“Capturing the breath of a new generation of international artists can be a bit like sticking pins in a horse’s arse.”– Francesca Given, Despite Moments of Clarity, There Are No ‘isms’ in This Book, 2011
IT was warm and muggy, close to midnight, on the 7th March, 2014, when I found myself as part of the artist’s entourage at the Hin Bus Depot – known as ‘Hin’ to its late-night frequenters. My blue and white-striped shirt, maroon trousers, and black Brogues, struck a sharp contrast to the medley of dungarees, tattoos, dreadlocks and Converse. The artists were feverishly passing drills, throwing wall plugs, dispensing banter, drawing measuring tapes and punching lights in and out of ceiling tracks while balancing on a gigantic step ladder that seemed to wander around the exhibition floor of its own accord.
It was the evening before the opening of Think About It, one of Hin’s first exhibitions, and designed to induce as much contemplation as its moniker suggested. The entourage were huddled around a solitary, gigantic, speaker, set up next to the ply wood reception area, pumping out bass-addled tunes as we swapped coldish cans of Skol beer for idle conversation. Despite its rustic dilapidation, Hin Bus Depot was a new gallery on the block in Georgetown, and had already proven its worth by exhibiting exciting contemporary artwork coupled with holding electric parties. We all expected great things from this new gallery in the future; we knew it would turn into something important, influential and integral in Georgetown’s burgeoning cultural scene.
Only a year and a half on and our expectations have become reality. Hin is now battled hardened, proudly wearing the scars inflicted from past exhibitions as testaments of its increasing gravitas: a giant whole – refilled, but the grass not quite re-grown – in its central, open-air, garden; a rusted, hollowed-out, VW Beetle perched outside the front door; murals decorating the walls standing resiliently against Penang’s constant sun; a permanent reception and merchandising area; an in built sound system.
During this time, gangs of international and local artists have swept through Hin, transforming Georgetown in the process. Murals have spread through the city streets – not there one day, there the next – decorating Georgetown’s famous walls and using the architecture as a playground for images. New galleries have opened displaying contemporary art, now more than ever. Parts of Georgetown have gentrified with the influx of tourists that more art has created; Armenian Street in the UNESCO quarter turning from a sleepy, largely abandoned road to a dressed-up tourist destination with new shops selling Penang brick-a-brack.
Georgetown’s growing artistic palate, coupled with its budding fame on the international scene, deserves some contemplation. Without insinuating that whatever is happening should be curtailed or even directed – which would be fake and ruinous – it is interesting to consider what Georgetown’s artistic scene is really like? And, what has influenced it?
In a nut, the answer – I think – can be found in the artists themselves; the ‘local’ ones producing art in Penang and for Penang. International artists, who add the string of exhibiting in Penang to their bows, have been influential, but that they are a wandering crowd of goliards more concerned with ‘exposure’ in the East rather than developing Georgetown’s cultural identity. This is also not to say that what I deem as a ‘local’ artist is necessarily a Malaysian national, but one that produces art in Penang, for Penang and – in large part – because of Penang.
One thing to bear in mind is that trying to explain any ‘scene’ is a bit like struggling to keep hold of an eel; no sooner than when you think you have it, it morphs and wriggles free again. Therefore, trying to conceptualise Georgetown’s contemporary art scene may be futile due to its ever changing environment.
Another roadblock that needs clearing is that considering such a question – and potentially answering it – may be detrimental to the art scene itself. In trying to conceptualise Georgetown’s artistic scene, we run the risk of influencing its development through subtle and nuanced psychological impressions that such answers may have on the artists themselves. Such ‘post-modern’ self-consciousness about Penang’s artistic identity in the present could mean it merely moves from one conceptualisation to another throughout time, frittering away any meaning and substance to its new position in history. Such haste in defining Penang’s art scene could mean it misses out on recognising its own unique identity.
Nevertheless, discovering the scene and its influences is important for two reasons. Firstly, understanding Penang’s local artists will reinforce the seriousness with which their contemporary art is produced. A public misconception – more ingrained than we are led to believe – is that artists are suddenly coming out of the woodwork only because of the success afforded to Ernest Zacharevic and his murals, even only now becoming artists because of the fame they now realise is attached to being one; which is not just wrong, but rude. The ‘local’ artists – of which I consider Zacharevic one – have been artists from young ages and are expressing rich, fantastic, stimulating and remarkable stories of personal growth. When more of the public realise this, an exhibition opening will take on renewed importance as an opportunity to learn the symbolism ingrained in pieces explained by the artists themselves. Currently, the public’s appreciation of contemporary artwork is limited to how nice it looks, whether it takes a good selfie, and whether it would look good on their walls. What the public must learn, instead, is they are appreciating someone’s life, their experience, which should serve as true inspiration, and not just as a decorative piece. These guys are the real deal, and their art should be viewed as such by the majority of the viewing public, as well realising the significant issues they aim to express.
