Breaking Rules And Manifestations of Chance
by Rachel Jena

The world is essentially made up of opposing factions: north and south, east and west, black and white, good and bad, yin and yang. The list is infinite. Like two poles of a magnet, these opposites have long been held as incompatible, and, definitions were set in stone – unshakeable like the codes inscribed onto stone by Hammurabi.

But, rules are (sometimes) meant to be broken.

This year’s instalment of 18@8 proceeds along the tangent of creative and curatorial ‘rule’ breaking: instead of eighteen artists as in previous years, only nine are participating in this year’s show; and, instead of almost total creative freedom, artists were given the task of producing two works each (totalling eighteen for this exhibition) that responded to nine vices and nine virtues.

The first list of values takes a cue from the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, the taxonomy of negative values. To the values – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride – we added hatred and intolerance, each loosely denoting elements of excess or damage, or, the absence of good. In opposition, the positive values selected were justice, courage, wisdom, moderation (the four cardinal virtues), faith, hope, love, charity, and truth – reading very much like the list of values in KBSM Moral Studies.

And so, like antithetical magnetic fields, vices and virtues are seen to be as different as day and night. They represent age-old teachings – still relevant today – of good versus evil, and as binary opposites, face little questioning or opposition; there is, consensually, no argument over which prevails over the other. Or, is there? And, are their definitions as arbitrary as they once were?

Lust, for example, is classified as one of the cardinal sins (or, Seven Deadly Sins), yet a Cambridge University professor called for its reclassification a few years ago. He argued that if lust was reciprocated, could it not be seen as positive? Or, wisdom and courage: could excesses of either be seen as detrimental? And, what about justice? Is its enforcement always transparent or can we question its reliability in the court of law? There are certainly situations that suggest the inaccuracy of classifying good and evil, virtue and vice, and in the context of this exhibition, artists were encouraged to explore the duality of these values and their shifty definitions.

Izan Tahir’s installation, Warning (a faux cigarette box and three parody-sized sticks) mocks the hallmarks of ‘hope’; written explicitly on the side – like the surgeon general’s warning on real cigarette boxes – is the caution ‘Too Much Hope Can Be Bad For Your Health’. Indeed, when we raise our hopes to such inexplicable heights, there is always the danger of the drop being much further. Izan’s War T-Shirts – Religion, Love & Peace represents the duality in the word ‘pride’. Just how far does one go for the sake of one’s country? Is pride enough to justify war? And, are our allegiances sometimes dictated by nothing other than blind faith?

Chin Kong Yee raises similar questions in Batu Caves, a painting of devotees on their way to pray. Here, the artist has portrayed the element of ‘faith’ using an elongated landscape format, but despite comfort found in the number of worshippers – an indication of goodness and piety – there is something eerie in the uniformity and mechanical qualities in the figures, and, it is arguable that blind faith is again prevalent. The artist surprises us again in what seems to be a positive illustration of a virtue; blue skies, fluffy clouds, and an infinite horizon speaks of great heights, but could also be seen as the never-ending way ‘hatred’ engulfs us, and the painting’s title, Shadows, an indication of how it never leaves us, even when the sun is shining brightly.

Two pairs of husband and wife join this year’s 18@8 exhibition and have used these definitions to espouse some rules of their own. Ahmad Shukri’s works link both ‘justice’ and ‘sloth’ with a quotation from the Qur’an: demi masa, or, for the sake of time. He feels one’s vices or virtues aren’t immediately noticeable and it is only with time that we discover each one. His artworks are also warnings that remind us of the cost of development or urbanization; the clocks tick away and racehorse calendar pages flip-over, as zebras, leopards and tigers face extinction in Demi Masa II (justice), whilst, the wooden panels in Demi Masa I (sloth) were sourced from an old mansion in Klang facing demolishment – reminding us again of how swiftly progress erases the past, how quickly vice overtakes virtue.

His wife, Umi Baizurah Mahir’s ceramic works concentrate on the themes of femininity and nature. Untouchable – a single unit ceramic piece shaped like a fish with bulbous eyes and roses for a fin and tail – represents the vice of ‘intolerance’. The link between nature and femininity is analogous to an experience from the artist’s childhood: her mother used to warn her not to touch young trees that were being planted as they were sensitive and risked stunted growth. The artist equates this to mistreatment of women and the need for respect and heightened awareness to gender issues, whilst her quartet of ceramics in Machine I, II, III, IV are a comment on the subject of man and technology, and, the constant quest for ‘truth’, which science and technology can deliver.

