“Facing” Abstract Creatures Makes Them Relatable in Penang

By Yong-Yu Huang

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WHEN SCULPTURES COME to mind, one conjures up images of stately marble figures or perhaps the rough-hewn details of a column. Rarely do they take the form of QR codes or vivid, amorphous shapes. But a key tenet of art is the subverting of expectations, creating the fresh twist that can bring a new shade of meaning to the public definition. And that is exactly what Aboud Fares, a Syrian-born sculptor now based in Penang, is doing. 

Fares’ first solo collection in Penang was based around the abstract creatures that were the hallmark of his early career. “That exhibition taught me that if I keep going this way, I wouldn’t be able to connect with Malaysians,” he laughed. Audience tastes here are very different from what he was used to in Syria. “I got zero feedback – and that was great feedback. I knew that I had to figure out a way to make something that people here can connect with, or at least trigger some interest.”

He tried putting faces into his sculptures, which he believes appeal to audiences globally. To him, faces are the perfect conduit. “People can rely on their visual memories. It makes it easier for them to see.”

Fares prefers working with metal. Its elasticity and forgiveness in comparison to other materials allow for more experimenting and easily capture the dynamic movements and ideas he unearths. To him, other mediums traditionally associated with sculptures lacked these key elements. Clay, for example, requires planning. “You have to already know what you’re making,” he says. For Fares, who prefers to let spontaneity and experimentation take over his art process, the lengthy process involved in making clay art – from building a model to casting the material – is something he steers away from. 

With metal, “you don’t have to plan. You can start with this size and slowly make it bigger. The shape will hold itself. If it’s something you don’t like, you cut, and then you change it. You can change the movement. You can throw the whole structure away – it's up to you.” 

To him, the beauty of what he creates lies not just in the final product, but also in what he learns from the process. In 2018, he worked on a mechanical bike sculpture, which was exhibited at the Penang International Science Fair. However, he has no plans to create another, unless specifically asked. “There's nothing that excites me about making another bike because for me, it’s the process and the discovery that I can do this thing,” he explains.

Fares does not base his art on specific threads of inspiration or themes; he wants the piece to be appreciated for its abstract qualities and those alone, rather than for viewers to try and assign meaning to his art. 

“It has visual beauty to it.” He pauses. “There’s good abstract work, and there’s bad abstract work. There’s beautiful work, and there’s ugly work. When there are colours, you can tell that it’s meant to convey sadness or happiness, depending on the brightness of the colours. But don’t tell me that this is about feminism, for example. It’s just abstract.”

Fares has also been exploring 3D printing and Augmented Reality (AR) installations. A corner of his studio has several unfinished pieces arrayed; they are 3D-printed part by part. “So these are all in progress, but you can see there's a lot of focus still on the face and features of space.” These universal themes allow his art to appeal and connect to more people. In his Hin Bus exhibition in April 2022, visitors downloaded a virtual reality app called Perk Reality and then scanned QR codes to view his newest pieces, seemingly floating in mid-air.

Recently, Fares launched a project with the Penang Art District to install a similar initiative in Armenian Park. The set-up is simple –– around the space, there are signs that visitors can scan in order to view projected art pieces. Vibrant shades and details from the work of artists such as Mandy Maung, a Penang artist now based in Croatia, fill the virtual air.

“I'm focusing on showcasing artworks from Malaysian artists who are outside Penang, and preferably outside Malaysia.” This is to provide a platform for artists whose work would otherwise be unable to reach Penang audiences. “That’s the benefit of AR. People don’t need to send their actual physical work; they just need to send me the photos. This way, there are no shipping costs involved. I just need high quality photos or maybe 3D models to do the show.”

For now, Fares intends the space to be used on a monthly rotation, whether it be a group show or a solo exhibition. Eventually, he hopes to host Armenian artists, given that they are the namesake of the park. He also hopes that Penang’s reception to this project will pave the way for similar initiatives to spread to other Malaysian states.

“A big part of this project is educational,” Fares says. “It is about making art more accessible to the public.” Bringing AR into art may be a conduit for blooming art connoisseurs. “They can see new things, especially the younger generation. They can have fun with it as a new technology in the beginning, but slowly, at some point, they might form some connection with art.”

Yong-Yu Huang

is a Taiwanese student currently based in Penang. In the fall, she will be an incoming freshman at Northwestern University.