Secondly, we must begin to predict how Penang’s contemporary art scene will develop in the future, and what it means to the artists who call Penang their home. A tale too often told in areas transformed by art is one of selection, control, and eventual forced migration. In London boroughs, Paris arondissements and New York villages, artists have moved into cheap, rundown neighbourhoods only to be forced out by increased prices brought about by the value they themselves created. In Penang, this would force the artists abroad, leaving only the contemptable yuppie feeling that remains whenever visionaries and originals disappear in replacement of ‘new money’. Is it possible for Georgetown, in its artistic youth, to continually empower artists instead of them succumbing to the control of galleries and collectors? I hope so… and so do the artists.
“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone.”– Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, 1957
A YOUNG boy, around four years old, wandered around his Godfather’s exhibition with a black marker pen in his hand. Picking the corner of a random canvas, he began to draw a school of sharks chasing a mysterious whale. The small doodle expressed the child’s anger at having been left by his alcoholic, gambling father. His Godfather – Heng Eow Lin – rather than being angry, nurtured this young talent and fully supported him throughout his future life in pursuing his aspiration for art.
Most artists tend to have a similar vivid memory – at the same age in life – of the first time they explored any form of art. Without thinking the scene is recalled immediately from memory as if it is not just there, but something they recollect themselves often; a memory picked out at certain times to add comfort, strength and support in a life devoid of stability. Whether it is having watched their parents sketch watercolours on a family holiday, remembering a film of an artist creating a giant piece on the side of a building, carving figurines in primary school out of chalk collected from the classrooms chalk-board, or even remembering nothing but a desire for art, they instantly recollect when they were first inspired to take up art. I don’t know if this defines an artist, but it is an impressive feat compared to any professional’s answer to the question “what is your very fist memory of wanting to become a doctor, policeman, lawyer or graphic designer?”
These memories are taken from five Penang artists: Kai Sheuan, Tom Powell, Renny, Chee Peng and Amer Khalifa. They – for the large part – have led very different lives: some from broken families, while others admit to having happy childhoods; some with siblings, some without; some with various odd jobs growing up in-between pursuing art, others finding their artistic voice due to a particular job they had; some with an art education, others self-taught; and, some with mentors to help with their development, while others struck out as single entities, even alone against all the odds.
Despite their varied backgrounds, another thread of commonality is the support they received during their artistic lives. Whether they had a complete family, were from a family split by divorce or even lived with their natural parents or not, they – for the most part – had wholehearted support from those around them. Even from their respective social scenes, they encountered very little in the way of fettering social pressures dissuading them from taking up art as a career. This is a revelation compared to the assumption of artists being shunned by society as hermits – if they are not famous – and deserted by families who think they will never amount to anything. In Kai Sheuan’s case especially, his mother was a driving force. “My mother even expel me from the country to go to further my studies in Taiwan, because at that moment I was quite lost. I didn’t find any reason to further my studies. But she just expel me!” She obviously had deep confidence in her son’s young talent.
That is, all of them apart from Ammar. His story takes a dark and difficult turn when considering his support group. Growing up in Saudi Arabia – one of the strictest Islamic communities – religion was a bog miring his pursuit of art.
“The way Islam is taught in Saudi Arabia, art is taboo. It says if you ever draw someone, that you have a guaranteed place in hell. I got punished many times for doing it. But, I refused to stop.” Islamic influence in Ammar’s life was not completely detrimental, as we will come to see, but it did teach him resilience and help develop a thick skin, needed by any artist bent on conveying hard opinions through their art to the public.
