The Wei Ling Gallery’s latest edition of 18@8 is a selection of 18 visual artists who have been cast in new roles, roles more hedonistic and susceptible to risk-taking. Their new, transitional works glow with adventure: provocative social commentaries, lively conversations between the mind and external world, quirky ways of stretching perception and heady explorations with old and new materials that grab the eye’s attention. But they also catch artists, who are on the move, artists with a lot on their minds, providing a rich terrain for anyone interested in how artists develop.

The exhibition is mostly drawn from artists who had been featured in previous 18@8 editions with the exception of a couple of newcomers. The resulting show: clean, well-schooled with solid work even if there is no obvious centre since the artists come from different backgrounds. But it also seems to reflect a continuing curatorial effort to break down the notion of Malaysian art and artists as a fixed category and to demonstrate its sophistication and integration into the art world mainstream.

Much of 18@8 has been driven by artists inclined to use their work as a medium of social commentary, a preoccupation that has prompted some mettlesome Malaysian art over the years. And in playing the dual role of the cultural eavesdropper and provocateur, some artists in the current exhibition have tenaciously prodded and dissected an array of accepted realities and practices from racial identity to the Iraq war to representations of the human face.

One of the most overwhelming realities of modern life is the prevalence of screens showing footage from the Iraq war to Internet chat programs. These create a culture of distraction for the viewer, lulling him or her into inattention.

Anurendra Jegadeva tries to break down these constantly flickering images of the Iraq war and the Middle East by using a 186×187 cm canvas, the largest he has ever used for Minding the Gap. The resulting monumentality of the art work, brings to focus a robustly-pink bride, a new Statue of Liberty who seems to be feeding on the burning oilfields that darken the background and the American soldiers who are killed and wounded in combat to secure America’s oil supply, as evidenced with the Purple Heart medal proudly pinned to her gown.

Delving into the hyper-real folds of Internet chat programs is Chan Kok Hooi’s almost surrealistic contribution to the group show. Old Photo of a New Lover from Hometown sexualises the rather asexual icon in the MSN Messenger chat program and even goes a step further to fetishsize it within the nostalgic confines of an old photograph. This unveils the fantasies and desires people have, which they hide behind computer screens, Internet chat programs, emoticons and truncated works when communicating with others.

Even Malay identity gets re-investigated in a powerfully unusual manner with celebrated artist Zulkifli Yusoff latest work. At first glance, the work might lodge Zulkifli within the usual trajectories of contemporary Malay art but he tackles the overworked idea of a powerful Malay resistance against entities corroding their beliefs and rights through a bruising, visual depiction of the well-known warning Sarang Tebuan Jangan Digolok (Don’t stir the hornet’s nest), which is the title of the artwork.

Zulkifli, in his statement, roots this resistance in the Malay uprising against British colonialism in the 19th century but given that the work was conceptualised this year, the question the viewer might ask is how will this resistance work today? At the same time, there is a disconcerting sense that in this resistance, the Malay identity has taken on a bestial, brutal aura, enflamed with the blood-orange swathes of colour and omnipresent hornets.

But as Zulkifli veers away from using human figures to speak about identity, other artists strongly position human figures, especially of the face, at the centre of their works. Although, the human face is one of art’s mainstays, its practice has been changed in the last century, fuelled by dissatisfaction with a singular image. Yusof Ghani, who has steadily progressed from depicting the body at a distance to close-ups of the face, now experiments with a multiple arrangement of faces that seem to be constantly waxing and waning. With smudges of oil and charcoal, Yusof seems to be getting at fleeting psychological truths in these multiple faces that a single portrait cannot supply.

Bayu Utomo Radjikin continues with another piece for his Mind the Gap series but moves away from depicting full and partial self-portraits to a portrait of different man. Given that Bayu has returned from his sojourns in London and settled back in Malaysia, do the experiences in London transform his face into someone else’s? Does he become a different man so to speak? Are these faces masks for the same man? And are the faces even real in that case?

Ivan Lam, on the other hand, is out to demonstrate that there is no truth in representing and perceiving the human face – that appearances are by definition unreal and subjective. Using a huge canvas, Lam is able to painstakingly fill in more strokes and daubs of paint, which is a contrast to his previous work Russian March, where human faces were deftly and minutely painted. The result – a human face marked with flecks of red, white and black that emphasise the ways in which the artist and the viewer look out and impose markers on the face in order to derive meaning and identity and even distinguish it from other faces.

In a loose counterpoint to the drive to peer out and take apart accepted social realities and ideas, is the desire to reflect the artist’s inner creative moment without sacrificing its connection to the world. And quite a few artists thrive on this desire, weaving yet another strand into the well-woven exhibition.

To get their creative moments, artists such as Chin Kong Yee and Yau Bee Ling have to travel out of their comfort zones. Kong Yee’s experiences in Prague are subject to his internal creative frame and projected onto the canvas. Summer Night in Prague places the city’s people and its architecture, along with the energy lines and blocks that run between them under a convex perspective. The work underscores the Kong Yee’s sense of being enveloped into the folds of the city, yet he stands apart in his minds eye to represent it.

Yau Bee Ling opens the door to walk away from her depictions of domestic space without human figures and found herself in a crowded public space. Crowds in Transit has a reflective luminosity in the foreground area that contrasts nicely with finely wrought squiggles and swirls, creating the impression of people moving through crowds, giving out a bristling energy.

