A letter from KL
Chasing old ghosts down the dank and dark alleyways of central Kuala Lumpur has become a palliative game for Malaysian artists these past few months.
Whether it's heated banter about thwarted artworks while dining al fresco after a gallery opening, or mounting installations poking fun at new prime minister Najib Razak, or even surviving police arrests at candle-lit vigils for Malaysia's sickly democracy, the nostalgia here for a previous era and its ghosts of a less racially-divided polity seems palpable, just as the economy sinks into its deepest crisis in a generation.
It's a sentiment found wafting about the four, huge photographic montages that make up Liew Kung Yu's first major solo show at the Galeri Petronas, Cadangan-cadangan untuk Negaraku (Proposals for my nation). In what is the best Malaysian contemporary exhibition in a long time, the jaunty, kitschy celebrations of Malaysia's populist monumentalism belie a darker, almost totalitarian vision, of a nationalist conceit supposedly killed off by that so-called 'end of history' moment when the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago.
While the weekend mall crowd wandering in twitter and laugh at the knowing juxtapositions of suburban and village icons, this mostly middle-class audience also murmur approval for the show's circular space, which lend the works a visual impact beyond the confines of a usual white cube.
But several of Malaysia’s leading artists and curators say Kung Yu's show has encountered serious problems with what is really Malaysia's only other major public exhibition space for such art aside from the shabby National Art Gallery.
Although the Petronas Gallery is conceived and funded as the corporate art space of the national oil and gas corporation, Petronas, inspired gallery leadership over the past few years has enabled well-received, professionally curated shows of contemporary Malaysian and regional art. Its public art programs have played a crucial role in enriching Malaysian discussions about contemporary art both at home and abroad, which is why recent developments at the gallery have caused such deep concern among artists and curators.
There have been troubling signs of institutional ambivalence, or worse, over the documentation of the show, and the last-minute 'postponement' of the catalogue and its essays has fuelled this perception. There has also allegedly been complaints by gallery insiders about Kung Yu's works' disrespect of "Malay norms and culture", which in themselves are hotly contested notions beyond the art world. Adding to the disquiet have been the recent departures in quick succession of the gallery's popular director Tengku Nasariah Tengku Syed Ibrahim, curator Anurendra Jegadeva and exhibitions manager Rahel Joseph.
Unsurprisingly, no one is willing to talk publicly about these developments, nor the revival of an old argument about "Malaysian culture" in these rarified corridors. Whether Malaysian artists should be expected to make work engaging such highly contested ideas seems a ridiculous proposition - until you consider the ferment going on in the wider politics, where the racially-derived ruling coalition is crumbling after half a century in power.
While young arts activists such as Adeline Ooi of new fine arts consultancy RogueArt and curator Simon Soon lament the dire lack of non-commercial spaces such as Galeri Petronas, Rahel Joseph finds herself in an awkward position. "It's a huge shame if we don't actively maintain what we've done over the past two years," Rahel says tentatively, a week after quitting her job at Galeri Petronas. "We've been pursuing an idea as a contemporary art space within the region, building institutional links with galleries and museums in Singapore and elsewhere, and embarking on collaborative projects featuring regional artists."
It's been this desire for a critical engagement with the public that's driving RogueArt, founded last year by three young women who used to run one of the region's best-known commercial spaces, Valentine Willie Fine Art (VWFA). Co-founder Adeline Ooi says the passionate debate going on over Galeri Petronas' future direction(s) just reflects how rare and valuable such public spaces can be, in a society riven by arguments over 'modern Malaysian culture' and its ambivalence about Malaysia’s plural reality. "We know how tough it can be to secure and somehow show new contemporary work by young artists, that don't fit the demands of the commercial art world," she says, as we squeeze past the crowd one opening night at the Project Room of VWFA.
Dominating one corner of this space is a big heisted banner featuring the new prime minister's face adapted into a multimedia artwork by Fahmi Reza, suggesting with humour and much cynicism how regime change in Malaysia has soured the climate for art and Malaysian democracy. But invoking such ghosts has its price, it seems: the work was taken down barely a week after the opening, to forestall "complaints" which could jeopardise the gallery's business. The artist lodged a formal protest against the gallery's decision, alleging that he was not consulted before the show was curtailed.
"But we're all also very well aware of the alleged taboos that still exist in publically debating these issues of Malaysian culture," says Adeline, as we wondered about the vulnerability of art spaces to the censorship regime. When so much of Malaysian culture is officially defined yet subject to political whims - and racial and religious identities are potent legal definitions - artists are often held hostage by such fears.
Even if the reality is often more colourful, and rooted in the ethnic hybridities common for most Malaysians, official propaganda prefers to invoke old ghosts from the Cold War era. In recent weeks, the government-linked media has campaigned against present-day democracy activists, comparing them to the communist insurgents of decades ago who allegedly sowed racial hatred in a fragile, post-colonial nation.
On a hot tropical evening a week later, in a renovated colonial-era house now posing as RogueArt's main art space, a motley group of artists, bankers, lawyers, punks and vagrants are spilling out of the opening of Personal Effects. It's an endearing and witty show curated by RogueArt featuring artifacts that reveal poignant family tales and sometimes bizarre Malaysian moments from over a dozen local artists and cultural activists. For this crowd, those old ghosts revived for the nightly TV newscast barely haunt the night ahead.