Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In, between and out of love

Innocence.
One Hair.
Venus in Furs.
The Hairy Virgin.
When Love Departs.
Parasite.
Prayer for Unfaithful Women.
Torture Garden.
Happily Ever After.(1)


As we know, the passages of love between us mortals involve a perpetual series of diplomatic episodes. We maneuver with craft and grace to seek balance and peace within our selves and with others. We can imagine ourselves as martyrs of passion, sacrificing our minds, bodies and souls, contracted to death in an idealistic endgame. Yet, in reality, many of us end up tangled in a series of emotionally sorrowful journeys littered with unfulfilled contracts. We are never and can never be in total control.

Are we sadists, masochists or romantics? Do we actually yearn for more pain? Are we really seeking bliss?

In this project, Andrée Weschler and Lynn Lu come together to dialogue with reference to La Carte de Tendre(2) or The Map of Love. Through this convergence of artistic practices, the artists aim to present an alternative reading of the map with video installation and performance art.

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In its geography, La Carte de Tendre begins with Unknown Lands; The Dangerous Sea below it. There are three rivers that lead to The Dangerous Sea.

At the lower coast of The Intimate Sea which is not too far below The Dangerous Sea, you meet Wickedness, Slanderous, Deceitfulness, Indiscretion and Pride. Then, there is The Lake of Indifference on right, just a little above, Lies, Treachery, Inequality and Negligence.

All these so you can delicately maneuver and arrive at Kindness, Respectfulness, Generosity, Integrity, Magnanimity, Sincerity, Tender Inclinations and New Affection. And the map suggests that you get there through Love Letters, Flirtatious Letters and Love Songs.

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The terms sadist and masochist are ascribed to the lifelong journeys of Marquis de Sade and Leopold van Sacher-Masoch respectively. de Sade lived his life as a libertine and often engaged the services of young prostitutes and employees to practice sexual maltreatment. Sacher-Masoch was supposed to have bound his baroness mistress in a contract that established himself as her slave and required her to wear as much fur as possible, particularly when she is in a foul mood. It is somewhat ironic that these two terms and practices, established upon cruelty, pain and humiliation are consequents to the unorthodox pursuit of freedom, love, passion (and sexual liberties).

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Pain and humiliation, both physical and mental are nothing new in our pursuit of love. They have also often been applied as strategies in art making.

In Inadequate Reality Adaptation (2007), Lynn Lu placed herself in a rubber dinghy slightly more than 100 meters off shore. Wearing a black dress, she stood still on the dinghy, foregrounding an Australian sunset in Darwin. She held a parasol that discharged its own rain, resembling a damsel in despair, desolated and forlorn. Unbeknown to the audience and onlookers, the dinghy was punctured and was gradually flooding. As it floods, the artist got pulled into sea, losing her parasol, quickly dissolving into the water and looking as if she was about to drown. For a moment, it even seemed like a poetic suicide. She later emerged from the chill of the seawater and swam onward to shore.

In Innocence #2 (2008-2011), Andrée Weschler poured a full bottle of baby powder into her mouth. Then, in one long and sustained breath, she spouts the powder upwards into the air while strolling around the entire space. A sweet and familiar smell fills the air around the space. The powder hovers for a while before descending onto the floor. Witnessing this, I remember thinking how she could have choked if the baby powder was not expelled in its entirety and how painful it would then be. And to hold her breath that long while filling her mouth with powder to then let it out completely in one long blow, although simple, was unquestionably demanding.

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These two quiet yet lamentable responses to the artists’ own past crestfallen experiences at love and current mediation with relationships could be easily overwhelmed by their poetic qualities. To paraphrase the title of one of Lynn Lu’s performance, When Love Departs, Reason Returns (or, notes to self for the next time) (3) . This reasoning is the thrust that manifests their resplendent artworks.


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Khairuddin Hori
Nov 2011
Pulau Pinang

published as part of Revisiting La Carte de Tendre by Lynn Lu and Andree Weschler at The Substation, Dec 2011, Singapore
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(1) Project threads and titles of artworks in the portfolios of artists Andree Weschler and Lynn Lu.

(2) Introduced by Madeleine de Scudéry, 17th century, France. Played an important role as a symbol of the requirements of courtly love.

(3) Lynn Lu, title of performance piece at Blackout, Qsquare, Singapore, 2009.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Navigating from a point: between self and cultural inheritance

Over the years, there have been many instances where I find myself cornered in conversations that question the ‘cultural roots’ of Singapore and Singaporeans, particularly in relation to its contemporary arts practice. It seemed to many that Singapore is too artificially manufactured to have enough ‘soul’ for its artists to be producing profound art. Amongst others, the reasons given to supplement this claim (or blame) is the fact that Singapore has been generally peaceful, economically stable and politically steady. In recent times, Singaporeans have not been challenged with significant social turbulences as compared to its neighbours such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. It may sound ironic to some, but the assumption that conflict provides fruitful content is an assumption still held by many …

The issue of ‘roots’ and identity is a complex one. A small country like Singapore for example, has citizens of diverse ethnic and sub-ethnic origins (including a multitude of religious practices) originally from countries and regions such as China, Indonesia, India and Arabia. Through time, modernization, urbanization and globalization, each unique emigrant identity and cultural diversity has morphed and new forms, some yet to be precisely identified, emerged.

To reflect on and investigate the roots of Singaporean-ness, it is useful to acquaint ourselves with our immediate neighbours. Singaporeans after all, are a migrant society made up mostly of settlers from Asia. The hybridization of its citizenship continues till this very day with the inflow of fresh residents swayed to stay mainly because of prospects in education, employment and marriage. And SMU itself is a melting pot of students from different countries.

This year, in conjunction with the SMU Arts Festival and the university’s tenth anniversary celebrations, we invited nine artists from the Southeast Asian region as artists-in-residence for periods of two weeks to a month each. This initiative, called the SMU-ASEAN Artist Residency Programme was made possible with the partnership of The Substation, a contemporary arts centre and neighbour to SMU, and kind support of the National Youth Council. The aim of this pilot programme is mainly to expose, share, connect and reflect on contemporary Southeast Asian cultures and knowledge with and through the SMU community. The artists who took part in the residencies were, Rich Streitmatter-Tran (Vietnam), Som Sutthirat (Thailand), Dani Iswardana (Indonesia), Shahrul Jamili Miskon (Malaysia) and Sookoon Ang, Zack Razak, Ming Wong and Kai Lam (Singapore).1 These artists were invited based on artistic merit and potential in connecting with the young university population. Their average age is thirty-two years, and most have had prior experience teaching at tertiary level.

The artists operated from a bare studio at the SMU concourse. This studio, a converted retail space, became an alcove where the artists worked, had consultations with students who were themselves making artworks, hosted visitors, and conducted workshops. For the foreign artists, living quarters were homes of art-loving professionals of diverse backgrounds, most of whom are patrons of The Substation. Their itineraries were designed to be loose, to provide time and opportunities for better acquaintance with the campus community, to meet and interact with local artists and venture into the ‘roots’ of the Singaporean ‘heartlands’.