Bee Ling’s husband, Choy Chun Wei roots his work more a mindscape built up by the artist’s reaction to the outside environment. Chun Wei trains his eye on the impressions the human touch has on the mind in Organic Passages, discarding his previous preoccupations with the effect instruction manuals and signboards have on the psyche. Intense, almost obsessive mark-making is the basis of Chun Wei’s art, which can be appreciated for its subtle, almost cubic surface texture, which are the building blocks of his mindscape.

With exhibition newcomer Daud Rahim, the mindscape is seen as mass of spontaneous lines, specifically lines of energy that the artist projects from the inside onto the canvas as he comes in contact with nature or even outer space. In Tenaga Dalam Ruang, a new, boundless reality is created with the presence of a clouded sky as background that gives out the aura of a psychic adventure.
In Element No 1, Hamidi Hadi constructs a mindscape with an off-key palette of plum, blue, brown and yellow smears from industrial material that gently blob and spread across a stretch of black. Stating that the mindscape is a product of a process of gazing, which is a dialogue between materials, the act of painting and the self, Hamidi is no longer the passive onlooker in God’s creation of existence in his earlier work Untitled 1. Now, the creative drive/desire are common denominator in both God and the artist, building up on abiding themes of creation, the beginning of time, the originating act.

Artists who seek to stretch the viewer’s perception form another core in this exhibition. Not interested in just imposing their own visions onto the viewer, these artists are keener to get viewers to form their own impressions and raise perceptual issues in an inventive, original manner.

As with his most effective paintings, Wong Chee Meng, who exhibits for the first time in this show, pushes the viewer to grasp the work physically and mentally in different ways, and the deliberate uncertainty gives the experience an edge. Stairway to Heaven (a take on that Led Zeppelin song, perhaps?) replicates Albrecht Durer’s seminal print Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but constantly shifts the work’s configuration, depending on the viewer’s position; these harbingers of the apocalypse’s destruction and death seems to be challenged and limited into three panels featuring different colour gradients of blue and thick circles of colour moving in a predictable pattern. The work seems controlled and structured but at the same time reveal an infinity of chance variations and is open to discovery.

But some examples remain abstract and fragmentary. Kim Ng’s Connecting Places, an assemblage of prints inspired from the rural and the city-scapes, creates an unfamiliar terrain and conveys a language built from the collusion and conflict of codes associated with these different landscapes. Mostly importantly, the work appears to bridges the gap between direct sensation and abstraction for the viewer.

Installation art is not neglected in this mix. Yap Sau Bin, recently featured at a support show for the Venice Biennale, traces how meanings can be inferred between different images and objects within an art work. However, he strips art down to wooden panels with dripped paint that hover over golf-green carpets shaped as semi-circles and leaves it up to the viewer to figure out the conversations between these objects. This interplay of objects immediately reminds the viewer about the purpose of a gallery, as an active container of meaning, where conversations within artworks and between the artworks flow freely.

What remains compelling throughout this coterie of artists is the intense involvement in the process of making meaning, forging connections. With some of them, it is about that pull towards objects that give shape and make shapes. Whenever there is a hands-on approach – that is to say, whenever sculptors are personally involved in moving, molding and manipulating their materials – there is likely to be a need for memory, a desire to dig into the personal and cultural past and uncover ideas and feelings that can bridge past, present and future.

Sabri Idrus’s unconventional use of mundane materials ranging from polyester resin to sand allows him to get audiences thinking about the way a mark is made, a creative moment gets transferred onto the “canvas” at point of time. In Akar I and Akar 2, the irregular, manipulated surfaces lends the immediacy of the artist’s hand, while its projections and craggy ledges suggest the richness and timelessness of the markings, allowing them to be subjected to boundless interpretations.

In order to move past accepted practices of sculpture, Muthalib Musa and Amin Gulgee have created hybrids that do not seem entirely rooted anywhere. Their works suggest a great deal and at the same time assume an absolute distance from anything to which they refer to. Muthalib’s new work in mild steel assumes a billowing sensuality in the way it moves through space but at the same time there is a mechanical austerity in the angular shapes wrought onto the surface-texture of the work. These sculptures seem full, self-contained, yet the distance from whatever inspired them seems poignant and final.

In Flight II, Pakistani artist Gulgee, who has previously exhibited in the Wei-Ling Gallery, embarks on his most ethereal copper sculpture, a departure from the solid and rooted quality that previous works embodied. While the sculpture has a sketchy, throwaway, unfinished quality, it compellingly captures the transformation of the geometrically structured into the organic and fluid. And given Gulgee’s preoccupation with the Kulfic script in Islamic texts, the sculpture captures the dissolution of these calligraphic scripts into air, as if they have been spoken out to the world.

With Juhari Said’s Okir series, the humble woodcut used in print-making is celebrated for its sculptural qualities. Here, the beauty of the woodcut is made monumental as ethereal wildfowl are etched out from chunks of the jambu laut tree. Cracks and the wood’s fine grained texture, articulate a natural, sculptural flux while the ruffling of feathers, a beady eye impart a ritualistic aura, bringing to mind Garuda, the mythological creature of Hindu and Buddhist texts.

If there is anything that groups these 18 artists together, it is the spirituality that emerges from their works. Specifically it is a spirituality that echoes a yearning for change and diversity. And indeed, diversity and change are now regarded as assets. That is a prevailing theme in Malaysian art at this moment. And Malaysia, particularly Kuala Lumpur and the Wei-Ling art gallery, remains a small but significant crossroad for new art. We may have left the previous century without having produced a Malaysian art that speaks for us collectively as a nation but as nation we have developed a nexus for art, right here at the Wei-Ling gallery.

Niluksi Koswanage
November 1, 2007