Just when you think you have seen it all, KL’s Ilham Gallery ventures into the experimental with its latest project exhibition called Contemporary Forum (Malaysia 2009-2017).
There are some curiosities among the 35 works here, like a bunch of bananas hanging off the wall with tape trailing off the work, prompting the cleaner to ask if it should be cleared from the floor.
Another huge piece looks to be nothing, but a vast expanse of mudcracks mounted on the wall, gradually crumbling in bits and pieces and coming to rest on the ground beneath.
On the opposite end of the gallery, a brightly-coloured crab vomits silver glitter in a quiet little corner.
In any case, what’s so different about Contemporary Forum compared to other visual art shows?
Firstly, the half of seven project curators are not from the visual art scene. That already makes things interesting.
On paper, Contemporary Forum’s curatorial team, including Azzad Diah Ahmad Zabidi (curator), chi too (artist), Kat Rahmat (media/artist), Tan Hui Koon (National Visual Arts Gallery curator), Mark Teh (arts educator/researcher), Ong Jo-Lene (curator) and Ridhwan Saidi (novelist/playwright), looks like a curious combination.
Originally, each of them was briefed to select five Malaysian artworks or cultural projects, all created within the last eight years (“cultural projects” to include film, fashion, performance, comics, design and others). They will reconvene halfway through the exhibition run to deliberate on how to re-hang (or reorganise) the works.
Next month, these 35 works in Contemporary Forum will be reanalysed, moved around, regrouped. The exhibition will take on a different look, a different feel, a different meaning, perhaps – though how exactly depends on the outcome of this discussion.
“For the second hang, we will show the same works as in the first, but the curators will rethink the way works have been grouped and arranged, the relationship between the different works, and to think about alternative ways to present the show,” says Rahel Joseph, Ilham gallery director.
“The purpose of the project is to examine the curatorial process and question the entire method of presenting an exhibition (on contemporary art and culture),” she adds.
“The re-hang will be very interesting. At the start, as curators, we reached an amicable consensus about the 35 works. Some of us had certain things in common, some not so much. After the public forum (yesterday) with the curators, things might be totally different. It’s all about having thoughtful dialogue, creative friction and differing viewpoints. The re-hang could even raise the show to another level,” says Tan.
In fairness, there are few paintings in this exhibition. Instead, you will find installations, cultural projects, documentation work and research videos. Works from Haffendi Anuar, Samsudin Wahab, Sharon Chin, Chong Kim Chiew, Hasanul Isyraf Idris, art collective Pangrok Sulap, Liew Kwai Fei and Eiffel Chong will be familiar enough to the art enthusiast.
However, at the gallery, the more curious-minded can also investigate the mini student power exhibit, featuring a recreation of Universiti Malaya’s speaker’s corner, right to the inspiring stories behind Buku Jalanan, a reading club project, and the KL Bicycle Map initiative.
The second thing that sets this exhibition apart from the typical is that the curators did not approach the exhibition with specific themes in mind, settling instead for the broader “groupings” in capturing the explorative – at times, oddball – spirit of the show.
The four groupings are as follows: “Play, Negotiation, Resistance”, “Discomfort”, “Reassemble” and “Archive, Narrative, World”.
“Ilham wanted to depart from past practice, and engage questions of curating contemporary art and culture. Rather than first develop a theme that then frames the exhibition, we wanted to develop something much more experimental,” says Rahel.
More often than not, an exhibition is the outcome of a long process of research and preparation. Instead, what you see in the gallery at the moment is only the start of the process, she explains.
Projek Angkat Rumah by filmmaker Liew Seng Tat, for instance, captures the spirit of gotong-royong (community) in the old days. When a villager wants to move house, the kampung community would rally and carry the entire house to its new location.
Projek Angkat Rumah, commissioned by Five Arts Centre for its 25th anniversary, was a participatory project (at the Urbanscapes festival). It saw 250 people physically moving a kampung house along a 1.3km stretch of road in Sentul, KL in 2010, accompanied by a kompang troupe, a lion dance team, a marching band, and numerous curious bystanders, who lent a helping hand in the house-moving.
