Artful Lodgers


Off The Edge, March 2007, issue 27, by Sharon Chin

IN THE BUSINESS of being an artist, there are few things more gratifying than being chosen to participate in a residency programme. Recently, three major exhibitions opened in Kuala Lumpur as the fruit of such residency experiences.

An artist-in-residence (AiR) programme is usually offered by an institution. Depending on the programme, it provides studio space, accommodation, travel expenses, stipends, technical expertise and many other forms of institutional and financial support. Agendas vary- the residencies that resulted in the three shows below are an example. Some programmes emphasises cultural exchange, others certain media or experimental processes.

A residency gives an artist a chance to do what they would be doing all the time if they did not have to worry about bills or the next meal - ie make art. This begs the question about he position of artists in a market economy: where do they sit alongside teachers, lawyers and construction workers? What do artists produce? Why are there no architectural residencies, for example?

On one hand, this could be taken as a sign of society’s regard for the arts – in that it gives an artist the opportunity to operate outside the current, capitalist, ethos. It is interesting then that competition is fierce and these opportunities are hard-won an on un-level playing field. Do only the best artists receive residencies? If so, how did they get that way? Then again, it is a troubling notion that that an artist’s best work can only be made if someone else takes care of the feeding and housing.

If one were to encapsulate in one word all the ripe prospect of a residency holds – career advancement, recognition, money, networks, travel– it would be ‘comfort’. But it is precisely this difference between a residency life and an artist’s ‘normal’ life that leads this writer (who has strained every sinew to qualify for a residency since leaving art school) to question the values underlying the artist profession.

It is in this context that one might appreciate Roslihashim Ismail (better known as Ise)’s visual diary Keluar 90 Hari, a result of his three-month-long Australian High Commission Visual Art Residency 2006 at Gunnery studios, Sydney.

Ise’s book is one of the most accessible and interesting explorations of the tension between art and life in Malaysian art. Expectations run high where a residency is involved, and there are internal and external pressures on the artist to have made significant progress professionally and artistically. In the face of this, Ise’s work is essentially about ‘nothing’ – no particular medium, theory, or theme. It’s ‘nothing’ but the artist’s experience and impressions: from the day he receives the good news about he residency (‘a perfect present to myself’), to what he thinks of the Malaysian contribution at the Sydney Biennale 2006 (‘no comment lah’), to personal introspections (‘you might be isolated... just be yourself and everything will be OK’).

But sometimes, ‘nothing’ is everything. Art then becomes the way life is lived; how one negotiates the network of curators, gallery directors, critics and colleagues; and how one keeps one’s personal voice and identity in the whole shebang. Ise’s visual diary is a practical, inclusive interface for the audience to participate in such an experience. Ise talks about art that is ‘micro’ and ‘viral’ (see page 57). If a narrative of Malaysian art history is still trying to be built, it will be interesting to see which part of it Ise’s work infects.

Another residency intended to foster Malaysia-Australia ties is the Rimbun Dahan Residency, sponsored by Angela Hijjas and architect Hijjas Kasturi. Now in its 12th year, the annual programme offers a 12-month residency to a Malaysian and Australian artist. For 2006/07, these were Malaysian Chang Yoong Chia and David Jolly from Melbourne.

Walking into Chang’s Flora & Fauna II and Jolly’s Liquid Nature, one is struck by a sense of polish and accomplishment. Both shows a testament to a year well spent in pursuing singular artistic visions, resulting in bodies of work that are sophisticated and resolved.

This commitment is evident in Chang’s Flora & Fauna II, where Chang continues to develop the visual language he began in his first solo exhibition of the same title, held in 2004. A big part of what AiRs are about is in residing in a different environment, and how this impacts on artistic practice. The serene and somewhat secluded nature of Rimbun Dahan seems to be perfectly suited to Chang’s exploration of internally imagined scapes – where animals, plants, highways, humans and buildings coexists in a surreal primordial soup. Even direct contact with the material world, as evidenced in intricate paintings on seashells, eggshells and crab shells, is subsumed to the artist’s introspective vision. Here is painting as a way of dreaming, cataloguing and interacting with real and imagined worlds.