Rich Streitmatter-Tran who now resides in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, is one such artist who has returned to find his ‘roots’. Rich is an American citizen. He was adopted as a child by an American couple and brought to America where he did most of his growing up. He returned to Vietnam approximately five years ago to trace his biological family. Almost immediately, Rich found himself settled and to date, is arguably the most prolific envoy for contemporary Vietnamese art to the international audience. From then, Rich has always been identified in contemporary art circles as Vietnamese despite the fact that he is, technically speaking, American.

Ming Wong on the other hand, is comfortable slipping in and out of identities, sometimes play-acting, sometimes surrogating and some other times critiquing through the various borrowed personas. Ming has produced and performed video artworks in German, Malay and Italian, none of which are languages he is proficient at. Appropriating the works of legendary foreign films and film-makers, Ming often skews and displaces his audiences’ perception of skin, language, gender and nationalities through playing Black, White, Asian, German, Moroccan, male and female roles all at the same time as seen in his film Angst Essen / Eat Fear (2008).

Zack Razak traces the heritage of an age-old family recipe for an egg tart to its colonial influence. Wilhemina is the name of a green pandan flavoured egg tart, the recipe for which dates back three generations in Zack’s family. Zack’s investigations showed that this family’s egg tart was named after Queen Wilhelmina, the queen regnant who ruled Netherlands from 1890 to 1948. This christening was despite the fact that Queen Wilhelmina never made a visit to Indonesia, a former Dutch colony where Zack’s family originated from. For the unschooled first generation Singaporean settler, Wil-hel-mi-na can be a mouthful to pronounce, let alone to comprehend and adopt, yet the name has been passed on in the vocabulary of Zack’s family. Intruding into a family’s heritage long after the Dutch have departed, such is the muscle of colonialism.

Meanwhile, in trying to preserve a cultural heritage and understanding his Java-ness, Dani Iswardana adopted the art of Wayang Beber (traditional Indonesian theatrical screen-painting). Wayang Beber precedes the more popular Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet) and is practiced only sporadically in Indonesia today. Wayang was initially simply a compulsory module for all at the art school Dani attended, later it transformed into a devotion and practice for this artist. Dani’s personal introspective reflections on Java-ness ring as true as the core of every wayang epic. According to Dani, each story in wayang tell the travels of a panji, a central character who continually travels and philosophically overcomes life’s trials and tribulations in search of the ‘self’. Even though traditional in its approach, Dani’s wayang illustrations however, are rooted in contemporary settings. In his appropriations, we see industrial backgrounds, policemen on motorcycles, messiahs popping out of television sets and the often-spiky-haired punk rock panji. The wayang stories painted by Dani have been given an update. There is one on the Singapore-Malaysia water treaty skirmish (echoed in this exhibition by Shahrul Jamili Miskon with his giant water-pistols) and another exhibited here as a work-in-progress on Semar (a Javanese demi-god) visiting Singapore disguised as a contemporary artist.

A large part of the investigations of the artists mentioned above is on identity and the self, a sense of curiosity about where they stand in relation to the past and present. There is a sense that they are searching a certain personal identification, to be rooted, to reclaim heritage and histories through making art. We learn that the ‘soul’ of the contemporary artist extends beyond inherited cultural boundaries and encompasses new popular cultural forms. For example, artists mimic, subvert, appropriate, celebrate and critique modern-day icons and mindsets.

The ‘content’ or ‘point’ where artists navigate from is not necessarily entrenched within deep traditional, political or economic conflicts. It appears that there is a certain poetic justice that is sought after, a meditation for a means in disassembling inherited baggage, a desire to reclaim the colonised, a critique to disembowel, a knowledge to practice.

During his residency, Dani Iswardana repeated many times to me that for him, understanding Java-ness is akin to understanding God. Would finding Singaporean-ness feel the same? Dani’s statement did not come from an immigrant but a purebred Javanese man born and living today in the city of Solo, home to the Surakarta Sultanate of 1700s. Perhaps, the Panji stories echo our own journeys.





1 Eko Nugroho (Indonesia) was scheduled for residency but withdrew for health reasons.


Khairuddin Hori
13 Jan 2010
Published in CONTENT: navigating a point
Exhibition catalog accompanying the SMU-ASEAN Artist in Residence Exhibition, 15 Jan 2010
ISBN: 978-981-08-4967-2
SINGAPORE

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Untitled (X)



If you tried, even meekly, you could, beyond doubt, spot peculiar scraps of visual imageries that resemble the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Banksy, Erno Rubik, The Doors, Bob Dylan and even possibly John F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol and Roy Orbison. Most of you would be inclined to communicate nothing more than the surface. However, for a fortunate few, these visual references speak back, transpires into a mental movie; maybe with Los Bravos’ Black is Black as soundtrack.

This is X, a collage of appropriated or ‘stolen’ images, remixed and re-spawned by Aswad Ameir.

X is the second solo exhibition by Aswad. His first, Across the Lines, took place in June 2007 at Seksan Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Across the Lines featured a series of abstract-expressionistic paintings developed from a privately funded residency program in Kuala Lumpur he undertook from 2001 to 2006. A profitable exhibition on various accounts, Across the Lines brought Aswad many patrons and afforded him a six-months sabbatical where he lived in Barcelona, Spain with short travels to Morocco and Belgium. He picked up Spanish, not just the language, but also a grasp of its colloquial culture. He documented his adventures almost religiously, especially while in Morocco. For a while after his return, these videos and photographs containing interviews, adventures and observations became his obsessive reference, meant to inspire a future project.



I have had the good fortune of witnessing the development of Aswad’s work through close friendship and the inception of both solo exhibitions. As any other artist, Aswad maneuvers through curious and at times haphazard creative processes in a world where art could seemingly be everything and anything. Today, traditional skills and formal knowledge do not necessarily make one a better, more valid or more successful artist. Take Maurizio Cattelan who started off as a janitor, mailman and assistant to a local morgue in Padua, Italy. He is now only the most infamous jokester, conceptual and escape artist, highly revered in today’s eco-system of contemporary arts.

The story of X really began a little over a year ago when I invited Aswad along with a dozen or so young artists and curators from Asia to participate in an exploratory summit convened with the partnership of The Substation art center in Singapore. This summit took place on the island of Sentosa and was called HAO: Confronting the future of arts and culture from Asia. The summit commenced the very same night that Singapore Biennale 2008 opened. Various presenters, mentors and workshop leaders hailing from a variety of backgrounds were invited to share knowledge and insights with its young participants. From corporate social responsibility to architecture to tourism, they were there. Briton Matt Mason, ex-pirate radio DJ, ex-Editor-in-Chief of RWD zine and author of The Pirate’s Dilemma was amongst the mentors present throughout the three-day summit.

