1Malaysia: Beyond the Canvas
by Kelvin Chuah

The 18@8 exhibition signified the inauguration of Wei-Ling Gallery at Brickfields in 2005. Hermetic readings of every chapter for the past few years portrayed varied concerns channelled into different themes. This landmark exhibition has exhibited some of the most compelling works by many a local artist. An important milestone was created when this very same event was replicated beyond the shores of the country, bringing Malaysian Art to Karachi, Pakistan.

A show that demarcates the objectives of Wei-Ling Gallery to promote contemporary Malaysian Art, previous instalments provided a platform to two dimensional art works that vetted specific matters. The artists strived to create dialectic works with characteristic impulses. In concurrence with the 5th instalment of the 18@8 exhibition, the gallery posed a new challenge to the participating artists and itself. A turning point for Wei-Ling Gallery is its initiative to orchestrate and curate shows based on its own direction, heartening the artists to widen their tangential perspectives with conceptualized shows. As the gallery is taking the road less travelled in more experimental and cutting edge shows, so do the artists.

This vehicle (18@8) presents the artists with an avenue to work beyond the boundaries of individualistic concerns, transgressing beyond the norm of what we expect.

With an exploratory ardour, Wei-Ling Gallery conceptualized and challenged the artists to partake in thematic investigations that result in art works that move beyond the constraints of the canvas. The encouragement to deviate from the propensity of the artists in conventional formats ostensibly creates invigorating impulses to re-think and re-shape their artistic practices to fulfil the prerequisites of the show.

It is indeed deranging for many a local art aficionado to ponder and envision the shift of artistic presentation we see in this exposition. Yet some would argue that it is perchance a vitalizing and stimulating exercise of experimentation. Going beyond the confines of what is expected.

The artists evolve and develop new modes of presentation derived from their existing portrayals. Indeed, participants are pushed to the edge and forced to cross boundaries that define their artistic perimeters, so to speak. Having said this, the artists broke new ground in producing works that may open new directions to their own distinctive explorations. Technically, the artists are creating new modes of representations. This involves material studies, experimentations and presentation in an entirely modulated manner.

A thematic group show entails its participants to be rescinding certain preferences in partitive spirit. Thirteen artists have a varied lexicon of concerns, subject matter and style. Yet we see attempts to construct a disciplined practice as a collective entity. Such a spirit is in queue with the context of the show, 1Malaysia: Beyond the Canvas.

1Malaysia is a much borrowed tagline in the local context. How do artists respond and delineate this in visual parity? The intent of 1Malaysia can be read as efforts to establish ‘unity among races’. Evaluating concerns of unity and searching for the deeper meanings of what it means to be Malaysians creates manifold stratums of understanding. It is due to the societal, political and unanimity ideologies that public transport is employed as the unifying factor for all regardless of race and religion.

In this context, the artists ponder on several trajectories in regards to public transport. This encompass the available vehicles, the many different types, passengers, what transport means to us, how our lives may be different without it, or even how the vehicle(s) is viewed.

With the subject matter of public transport connecting all the participants, a medley of younger and senior artists was invited to delineate an equilibrium of voices by different generations. The experiential disparity among the artists presents a dichotomy of readings and methodology, albeit certain similarities.

Conjoined by concerns of technological advancements are Haslin Ismail, Hasanul Idris and Umibaizurah Mahir Up and coming artist Haslin Ismail presents an installation with metaphorical inclinations to underline the voices of his generation toward the 1Malaysia concept. Shaped as a spread out book, the work represents humanity’s knowledge and intelligence in progressive technology, translating to the development of transportation since our walking days. Attempts to demarcate the positive and ill effects of technology can be read from the book as two contradictory sides of scientific progress.

Showcasing an interesting facet of our industrialised world is Hasanul Idris. In a portrayal somewhat similar to an animated setting, the artist reflects on the change technological advancement has brought to Malaysia. Depictions of robotics and mechanisms mirror a technologically motivated scenario. Perhaps this may be a futuristic depiction of how the world would be in time to come, through the wheel of time.

The constraints resulted from technological encroachment has given contemporary ceramcist Umibaizurah Mahir(Umi) much to ponder on the topic of modern life. This may be seen from dual angles, namely, the over-powering need for applied science against its detrimental effect on nature. Umi seeks to find a balance between science, nature and people. Her ceramic pieces entitled Rider, questions our role as pillion (who follows) or driver (who leads) of science. Such is the analogy by which the artist narrates public transport to the concept of 1Malaysia.

