Art notes: Attempting object empathy @ Balai Seni’s “Minta Perhatian”

or: What does “installation” even mean anymore? 

I first heard the term “object empathy” through a video on theartassignment, when viewers were given the art assignment to empathise with a broken object and then to “fix” it in their own original way. Among the various works were broken objects that viewers had found around their house and then patched back together with the use of staples and especially band-aids, conferring a humanity to the broken object. When I visited the installation portion of Balai Seni’s “Minta Perhatian”, I started thinking again about object empathy.

Consider the title as a starting point—“Minta Perhatian”, which I’ll translate as “Your attention, please”, with the “please” being vital. The title is a call of attention to the new and exciting mediums being used in the contemporary art scene. This is how the “Minta Perhatian” show has been set up: it’s a three-part show, split into “arca” (sculpture), “instalasi” (installation) and “media baru” (new media), spanning a nine-month period alternating between featuring different forms of new media dominating the contemporary art scene. When I visited, the medium being focused on was installation.

But say we chose to interpret the title differently—not as a call from a gallery to the public, but rather as a description of the call from the medium to the artist: please pay attention to this block of metal. Please pay attention to this block of wood. Please pay attention to this cloth, this serving spoon, this broken chair. Object empathy. It occurred to me, walking through the exhibition, that the work of sculpture and installation is a task (conscious or not) of empathy with inanimate objects. Artists see a living potential in them to be transformed into something meaningful, beyond their mundane usage; or otherwise, artists empathise with and wish to celebrate the object’s mundanity. Of course, this is generally true of all art—that art is the task of empathy and conferring beauty, regardless of subject/object matter—but possibly sculpture and installation art are the forms that most allow objects to exist as they are. As in, a painting of a fork could be beautiful for the way it confers beauty upon the mundane fork, but the viewer also admires the painter’s ability to paint, whereas a sculpture or installation using forks uses forks.

At the “Minta Perhatian: Instalasi” exhibition, one of the things I found interesting was how many of the works attempted to depict people. I saw at least two artworks that overtly tried to depict people using inanimate objects, making me think they might have been more suited to being categorized as sculptures rather than installations. One of the earlier ones was an exhibit of a “family” which used household items arranged into anthropomorphic forms (the head of a rake standing in for hair, cullenders for breasts, etc). It seemed to me like a more advanced form of making 3D stick men using marshmallows and toothpicks. 

Conversely, Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s Mother and Child felt like a more successful “family” sculpture. (Again, I think this piece belongs more in the category of “sculpture” rather than “installation”, so just have this in the back of your mind for every forthcoming piece of artwork I mention anyway.) This was a piece that I feel worked with the material for more than a perfunctory purpose: it saw the potential in the material to contribute to the overall understanding of the art. Using black wire mesh, Sharmiza Abu Hassan created two forms resembling jellyfish, one larger (presumably mother) than the other. The way Hassan chose to curve the wire mesh allows it to look like the tentacles of a jellyfish, or the folds of a veil, droop of a tablecloth or shadow of a ghost… all the while being deceptively hard, like the simultaneous softness and grit of mothers. Mothers being figures that always seem close to death, even in their prime of life and most abundant of love: suffocating mother as black wire mesh net, mother behind the black veil, mother and child as two dark clouds closely resembling each other, separated. Another thing that made it interesting was how, if you stood far enough away from it, you couldn’t tell the actual mesh from the webbed shadows it cast on its pedestal.

The exhibition featured two works that used chairs, which is maybe an attempt to place Malaysian conceptual art alongside Joseph Kosuth’s genre-defining “One and Three Chairs“, or maybe they were just chairs. It was at the second one, Mohd Farizal Puadi’s Don’t Touch, where I started thinking about object empathy w/r/t the artassignment video, because it seemed to answer the video’s assignment in a more elaborate way. It’s like the artist dissembled the entire chair neatly, just to put each individual piece into glass, and then attempt to assemble the glass-encased parts back together again—for no apparent reason other than to see if he could. The chair is close to being perfect, but when viewed closely, you can see the places where the pieces don’t fit quite right—maybe through a small oversight, but maybe because they are irreparably so. Not just because they’re now encased in glass, but because the individual pieces, once separated, simply resist being artificially joined back together again, no matter how neatly they were disassembled. Object empathy is exercised in the attempt to fix it again, but also in accepting its limitations, and sanctifying those limitations in glass.