Describing it as an ‘easy time’ may be trivialising the point – pursuing your dream is never easy – but it is interesting to consider why the other artists, apart from Ammar, could say very little in terms of social pressures dissuading them from making their dream a reality. A large part may be to do with Malaysia’s more relaxed way of life, especially the absence of capitalism and drive for money so evident in more developed parts of the world. However, there are parts of Malaysian culture which could have arguably made it more difficult – particularly the Chinese culture of taking care of the family. Renny and Kai’s examples of being the youngest children may provide some formative answer. When asked about what remarkable part of his childhood life made him who he is, Renny’s answer was a telling insight. “There is nothing remarkable because I am from a happy family. Especially in my age with Chinese people here [in Malaysia], most of the stories I hear is if the kids want to go study arts, the parents will just – no. But I’m lucky because I’m the youngest, so my dad let me follow whatever… I was free to do whatever. Not like my older brother, who must do this and do that. Typical Chinese… the way they’re thinking… traditional.”
Despite contradicting the assumption of an artist’s angst – some deep and inherent battle an artist must go through against society, family, friends and peers – Ammar, Kai and Renny have a fascinating link which continues to inspire their art to this day; the positive impact of religion. Amer’s artistic bent fixated on the only part of Islam he could connect with as a young artist, that being its various forms of calligraphy and the intrinsic complexity and beauty of it. Even though he admits that the technique of producing Islamic calligraphy is too limiting, structured and linear for his free-wheeling imagination, his knowledge, as well as skill, in the subject is expansive leading to the incorporation of it in his contemporary artwork. Renny, on the other hand, who became Christian two years ago, draws his Christianity – and the inspiration it gives him – from a more mysterious, superstitious and evil experience.
“When I was in Taiwan I experienced something supernatural. So scary! Have you saw the movie like Exorcist? Something like that. It happened in front of me. Can see a person you know him well but the eyes different, the sounds different, and he knows something that you never told someone before, he told me ‘Hey, Renny blah, blah, blah.’ I says, ‘How did you know that?’ My family are all Buddism, so after I experience that, I think better to go read and know more about God.”
Malaysian-Chinese superstition has a plethora of different spirits – with different shapes, personalities and desires from the world of the living – forcing reactive festivals of appeasement. In Renny’s experience it meant he switched from Buddism to Christianity, conveying his new-found faith through his paintings displaying children, halos and innocence, maybe in reaction to his own experience of evil, in his work exhibited in the E&O’s Ernest Zacharevic gallery exhibition, Ayam What Ayam?.
In fact, the idea of innocence is an idea worth expanding on. Whether it is in reaction to spiritual evils or the worries over society nowadays, other artists convey the same thought. Chee Peng’s B-Series, currently exhibiting in the Hin Bus Depot, focuses solely around this concept by displaying sculpted babies amid different scenes. In the exhibition’s blurb, Chee Peng suggests, ‘Babies and young infants represent us, humans, in our purest elements devoid of any worldly contamination and moral distractions.’ With the idea of innocence being lost in all of us as we grew older, as we become more effected by the trade-offs we must make by entering adulthood, Chee Peng implies that we lose a sense of purity that he measures with great importance. Being the oldest of the artists selected, Chee Peng has four children which obviously influence his interaction –consequentially his understanding – with children and the comparative nobility of seeing the world through their eyes.
Even Tom, untethered by the chains of children or marriage, with the freedom to draw inspiration from Penang and develop new bodies of art in England, strives to find the good in people’s interactions with the world around them especially in Penang and Malaysia. “I know that there’s a lot of stereotypes, quite a bit of… I suppose racism is extreme but it’s the simplest term to use for the negative differences between cultures and what not. So, my idea behind my last body of work [From Here, To There] was that rather than focusing on the differences in a negative way, why are we not focusing on the differences in a positive way? So, look at all the amazing food that we get, the amazing architecture, all the festivals going on. You know, why aren’t we focusing on the really nice stuff, rather than the shitty stuff. I can remember this old Chinese guy, and when I chatted to him he was like, ‘Wow, you’re young, but you’ve taught me something,’ and I was like ‘Sweet, that’s pretty cool.’”
Having said that, the positive messages of religion and innocence expressed through their work dredge harder, more sombre meanings that force the viewing public to consider society’s ills in Georgetown – if not also in Malaysia and the world. By understanding the artists’ backgrounds, the public can realise what it is influencing such reactive expressions of concern with modern-day society, nestled as polar undercurrents beneath reassuring impressions of the ‘good’ on the surface, in the artwork of artists such as these.