Ideas communicated in The Pirate’s Dilemma has a special place in the development and realization of Aswad’s X. Several months prior to the summit, I had shared The Pirate’s Dilemma with Aswad (and a few other friends). It spoke of ‘creative’ punks, pirates, remixers, urban wars that pushed legal, social and industrial boundaries above and under- ground. Not dissimilar to the dynamism and often anarchic gestures of contemporary artists. One such act would be:

“THIS IS WHAT THE F**K I THINK I’M DOING.”1

On Saturday, 19 April 2003, the above statement, along with the entire contents of the album American Life were made available for everyone to download for free on the front page of Madonna’s website by a hacker/remixer after she inseminated decoy WTF a capella renderings on various online peer-to-peer sharing platforms to fend off MP3 freeloaders. On top of that, fifteen of the public’s best WTF remixes were compiled into an album and published by an independent record label.

At that same time, we both found a new favourite website, TED.com, introduced by fellow artist and friend Shahrul Jamili. In their collection of videos that are free for download is the now famous lecture on amateur remixing, copyright and the future of creativity by Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a professor of law at Harvard Law School and is also the author of REMIX, The Future of Ideas and Free Culture amongst others. Both The Pirate’s Dilemma and Lessig’s lecture and books pointed to the significance of amateur remix culture. They warned of the potential death of creativity if we were to be overly possessive of the rights to every creative output.

Although most of the references cited by Mason and Lessig were based on new and social media such as youtube videos, MP3 music and hip-hop street fashion, they nevertheless ignited a spark in Aswad’s art practice. This spark was further fuelled from frustrations of witnessing haphazard trade transactions and monopolistic ownership of artworks from his first solo exhibition. There lies a common belief that major art collectors of an artists’ work are not too pleased if the artist were to employ drastic shifts in his/her aesthetics and modes of expression. At the same time, artists too fear that experimenting and straying from a tried and tested formula could demonstrate fickleness and drive away their faithful collectors. These situations cause creative stalemates and are detrimental to the development of art. It takes a massive amount of self-belief for an artist to rid themselves off the mentally limiting shackles of his/her collectors as often times, the artists’ means of living depend on it.

In the span of a little less than two years, Aswad’s approach to his art shifted. What is immediately apparent is his departure form the abstract-expressionistic style of painting. There are now objects and tableaux. While it is evident that his references are mostly derivatives of western pop histories, one can sense its purpose as tools of the artists’ personal introspect. Clues to this exist at times from the visuals, and at other times from their titles.

You Make Me, a pixilated self-portrait of the artist posing bare bodied cross-references American rock star Lenny Kravitz and the song You Make Me Real (1970) by 1960s psychedelic-rock band The Doors. The lyrics to the song vaguely relates to a ‘lover’ that ‘make me real’, ‘make me throw mistaken misery’ and ‘make me free’. Given the context, the period the song was made and the band’s notorious reputation, this ‘lover’ could have easily been a reference to drugs. It is a hint to a desire for an ‘escape’, a desire shared by the artist.

Two more song titles appear in this series of works. I Wear My Sunglasses at Night, a line from the song Sunglasses at Night (1983) by Canadian singer Corey Hart while Black is Black (1966) is the title of a chart topping song by Los Bravos, a Spanish band based in Madrid. A fourth reference to a song is in the painting Mr Jones. The text in this painting: ‘Because something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?’ is from the song Ballad of a Thin Man (1965) by American folk singer-songwriter-poet Bob Dylan. This song, asking the know-all, self-absorbed, condescending man to wake up to reality again suggests the artist’s personal sentiments.

In I Wear My Sunglasses at Night, the artist inserted a representation of his own image within a tribute to the iconic Wayfarer sunglasses manufactured by Ray-Ban since 1952. Made famous by celebrated figures such as John F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, the Wayfarer pictured in the painting is one that is owned and regularly worn by the artist. Corey Hart had also worn the Wayfarer in the original MTV clip to the song. This track back to nostalgia and rebellion is persistently repeated as demonstrated through Songs for the Pirates / Black is Black, the bigger-than-life acrylic cassette tape; Battle of Algiers in reference to the film of the same title that inspired many guerilla movements made by Gillo Pontecorvo in 1966; and Youth, an appropriation of the Black Power Salute made famous by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the podium of the 1968 Summer Olympics after winning the 200 meters sprint in protest of discrimination against black Americans in America.

Although We Will Protect You, with colourful bursts of paint on top of a formation of Malaysian riot police brings us back to the present, it bears a Banksy (the infamous British graffiti artist) like signature. A similar take is seen in In God We Trust, this official American motto is juxtaposed against a pair of flamenco dancers, freemason eyes and a self-portrait of the artist dressed in a suit topped with English bowler hat against the crescent and star symbol, a typical Islamic emblem and the hands of Hindu goddess Kali.

X could be a new weapon in the artists’ arsenal; perhaps the axe he needs to rid any shackles. One would be forgiven if tempted to think that the artist has been Americanized or bears hidden anti-America sentiments. This collection of images seem to have provided Aswad with a renewed resource of power, liberty and his very own personal dialect. Many times, Aswad appears to be speaking in codes, relevant and comprehensible only to those they are addressed to. There are no clear narratives to his images and as audiences, it is as if we are forced to second-guess then construct whatever meanings we will of them. Although we could choose to ignore, these artworks nags you like puzzles that challenge our intellect and egos. X is an unknown, an enigma.





Kharuddin Hori
Singapore, 30 November 2009

Published in 'X', Aswad Ameir
Galeri Chandan & Three Hundred Sixty Sdn Bhd
www.galerichandan.com
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2009

All images © Khairuddin Hori, 2009


1. Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma, New York, Free Press, 2008, p.70

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dajia HAO?


From 2nd to 10th August this year, while twenty-two international artists are nestling in various villagers’ homes in Jatiwangi, West Java, collaborating on ideas and actions as part of a week long arts festival, a group of Trinidadian teenagers continues cruising on BMX bicycles radically customized with chunky speakers, blasting 15,000 watts of amplified sound; enough to power a mini rock concert in Queens, New York.(1)

From 9th to 12th September this year, a Summit involving up to forty young, contemporary Asian artists, independent curators and art managers will camp on Sentosa Island, Singapore. In this Summit called HAO: Confronting the Future of Arts and Culture from Asia, they will sit up to Keynote addresses and dive in to workshops by professionals from non-arts sectors such as Marco Kusumawijaya (eco-architect and urban planner, Indonesia), Karthik Siva (founder, Global Brand Forum, Singapore), Matt Mason (author, The Pirate’s Dilemma, UK) and Abdul Rahman Abdullah (Total Quality Management researcher, Singapore).


Tags: Art. Inspiration. Innovation. Exploration. Knowledge. Community. Cohesion. Sustainability.


