A Wild Amalgam at Art Biennial for the Young

By Ooi Kok Chuen

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Chairs (ceramic) by Rahmi Bujang.

FINALLY, painting is dead, at least in the hugely prestigious Bakat Muda Sezaman (BMS, Young Contemporary Artists) 2021/2022 competition for young artists, some three decades after its demise was anticipated but unfulfilled. 

Out of the 81 entries screened from 161 proposals, few works constituted paintings while the rest were constructions, deconstructions (or reconstructions?), installations, site-specific art with conceptual basis, in multimedia forms like VR/AR and a few that were performatory. 

This time around in its 26th edition and for the first time since its inception in 1974, the BMS used a multi-pronged regional approach that opened potential for location and site communities. It was adopted/adapted from a programme inspired by the New Contemporaries in London. 

The competition continues to be held biennially (since 2000), but for the first time, the field was decentralised into zones, five comprising 13 state entities, with only the selected finalists centred at the final venue, the National Art Gallery. The space did not need to be physical and could be outside the gallery confines, in parks and the great outdoors, public spaces, seabed and even the sea; and could also be virtual, online via links or portals and animation. A set of parameters ought to be defined to engage this New Media trend, with even a separate prize for it, with the potential of also winning the Major Award, while the online/onsite voting system could be scrapped. 

No theme was set in this edition but more a plethora of divergent themes; some peculiar to place and hence a different socio-cultural spectrum, and might involve certain communities and private and public agencies.  

On paper, it looked a good catch-all, but much depended on the contestants’ ingenuity, skills, maturity and consummation, which for an age limit of 35, was still wanting. As the saying goes, “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip”. 

The following are the key takeaways: 

1. Decentralisation. The States were bracketed into zones – Kedah, Penang, Perak (North); Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya (Central); Negri Sembilan, Malacca, Johor (South); Kelantan, Pahang (East Coast); and Sabah and Sarawak (Borneo). This could be a catalyst of change, especially for obscure locations that hosted or were part of the artworks, thus stimulating greater awareness and influence of, and activism in, art. But the contestants were not necessarily from the zones, i.e. Malaysia-based UK-born . For that matter,—Khairul Izzuddin Hiffni and Muhammad Shamin Sahrum, who presented a joint work, Anatomy of a Square Foot, a measurement of land area signifying development and others. 

2. Reputation and experience were not important factors. Anyone could win. Everything depended on the formulation of ideas, conceptualising, execution and manifestation. The work was the thing. In true McLuhan credo, the Message’s The Thing. The wherewithal, process, techniques, and resolution determined the success. Among the better-known artists who fell by the wayside were Arikwibowo Amril (Breaking News, on false news), Liu Cheng Hua (Isolate Awhile), Syed Fakaruddin Sayed Jaafar (Bru-Kon-01 Nurseri, a brutalism nursery concept), Liu Cheng Hua (Isolate Awhile), Fadhli Ariffin (Perkara diAwangan) and Rachel Lee Lin Chee (Emotional Memories). 

3.  A democratisation of sorts, since Joseph Beuys mantra of ‘Everyone is an artist,” paved the way to creative autonomy, personally and structurally, in challenging the norms. 

4. Mentorship. To what degree and how, could not be ascertained or quantified. Contestants needed to be guided through a questioning module to avoid becoming the mentor’s proxy vehicle or manifestation. 

The main prizes were: Major Award of RM30,000; and Four Jurors’ Choice Awards of RM15,000 each. This year, there were also Visitors’ Choice Awards, for Online (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and On Site, with prizes of RM2,500, RM1,500 and RM1,000 respectively for each category.  

The Major Award winner was Muhammad Hassanuddin Yusof (b. Kuantan, 1993) for his anti-corruption Red Dining menu. 

The Minor Award winners were:  Andry Chin Yung Tet (b. Papar, 1988) for Bajau Aisbok;  The siblings Shireen Alyssa and Amirul Shaqul Azmir (both born in Penang, with Shireen in 2004 and Amirul in 2000) for their Seed Perdu Buloh, based on their mother’s pop-up Nature school installed in ArtGardenMadi in Ulu Dong in Pahang;  Yap Chee Keng’s (b. Kuala Lumpur, 1986) Clock-in, Clock-out, tracing lifelines using carpenter ink markers; and  Experimental filmmaker Chloe Yap Mun Ee’s (b. Kuala Lumpur, 1995) I Don’t Want You To See Me, But I Still Want To Show You. 