Liew was then conducting research for his film Lelaki Harapan Dunia.
In this first hanging of the Contemporary Forum, Projek Angkat Rumah is a prominent piece placed under Play, Negotiation, Resistance, a grouping which considers how the dynamics between these three feed off each other, and where they fit in the show’s representation of urban Malaysia.
In contrast, both aesthetically and thematically, the futuristic Petronas Twin Towers-inspired Miss Universe Malaysia 2016 costume, designed by Rizman Ruzaini, is all bling and sparkles within view of Liew’s house.
This outlandish costume, an icon of sorts in its own right, is currently placed under the Archive, Narrative, World grouping in this show.
“What makes the exhibition really stand out is the fact that you have so many works that are not commonly associated with art, or art galleries. There will always be refreshing angles when you let capable individuals – outside visual art – through the door,” says chi too.
Facilitated by Rahel and Lee Weng Choy, president of the International Association of Art Critics (Singapore Section), the exhibition serves as less a survey of contemporary trends, and more a platform to discuss and debate what has been happening over the last few years in the local arts and cultural scene. The curators involved in this project are below 39 and hail from different backgrounds.
“We decided to bring together a group of younger curators, and emphasise their process of research and preparation. One of the reasons why we wanted to do this exhibition was because of Ilham’s focus on developing professional practices, including curatorial practice, among younger practitioners,” says Rahel.
Most of these curators had attended a curatorial workshop organised by Ilham last year.
“We are keen on developing long-term relationships at Ilham, we wanted to continue the dialogue we had with them last year. This exhibition allowed us the opportunity to continue the relationship with them. Not everyone is from a visual arts background, and this brings a fresh perspective and a new way of ‘seeing’ to the whole process,” she adds.
The Contemporary Forum is a starting point for other activities by Ilham, including a public forum, an essay competition and a public lecture (upcoming), which will further explore what contemporary art and culture means in modern Malaysia.
At the end of the show, Ilham will produce a publication documenting the processes and the activities of the Contemporary Forum.
Ilham Public Lecture: Patrick Flores
July 22, 3pm
Manila-based art historian and curator Patrick Flores, professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines, will be presenting a lecture titled Beautiful, Brutalist Imelda Marcos: Parks, Pageants, Photographs, Palaces next Saturday. The lecture revisits Imelda Marcos, First Lady of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, both as the patron of the arts and the persona that rendered the arts sensible in various ways. Register for this lecture at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ilham Conversations: Student Power!
Aug 12, 3pm
Art activist Fahmi Reza will present his ongoing research into this under-documented period of Malaysian history in a multimedia Malay-language lecture that combines rare photos, video footage, newspaper reports, archival materials and interviews. Free admission.
Film screening: Antologi Filpen Roti
Aug 19, 3pm
A film screening of Antologi Filpen Roti (2017), a compilation of 10 short films made by the Wayang Budiman community, which has been inspired by the variants of local bread. This
session will be moderated by Dr Norman Yusoff. Wayang Budiman is an initiative by the Centre of Film Studies and Appreciation. Free admission.
Ilham Music: Space Gambus Experiment
Aug 26, 3pm
Ipoh-based Space Gambus Experiment, led by multi-disciplinary artist Kamal Sabran, is an open source musical project and performing group whose experimental sound-making centres around the gambus with its unique sound frequency and its strong cultural significance. Free admission.
Ilham Conversations: Postcards From The South
Sept 9, 3pm
Projek Keretapi Kita celebrates our living heritage by documenting it through pictures, videos, and interviews. Filmmaker Mahen Bala will be presenting stories from the project, the value of documenting oral history, and what lies ahead for Projek Keretapi Kita.
Ilham Contemporary Forum (Malaysia 2009-2017) is on at Ilham Gallery (Level 5, Ilham Tower, No 8, Jalan Binjai, Kuala Lumpur) till Oct 31. Opening hours: 11am-7pm daily. Sunday: 11am-5pm. Closed on Mondays and public holidays. Call 03-2181 3003 or visit www.ilhamgallery.com.