Singapore is known for its capabilities in “How” – how to do things efficiently and how to set up systems to function efficiently. However, we are not best known for being creative visionaries – yet these are precisely the qualities that the government is trying to nurture in order to build a sustainable future for Singapore. We are a country of people enjoying a comfortable standard of living – life is good. And “Good” is “Hao” in Chinese. The title of our Summit “HAO” riffs on the consonance of the two words “how” and “hao”, a gently provocative title that aims to get us to think beyond the surface – beyond the “how” – to ask, “is life really going to be good in the future, and how can we shape it”?

On May 24th this year, thirty-five year old I Nyoman Masriadi, an Indonesian artist, had one of his paintings, Sudah Biasa Ditelanjang (Used to being stripped naked), auctioned by Christie’s in Hong Kong for a whopping US$519,194.

If you did not already know, Nyoman Masriadi’s current solo exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum is the first of his career. As mentioned by Soetriyono ‘the prices for art pieces by Masriadi seem to have soared without any fundamental support in terms of exhibition history and works being collected by reputable institutions’.(2) US$519,194 starts to sound like an expensive reminder for LASIK(3) surgery…

This Masriadi stratagem seems to be but one of the many covert ones at play. However, and most importantly, how do these hurtling hammer prices of a relatively embryonic Southeast Asian contemporary art ‘market’ contribute to the sustainability of arts & culture in its own region? You see, it is not uncommon to witness living artists who are ‘successful’ by definition of sales and auctions stagnate, falling into states of not only auto, but also induced plagiarism.

The HAO Benefit Pyramid


From 9th to 12th September this year, up to forty young, contemporary Asian artists, independent curators and art managers will camp on Sentosa Island to “confront the future” - a future that they will build. And the work of building a future starts in knowing oneself and being aware of how we are all interconnected. A key methodology used to provoke thinking in the Workshops and Summit is to shake off the usual habits of body and mind adopted during a Conference – where usually the participant passively listens to lectures and presentations. Instead, workshops at HAO will be activity-based, including small group work, outdoor activities, debates, etc. Participants will be encouraged to mingle and work closely with one another, and get to know people from different countries and cultures. As part of the methodology, we hope to hold some of the workshops at unexpected locations such as the beaches, parkland, and cafes/restaurants on Sentosa.

Although many others we have spoken to are reluctant to play a supporting role, HAO speaker such as Matt Mason recognizes its value and significance; enough to waive €20,000 in speaker’s fees. It is in our beliefs that only when the artist, curator or arts manager is inspired, empowered and connected would there then be international quality art and artists (to cite a couple of often typically simplistic demands). HAO aims to inspire people to effect change - for themselves and for the sustainability of their environment. And when this happens, its beneficiaries would not only be amongst the likes of collectors and investors, but ultimately, communities as a whole. Do not terminate your patronship at the acquisition of an art object; start supporting the process too because it is just as necessary and meaningful.

HAO recognizes that art invigorates humanity and is a testament to great civilizations. The endurance and future of art and culture in Asia is up to the young emerging leaders in the creative sectors whose task it is to educate and reach their publics, and present inspired artworks to the world.

HAO about you?



Khairuddin Hori
August 2008, Singapore

Publlished in Singapore Art & Gallery Guide,
September 2008 Edition, Singapore
www.sagg.com.sg



HAO is convened by Khairuddin Hori, artist and independent curator, and organized by The Substation, Singapore’s leading independent, non-profit contemporary arts centre. This article contains re-mixes of parts written by Audrey Wong, Artistic Co-Director of The Substation. For updates and information on how to attend and support HAO, go to http://haofellows.wordpress.com



(1) Go to Made in Queens

(2) Eddy Soetriyono, Under the threat of bursting bubbles, C-Arts Vol. 04, United Univers Publishing Pte. Ltd., Singapore, 2008

(3) A type of refractive laser eye surgery performed by ophthalmologists for correcting myopia, hyperopia, and astigmatism.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wired from Delhi



Try if you could, imagine and juxtapose Steven Cohen, white, Jewish, South African and extreme drag-queen alongside Da Modus!, a Swiss street theatre/dance ensemble performing in luminous green overalls on top of Hassan Khan, Egyptian situationist and digital sound and image artist. Then, sandwich them between Indian stage actor and Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts alumnus Rehan Engineer; Maya Krishna Rao, a veteran theatre and dance practitioner who utilizes both Kathakali and stand-up comedy; and Sarnath Banerjee, an artist convert, former biochemistry major now with a Masters in Image and Communication from Goldsmith’s College and two graphic novels published by Penguin India under his belt.

Welcome to Khoj LIVE 08, India’s first international performance art festival!

I am sure you would forgive and be quite empathetic if I say that in the beginning, I was quite skeptical of this curatorial re-mix of a performance art event. Having been a co-organizer and director of a similar event in Singapore (Future of Imagination 3 & 4) and also as a ‘performer’, I decided that it was best to surrender my doubts and celebrate the fortune of being amongst the thirty-three artists invited to the festival. Besides, I was on page fifty-two of Khoj’s impressively designed festival booklet situated as the lone ‘critic-in-residence’; in other words, I could post ‘official complaints’ later if I so desired. But what is a critic-in-residence you ask? I was advised that my principal responsibility was to attend and observe as much (if not all) of the festival proceedings as I could (including several ad-hoc presentations, forums and symposiums) and to deliver an essay for a post-festival publication; mind you, I have never really been known as a writer…



Organized and curated by stalwarts of Khoj International Artists’ Association as part of their tenth anniversary celebrations, Khoj LIVE 08 took place from 25 to 30 March 2008 at six different performance venues in the city of New Delhi. Along with performances that typically begin in the evenings, there were also daily daytime presentations and discussions led by associates of LIVE Arts development agency from UK. All these, took place in nine different venues, namely the Khoj Studios, the National School of Drama, Jawaharlal Nehru University, commercial galleries - Palette Art Gallery, Gallery Espace, Anant Art Centre and Vadehra Art Gallery as well as diplomatic institutions - Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institut, Max Mulluer Bhavan. I have to mention here that I was utterly impressed with the support from the partner venues, in particular the commercial galleries. Three of these galleries emptied their walls and gave full-on logistical and hospitality support for the evenings when performances took place, for both artists and audience; each time as if they were all going to make massive sales from a show of paintings by a revered artist. Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institut, Max Mulluer Bhavan was no less gracious. Alliance was turned into the official festival hub where you could easily find some of the festival artists hanging out, daily screenings of performance videos and information on day-to-day festival updates and proceedings. Meanwhile, Goethe Institut took on the closing night’s revue.