Looking at issues of nation building and national unity, Paiman reads into the construction of nationalistic policies based on equality and non-racial discrimination. In a modernistic setting, questions are raised in regards to the polemics of society. The artist positions himself on neutral ground, advocating for freedom of speech and to be equally attentive to voices from all quarters. Paiman uses everyday objects (forms) as similes to open ended questions of democracy, inviting the audience to interpret his work with their personal views.

In a wider world view, Jeganathan Ramachandram observes the forces of the world at play, distinguishing the East from the West. With development and rapid progress in the Eastern hemisphere, the artist recognises the shift from what used to be the centre to the periphery. Using different subject matter as representation, Jeganathan Ramachandram engenders multiple concerns via symbolic connotations. In Traffic Light, the artist proves witty in the usage of colours to denominate the major races of Malaysia. Symbolic images are yet again infused into the work reflecting a united nation joined by its people.

Homing into transportation related issues are the five following artists. Anurendra Jegadeva presents an allegorical representation of the show’s theme. Anchoring the work is the ideology of re-education by means of transportation. The artist manipulates the layered readings in projecting a message of edification within constraints. His symptomatic projection of different but crucial roles played by the characters coalesce the work, as he manipulates symbolic edifice in structural elements. This artwork is also laced with history, a tribute to significant artists of Malaysia.

The second artist working in this manner is Kim Ng, who addresses his concerns of 1Malaysia within the boundaries of transportation, be it representing people on board the same vehicle or united as one voice. In YES SIR…ONE STEP, the artist even constructed a vehicle in which all walks of life may board. Moving beyond his expertise of print, Kim Ng moulded different materials and shaped them as signifiers to suggest methods in which the concept of 1Malaysia may be achieved, via symbolic visual representations.

Ivan Lam in a more direct approach adroitly projected the importance of cars as an integral part of life in Malaysia. Most people, regardless of race, religion, age and gender drive. The vehicle then becomes a projection of the driver’s status and lifestyle. With intent for uniformity, the artist strived to regulate the common usage of this vehicle by stripping the cars of its colour and decals. Thus removing the inherent perception of the viewer in regards to social standing and racial biasness.

The only digital artist of the show, Chee Way makes observations of daily transportation and drivers he sees on the road. He imagines distorted characters derived from their driving attitude. To the artist, such mannerism marks us as Malaysians as well. In a digital installation, Chee Way creates indefinite possibilities of how we view people behind the vehicles with animated and fantastical imagery.

The fifth artist to address the theme in this comportment is Zulkifli Yusoff, who presents an installation that links public and private transportation in Malaysia. The artist further equates the importance of public transport as an essential form of mobility for every person, irregardless of race. People from different races and culture may learn to communicate and be tolerant when on board the same public transport. Such qualities, Zulkifli Yusoff reckons, are essential to the success of 1Malaysia.

On the socio-politico front, Munkao translates his acute observations to the deranging activities that spilled onto the streets, causing restriction and boons for traffic users. The encumbrance of traffic afflictions to factions resulted from public unrest are artistically channelled to his ingenious utilization of readily made objects. He deconstructs and infuses the objects with patriotic inclinations, in the hope of initiating much needed discourse on a national slogan (1Malaysia) and its significance on a personal level.

In their approach to the show, two artists cogitate within their individual framework of concerns. Yau Bee Ling is stimulated by imagination while Sabri Idrus have a judicious view of his own work. Yau Bee Ling is highly introspective, examining the journey of life and questioning our human behaviour. This perception is aligned with our conviction in speeches and willingness to believe in such. The artist narrates such experiences to the experimentation and search within oneself.

Sabri Idrus brings new perspectives from his work into the show. Looking at the objectification of his art, the artist re-examines the whole idea of ‘shape’. This led to ‘shape’ – as a fundamental property of object and ‘shape’ – as medium of painting. The conviction of an art work is therefore determined by this construction. Viewers are thus encouraged to interact and engage with Sabri Idrus’s work through different ways of seeing.

1Malaysia: Beyond the Canvas proffers an insight to the talent and ability of the artists to articulate beyond the confines of their artistic boundaries. The oeuvre seen in the exhibition provides a prerogative to directions and inexhaustive possibilities of the artists’ works. What matters, though, is the willingness of the artists to streamline individual concerns in espousing a common theme, 1Malaysia.

Kelvin Chuah