Since Fergana Art Space opened its doors to the public in 2014, it has always felt like a gallery that embraces the past in looking for answers to our future.
To start with, the art space is set in the Whiteaways Arcade, a restored 1903 pre-war colonial building in George Town, Penang.
Its exhibitions are just as telling: Unpack-Repack: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim was a retrospective of the late photographer’s work, loves and life, Nirmala Dutt: The London Years offered a glimpse into the direction her work took in the 1990s, and even group exhibition Looking Ahead: 15 Malaysian Artists had work from older artists as part of the package.
In this sense, its current exhibition at Fergana Art Space seems a departure from the regular.
Its quirky title, Eyeball Massage, Fingers Exercise, should already be a hint that what lies behind the gallery’s doors this time is hardly conventional.
“Previous projects by Fergana tend to lean towards introducing more senior artists,” says curator Hoo Fan Chon, but this time he was encouraged by Fergana advisor Jaafar Ismail, to curate a show where he was given “full creative control” in choosing the topic and artists he would like to work with.
Hoo hopes to present Fergana as not just an art platform that features influential senior artists’ works, but also allows shows that are more experimental in nature in terms or curatorial direction and the creative process (such as this one) to flourish.
“I feel the post-Internet is a pertinent subject to discuss through visual art exhibition format. Most of the works are grounded within local contemporary lives experience – for instance political rallies, the recycling culture, social controversy and so on – but presented in a slightly different way other than conventional visual art form (painting, drawing or sculpture),” adds Hoo.
The exhibition brochure is literal in its design interpretation: eyeballs carefully cradled in hands like smooth, cold Chinese exercise balls (baoding balls) used for relaxation or to improve finger dexterity.
But the works are anything but cold. Or are they?
How could they be when they reflect the immediacy and perpetual buzz of activity that goes on online?
But perhaps, paradoxically, it can be lonely even surrounded by people in the virtual world.
“I wanted to have a title that suggests a tenure of the time we are in right now,” says Hoo, referring to a world of easy information accessibility, and inevitably, information overload.
“Many of us are fixated on our smart device screen, critically or passively consuming information. The only physical movement we have is our finger swiping left or right,” he says.
Do you bring your phone to bed and fall asleep while stalking your friend’s friend’s Facebook friend on Facebook? Is browsing 9gag.com your lullaby?
You are not alone.
“The Internet is so intertwined and embedded in most of our daily activities,” says Hoo.
Weather forecast? Fashion trends? Latest news in the world of organised crime? Happy, healthy living? Philosophical discussions? Angry anonymous comments?
Hoo shares that this exhibition engages the post-Internet world as a starting point for a survey, which aims to develop an understanding of its visual system and the role of the Internet as a site for visual aesthetic exploration.
As for social media, is it truly an alternative platform for artistic expression? How do these social media-driven experiences affect the artists’ mode of production?
“We consume information in many ways and the internet is only one of them,” he says, adding that it does help disseminate ideas and provides an avenue for voices to be heard more easily, particularly on social media platforms.
“Contemporary artists pay attention to contemporary lives,” he muses. “So it is only pertinent to discuss these activities through a visual art exhibition where we can step back and reflect, to celebrate or to critique.”
The 10 artists involved in Eyeball Massage, Fingers Exercise all have works that are about, or informed by, the post-Internet world. They comprise installation works, paintings, videos and informal lectures.
“And they are all engaged in different ways,” Hoo points out.
“Perhaps one of the most engaged visual form is memes, a text or image visual form where social media users can create by using apps to comment or poke fun, and ultimately, share on social media. This is present in Belveen Singh, Kenneth Chan and Kuning Pening’s works,” he says.
Some artists, like Sharon Chin, chose a less conventional art form where she made Vivian Lee, one half of the notorious Alvivi couple who garnered as many fans as haters with their sex blog and other unorthodox activities, the focus of her work.
“She assumed a journalistic approach in an attempt to provide a voice for Vivian, presenting works in scans from a smartphone,” explains Hoo.
Also at this exhibition are a selection of watercolour and oil works by Leon Leong from his 2011 series, Exorcising Demons, which were based on screenshots he took of people during video chats. When these chatrooms first burst onto the scene, they opened a whole new world of meeting new people, or often, simply provided space for users to just sit back and observe what played out between other people in the room.
“Just like a voyeur,” says Leong, who had his first solo earlier this year, titled Optimistic Melancholics, at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur.
He shares that these chatrooms allowed him to meet many people from diverse backgrounds in a short time, including a guy who became a “brother” whom he visited when he travelled to Istanbul, the city (and its people) that served as a canvas for his series of work in Optimistic Melancholics.
“I thought if I spent this much time on it, it must have some sort of ‘meaning’ in my life, so why not document it,” he says.
Prussian Boy was just one of the many chatroom users, one of the “passing-by” ones, according to Leong.
“Many things make him a good subject, if we have enough curiosity and empathy. His young age, his lonesome state, the hope and despair flickering in his eyes,” he says.
Of course, it could be just as easily be none of these. Maybe it was just a long day for this young man, with bad lighting transforming fatigue to despair.
But it doesn’t really matter in the end.
For Leong’s oil works in this series, he paints the image upside down in an attempt to disengage himself from relying on habits and any preconceived notion of what the subject should look like, in order to deliver a more objective rendition of the subject – grit, flaws, emotions and all.
On the other hand, Haffendi Anuar’s Screen Dream plays with screensaver imagery, specifically a calming and almost hypnotising, generic Windows screensaver of fishes and corals.
“I thought I could hyperbolise the sense of calmess conjured by these screensavers and structurally make them physical; in a way consuming physical space, in the middle of the gallery,” says Haffendi of his installation piece which comprises multiple prints of the same screensaver image.
The prints don’t look the same, however, as he uses thick acrylic paint to cover different parts of each print.
“I highlight some of the fishes while hiding the others. It obscures most of each, but also brings forward the parts that are left unpainted,” he says.
Like screensavers, he hopes that the sculpture acts as a therapeutic device, beautiful and calming.
“Screensavers say a lot about the people who choose to have them,” adds Haffendi.
Perhaps how people view this exhibition as a whole will also say a lot about them.
Eyeball Massage, Fingers Exercise is on at Fergana Art Space in Penang till Dec 20. Details: www.facebook.com/fergana.art/, tel: 04-261 3002.