Recently, I was invited to be a speaker on a panel at Rumah Seni Selangor (Russel) to address controversial the issue of vandalised artworks during the Young Contemporaries Art Show, or Bakat Muda Sezaman (BMS) in Malay at the National Art Gallery (also known as Balai Seni Visual Negara).
The organisers at Russel raised a very pertinent matter that effected artists, educator and independent curators like myself and believed that there it is an urgent issue to be addressed. One that would start with a comprehensive discussion so that one may understand what transpired and what we should do to make sure it never happens again. Also, I can’t deny that I had personal guilt pangs as I felt responsible to respond an exhibition that I was involved in.
The Curator’s Open Lab as a new segment to BMS 2019
To avoid confusing the audience, I thought it would be wise that explained about my connection to BMS as an independent curator. My presence at the talk was not as a representative of Balai Seni Visual Negara or Bakat Muda Sezaman, but as an independent curator involved in the curatorial process. BMS 2019 saw the introduction of a Curator’s Open Lab which consisted of BSVN curators; Bakhtiar Naim and Tan Hooi Koon and independent curators; Azzad Diah, Amir Amin and yours truly. Apparently, BMS were advised by past judges and organisers to create this “Curator’s Lab” component to address curatorial gaps of past BMS.
Initially, I thought the curatorial process would be extremely hierarchal, just as one might expect from any state-runned institutions. While BSVN is not without its beuracratic obstacles; the curators, however, were given ample curatorial freedom, especially in terms of the kind of messages the artists wanted to convey. The experience for me, on a whole, proved to be an invaluable learning opportunity–to know the inner-workings of an art institution as renowned as BSVN. I enjoyed that curatorial process in this lab seemed to take on a more collective approach rather than hierarchal one and that the team and I did our best to deliver the messages to their audiences.
Curator’s Lab Process
The curators met several times to select the artworks from the submission. We received about 168 submissions and we filtered it down to 42 because we had limited to gallery space and human resource. Our selection criteria focused mainly on production and technical viability of the artworks. It was critical that we did not interfere with artistic content. BMS accepts proposals and requires the artist to produce the artwork if they are accepted.
By accepting proposals, artists have the flexibility to try out new things. The backlash to this is that the artwork would have little time to “mature”. So, while most of the artists have the urge to push their personal artistic boundaries; they must be able to strike a stable ground. Exhibiting at Malaysia’s premier art institution calls for level for gallery presentation finesse or gallery standard, most often found in matured works.
Do they (the artists) have the capacity to realise this proposal in time for the show? The curator’s lab filled this gap, by providing discussions with artist to develop their ideas conceptually and physically. Once the exhibits are in place, a team of judges will walk into the exhibition and judge. By this point, my role in the curator’s lab is completed.
And it’s handed over to Balai Seni Visual Negara.
Everything was smooth sailing, until…
…Leonardo Opera Omnia came to town. Jeng jeng jeng.
What can I say, Malaysians really love their Italian Renaissance. When Mona Lisa, even as a digital image, appeared in Opera Omnia show, crowds started to pour in. During it’s peak, BSVN received an estimated 3000 visitors per day. Additional temporary staffs had to be roped in to handle the massive daily crowds. Staff often went overtime and BSVN had to remain open during a public holiday (Muslims celebrated Aidil Adha). BSVN was bursting at the seams in terms of visitors.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just record numbers that the Opera Omnia visitors broke, they also broke the several artworks in the Bakat Muda Sezaman show.
The BMS exhibition had been on for months without any incidents so you can imagine how shocked I was when I found out about the damaged and vandalised artworks. In my mind, I pictured a big clumsy bull loose in a China shop. The sheer volume of vandalism and damages caused by the large crowds, not only angered the artist but also the art community. TheStar even ran a piece titled “This is Not How You Behave at the National Art Gallery” to reinforce the public outcry as to the mistreatment of the artworks.
Alicia Lau was one of the several artists who had their works vandalised. Her work, Isolated, Yet Connected; consists of columns of stacked MDF boards. One day, she received a phone call from BSVN to request that she come to BSVN to rearrange her work again. Apparently, her artwork was recently knocked over by a visitor and was scattered over the floor.
Bureaucracy makes things slow
While, the logical fault would be on Balai’s ill-preparedness to handle thousands of visitors per day, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned while working on the BMS curatorial team is that, it is more complex than that. As with all Malaysian government institutions, BSVN has excessively complicated administrative procedure.
It’s important to figure out that at which bureaucratic layer did failure to respond to the large numbers happened. Government institutions are plagued by specialised departments, in hopes that it would make it more efficient. Hah, which is usually not the case.
Like in BSVN, there are many departments that come together for any exhibition like curatorial team, the technical team, security and many more. To mobilise anything through this pipeline takes weeks and endless paperwork. The layers of bureaucracy will definitely slow things down and is not capable of handling a “crisis” scenario such as the rampant vandalism at BMS due to the large crowds.
One of the speakers that night was Dr. Badrul. As a lecturer, Dr. Badrul welcomed the large numbers. From an museum’s educator standpoint, BSVN was successful in creating a block buster exhibition that attracted Malaysian public. While people came for the Mona Lisa, they stayed on to enjoy the BMS.