For the Visitors Choice Online, the winners were 1) Thanesh Kumar Letchumanan (b. Selangor, 1994), Lindung; 2) Dhakshini Jeganathan (b. Kuala Lumpur, 1997), Healing Extensions; and 3) Haffizudin Jaidin and Syed Zamzur (actually a 20-member team from three art studios in Klang), Sulapan Urung Taka, based on the Murut longhouse concept. The On-Site honours went to 1) Dhakshini Jeganathan; 2) Thanesh Kumar Letchumanan; 3) Ahmad Rais Azmi (b. Kuala Lumpur, 1993), Solitary Wall

Red Dining, with gold-plated cutlery sets but with some broken in parts, was the sole selection from Putrajaya and was shown at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (SPRM) headquarters end of 2021. Some cutlery was placed on round tables and some hung up like taxidermized mounts. Hassanuddin, who holds a Master’s degree from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) assisted Azizan Paiman in his performance at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in 2017 and the 2016 Singapore Biennale, and the Canadian-based Niranjan Rajah in his performance at SAM in 2017. 

Andry Chin built a trestle contraption symbolising a mountain near the beach, with a pyramid top marked with geometric patterns based on a traditional Bajau mat. The installation could also be seen as a temporary food storage and a fish trap. 

Red Dining by Hassanuddin Yusof.
Bajau Aisbok by Andry Chin.

The open theme unleashed a free-for-all with some related to the SOP/MCO of the Covid-19 pandemic or on the viral scourge itself. Other themes involved origami, recycling, eco-city proposal, a Beautiful City charter, perils of mainstream ‘news’ and social media; pollution (sea turtles in Teluk Senangin, Lumut), on schizophrenia and another on empathy, beauty therapy using the loofah, and a prosaic Snakes-And-Ladders floorboard plaything. 

One most intriguing work involved an invisible sculpture without form, and with ambiguous space and platform. 

Invisible Sculpture by Zulkefli Jais.
Maqassid diDasar Mu by Amir Hassan Shah, Hakimi Halim, Hishamuddin Siri and Zamhari Abol Hassan.

A work referenced the 1971 National Cultural Congress in an AR (Alternative Reality) game, while another expanded on the 1974 Conceptual Towards A Mystical Reality by Sulaiman Esa and Redza Piyadasa.  

There were four works on food (food culture, food waste, kenduri and the tiered qaleng food containers, ‘Uber’ bicycle delivering food to low-cost flats under the People’s Housing Projects (PPR) areas, hashtag KitaJagaKita)

Among the sculptural pieces were 32 copper-coloured ceramics, an Islamic contraption based on the eight-star Rub El Hizb geometrics, the Penunggu Pantai iron-and-wood kinetic contraption inspired by German Theo Jansen’s Strandbeast beach sculptures, a specially built meihua-zhuang (boxing training model) and the Melaka Pindah ‘megaliths.’ 

As mobiles go, the immersive light and shadows from the hanging installation of coloured plexiglass teased the eye, while an easel was turned into a melange of moveable objects and shapes. OTW (On The Way) uses shadows of a figure and a clock. Another had fond family memories via sets of photographs stitched together, while a collection of carved topeng (masks) was animated in a ‘catwalk’ among guests during an exhibition (Segaris Art Centre) opening. Others included an illustrated peribahasa Melayu (Malay proverbs) interaction, and crumpled canvas airbrushed and resin-moulded. There were also murals in the backlane in Batu Pahat and of Tasik Chini mythical dragon in Kapal Lorek Artspace in Seri Iskandar, Perak. 

The announcement of the BMS winners and prize-giving coincided with the reopening of the National Art Gallery since its closure in August 2020 for RM4mil renovations. 

Clock In, Clock Out by Yap Chee Keng.
Tasik Chini Dragon Legend mural by Wan Huzaifah Basir.
Winners with their mock-cheques.

Ooi Kok Chuen

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