I keep going back to the naming/categorization of this exhibition, and how unsuitable the categorization of “installation” is for most of the works shown. It really seemed to be largely sculptures, and the only work I could probably describe as installation is one of the first works you see when you enter the gallery, which is Yee I-Lann’s Kedai Commemorate. The fact that this work takes the first room suggests the curators’ own awareness of the exhibition’s categorical shortcomings—placing Kedai in the starting room is a kind of pre-emptive apology, I guess. Yee I-Lann’s work isn’t a sculpture of people like the rake-and-cullender family, rather it’s a suggestion of people. Rows of school pinafores line the left walls, while lines of commemorative paper party plates line the right and strung up on the ceiling are clotheslines drying good morning towels. They all combine to suggest a life that’s relatable to a huge number of Malaysians, except the people are missing, and the only tangible sign of a “life” are the words printed across all the objects proclaiming, “MALAYSIA IS DEAD! LONG LIVE MALAYA!” Rather than the sculpting of an artwork for exhibition in a space, installation considers the space to be fundamental to the art.

I left the exhibition thinking about people, and our relation to the inanimate objects that make up our lives. From the inanimate “people” to the chairs to Kedai, what struck me was the artists’ tendency to depict [human] life, even when using mediums that resist artistic utilization (i.e. vs. painting/drawing/photography in which you can literally depict human life), as if our way of empathizing with these objects, or as if the unrealized dream of these objects, which we aim to fulfil, is to metamorphosize them into being a person.

some notes on kindness after a failed birthday surprise and a successful birthday dinner

sometimes life becomes too fast to keep up with, but you must endeavour to remember your own agency and the effect your actions have on others, always.

  1. be conscious of your phone usage. minimise it when you are with your loved ones — savour the moment while resisting the compulsion to document it. if posting, keep your phone away immediately after.
  2. always always always try until your very limits and then some to be KIND. the greatest battle in life is the one against meanness and betrayal of one’s friends. it doesn’t matter if they betray you: understand this first. try your very hardest not to betray them. not to give up so quickly. the guilty voice inside you should serve as an indicator of how to act in future circumstances. to give in to meanness = to deny the same complexity & humanity in others that you hope they would afford you.
  3. allow anxious thoughts to come and go more freely without latching on to any of them. no reason to do so.

it may seem hard when other people do not align with how you’d like them to be–may seem hard when you have to try to understand and like a person rather than to get along with them immediately, but the battle is worth it. if not for their sake, then for your own. i can’t afford to give in to meanness anymore because of the guilt i feel after. even with —. i do feel guilty for not talking to her, not being able to look her in the eye. and i don’t want this guilt: i want to know that i have tried my best and take comfort in that.

funnily, even though i had such a lovely evening, i have come home racked with anxieties. the people i love, my friends, rack me with anxieties because i always feel that i’m not doing the very best by them as i could be. the people i love make me want to be kinder, better and more respectful with their trust, their hearts and their personhood. remember love always always always. it seems sometimes like you need to cultivate other aspects in order to fulfil your potential as a human being–cultivate ambition, cultivate a strong personality, cultivate hardworkingness–but LOVE is the most important.

love is the best thing in my life right now: love is what i am unconsciously striving for, all the time, after everything else. love is necessary, absolutely fundamentally life-threateningly necessary. for a while i’ve been thinking that all the other things i mentioned were necessary, but at the very end love is the most necessary of all. the steadfastness to remain loyal to your friends and not easily betray them, the patience to respect another person’s journey and insecurities, the endurance to tolerate and endeavour to find meaning & complexity in the instances when they fail to be what you’d “prefer” them to be. life is long… and there are 7 billion & counting people in the world. this is the only thing that matters.

