Foo May Lyn is not your average gallery-bred artist. In fact, it took her years before she could even come to terms with that very idea.
Penangite Foo never had a formal education or even training as an artist. Her passion has always been in theatre.
She started performing at 13 in veteran theatre researcher, practitioner and activist Janet Pillai’s Teater Kanak-Kanak Malaysia. She went on to work with theatre names such as the late Krishen Jit, Jo Kukathas and Faridah Merican. Some of Foo’s notable productions include A Chance Encounter (1999), Pulau Antara (2001) and Woman In A Tree On The Hill (2001).
Art came more like an unlikely creative outlet when an illness disallowed Foo from practising theatre when she lived abroad.
Foo, 54, takes a rather offbeat approach to her art.
“I approach my art as an actor. I’m acting when I’m working on my works. What I do is, I immerse myself in the characters and find the emotions, desires and dislikes. You get into the person’s skin,” explains the Penang-based Foo in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
She is exhibiting her painstakingly produced 10,000 Mosquito Hearts solo show at the Our ArtProjects gallery.
“Her approach (to art) is fascinating. Everything is theatre for her,” says Marion D’Cruz, one of Five Art Centre’s founders and a longtime theatre friend of Foo’s.
And that’s exactly what the artist did for her 10,000 Mosquito Hearts exhibition.
The show’s title references a classic Malay tale where the mosquito hearts were part of a list of demands that the fabled Puteri Gunung Ledang gave to Sultan Mahmud Shah, the ruler of Melaka, who sought her hand in marriage.
The princess also demanded that the Sultan complete a dowry that included a bridge of gold and silver from the summit of Gunung Ledang to Melaka; seven trays of hearts of mites; a vessel of water from dried areca nuts; a vessel of virgin maiden tears; and a bowl of the Sultan’s son’s blood.
“I wanted to know what was it like for someone who tries to deliver these crazy (dowry) demands,” says Foo.
“And I realised that he wouldn’t have done anything at all. His slaves did the tasks. So I became like the slaves and the virgins … I could feel the whips on my back,” she describes vividly.
This exhibition, curated by fellow artist Sharon Chin, features over 140 intricate drawings, textile work and sculptures. The gallery space is used to the fullest to attract the visitor to investigate this cautionary tale about a man’s haste to satisfy his lust and desire.
10,000 Mosquito Hearts is Foo’s first solo exhibition in KL.
Previously, Foo had been part of Penang-based Reka Art Space’s Crowds (2005) group exhibition, Coming Home: An Introduction To Foo May Lyn (2011) and Dressed Texts (2014) as part of the George Town Literary Festival 2014.
For Foo, it was the demanding requests made by the legendary princess, especially the seven trays of mosquito hearts, that caught her imagination when she first heard it as a child.
“It made me really geram (annoyed),” she confesses, clearly flabbergasted.
“How does a mosquito heart look like? How do you even imagine it? How do you make the intangible, tangible?” asks the camera-shy Foo, who owns Chop Kongsi, an atelier in Penang.
Those questions would stay with her for a very long time, even when she lived in London and Paris for 25 years where she made jewellery.
They buzzed in her mind, never leaving her alone until they became an obsession of sorts.
You can see it in her new works. Thousands of hand-drawn dots – some random, some patterned – are integral to this series.
“Her works make me think of the torturous and meticulous stamina, patience, commitment and ‘madness’ that is required to make the work. The result is so much ethereal beauty. That juxtaposition of torture and beauty is really quite fascinating,” says D’Cruz.
Chin recognises that this exhibition is essentially a familiar legend retold from the perspective of ordinary subjects whose labour would have been required in order for the Sultan to meet the demands of the princess.
“I’m not sure we get much say in the stories that choose us. Like privilege and freedom, we receive stories as a burden and a gift. Our task is to carry and to spill, so others can receive. That’s the work, if we have the guts, the hati for it. If we’re to be worthy,” says Chin.
A host of miniature dolls, each under an amber plastic cup, add to the exhibition’s curious value.
These dolls, nearly 100 of them which Foo made from scratch are frozen in time, imprisoned in their individual cups.
“These are the people, the rakyat, who are trapped and tortured because of the ludicrous requests,” explains Foo.
She further explores this theme in her main mosquito heart pieces. You can see the dots – bloodied and smudged – beginning to take shape and meaning in the pieces on the wall. The “storyboards” show the battles, the pain and the suffering that the people of Melaka could have endured.
“How much disruption and destruction would it have cost the (Melaka) kingdom? Forests destroyed and the rakyat robbed of their belongings to make the gold and silver bridges. Then I discovered that nothing has changed. Things are still the same,” laments Foo in a reflective tone.
The stories just go on and on.
“They never end in my head,” concludes Foo, closing her eyes momentarily, lost in this world she had spent years in.
10,000 Mosquito Hearts is on at Our ArtProjects, Zhongshan Building, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur till Feb 17. The gallery will be closed from Feb 4-6. It will resume usual opening times (11am-7pm) from Feb 7 onwards. Sunday by appointment, closed Monday. Visit ourartprojects.com. FB: Our Artprojects.