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Domestic Bliss by 3 Malaysian Artists

June 9th, 2007

domesticity and the investigation of selves

The works here are focus, deliberate and framed as ‘exploring the myth of the happy home’.Other than Vincent’s work that seems out of place in this line of thought, Chang Yoong Chia and Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s works are spectacularly intricate, and refer specifically to mother and child relationships.

Notions of Domesticity has always raised curious looks, seldom explored because of an Asian disposition not to discuss ‘home matters’ openly. But domestic issues shape not just homes, but national identity on a macro scale. The home is a private sanctuary, a place where relationships with people and objects are more fused, and worth examining. Looking at one’s home, or homely affairs is looking within oneself. This exhibition is worth contrasting with another ‘clinical’ show, Picturing Relations: Simryn Gill & Tino Djumini at NUS Museums, examines the physical conditions of domestic households of Dalam (2001) and Indonesian households.

Domestic metaphors have been used to described the relationship of nations too. The relationship of Singapore and Malaysian contemporary art is closer, less bickering than the media’s portrayal of our the two nation’s political relationship. There are many parallels, interests and developments in the visual arts scene that is seldom officially acknowledged, other than sketchy descriptions of the Nanyang-styled Pioneer Artists’ works (We seem to share a few similar Pioneer Nanyang-style artists) in Kwok Kian Chow’s Channels and Confluences (published by SAM, 1996). Similarly, the works in this exhibition reminded me of a Housework project by Singapore artists in 2003.

The work by Vincent Leong consists of graffiti-styled stenciled wallpaper, presented as an installation at the deep end of the chapel gallery of Sculpture Square. My reading of his work is only wall-paper deep, giving the impression that they are rather crude at first glance, they reveal an interest in motifs of silhouette of kanpong stilt houses, coconut trees, hibiscus flowers. This wallpaper presentation is perhaps too subtle, and is missing the context and contrast it requires to stand out - it perhaps should be out in the streets next to a street stall, or within a living space setting. Unless of course, they were real wall papers, block printed on wallpaper.

Chang Yoong Chia’s Maiden of the Ba Tree, is poetic, tapping on the traditions of ceramic painting to reveal the love-lost/misplaced of a mother and child, the generation divide that many mother-child relationships face. Like a comic strip, the illustrations tell a narrative of a mother aging and becoming detached to the son, whilst over-shadowed by a Ba tree. It reminded me of China artist, Ah Xian’s Cloissonne works and similar artists that have used traditional craft to suggest the rich heritage we inherit, and contradictions contemporary living and working has on traditional values and beliefs. Families are more nuclear than nuclei at the same geographical proximity, or cultural confluence. The hanging spoons may have a more intimate reading if they were placed on a circular table, like a family reunion meal setting.

Sharmiza’s objects, more delicate than Louis Bourgeois’s interogation of feminism (a word not mentioned in the exhibition hand-out), simple and formalistic play with shapes, texture, and significant materials. The single bed, made of grey metal mesh is lovely to look at, but either too small, competing for attention with the huge span of wall, or too low on the similar coloured concrete floor.

The subtitle of the exhibition “The Myth of the Happy Home” is disconcerting indeed. It suggests rifts or shifts in the Asian meaning of happy family. There is a suggestion of a burden of happiness, perhaps on the processes of art making. While this is debatable, the position of the artist often depends on the ‘position’ of the family: financial and family background, dependency on the individual for sustainability, absence or reliance of emotional support et al. The strength of these artists, seem to be to take their limitations - space and time to make art - and transform these into concepts and things that are useful to them. Only by investigating one’s position at home, society and culture, can the artist create works that will stand the test of his or her life time, and perhaps beyond.

More pictures:

7.0 of 10 stars, 5 June - 5 August 2007, Sculpture Square