In contrast, Jolly’s Liquid Nature treats the act of painting as an act of looking outwards at the surrounding environment. It is always interesting to see how Malaysia looks in the eyes of a visiting artist. Work that presents the exotic, clichéd side of a country can make one uneasy, and Liquid Nature abounds in snapshot images of what we are familiar with, yet desperately alienated by: orchids, sunsets, beaches. But that’s why these images can be appreciated –captured on video, calibrated in a computer and painted painstakingly onto glass.Trapped and protected behind a shiny surface, they are fragile and artificial; forever distant and unreachable. Liquid Nature is a subtle meditation on how our gaze is nothing but a filther. It is difficult to approach the exotic without being cynical, and Jolly succeeds admirably.

If there’s one criticism, it’s that one wishes there had been more exploration, or a sense of risk, on the part of both the artists. Rimbun Dahan has always seemed a painter’s residency, and this exhibition confirms the impression. A year is a long time – time enough to go down unknown paths where the outcomes are less sure of the success. Both artists flirt with experimental process – Jolly with his subtle wall drawings of plants, and Chang with his use of natural materials such as leaves and insect wings. But these are not developed, and remain mere interesting footnotes.

The same cannot be said about Ahmad Fuad Osman’s Dislocated, shown in what used to be a food court on the third floor of City Square Centre. The exhibition is a result of two residencies – two months in Vermont, USA in 2004 and a year in Goyang, South Korea in 2005/06. In addition to several large- and small-scale paintings, there are three performances videos and two installations.

Few exhibition titles match the content of their shows as aptly as Dislocated. It is an immensely challenging exhibition to look at. In trying to pinpoint why, one realizes how conditioned one is to looking at artworks that is anchored in a sense of place- either manifest as nostalgia for lost homes and identities, or as identification with new surroundings. Instead of searching for referencepoints, Osman’s work free-falls into no place at all, not even that of internal emotions. The results is disorientating, as the viewer struggles to find a suitable discourse with which to read these works. For example, the Vermont series of paintings show a naked male figure in an untouched snowy landscape. Do we read them from an autobiographical point of view, in which case the figure is the artist and the landscape beautiful, freezing Vermont? But these woods could be anywhere in the world, even imagined. Are they then allegories about isolation? Truth? The relationship between humanity and environment ? These paintings ask what we are when both body and land is stripped of identity.

The same dislocation occurs in the Goyang series of paintings, which are remarkable for being so different to each other, yet unified in their use of strangely familiar images to create scenes that are devoid of race, place and time. You appreciate the coldness in these works – their refusal to make any connection whatsoever with the audience, whether on a visceral or emotional level, represents a significant development in Malaysian painting.

Although Osman’s experimental bravura can be applauded, his performance videos are underwhelming. Dislocation is harder to explore convincingly when your own body and that of a living, breathing audience is involved. Too Much(Not Enough) just begins to scratch the surface with ideas of being inside and outside, but the message is thoroughly garbled by unnecessary juxtaposition with audio text and scenes of a dogfight. Regardless of the uneven quality of the works, this exhibition is notable for being exceptionally well put together, along with wall texts and a carefully considered catalogue.

These three residency shows are fantastic start to a new year and proof of what can be achieved when an artist is given time, finances and a ‘room of one’s own’. Despite this, questions of cultural ecology continue to a be a plague. Can art, artists and audiences truly be sustained on a series of intermittent, albeit generous handouts? How nourishing the arts are to a society depends on just how the arts are nourished...

Keluar 90 Hari launched Jan 18, Australian High Commision KL

Twelfth Rimbun Dahan Residency Exhibition, Jan 28- Feb 11, Rimbun Dahan, Kuang;

Dislocated, Jan 25-Feb25, City Square Centre.

Sharon Chin is a young contemporary artist who also writes on art