In my view, serious connotations explored by Kai, Tom, Renny, Chee Peng and Amer are: isolationism, particularly poignant with the rise of the smartphone; colonialism, a subtle reminder of its dangers to indigenous culture in the face of modern day ‘new colonialism’; terrorism, as a form of possession currently gripping religious fanatics; Orwell-esque subservience, especially in relation to the expectations of adulthood in an increasingly capitalist world; and nationalism – considered in relation to the absence of balance – breeding forms of political extremism that give life to injustice and inequality, in all their various moulds. It could be argued that these fears are as archaic as they are current, but in their timelessness lays the longest root that society can follow; what, if a society wishes, can be done to change them, or to even pre-empt their future existence?
“Using digital technology seems to give potential for creating a different type of relationship between object and viewer.”– Esther Rolinson.
GEORGETOWN’S murals have merely added to the carnival of visual stimulation conceived by its culture and vanishing trade crafts. Art – in the cultural-traditional sense – has dominated Georgetown for decades, and will continue to do so. A well of symbolism and meaning generated by kaleidoscopic architecture will remain long after the murals have been washed and beaten away by Malaysia’s intense climate. Like the tourists they attract, the murals are mere visitors in a more atavistic environment; their existence only possible by the landscape provided by ancestral edifices.
Penang artists will outlast the murals, but will be outlasted by Georgetown’s architecture. Their only hope is that the art they create will carry on connecting with the public long after they cannot. Any desires for fame and fortune are not the main driving forces behind their vocation. Deep down, in some dark corner, they all wish for these ideals, but their immediate collective aspiration is for connection – on as wider plain as possible. When you consider this, the immediate question is: why Penang? Yes, it’s up-and-coming but there are other places in the world where their art would be appreciated on a much grander scale: New York, Paris, Berlin, London, Bangkok, Taiwan, Singapore. Of course, the obvious answer is exactly that Penang – vis-a-vis Georgetown – is up-and-coming, giving them the potential to pursue art in a less competitive, and less expensive, environment. But, there is something more… some part of Georgetown’s spirit which gives them vision absent anywhere else.
It was far harder to etch out an answer to what is attractive about Penang from the Malaysian artists than it was from the non-Malaysian ones. This was particularly true when coaxing an expanded answer on the typical convenience, homely and friendship-driven stock replies from those born and bred here. Not to say these are not important considerations, significantly due to the fact that both Tom and Amer consider the island a “home away from home” and even “the only place that has really felt like home.”
When I met Amer, there was one item that jumped out as a strange accompaniment for anyone to be carrying around, artist or not. As he sat down, he placed an uncovered Tupperware box on the table between us, the bottom of which was lined with a layer of jungle moss. It is not surprising that Amer has taken great inspiration from Penang’s natural environment. “I feel like I’m going through a rainforest period. There is something beautiful about South-East Asia, there seems to be so much life springing out of everything. The sort of colours I am using now in my work are very tropical. And, yes, whatever the compositions of what I do are very similar to how trees grow and things like that.” His next thought, expanding immediately from nature, brought us back to an earlier point made when talking about religion. “Oh, and another great inspiration, and that’s on a different level, is how Chinese calligraphy is very different from the way Arabic calligraphy is done. In Chinese calligraphy, a character is done with free strokes; Arabic calligraphy is not like that. In Arabic calligraphy you have to measure how many dots you need to do a character and then you connect the dots. That’s why it’s very geometric. I’m very inspired by how free Chinese calligraphy is.”
Freedom becomes a major point for all the artists and their inspiration drawn from Penang. Whether it is Renny’s and Kai’s freedom to move around Georgetown by bicycle, or whether it is Tom’s inspiration drawn from the dense, freely accessible, multi-culturalism that Penang offers, the idea of being free and things being freely inspiring, open, welcoming, is a huge factor as to why Penang is being utilised by artists such as these. This deep, expansive, metaphysical notion of freedom was neatly summarised by Chee Peng. “In Penang, everyone lives life in a more relaxed pace, and that makes you a bit more attuned and aware to what is going on; your growth, everyone’s growth and everyone’s changes as well.” Perhaps the freedom of time to appreciate your environment, more than anything else, is Penang’s greatest artistic stimulation.
Yet there is another, more physical reality specific to Penang crucial in understanding its attraction to contemporary artists; that being, those who came before them. Modestly interspersed between famous personalities – Duchamp, Warhol, Picasso, Pollack – are lesser known Penang greats: Heng Eow Lin, the painter and sculptor, who is also the Godfather of Renny and Kai; H. H. Lim, the Fluxist instillation artist; Jai, one of Malaysia’s most respected contemporary artists; Fuan Wong, a contemporary glass artist, and; Howard Tan, Penang’s most prolific photographer. As a mixed bag of specialities, these old guards of Penang’s contemporary art scene inspire not only with their respective skills but also with their relentless drive and dedication to the arts.