Nikhil Chopra a Mumbai based artist who returned to India in 2005 after several years of studying and living in America, opened the festival at Khoj Studios. Performing from one of the ‘cubes’ at Khoj Studios, Nikhil was decked in an outfit prototypical of a respectable Victorian gentleman. As I climbed off what I suspected was either a table or a plinth for a better view within an unusually maddening crowd, Nikhil stormed out of the room with a large piece of folded brown paper tucked under his arm. I rushed and followed his tracks, moving fast outside of Khoj Studios onto the street and into slim winding alleys sandwiched by local residences. His rushed walk led us to an empty Mughal edifice, remnants of what used to be a mosque; its interiors was filled with pillars, dark, crypt-like, housing bats. Nikhil walked through it with urgency, stormed out once again, this time onto the side of a main road, eventually halting on the roof of another Mughal architectural relic. He unfolded and laid down the large piece of brown paper onto the roof floor, the paper, put together by masking tapes was about five meters long and two meters wide. He took off his suit and began drawing on the paper. After about an hour or so, the charcoal drawing made to the background of the setting sun and muezzin’s call for Maghrib prayers was of a landscape, a panoramic view of the one we were at. I was told that we were actually standing on a retentive wall of a Mughal dam, below us to the left was a noisy and perilously busy road, next to it, a large sparkling ‘globalized’ shopping mall, to our right, gigantic trucks were driving in and out, filling earth and dust into what used to be the gorge and further forward, a dwelling cluster, an old neighbourhood.



Nikhil left, still in performance mode, so did I, back to the Khoj Studios. Arriving on the cramped street outside of the studio, the mood was akin to that of a religious procession. Steven Cohen was in drag, walking against Nikhil’s direction into an adjacent Khoj studio building. J C Lanquentin, a French scenographic artist whose engagements finds itself frequently embedded within communities in the African continent, was jamming the street with an eager mob of incidental audience twenty meters away via an interactive, video based work around the issue of home and relocations. The police later disrupted J C’s work as the amazing response was apparently building hazards of various kinds.



Well, by now, you could probably begin to better imagine the rest of the days of the festival, because within this limited space, myself (and the three hundred over audiences who witnessed each night of the festival) am resigned to leaving you in mid-air. There is a reason why the festival was dubbed LIVE



As an artist, curator and witness to several other, better-established Southeast Asian performance art festivals, the Khoj experience left me ‘wired’! I dare say that Khoj LIVE 08 is a promise and premise from which performance art, although without a strong contemporary history in India, is about to change its face.

I shall leave you with an economic parable, which I think translates just as well for arts and culture. “At the birth of Christ, India made up a third of the global economy, China more than a quarter. History, it seems, is on China and India’s side. Their current rise is mainly just the return of the status quo.”(1)


Khairuddin Hori
April 2008, Thailand
Publlished in Singapore Art & Gallery Guide,
May 2008 Edition, Singapore
www.sagg.com.sg




Details of Pictures (in order of appearance):

1. Artist: Nikhil Chopra
Origin: India
Date: 25 March 2008
Venue: Khoj Studios, New Delhi

2. Artist: Fred Koenig
Origin: France
Date: 26 March 2008
Venue: Vicinity of Gallery Espace, New Delhi

3. Artist: Art Maharaj
Origin: India
Date: 26 March 2008
Venue: Vicinity of Gallery Espace, New Delhi

4. Artist: Mehr Javed
Origin: Pakistan
Date: 27 March 2008
Venue: Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi

5. Artist: Da Modus!
Origin: Switzerland
Date: 26 March 2008
Venue: Vicinity of Gallery Espace, New Delhi

6. Artist: Rehan Engineer
Origin: India
Date: 27 March 2008
Venue: Gallery Espace, New Delhi


All pictures © 2008, Khairuddin Hori



(1) David Smith, The Return of History, The Dragon and the Elephant, China, India and the New World Order, London:Profile Books Ltd, 2007, p.9

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Curators on Acid



“In the play with limits, both discourses and practices call for the abolition of borders, territorial expansion, the permeability of fields and hybridization.(1)”

Tables were turned, roles reversed and reputations, at least temporarily, were “laid bare”. Earlier this year, I invited five curators to collectively surrender their curatorial powers to myself (the artist) and 'perform', complement and complete the settings for a series of paintings and installations for Trading Craft(2), my solo exhibition. With exceptions of Chumpon Apisuk and Wong Hoy Cheong, both artists-curators (the former recognized as pioneering the practice of performance art in Thailand while the latter last executed a piece of performance artwork eight years before); none of the other curators(3) have actually attempted personal productions of performance art as 'artists'.

These curators (often doubling as critics and consultants) are the very same kind of powerful persons usually attributed to the making and breaking of artists, art festivals, biennales, exhibitions, theories and, even the construct of cultural policies at governmental levels. Dr Thomas J. Berghuis for instance, is the author of Performance Art in China(4) and an Associate Curator of the 6th International Sharjah Biennale (2003); Mikke Susanto who was one of the curators of the 8th Jogja Biennale (2005) is also curator at Jogja Gallery in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, which was only recently set-up under the auspices of none other than Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, the Sultan and governor of The Special Province of Yogyakarta; Adeline Ooi, is affiliated to and regularly curates exhibitions at Valentine Willy Fine Art “the art institution” of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, notorious partly for plunging young artistic prodigies from Southeast Asia into the commercial spectacle. The whip these curators bear is as heavy as it is powerful, hence, I would think that not unless reasonable, to submit, to 'displace' themselves at the uncertainty of the receiving end, to attempt and execute an act most uncharacteristic of themselves, is definitely not something that they most likely look forward to.

So what did these curators conjure when given the opportunity to shine as artists, 'performance artists' in particular you might ask?

The exhibition which opened at the Substation Gallery in Singapore sees Dr Thomas J. Berghuis start off with a series of actions dressed in an all-black outfit (par for the course of curators the world over) and started writing two pieces of texts on either sides of the gallery wall flanking a large, appropriated black and white reproduction of Francesco Goya’s etching from 1810, Great Deeds Against the Dead!. Thomas’ scribbles, executed coarse and brisk with charcoal exclaims, ‘Who said painting is dead?’ on one side and ‘Art is not important!’ on the other. After this piece of action, he left the gallery only to return dressed in an orange painter’s overalls, complete with a cheap face-towel covering his head, respiratory mask, a large tub of white paint and other house painting paraphernalia. He then embarked on an attempt to whitewash the texts he had written earlier only to create grey, smudged paint marks with the charcoal scribbling still visible and legible underneath. He then proceeded to paint over a glass tabletop, part of an installation made up of appropriated Roy Lichtenstein paintings. To end this series of actions, he roll-painted the 3 x 4 meters Goya piece with the same white paint, almost whitewashing it in its entirety!



While Thomas made a physically flamboyant appearance, Wong Hoy Cheong, although present in the same building, opted for the esoteric. On the other end of the same gallery, underneath a green tent, spectators engaged in an online conversation via a preset cyber alias as 'Burqah' with one 'Tuan Mahaguru' visible on screen only as a black cerebral penumbra. Such is a sample conversation:

Tuan Mahaguru: I am not here to answer your questions, but to help you find the true path.

Burqah: What is the true path?

Tuan Mahaguru: Go pour your soul into abstract paintings.

Burqah: How do I do so? I am not liquid.

Tuan Mahaguru: Buy paint, stretch a canvas, stare at it, and find the inner space.