The other couple – Yau Bee Ling and Choy Chun Wei – tackle their vices and virtues more literally. Both work with the medium of paint on canvas, though Chun Wei employs a combination of collage and paint, creating a tactile quality in his artworks. It is an interesting exercise to identify the similarities and differences between the pair. Both, for example, use colour to denote the dichotomies between vice and virtue. Bee Ling’s Envy – an artwork that sees a departure from her more organic executions, marked by the foreboding black grid on the canvas – has (chaotic zigzagging lines in) red and orange (foreshadowing a face), as does Chun Wei’s Noise of Passionate Chaos, a visceral collage of print (all relating to food) and thick paint work that recalls the abjectness in Paul McCarthy’s artworks; the thick layer of impasto paint illustrates ‘gluttony’ well, churning feelings of mild disgust at the sheer abundance of food in the disjointed texts, such excruciating hunger that even the paint cannot quell.

Cooler colours – blues, greens, and warm yellows – are used for the virtues ‘wisdom’ and ‘moderation’. Bee Ling’s Buddha-like face is bathed in tranquil hues and evokes a serene quality or interrupted knowledge, and Chun Wei’s Invasion of Great Souls uses vertical lines that fall from the top of the canvas like raindrops from the sky – replenishing and giving life. Again, collage work dominates and the pasted texts on the canvas remind us of the need to control excesses.

The other dominating theme in this year’s exhibition was the element of chance, which on artistic terms, and indeed historically – has luminous lineage: works by the Dadaists and Surrealists, for one, spring to mind; then, there were the Abstract Expressionists, with Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip paintings’ physically reliant on chance (though this theory has been disputed, as there is a faction of art historians that believe his works were calculated and not at all random); John Cage’s ‘chance music’ is also noteworthy, as is the ‘shooting paintings’ by French female artist, Niki de Saint-Phalle, who in the early sixties, famously used paint-filled .22 caliber rifles to shoot artistic ammo at canvases.

Whilst chance isn’t directly manifested in all the artworks in this year’s 18@8, it certainly prevailed in the modus operandi of the curatorial direction, or more specifically, the manner in which the vices and virtues were presented to the artists. In almost ceremonious fashion, each artist indiscriminately selected a vice and virtue from separate piles with each other as witnesses. This exercise added poignancy to the very notion of a group show; here, a group of Malaysian artists partook in a communal gestation of an idea, and – pushing aside any illusion of competition – began at the starting line together.

The random selection challenged artists and mimicked the accidental manner in which we encounter each value on a daily basis: there is absolutely no telling when or where we experience each one. We are all very much subject to chance encounters of lust, envy, wisdom or pride, and artists were meant to relay this indeterminacy.

Consider Ivan Lam’s paintings, A Flower For Every Child and Gaiking Face Open Version, which place the values ‘charity’ and ‘greed’ in the shackles of youth and childhood. The anime villain, a tribute to the original Gaiking from a late seventies cartoon series, stands forcefully with its mouth sewn shut. But, greed manifests in other ways: his torso is a ravenous void that threatens to consume anything in its path. Quite contrastingly, Ivan’s painting for ‘charity’ depicts the gentler side of youth; the imagery of schoolchildren is meant to illustrate the naivety of children who give unconditionally – a trait that departs quite quickly as we ascend (or descend) into adulthood – like flowers that share pollen with birds and bees.

Then, there are artworks by Zulkifli Yusoff, who by chance drew the amiable opposites of ‘love’ and ‘wrath’. The artist tells the tale of Anger using pages from history books, specifically the hostility of Pasir Salak residents towards the nineteenth-century British Resident, J.W.W. Birch; banana flowers (or jantung pisang) flood the large canvas, evoking flying spears during a fight, whilst ‘love’ – or, love for one’s country – is portrayed in Tanah Semenanjung II, where lyrics from a patriotic song and the nation’s flag dominate the canvas. Do consider the dimensions of both canvases: ‘wrath’ eclipses ‘love’ in terms of size – an unfortunate imbalance that often happens in real life.

And, tapping into very real issues is Anurendra Jegadeva, whose two-panel painting, Shah Alam Evening, looks at matters of racial identity. It is a cheeky depiction of a couple riding off to fulfil ‘lust’, but the girl’s headscarf – whilst technically a form of concealment – does little to disguise her identity: she is Muslim, he is not, and Shah Alam’s premier landmark, the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque, is a constant reminder of this difference. Ultimately, there is a fair amount of ‘courage’ in their act of defying the many social codes that bind us as Malaysians.

In the 2005 exhibition catalogue for 18@8, arts writer Li-En Chong said, ‘Whilst the cultural and ethnic diversity of Malaysia compounds the intrinsic value of Malaysian art, it is undeniable that this is further enriched by externalities.’ Those words were written in reference to artistic travel or overseas sojourns (reflected in the artworks that year), but in this year’s instalment of 18@8, it could be said that it has been an inwardly trip for the artists, as they have explored essential human values – vices and virtues – that transgress boundaries and speak to us all.