More so, there is the motivation that this fantastic five give each other, whether consciously or sub-consciously. Kai’s and Renny’s childhood friendship has developed into a closeness that means they work in the same studio in Georgetown. They were surprised when it was suggested that their work in the E&O gallery was incredibly similar in style, as well as in meaning. When it dawned on them that this rare insight had the bearings of authenticity, they both looked at each other and laughed in disbelief that they had not recognised it before. Amer admitted “Kai Sheuan… yes I’m a big, big fan of Kai Sheuan. He has a very good ability to continue growing, but there’s this quiet thing about his paintings; very quiet, very small, but profound at the same time.”
THE reality of Penang’s contemporary art scene was summarised very succinctly by Kai when he said, “it’s slow but getting better. I think it’s more about the people because we Malaysian’s don’t have the education about art. It’s not about the selling, it’s about the appreciation of art,” which is true. Despite a rise in art galleries and public art, marred by the increasing bureaucracy attached to displaying art publicly, there has been no great boom in how the public get interested and excited about it. Whether the cause of this is a lack of education, a ‘seen it all before’ mentality, or a general lack of interest in anything bogged down in the past, is hard to say. But, one point agreed on by all the artists is that the natural development of art rests on the ability to bridge the gap between art and “technology”.
Imagining technology blending with art leads one to consider a couple of things, namely: the creation of a new medium; an additional education in art for people of Penang by accessing them in greater numbers, especially those who would normally not give it a second thought, and; a never before seen empowerment of the artists themselves.
Out of all the artists’ considerations for future projects (which ranged from taxidermy to making… bigger projects), it was Amer’s concept which married art and technology most completely. Based around a conceptual visual show held at Hin Bus Depot earlier in the year, Amer’s idea is to develop a program which can interpret an artist drawing, in real time, which can be projected to the public while reacting to music and sounds of the natural environment to change shape, direction and colour. “I’m exploring programming and how to code, but I don’t know if I’ll go far with that. I have a pen, and I draw on the iPad, and then it ends up being projected either on a wall or a dome, which surrounds you. So whatever I do ends up there, but the programing – the coding – that I put is that it reacts to the sounds of the environment, so if some talks the colours will change.”
This is an exciting concept. Even though it may ignite questions as to what constitutes ‘art’, it is something which is already happening around the world. I remember watching, on facebook, a video of what appeared to be a traditional oil painting of a woman in a blue Georgian dress decomposing as a body would when buried and fast-forwarded with a time-lapse. The finale came when the skeleton, covered in rags, jumped out at the viewer and then the process was reversed. In all it took about a minute which, on a loop, quickly became repetitive, but it shows that the idea of adding technology to art is already being taken seriously.
My guess is that these new ideas will increase interest in art to those whose attention is focused more on new technology than anything else. To those whose childhood and education has had very little to do with art in the traditional sense, adding a technological twist to art pieces will pique their excitement in the same way that new gadgets do. It may even be that, with the growing habit of looking more through a lens or a screen than with our actual eyes, technological art will even look better aesthetically on screen, therefore aiding the use of things like cameras, smartphones and go-pros. Whatever ethical questions this may raise about human’s dependency on tech, it bodes well for artists concerned with reaching more of the public through platforms such as social media. When viewers see these new art forms, via screens, and it looks good – potentially even better than it would in real life – an artist will find his name reverberating around the chatter-sphere quicker than an exchange of a business card.
Finally, the addition of technology to art could produce an environment where, for the first time in history, art is in complete control of the artists. In an age of hyper-interconnectivity, in the not too distant future, the necessity for agents and galleries may become obsolete, as an artist’s reach to the public and collectors becomes worldwide from the comfort of their own studio. To those familiar with the theory of post-capitalism, the artists blending technology with art will be in possession of the only thing of value – the information behind their personal way of merging technology with their art, increasing their ability to market, sell and distribute it on their own.
Technology will never replace the painting, sculpture, drawing or sketch. As a form of expression, the use of these mediums could never be supplanted as humans have always had a great affection for ideas conveyed through the laborious process necessary in any artistic piece. But technology, used as a tool, can educate the public of Penang on the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, childhoods and inspirations of the artists needed to truly appreciate his or her point of view. If technology, used as a medium, initiates that primary interest in a piece, enticing a viewer to delve a little deeper, then so be it.