In the middle of these two 'performances', Mikke Susanto, in black t-shirt and jeans, was busy scouting for the ‘next big thing’ through conducting a contest of drawings to be inspired from a set of aluminum scaffolding present in the gallery. At the top of this scaffolding, two television monitors display loops of my appropriated version of John Baldessari’s 'Teaching a Plant the Alphabets' (1972) video. Mikke’s series of 'performative' actions were so ordinary that even though he was physically present, his performance piece was almost indeterminable. An ambiguous reading of art history from atop the scaffolding commenced as the number of exhibition attendees faded away, followed by the eventual announcement of a winner (which coincidentally, was one of the executives of The Substation) simultaneously signaling the end of his performance.



At the exhibition in Bangkok, Adeline Ooi pegged every single artwork on exhibit with titles she made up on a whim along with corresponding price tags. She then approached spectators, dressed in a brand new all-black outfit, playing the persona of an 'art dealer', attempting to trade the artworks on display. She succeeded, selling a series of seven black and white watercolours appropriating the works of Duchamp, Judd, Picasso, Manzoni, Warhol and Malevich within five minutes of the exhibition’s opening; only for us to realize later that night that the transaction was made at one-tenth its intended price!



With austerity, Chumpon also dressed in black and somehow looking almost like a fisherman back with a day’s catch at sea, stood on a low, square table with two plastic net sacks filled with colourful plastic balls hanging from his neck. He lobbed these balls in random directions towards the spectators. A piece of yellow A4 sized paper printed with instructions attached to the sacks asks spectators to look around and affix these balls to corresponding numbers found on the balls onto numbered yellow stickers mounted around the gallery walls prior to the gallery’s opening. These plastic balls also had axioms handwritten in Thai with English translation on them. One such ball says ‘Just do what you are told’, something for the participating spectator to indulge their thoughts into while searching for the corresponding number on the walls to paste them to.



This series of performances by curators responding to my brief as “interim curator” did provoke mixed reactions from the spectators. The performance by Mikke Susanto for example, feels very sedated, probably even failed in its 'bureaucratic' attempt. Before and even during the duration of his performance, Mikke tirelessly solicited a piece of drawing out of me. Sensing a nasty plot at play, I resisted. I had the uneasy feeling that if I had made a piece of drawing and participated in his search for ‘the next big thing’, my drawing, regardless of how good or bad it might have been, would be chosen as the winner. This ‘scandal’ could add drama and give power to his otherwise uneventful performance. Adeline Ooi was floating around, looking almost helpless while trying to chat spectators up individually in order to sell art. She seemed to recognize some of the people in the audience and paid specific attention to those. Others seemed confused with her fleeting presence and could have thought of her as ‘a gallery assistant hired to pitch sales’ which is a definite 'boo hoo' for an institutional gallery like The Art Center due to the fact that it belongs to one of Thailand’s national university. Wong Hoy Cheong, whose intention from the beginning was to cancel his physical being from view probably got what he wanted albeit some technical hiccups that delayed the opening of the exhibition for almost a good half-hour. Chumpon’s piece flashed security and wisdom typical of a seasoned performer and veteran artist. His presence and stature while standing on top of the table (which was about forty centimeters high) alone was almost enough to sate the spectators’ need for art. Thomas’, probably the most elaborately planned and propped performance drew numerous ireful responses. People around the gallery were overheard exclaiming, “Oh my God! How could he disrespect Goya like that?” forgetting that the piece of 'Goya' they spoke about was my blatant, enlarged copy of the original!



Understandably, spectators throughout both opening nights came primarily to see these curators perform ‘live’ and witness the much touted exhibition concept verily manifested. The event had an air not dissimilar to that of a regular performance art festival night. Many seemingly forgot that three out of five of this all-star line up of 'artists' presenting performance art are, in their regular and professional lives, curators. Expectations of ‘good’ and ‘professional’ performance presentations were abound. The paradox of it is that even if the performances pieces presented were all bad, it was good!



I had never anticipated this fragment of the Trading Craft project to convert into an incidental and almost experimental outing of performance art. Some moments, as an artist, I have to admit that I did feel good looking at these curators fumble…

“Art. There’s the catch. At this stage of consciousness, the sociology of Culture emerges as an in-group “dumb-show.” Its sole audience is a roster of the creative and performing professions watching itself, as if in a mirror, enact a struggle between self-anointed priests and a cadre of self-appointed commandos, jokers, guttersnipes, and triple agents who seem to be attempting to destroy the priests’ church. But everybody knows how it all ends: in church, of course, with the whole club bowing their heads and muttering prayers. They pray for themselves and their religion.”

Allan Kaprow(5)



Khairuddin Hori
September 2007, Singapore
Publlished in the catalogue of Future of Imagination 4,
International Performance Art Event,
27 - 30 September 2007,
Singapore




(1) Birgit Pelzer, “Cache-toi, object! – The Unattainable Revolution”, Behind The Facts. Interfunktionen 1968-1975, Gloria Moure et all, Ediciones Poligrafica, Barcelona, 2004. p.68

(2) Curated by June Yap, Trading Craft is a project under the Article series initiated by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, of commissioned projects that form part of the institute’s curatorial research. Each project functions as an experimental platform where the institute collaborates with an artist towards the development of a new artwork. Trading Craft took place from 23 April to 4 May at The Substation Gallery, Singapore and from 28 June to 21 July at The Art Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

(3) Dr Thomas J. Berghuis (Netherlands/China/Australia), Mikke Susanto (Indonesia) and Adeline Ooi (Malaysia).

(4) Berghuis, Thomas J., Performance Art in China, Timezone 8, Hong Kong, 2006.

(5) Sven Lutticken, “The Worst Audience”, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2005. p.55

Friday, August 24, 2007

Scratching The Grooves



“No man will be so absurd as to think that he patronizes the author whose book he buys, or the painter or sculptor whose works decorate his walls and give lessons of wisdom to his children any more than he will think that he protects the advocate who defended him in the court of justice, or the physician who rescued him from pain and death…

The artist will address his works to the enlightened men who can appreciate their value. They are equals, bestowing and receiving good. The friend will assist his friend – the man of taste will applaud and aid the artist – the artist will receive and reciprocate; - but in this then is neither patronage or dependence.”(1)

Enter Aswad Ameir.

Freshly armed with a degree in Fine Arts from Central Saint Martins College, London, a modest monthly allowance of MYR1600, additional allowances for art materials and a used BMW 525 at his disposal, Aswad Ameir started a ‘residency’ whose brief was simple, ‘work on paintings, no requirements for an exhibition, no deadlines’. This ‘residency’, unknown even to himself, was to last almost six years.(2)

I was left slightly confounded on my first visit to Aswad Ameir’s studio at the said residency several months after it commenced. Why you ask? To get to the studio, you first would have to walk across a quaint beam bridge about ten meters wide, over a clean, clear river dotted with several stone sculptures. Then, you reach a low gate from where you properly enter the property. From here, you see the entire estate, embedded on gentle undulating slopes ending in a forested hill. Left, a multi-storied residence with swimming pool at its back, then a plant nursery further up-center and on far right, I was told of what used to be a petting zoo. Walk a little more, an assembly of vintage Mercedes, BMWs and other automobiles, dormant in an old garage. Even further up, three large fishponds, each about the size of two basketball courts. In the center, following the ponds, a multi-tiered, terraced ‘crystal palace’, a glass-menagerie of sorts, where estate owner, architect and patron holds court.

