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.

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Published by Ellen Lee

an arts & culture writer based in KL

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