Biennale bondage: Be loved or be gone?

Kuala Lumpur Biennale (KLB) opened its doors to the public in November last year, Johan Ishak, KLB chairman shared its aspiration:

“We wanted this first KL Biennale to carry a positive message and to reflect our culture and values. The artwork selection process was informed by this as well…We think this is more appropriate for a first biennale in the country.”

The biennale that will end in a few days is touted as a ‘game changer of an exhibition’ where it’s a marked progress of where the visual art scene is heading.

The theme for the city’s first large-scale contemporary art exhibition is “Be Loved” and the rational behind this theme is because it “goes beyond the usual themes of the international biennales such as divergence, ethnic conflict, war and politics.” Instead, the vibe of the biennale is about being constructive “such as compassion, sincerity, happiness, honesty, tolerance, mutual respect, solidarity, hope and sustainability”.

Nation-building, economy generator and an arts energiser; the biennale, was on paper, a good investment for the government’s tax-money. The idea to host a KL Biennale was undoubtedly, a directive from the top, with its tourism-ad friendly spin. The bar was set at attracting 250,000 domestic and international visitors.

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Shift (2017) by Bashir Makhoul-Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

There were definitely some strong installations and individual art pieces. What stood out for me was Leon Leong’s Razak Mansion project, Bibi Chew’s interactive work and Nurhanim’s kitab work. I found the placement of kitab under the theme of “belas alam” to be quite profound.

As much as there are reasons to celebrate this milestone in Malaysian visual art, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room anymore. The elephant’s name is “Under Construction” by Pusat Sekitar Seni. Less than a week left of this mega-scale exhibition, there is still no official statement about the status of this art installation. Aisyah, the spoke person of this collective, is anxious because the installation will have to be cleared soon while parts of the work are still missing. They were confiscated by authorities acting on a public complaint about malicious content.

 

Throwback 2017

Last year in August, Pusat Sekitar Seni (PSS) was approached by Kuala Lumpur Biennale 2017 (KLB2017) curatorial team to take part in upcoming biennale. Both sides were keen to work with each other and this followed up with a letter of invitation from KLB2017. The commission was for a large-scale location-specific art installation. For this commission, PSS formed a collective made of 7 artists. Each artist was entrusted to work on designated areas of the installation and employed different ways of working.

 

PSS spent the next few weeks, working on-site. They scavenged Balai’s surroundings and collected throw-away materials that would be repurposed to be part of the new art installation, including loan shark stickers and trashed posters that were abundant. With the accumulation of things, the artwork started to take shape. However. while the commission was to be location-specific, PSS lamented that they were asked to change location 3 times during their installation, first from level 2 then to level 3 and finally back to level 2 and all within the first 4 weeks. This poor planning caused PSS to have to remake and redo a couple of their pieces resulting in unnecessary wastage of their time and budget.

 

Parts of the art installation started slowly disappearing

14 more days before the KLB2017 opening, some of the artists noticed that parts of their installation went missing. Aisyah mentioned a few posters were taken off the wall like the “RUSUAHAHAHA” and “grow-your-own-food” stickers were some of things gone. PSS made an official inquiry to the organizers, but did not they did not respond. In the meantime, the artists carried on working into the next week; trusting that a logical explanation would eventually be given to them about their missing works.

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Through the black net, you can see portions of the “RASUAHAHAHA” whereby the text letterings were made from discarded items PSS collected on Balai’s grounds.-Photo credit Suzy Sulaiman.

 

And it got weirder…

The curator texted PSS saying that the Bukit Aman Police, Ministry of Internal Affairs (KDN) and a representative from the ministry came, with no further written explanation given.

That afternoon, Indonesian artists who are part of the PSS collective, arrived and wanted to start working on the installation. However, they were prevented from doing so by the security guards as strict orders were given to not allow PSS to touch their art installation. Later that night, PSS received a call from the curator stating that their artwork is under investigation by the Bukit Aman police because plausible Communist propaganda.

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 10.09.21 PM
I think the organizers KLB2017, KDN or the cops misunderstood the word “communal” for “communist”. All I could see were communal propaganda, like this one about separating one’s trash; paper, plastic and others.-Photo by: Suzy Sulaiman 

Between the time PSS reported that parts of their art installation went missing to the point where they received the text from KLB curator about the police visit; nothing was communicated to any of the artists by the organizers, despite that they were working on-site almost on a daily basis.

 

A week before the opening, the curator informed PSS that the missing works were actually confiscated by the police to be used as evidence in the investigation. However, PSS wants to reinstate that there was no written statement from either side, the police, Ministry of Internal Affairs (KDN) or KLB2017 organizing team.