The artists’ studio, if you are starting to wonder, is a tall, grey concrete block; a mini-complex flanked on its right by a disused tennis court about eighty meters to the left of the glass-menagerie. In this grey box, a billiard table overlooks a squash court, complete with multi-tiered seating for an audience of about thirty. Squash court complex = studio; about three times larger than the entire three-roomed apartment unit I grew up in for thirty years of my life…

This residency is not affiliated to any institutions. It is private, never publicized and residencies are given upon recommendations.

The first known formal system of artists’ residencies was introduced in the year 1900 by financier Spencer Trask and his poet wife Katrina.(3) Through their 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York, they formed The Corporation of Yaddo; inviting artists, authors, composers, choreographers, poets and musicians to spend two weeks to two months of uninterrupted, insulated time towards the development of their craft. Prior to its establishment as a formal landscape for artists’ residencies, the Yaddo Mansion completed in 1893 frequently hosted parties attended by artists, composers, statesmen and industrialists. In 1926 after the death of Spencer Trask and Katrina, Elizabeth Ames, Yaddo’s appointed Executive Director updated the feasibility of Yaddo’s residency program to accommodate the changing needs of contemporary artists. The program survives until today with Yaddo hosting artists in an expanded variety of artistic backgrounds and nationalities which now includes the addition of genres such as film, performance art, photography, printmaking and video. Amongst the luminaries who have participated in residencies there are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Phillip Guston, Clyfford Still and Mario Puzo.

The concept and support for artists’ residencies has grown from strength to strength since its modern origins at The Corporation of Yaddo. Residency programs has become somewhat fashionable and in certain instances function as the very modus operandi of various art museums, universities and independently run institutions and artists’ collectives. Such examples can be found in SSamzie Space (South Korea), sponsored and initiated by SSamzie Co. Ltd. during the 1998 monetary crisis as a way to support emerging artists(4); Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (Netherlands), founded originally in 1870 by King Willem III in the classical art academy format but was transformed to serve its residential purpose in 1992(5) financed by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and supplemented by other government departments, corporate sponsors and funds; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan) inaugurated in 1999 “as part of the city’s progressive strategy for interaction with different Asian cultures”(6) and Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu became its first artist-in-residence. Even the United Nations had jumped on to the bandwagon of artists’ residencies. In 1994,(7) with funds derived from the sale of a mansion bequeathed by Swedish philanthropists Olof and Siri Aschberg, they established the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries for Artists, a flagship program of the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture (IFPC) with over forty partner institutions around the world. On the surface, artists’ residencies generate fair benefits for both hosts and participants. For the artist, it could be a way to find space for solitude or international exposure and network towards the recognition of their art. For the host, it is a diplomatic approach in knowledge acquisition with regards to current investigations in contemporary art practices from across the globe. This simultaneously acknowledges the diversity of international art practice, allows for closer contact between the audience, the artist and his art and extends the traditional approach of importing and exhibiting the artworks by themselves.

For many artists, these residencies have become a method of survival from financial struggles caused by their own often-idiosyncratic artistic investigations. It is now almost the norm where artists are expected to complete a series of artworks for an exhibition at the end of their residency. In a world where assent towards the concept of ‘post-production’(8) in art making is still infantile, an exhibition of the artist’s physical by-products (e.g. paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and videos) at the residency likely function as a justification of the costs incurred in hosting the artist and/or as a measure of the artist’s merit. These exhibitions sometimes expound the artist’s investment potential and this, I believe, has assisted the continual subsistence of patronage.

One of the most famously known patronages in art took place in the 1500s courtesy of the Medicis of Florence, Italy. Lorenzo de Medici for example followed the footsteps of his grandfather, Cosimo de Medici in patronizing the arts, utilizing their family’s ruling power of the Florentine Republic and wealth accumulated through banking. Their patronage of the arts, which almost directly influenced the Italian Renaissance, saw private commissions given to artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci and Alessandro Boticelli, recognized today as some of the most important and influential artists in the history of art. The influence of the Medicis in Florence was so great that it showed in Alessandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi (1470-1475) where Cosimo, Piero, Giuliano and Lorenzo de Medici appeared as principle characters in the painting portraying Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus(9) when in reality, the painting was commissioned by Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama, a disgraced broker and moneychanger. The Medicis’ patronage of artists was however rather exclusive and functioned mostly to satisfy their exhibitionistic tendencies in showcasing wealth, power and affluence. In fact, even when in death, the ‘patronized’ artist might not able to escape the Medicis’ flaunting ways. Michelangelo, who was adopted into the Medici household for his artistic acumen at the age of thirteen by Lorenzo de Medici but had strayed away due to his despise for the autocracies of Cosimo I de Medici, had his corpse smuggled back in a hay-basket to Florence so that the Medicis could give him a grand funeral and reclaim the genius’ association with their dynasty.(10)

Much later, Ambroise Vollard, a French art dealer, introduced us to several masters of modern art through his genius exploits at Galerie Vollard, a commercial gallery he established in 1893 on Rue Laffitte, Paris as a novice ‘art merchant’.(11) Two years after opening Galerie Vollard on the street that was then the center of contemporary art in Paris, Vollard hosted the first solo exhibition of Paul Cezanne who was then a virtual unknown. This exhibition catapulted both Cezanne and Vollard into the art scene, the former as an artist and the latter as art dealer. Later, Vollard who had a penchant for spotting and promoting talent, gave first solo exhibitions to artists such as Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin whose art would later make him huge fortunes. Vollard is infamously known to have at times, bought entire artists’ portfolio of new works for very low prices only to later sell at extreme manifolds. Paul Cezanne for instance, had his painting The Smoker, purchased by Vollard in 1899 for $1000 and resold ten years later at $88000.

His financial ‘exploitations’ of artists aside, Vollard’s maneuvers as ‘art merchant’ managed to put him on an almost equivalent platform to that of a ‘patron’. His actions were then critically necessary in supporting the literal lifeline and art of the artists he scouted and represented. Aristide Maillol once said, “It is thanks to Vollard that I am able to live.”

