we might end up feeling dizzy or ‘high’, but I guess I don’t mind taking that risk. My approach is not chronological, but thematic. Since your artworks feature various trajectories, I have to employ a combination of methods - formalism, semiotic (which relates to deconstruction, intertextuality, simulacra) as well as a restrained use of psycho-analytic and spiritual frameworks. Most of the time, I will try to be ‘rooted’ to the local contexts.

I will also rely on what others have written and said about you, from exhibition catalogues, press reviews and interviews (sometimes bordering on gossiping). Simply put, the whole writing will be based from what I saw with my ‘mata’(eyes) and what I felt with my ‘hati’(heart).

Certainly, the ‘hati’ part is best told or narrated by you. Initially, I thought about using Al-Ghazali’s elaboration of ‘mata hati’ to propose my reading of your group’s name.(4) I think the name of your group is very beautiful, important and has a very deep spiritual connotation. It would be interesting to know where the idea of using the name ‘Matahati’ came from, before the formation of the Group.

In recalling the initial formation of Matahati at UiTM, Rahime Harun writes:

“While at MARA they sowed the seeds of wanting to create a ‘garden of art’ with the vision to enliven and brighten the somewhat lackluster art scene in the nation”.(5)  I do hope that you and your friends have succeeded in enliven and brighten the local art scene, perhaps with the Group’s hearts.

But since the significance of the group’s name will probably be done by the appointed Chief Curator and another appointed writer, I will focus on you as instructed. Anyway, even if I wanted to quote Al-Ghazali in explaining your work, it would probably turn this writing into a ‘khutbah’ (sermon) or make it sound corny. That was my enigma.

When it comes to ‘hati’, the cliché assumption is that an artist should not be required to explain his or her work. Such assumption can sometimes be used as a veil. Since I know that you don’t like cliché things, I will also refer to your diary or personal notes on your artistic journey. But the reading of your work will mostly be mine. I propose that you include some of your personal notes as a separate entry in the catalogue.

Another enigma is that no matter how ‘independent’ you may claim to be, I hope you will be open to the notion that your ‘identity’ as a visual artist may be a ‘construct’ – build by a combination of overlapping matrix of relationship, not just with ‘friends’. As mentioned by Adeline Ooi in her “Thoughts on Matahati PL 1999”:

“Identity is a construct. Perception constantly changes. It is never absolute, only relative”. (6)

This ‘relative construct’ relate directly to my previous ranting. The players and movers within the intertwining matrix are your fellow artists, curators, writers, gallery owners, collectors, editors, journalists, and almost anybody who has become a symbiotic part of the local art scene (and in today’s age of ‘gobble’lization, includes regional and international art scenes). The matrix will continue to construct and re-construct your ‘image’ by defining, explaining, positioning, marketing, promoting, hyping, acknowledging, validating, celebrating, and glorifying you, or even deconstruct you by doing the opposites. 

I understand that ‘meanings’ and meaningful things in such matrix can be ‘lost in translation’. I don’t have to elaborate on this. Shahnaz Said has explicated rather eloquently on this and on what she called the ‘third meaning’ in her essay for your “Matahati PL” exhibition, held in the Petronas Gallery in 1999 :

“In a desire for the construction of a vibrant contemporary context for art, they have maneuvered a means for critical dialogue through an exhibition agenda in which topical issues are brought to the fore. In order for dialogue to take place, language must be founded on voices heard”.(7)

At the end of the whole thing, you may end up reading the voices of my ‘mata’ and my ‘hati’. How ironic isn’t it.

But then again, the ‘I’ in ‘my’ can also be taken as a accumulation of ‘voices heard’, a kind of endless strings of intangible frequencies or vibrations that manifest themselves in a localized or physical form as MASNOOR RAMLI  : THROUGH THE ‘EYES AND ‘HEART’ OF A FRIEND.

Masnoor,
My reviews will be broken into 7 parts, since 7 is an auspicious number according to
many traditions.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

PARODY THESE DAYS

I used to embrace parody, and practice it. It used to be my favorite tool too. But these days parody does not taste good anymore, not even spicy as it used to be. Now, everyone seems to be using (and abusing) it. It doesn't bite anymore. It has become a tired cliche, an ineffective weapon. It has lost its charm. Heck, it has become a popular house-style, hip even.

Parody these days is fast becoming a language of a mutant snob. I'm beginning to 'not' enjoy it anymore. Perhaps I'm getting old (and wiser I hopefully).

Parody is becoming a convenient and lazy excuse for snobs to hide their own lack of conviction and commitment, in engaging or dealing directly (ya, 'like a true gentleman/woman') with issues (and people/collective/organisation/institution) that are normally 'exploited' as their objects and subjects of parody. Parody has become a fashionably easy escape from responsibility.  

Snobs because they are intolerant skeptics and doubters who posses a 'by-default' superiority complex, looking down at their objects and subjects of parody, normally those who don't share they opinions (if they don't posses this, they will be a fair 'listener', not a snob). Snobs because they are intolerant to dissent (voices of those who oppose their views). Snobs do not enjoy a civilized dialogue, do not bother to listen, do not commit, do not engage. They just mock to have fun amongst themselves like in a mass orgy. 

This is made worse by a lazy take on cliche binary or dichotomy, without taking into account that we are increasingly living in a hyper-connected world, where easy dichotomies and lazy binaries may not be, well...... convenient and easy anymore; that there will be lots of lots of fusion, lots of blurring, lots of slips, lots of overlaps.  Snobs dismiss these gray areas, or pores, or small holes, or potentialities. Snobs do not see that space 'in between' binaries or dichotomies. Instead, they prefer to take in a blanket yes-no, either-or, zero-one absolutism. They do not understand 'fuzzy logic'. They are blind subscribers of 'binary logic'.

A non-committed brats, hiding behind a parody, based on a cliche binary, is a mutant snob who does not know how to live in the present and embrace his/her 'being'. 

Mutant snobs can breed skeptics and doubters (even potential dictators or terrorists); skeptics and doubters can easily grow into angry mobs. Angry mobs breed hatred, hatred can escalate into war.

So, beware of parody these days. A tinge of it is cute, but too much of it may spell disaster.

No, its not somebody out there. Not 'some people', but someone everyone of us may embody 'within' and manifest or parade externally. I know this very well, I've at times embodied it!



Thursday, 8 August 2013

LITERATURE REVIEW FOR NEW MEDIA ART PRACTICE IN MALAYSIA



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.