Art notes: “Lopung is Dead!” @ A+ Works of Art, Sentul

The foundational ethos of punk rock is speaking truth to power. If you look at the work of Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap (“pangrok” being a localization of “punk rock”, “sulap” being a Dusun word for a kampung hut), you can see their punk rock heart shining through and true. Several days ago, on the 4th of October, they launched the opening night for their first ever solo exhibition in A+ Works of Art, located at d6 Sentul. The exhibition is titled “Lopung is Dead!”, with “lopung” being another Dusun word for pythons, and which in Sabahan slang is also used to refer to lazy and irresponsible workers.

As their choice of names hints, the work that the art collective does is highly localized. Their work is influenced by current events and everyday life in Malaysia; their prints criticize political corruption, environmental disregard and governmental propagandizing, while also celebrating the strength, beauty and unity of the people, especially the orang kampung.  

When I entered the space, there was a huge semicircle of people crowded around two massive floor-to-ceiling canvasses, both of which make up the work “Sabah Tanah Airku”. This is perhaps their most famous artwork, since it was hit with censorship last year when the organizers of the Escape from the SEA exhibition at APW were forced to pull it down due to pressure from anonymous public complaints.

“Sabah Tanah Airku” presents two “Versions” of Sabah: on the left side, there is the postcard-perfect Sabah–a harmonious Sabah, a picture that rings somewhat true, a picture still worth making, but also a superficial one. In Version #2 on the right, we see the facade discarded. Farmers who are toiling happily in the former are depicted with angry, weary faces in the latter. The “prosperity” and modernization of the former shows its consequences with the privatization and environmental destruction portrayed in the latter. While the former is composed in a bottom-top arrangement, with the people depicted in the foreground receding into the back, the latter has a top-down arrangement that portrays the people aggressively dominating the picture and the land.

The two works that make up “Sabah Tanah Airku”

Over in the next section is a collection of prints grouped under the title “Ma=Fil=Indo”, depicting an internationalist vision of a Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian union as proposed by Filipino hero Dr José Rizal many, many years ago. The Malaysia of today seems wholly dedicated to be something it’s not, by incessantly importing foreign goods and corporations from those who used to colonize our region (America, the United Kingdom, Japan…), and so the Ma=Fil=Indo series showing solidarity with our neighbours is refreshing to see.

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One of the works in the “Ma=Fil=Indo” series

Pangrok Sulap works with woodcut printing, a medium that’s perfect for the collective’s political message–a message that is clear, frank and literally stated in black and white. Their art has the ability of being both elaborate and simple at the same time. “Sabah Tanah Airku” are massive prints of elegant complexity that are completely filled to all four corners with various allusions and symbols, yet the message is unmistakable. The snake-and-ladder “Ular Lari Lurus” prints are a literal game of symbols, but it’s an easy game, one that any Malaysian will understand and relate to. Like the punk rock music that inspires their name, Pangrok Sulap’s works show that sometimes the most effective way of fighting injustice is to say things as they are. In black and white, on a large canvas and in public.

Towards the end of the night, a few stools were brought out for five of the collective’s members to give a closing performance. One of them pulled out a guitar with a bright yellow sticker on it that proclaimed “WE CONSUME WE DESTROY.” They performed a couple songs, ending with one called “Orang Kampung”. Though the audience didn’t know the lyrics before they began, the song had such an easy, infectious chorus that people were soon singing along.

Speaking the truth, challenging corruption, showing solidarity and politicizing your guitar. Works about farmers and the land, exhibited in an art gallery in a commercial building in the capital city. Pangrok Sulap’s exhibition is a reminder that fighting injustice really can be as easy as the chorus to their song, if only we have the courage to say things as they are and the mindfulness to remember, always, the shared land and history that we are all indebted to.

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