In Christianity, a ‘patron saint’ is a saint regarded as the special guardian of a person, group, profession, country and as such, he/she might have also died a martyr. For example, Luke the Apostle is regarded as the patron saint for artists(12) due to the legend that in his lifetime, aside from being responsible for writing the gospel according to himself, he frequently painted Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In Roman history, a patron is the protector of a freedman (usually a former master of the said freedman would also be referred to as a client after the freedman had attained liberty) who still owns certain rights over him.(13) In the history of Malaysia, the most prominent ‘resident’ could be Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham, British Resident-General to the Federated Malay States (1896-1901) and author of various publications including Malay Sketches (1895) and The Real Malay (1899). In artspeak, a patron is usually a sponsor inclined towards the cause of art, artists and art production. Meanwhile, a resident normally denotes an individual or group of artists, living and working temporarily upon invitation in a particular place (usually an arts institution), while investigating his/her/their art-making process.

The relationship of Aswad Ameir and his patron of almost six years throughout his residency make an appealing subject for retrospect. However, as I am limited by the editorial constraints of this essay, I shall mention here several short personal observations to the cause.

During the course of his residency, Aswad Ameir received frequent visits from his patron along with various ‘critique’ sessions with a number of eminent Malaysian artists invited to the studio. The most significant of these was to be Latiff Mohidin (b. 1941) with whom their relationship was later to develop into one almost of mentor and mentee evident when Aswad Ameir was invited to help in with some chores at the senior’s studio in Penang.

The birth of the artists’ ‘studio’ took place during the Italian Renaissance. It is a place mostly reserved for solitude so that the artist can perform close studies on subjects of his work with little distraction,(14) separating it from the workshop where ‘production’ normally takes place. Imagine for a moment if you could, the constant presence of a patron, working and living in such close territories with you, an artist, for almost six years. Imagine how it could affect your work and focus, conscious or otherwise, akin to being under the shadow of an omnipresent ‘higher power’ where a ‘subject’ has to submit. The scenario might have been different if the artist is professionally mature. The patron or any other studio visitor could be manipulated to become what has been described as “a second subjectivity and the destination of the artist’s fictionalizing transformation of his own nontransferable experience”(15) as the likely case with the many painted portraits of Ambroise Voillard in various fashions by artists whose art he patronized and traded by.

Throughout the length of his residency, Aswad Ameir was not actively involved in the landscape of art. Although many had heard of his ongoing residency, he mostly kept his explorations in the studio a secret with the exception of a number of close associates. Two years after he embarked on the residency, his patron went into financial difficulties and could no longer provide him with an allowance. He was asked to make a decision; to leave, therefore ending the program without having accomplished completion; or stay but without any financial assistance. Aswad Ameir chose to stay. He soldiered on, pushing the limits of his explorations funded by income earned from selling food and fabric from street-side stalls and door-to-door.

To overcome peer pressure and popularity contests, to put aside technological savvy in search of the abstract self, to confront one’s self before others. It takes much faith for a young artist such as Aswad Ameir who was actually experimenting with video art when coming back from London to revert his explorations back to painting in the face of sophistication in contemporary art practice today. In my recent conversations with the artist, I asked him about the seemingly ‘missing’ British influence in his work, that ‘attitude’ towards painting in relation to the Young British Artists (YBA) grouping of the early 1990s. The reason for my question was due to the fact that Aswad Ameir was living and studying in London at the height of the YBAs’ international popularity and notoriety. However, he seemed somewhat resigned to the emotional prevalence over any discourses in current artistic rhetoric.

As much as I would like to think of negativities and damage these five odd years have had on the development of this young artist, I come to realize that he has managed to balance, even if subconsciously, an honesty of craft over the demands of artistic production. The residency became a school in confronting reality, juggling with art, the self, patron, economic situations and his local arts community, even if it primarily serves him alone. His artistic endeavors were not less real than others. In my varied conversations with his peers, I sense confusion and at times, a sense of helplessness towards Aswad Ameir’s long residency. The mention of his residency almost always manages to displace other ongoing discussions at the table. One should probably look at his art as a demonstration of a five-year sustained activity, almost like a performance. I would like to recall a statement by Bourriaud when he mentioned, “artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social context; it is not an immutable essence.”(16) The paintings he produced might only retain residual qualities but nonetheless, are important marks in his early journey as an artist and a testament of endurance and emotion in the somewhat mechanical world of today.


Khairuddin Hori
May 2007, Singapore
Published in Aswad Ameir, Across the Lines by November Press
(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2007)
ISBN: 978-983-43486-0-1




(1) Extract of an address by William Dunlap, President of the National Academy of Design, New York, on 18 April 1831 on the occasion of the annual award for prizes for drawing at the academy.

Edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger, Demands of the Present, D: Independence and Individuality, Art in Theory, 1815-1900, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p. 268 -269

(2) Aswad Ameir’s residency at the studio in Taman Melawati commenced on 15 October 2001 and ends as the exhibition begins.

(3) About Yaddo, (20 April 2007) (http://yaddo.org/yaddo/history.shtml)

(4) About Ssamziespace, (20 April 2007) (http://www.ssamziespace.com/eng/about/about_ssamziespace.htm)

(5) History Rijksakademie, (18 April 2007) (http://www.rijksakademie.nl/uk_or_geschiedenis.htm)

(6) About FAAM, (22 April 2007) (http://faam.city.fukuoka.jp/eng/about/abt_index.html)

(7) UNESCO – Aschberg Bursaries for Artists Programme, (21 April 2007) (http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=25909&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html)

(8) Nicolas Bourriaud, Post Production, New York, US: Lukas & Steinberg, 2002

(9) Giorgio Vasari, Sandro Boticelli, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Volume Two), London, UK: Everyman’s Library, 1996, p.537

(10) Giorgio Vasari, Michelagnolo Buonarotti, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Volume Two), London, UK: Everyman’s Library, 1996, p.752

(11) Ambroise Vollard's Gallery Gave Rise To Some Of The Most Important Artists Ever,
The Art World's Ultimate Wheeler-Dealer, CBS News, 28 Dec 2006, (20 April 2007) (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/12/28/sunday/main2306467.shtml)

(12) Saint Luke, Saints and Angels, (25 April 2007) (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=76)

(13) Patrons, clients, slaves and freedmen, (25 April 2007) (http://romans.etrusia.co.uk/roman_patrons.php)

(14) “The best surviving architectural evidence for the sixteenth-century artist’s “studio” may be a drawing that Michealangelo made in the mid-1540s, proposing an expansion to the house he had left in Florence. In the drawing, Michealangelo clearly distinguishes a study space (labeled “studiolo”) from the main workshop (labeled “bottega”).”
Micheal Cole, Mary Pardo et all, Origins of the Studio, Inventions of the Studio, Renaissance to Romanticism, Chapel Hill, US: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005, p. 17

(15) “When in modernity the painter was recast as an experiencing subject, his studio visitor took on a new identity. The modern patron penetrates the workplace not as merely incompetent critic, as in Pliny’s anecdote, but as a second subjectivity and the destination of the artist’s fictionalizing transformation of his own nontransferable experience.”
Micheal Cole, Mary Pardo et all, Indoor-Outdoor, Inventions of the Studio, Renaissance to Romanticism, Chapel Hill, US: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005, p38

(16) Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Form, Relational Aesthetics, France: Les Presses du Reel, 2002, p. 11