The Freedom Young Artists Can Enjoy

loading Zulkifli Lee's stacked blue crates.

The pieces on display at BMS 2016 may be challenging, but do they allude to the punitive political climate?

Mohd Al-Khuzairie Ali’s Follow The Leader.

Gauze sheets hung indoor over a “clothesline” with little wind, little shadows; “moody” aluminium cans with earphones; a wall block with an additional steel cage in front (Trump’s?); an arcade-like game that’s hard to play; crate-boxes in iron casing leaning against the wall; a trapped Ultraman, in cryonics perhaps; and a jamban (OK, changing room)! What do you make of all these?

These were among the 31 presentable (selected) and presented art submissions from a total of 63 entries for the Young Contemporary Artists (Bakat Muda Sezaman, BMS) 2016 competition organised by the National Art Gallery (NAG). A competition since 1974 for artists under 40 (the age peg varies) that catapulted then-emerging artists such as Haslin Ismail, Zulkifli Yusoff, Mastura Abdul Rahman and Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir into the main arena.

First, the Roll of Honours:

The Major Award is shared by two:

• Shin Pui San (Not So Far Away; paper, light and sawdust), and
• Saiful Razman Kassim (Kau Datang Untuk Menghilang/You’re Here to Disappear; medical absorbent gauze, polyvinyl adhesive and toilet paper).

The five Minor Awards went to:

• Hafizzudin Abdul Jaidin (Magunatip Orang Kita; woodcut, video);
• Lee Jia Xin (Moody? Cans; aluminum can and earphones);
• Haris Abadi Abdul Rahim (Teletopia; single channel video, projector, PVC, garden bench, dry leaves and branches);
• Ho Mei Kei (Let’s Play Together; clay, board and video); and
• Muhammad Colmann Abdullah (Bukan Lawan Kita/Not Our Fight; sensor, TV and CPU).

(Top) Muhammad Colmann Abdullah's Bukan Lawan Kita/Not Our Fight.
(Bottom) The Wall, by Mohd Farif Ab Jalil.

Five elements, though hardly trends, are noticeable: 1) Technology-driven (video-dominated multimedia), 2) BIG (in terms of size as well as the territorial occupation of space), 3) Cage or inhibitionist (terkongkong) metaphors, 4) Only one “painting-painting” among the 31 entries, and 5) the Interactive or participatory.

Among the Goliaths of artwork all around, the proverbial little David is king, and so it was for Shin’s miniature archi-homescapes Madurodam built of paper that reflects cultural and natural heritage. It was the same gambit that won her the Grand Prize of the 5th Nandos Peri-fy Your Art Contest.

Shin shared the Major Award worth RM25,000 with Saiful, whose gauze and toilet-paper curtains numbering 10 and of uneven length slung over a strung rope/wire are not only to show impermanence but also the fragility of existence. While Saiful’s minimalist, almost-Zen take seems simplistic and needs a little more drafting for a semblance of movement and shadows, it bears comparison to the more intrinsically mediated curtains of Yin Yen Sum, a past BMS Minor Award winner, but for a different work that hung on the tension of folds and pivots.

The potential of the beauty and tension between the Traditional epitomised by the woodcut and the New, the video animation of the Magunatip “Bamboo” Dance of the Muruts is lost in Hafizzudin’s work, which seems overwhelmed by the mass of 44 woodcut panels all around the little screen, when more screen panels with synchronised rhythms with the right imagery of the woodcuts would have created a fugue of skipping movements.

Haris Abadi’s Teletopia has a whimsical, nostalgic air of a bygone-day movie backdrop, until you get the projected face onto a mask among the “autumn” leaves on the ground chatting away and calling out to you.

Even Ho Mei Kei’s claytraps of various shapes and colours of some 76 boards need a video by way of elucidation. As a work about the art tutelage of children, the grid display lacks the frivolity and impishness of child play.

(Top) Faizal Suhif ’s SeBidang Tanah Sepi.
(Bottom) Haris Abadi Abdul Rahim's Teletopia.

As for the technical glitches in Colmann’s animation comprising six comic strips with hand-controlled movement, one can only take the word of what is printed in the exhibition catalogue – about the two mythical demons, Yakjuj and Makjuj, and Armageddon. As for Lee’s recycled cans, the sounds from within are either inaudible or zilch, so you are not sure if it was intended or a malfunction.