On a personal note, my best friend, who has never visited BSVN before Opera Omnia, raved about her first visit to the art gallery upon her return. She liked the BMS art exhibition a lot and told me she had not expected contemporary art could be so much fun. She added that, “As a tax-payer, I’m glad to see public monies being put to good use with an institution like BSVN.”
A public art institution like BSVN will receive visitors from all walks of life. The diverse entry points to the art world; from first-timers to the gallery to art connoisseurs; will incite all sorts of responses to the artworks.
21st century audience: The Hey-Look-at-Me! crowd
A “new” type of visitor that apparently seem to make up a large portion of these arts-based events are the social media users. Malaysia has one of the highest social media users in the region so almost everyone in the country is on some form of social media. The fact is, we’re now dealing with a new art-going audience; the social media population.
A person uses social media to get attention. Art event organisers, tourist attractions, cultural attractions, recognise this and are encourage this behaviour. For instance, a lot of the my art installations are created to service art events like festivals. There seems to be an increasing amount of requests from clients to make my works instagrammable or look good in pictures. Because the art organisers know that when their visitors get attention, so will their event. So instead of spending thousands of ringgit for promotions, entice the visitors to snap photos and share; and let the visitors do the promotions for them.
However, the social media crowd can be a double edge sword.
Social media trains its users to crave and get addicted to attention
In order for you to understand the mindset of the social media users, it’s important to know what drives tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, etc into the social media business. Recently, I watched a Ted Talk by the American actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt about How craving attention makes you less creative.
Gordon-Levitt talked about how the social media companies have turned “attention” into a commodity. They sell the attention to its users to advertisers for a sum of money. How is “attention” commodity generated? It is generated from its users. The “attention” that these social media companies are selling are given values. These values are marked by the term “followers”.
“So, it’s in instagram’s interest for you to get as many attention as possible. So it trains you to want to get that attention, to crave it, to feel stressed out when you’re not getting enough of it. Instagram gets its user to the powerful feeling of getting attention. You’ll often hear,”Oh my God, I’m so addicted to my phone!” and it may sound like a joke but there’s a whole science to it. I recommend the reading Jaron Leniar (10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Right Now), Tristan Harris (TFD:Humane Tech), Nir Eyal Hooked).”
It’s obvious that the social media audience only seeks attention. Things are about them. They treat everything at the event as a photo op. I’ve seen girls decked out in clothes like they’ve just step out of a magazine cover; waddling their 4 inch platform shoes with their boyfriend/partner photographer dutifully carrying pieces of their wear; moving from one art installation to another. They would not hesitate to move things around (the art installation) just so that could get a better angle or lighting. They want attention to themselves, and not give attention to the artworks.
This would explain the pictures that circulated on instagram of visitors to BMS sitting on top of artworks, climbing them, crossing the barriers; for the purpose of an instagrammable photo that grabs people’s attention.
“A person is smart; people are dumb.”
-Agent K ( Tommy Lee Jones) said to Agent J (Will Smith) in Men in Black movie when Agent J asked why do they have to erase use the memory eraser.
Is it possible to have the crowds but without the “bad” behaviour? What constitutes good or bad behaviour differs from person to person. What defines “good” and “bad” is largely shaped by one’s cultural background or moral upbringing. And in a country with such a diverse cultural population, it’s tough to identify a middle ground.
“Bad” or unacceptable behaviour can also stem from ignorance or the lack of information. In both cases, there is the possibility that educating the public can help. Public service announcements or programs on cultivating good art gallery manners among its visitors can be used to bridge this behavioural gap on gallery etiquette.
There should be efforts to understand the kind of audience that BSVN attracts and new, relevant ways to engage with them and get their attention.
Despite our attempts to rationalise what might have lead to the artworks being vandalised and destroyed, the National Art Gallery is not off the hook. As the host and venue for this prestigious exhibition, BSVN holds a good amount of accountability.
Apparently, BSVN has issued a statement responding to this, but I can’t seem to locate it to add to my reference list.
What can artists do?
We express solidarity!
In any unwanted situations, artists can always express solidarity to each other, a sentiment raised by one of the audience that night at the talk, who was also my colleague in the curators open lab, Azzad Diah.
A few years ago, when Sabah-based art collective Pangrok Sulap’s works were removed at a Japan Foundation sponsored exhibition, other artists from the exhibition expressed dissatisfaction with the organiser’s decisions by writing an open letter that was shared on social media.
The recent Aichi Triennale 2019 diabolical, 11 artists withdraw from the exhibition or had their works modified to express their dissatisfaction with the organisers when one of the artworks at the exhibition was removed because of the issues it raised, namely about the Korean comfort women.
This situation exposed our weakness in communicating with each other. Information did not translate into actions of preventive measures. Some of the damages could have been avoided if artists knew about the maddening and out of control crowds earlier. There was a communication breakdown between the institution and artists. I see this as a golden opportunity for artists to interface with BSVN.
The road to recovery only happens after we declare and acknowledge the problem. Problems can’t be resolved and situations can’t be improved if they aren’t pin down or only exist as whispering rumours.
I applaud this small yet significant step by the artists effected to have discussion in the public sphere. I hope, by taking part in this conversation (and writing this piece that you’re reading!) I get to express my solidarity with the artists and deep desire to work towards a resolution.
BMS=Bakat Muda Sezaman (Young Contemporaries)
BSVN= Balai Seni Visual Negara
NAG= National Art Gallery (English name for BSVN).