 

Artists withdraw from inaugural KL Biennale

Disappointed by the poor handling of this matter and PSS’s complete loss of trust in the KLB organizers which lead to their decision to pull-out from the biennale a day before the opening. Meanwhile, the preparation for the launch of KL’s inaugural biennale was in full swing, awaiting the Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz presence at the opening. Not wanting their incomplete artwork to appear during the media flurry of the launch, PSS covered the entire space with big black net. To add salt to the wound, I shocked when the Director-General commented that “this was just cheap publicity stunt by the artists”.

 

There were some points that didn’t make sense to me was the police said they acted on a public complaint. How can there be a ‘public complaint’ when the artwork was still being made and the gallery is closed off from public visitors?

 

Then there are these contradicting statements. The curator said that the police confiscated the artwork, meanwhile the police denied and stated they could only advise the organisers that some of the images were “inappropriate”.

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Beneath the black net, you can clearly make out photos of PSS’s community projects’ highly inappropriate images! – Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

No public statement has been made since this incident, despite having promised to do so by KLB 2017, this spectre of self-censorship continues on.

“Yet another censorship issue at the NVAG surely isn’t part of the plan to give Malaysia a progressive image.”

– Rouwen Lin, The Star

 

Tony Pua and Fahmi Fadzil have been quite vocal about this too, “If the government is sincere about making Malaysia a global cultural hub and developing her local creative industries, it must stop with these frivolous acts of censorship and allow creative expression to thrive.” Fahmi believes that this should be a point to create a dialogue and not just censor something that they think is not suitable for the Malaysian public without having a dialogue.

 

The engine that drives a successful Biennale is an empowered (art) ecosystem.

`Belas’ or Be Loved can be a powerful thematic statement but the strength doesn’t lie on its theme. Instead it’s a mobilisation of an entire art ecosystem, from curators, managers, translators, writers, art historians, academicians, art critics and technical/logistical team but it requires empowered, accountable and confident human resource to hold it up. They are people who rise above the myopic political agendas or be given that immunity so they may act as “mirrors” of society and holding it up to one’s own face.

 

Not money but honesty.

In these times of fake news, spin-doctors, instagram stars, honesty is a rarity and sought-after commodity. Themes of ethnic conflict, war and politics are not divergent, they’re used as points of reflection. Contemporary art equips us with aesthetics and the mindfulness that gives us the strength to peer into these horrible honesty with hopes of some salvation.

Two more years and we’ll see another biennale. Will it be another propaganda machine used to subvert it’s citizen by painting a rosy picture or is there hope for a more discursive and inclusive one?

I worry for KLB 2020.

 

“Perhaps, future editions of the KL Biennale will be bold enough to explicitly tackle a theme less predictable, with more space for surprises and with rose-tinted glasses used only sparingly.”

-Rouwen Lin, The Star

 

*Full list of collective members: Aisyah Baharuddin, Ahmad Azrel Kilheeny, Mohamad Idham Ismail, Nurul Adeline Zainuddin dan Iltizam Iman Abd Jalil. Isrol Triono (Yogyakarta) and Selo Srie Mulyadi (Jakarta).

Reference:

http://artasiapacific.com/News/InauguralKualaLumpurBiennaleToLaunchInNovember
Interview with Aisyah Baharuddin, 14 March (Weds) 2018, Lost Gen Art Space, KL

 

 

 http://www.mycreative.com.my/news_events/kl-biennale-2017

 

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/306767/works-114-malaysian-and-foreign-artists-display-kl-biennale-2017

 

http://thelevel.my/klbiennale/

 

https://www.star2.com/culture/arts/2017/12/04/inaugural-kl-biennale-love-national-visual-arts-gallery/#HOqmId5UuRR6l1LG.99
https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/bahasa/s/24271/

 

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/bahasa/s/24126/

 

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/24125/

 

https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/23/cops-no-artworks-seized-at-exhibition/

 

https://www.beritadaily.com/pkr-wants-under-construction-reinstated-at-kl-biennale/

 

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/12/06/art-exhibition-is-malaysia-a-stalinist-regime-asks-pua-2/

 

https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/404519

 

https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/404519

 

https://fahmifadzil.com/kl-biennale-2017-balai-seni-visual-negara-perlu-pupuk-dialog-bukan-tapis-karya-menjelang-pembukaan-pameran/

 

https://www.harpersbazaararabia.com/art/news/trouble-at-inaugural-kuala-lumpur-biennale

 

https://www.seapa.org/weekly-media-roundup-18-24-november-2017/

 

http://artasiapacific.com/News/SevenArtistsPullOutOfCensoredKualaLumpurBiennale

 

https://www.artforum.com/news/artists-withdraw-from-inaugural-kuala-lumpur-biennale-72483
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