It’s interesting to note that the BMS has nearly shunned the Wall Painting construct, whereas the other major young artist competition, the Malaysian Emerging Artists Award, run by the private sector (HOM Art Trans and Galeri Chandan), is very much dominated still by the wall-hangers. The only painting-painting in BMS, though huge, Fazli Othman’s Selamat Datang Ke Pesta Pisang di Kampung Batang Pisang, seems not to have much of an impact. On closer inspection for visual clues, there are 40 chimpanzees waiting for the pisang handouts despite an obvious surfeit, an “Undi Pisang” playcard, and with the Puan Penasihat’s back to the viewer.

Of interest, too, are three ceramic works in different permutations, displays and trajectories. Mohd Al-Khuzairie Ali’s Follow The Leader crabby regimented army with Donald Duck heads are stood on round pedestals. The shape of a spaceship vessel in Kee Hooi San’s Mooring with its intoxicating whitish blue is somewhat reminiscent of Latiff Mohidin’s Voyage (Kembara) series exhibited at Galeri Petronas, KL, in 2007. The work with a nice backdrop has to be enclosed within a room, preferably with some kind of nihilistic sounds to boot, instead of being in the open.

(Top) Haslin Ismail's The Death and the Misery.
(Bottom) Saiful Razman Kassim's Kau Datang Untuk Menghilang/You’re Here to Disappear.

The other ceramic-based work, The Fusion Nowadays, by Syed Zamzur Akasah Syed Ahmed Jalaluddin, complete with mirror glass and synthetic hair, must have required quite a lot of work, simulating the characteristics of the Chinese 12 lunar zodiac animals, but the display, like most other works, lacks connectivity and tension, and a telling story.

Ditto, Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi’s mixed media, The Thing In Between II, is one into which she could virtually throw in the kitchen sink, displaying as it does a wide range of specific household and personal objects.

Liu Cheng Hua finds new use and purpose for his golden shaft, first used in a Monte Carlo exhibition, replicating it in an elaborate, mock gold-mine construction referencing the Raub gold-mining boom days.

For the abstract of experimental sounds, light and psychedelic visuals, Mohamad Fadly Sabran’s Transcendence is a biophonic drill. The Ultraman sculpture is worth mentioning for its 274.5cm height. As for The Wall, by Mohd Farif Ab Jalil and not Pink Floyd, there’s no practical correlation shown for how the double-tiered walls (one of bricks and the other of metal casing) have created or can create barriers (sempadan).

Faridzal Puadi's Ultraman sculpture.

In The Death and the Misery, by 2010 Major BMS Awardee Haslin Ismail, he still uses the book medium – not cut into intricate patterns but as a wall-mounted painting and a huge painted opened book stretching three metres long – on war victims and refugees, while Faizal Suhif ’s SeBidang Tanah Sepi is interesting for the Anselm Kieferish painting complete with the detritus of parched landscape, never mind his complicated shibboleth.

For record, the stacked crates and changing room mentioned in the intro are by Zulkifli Lee and Zahiruddin Maula Ahmad Pangat respectively.

If some find the works on display not up to par, it could be partly due to the system of proposals in the selection process which was carried out before the artists concerned were invited to execute their works: based on their brief, drawings or mock-ups, unlike precision art such as architecture, the true message can get lost in translation or the painted word could over-amplify or overcompensate for unforeseen deficiencies Also, the fault could be in the execution of the actual works in which meanings could get skewed and practicality compromised.

Nothing has been mentioned about the “Anti-KL Biennale” logo of Samsudin Wahab in his work, Fakta Auta, complete with “false news” photographs of a mock protest. The work, which passed the first stage, was surreptitiously removed two weeks after being put up with all the other selected entries. As a sport, Samsudin, better known as Buden, distributed biscuits made in the shape of the logo, called Kuih Loyang Buden, at the opening.

Glurp...Glurp...Glurp (Critical Cyber) by Ali Bebit.

Sometimes, one wonders if the more insipid fare coming from our young instead of the provocative and confrontational stances expected is a result of the increasing intolerance of critical anti-establishment art. In the 2013-2014 BMS, works by Cheng Yen Pheng (Alksnaabknuaunmo) which was sprayed with the words, ABU=Ashes (ABU, meaning Anything But Umno), and Izat Arif Saiful Bahrin’s rack of T-shirts with the Arabic words, “Fa Qaf ” were taken down, while in 2013, J. Anu’s I Is For Idiot was confiscated from the M50 Selamat Hari Malaysia exhibition at MAPS Publika, KL.

And in the Escape From the Sea exhibition at the National Art Gallery (February 24-April 23), a work by the Sabah-based artist collective, Pangrok Sulap, was taken down after a complaint by an outsider was lodged. The group withdrew from the exhibition in protest.

Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz gave away the prizes at the National Art Gallery on March 15. The exhibition started on February 6 and was scheduled to end April 20.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.

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