Supporting text for 'Migratory Objects', 2017 solo exhibition at Richard Koh Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur

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Extending from my recent solo presentation titled 'Migratory Objects' at Volta New York early this year, this exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, which shares the same title, is treated like an immersive installation, which includes a bigger number of painted shapes in groupings or “flocks”. The painted shapes on boards are developed from my interest in exploring the formal language of object-based painting in the context of Malaysian art history. While most of them will be wall-mounted, similar to the ones exhibited in New York, a small number of them will be affixed onto freestanding powder-coated metal structures, turning the shapes and their metal supports into almost human-sized anthropomorphic forms, with the shapes becoming stand-ins for faces or heads. When installed, the works will also refer the presentation strategies of ethnographic museums. Moreover, a wall of the exhibition space will be adorned with wallpaper illustrating a lush green landscape with a man-made waterfall which is also an irrigation ditch. The image was taken at the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park in Lake Gardens, a popular tourist spot in the capital, and serve as a “simulacrum” of natural paradise. Visually the image reverberates with commercial tourism posters commonly utilized and disseminated to promote the country's.

The idea for this exhibition was actually sparked by an event experienced in London when I was an art student. One day when I was in central London, a typical red double-Decker bus that was covered on both sides by large stickers which displayed a scene of a troop of proboscis monkeys in an evergreen tropical jungle crossed my path. The monkeys appeared carefree among lush tropical vegetation. The image turns out to be part of a campaign directed by Tourism Malaysia in 2013 – 2014 that utilized images of Malaysia’s natural beauty such as tropical coral reefs and jungle scenes populated by indigenous fauna as an attempt to promote the natural beauty of Malaysia and to boost eco-tourism. What was fascinating when I saw the image on the bus was that it reminded me of home, but a home which is simultaneously foreign. Furthermore, as the image on the bus glides through the city and disappears out of sight, it felt almost like a fleeting dream, somewhat unreal, hyperbolized by the perfection of it and how orchestrated the placement of the protagonists were. The Western “tourist gaze” and the expected representation of Malaysia, as a lush green paradise filled with exotic creatures has become a “simulacrum”.

Double-decker bus with Tourism Malaysia poster. Image obtained online from (https://www.flickr.com/photos/b777-200_g-ymmh/sets/72157683938492191/page15) taken by Go-Ahead Group (London)

 

 

The exhibitoriginal idea developed from my curiosity in ethnographic objects, cultural debris and by-product of the commercial aspect of tourism from images (posters, postcards) to crafted objects (souvenirs) and how these items get consumed and disseminated. As a novice collector of aboriginal masks, there was a time when I was browsing these masks on online platforms such as Etsy and eBay and noticed that these objects were being advertised for sale from different locations around the world such as New York and London. Amazed at their abundance and the displacement they have experienced from the original locations in which they were made, I suspected that this abundance hints to in-authenticity, in which I found out later that not all the masks offered were “originals”.  Authenticity in this case refers to whether they are objects created to be used as props or tools in specific tribal rituals or rites of passages or whether they were created solely for decoration for the tourist trade. This dissemination of commercialized cultural objects through the system of the artifact trade and tourism to me allude to the natural process of the propagation of seeds by animals or whether as well as  the seasonal migration of birds.

The flattened surfaces of my reinterpreted painted works with their neon colors and smooth tonal gradients are inspired by the designs of Dayak and  Iban masks while aesthetically imply to the pixilation of indigenous design and patterns as they are imagined to go through the process of being uploaded onto online servers and traveling through cyberspace. This fictional movement of so-called cultural objects whether physically or through cyberspace also echoes the movement of people traversing geographical and through political barriers and highlights the basic human need for mobility and the constant search for a better life.

This series also includes a grouping of “combined” sculptures titled Migratory Objects (2017-) that consists of table-top works composed of found and store-bought touristic wooden objects/sculptures that were purchased from tourist spots such as the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur and Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali among other place. The wooden figurative kitsch sculptures,  originally sculpted by local craftsmen into simple figurative forms such as elephants, birds and Balinese women and are considered as “representative” objects, which are objects created by human meditation and interpretation. These purchased ready-mades are then conjoined, painted, sanded and simplified into irregular silhouettes that resemble modern Western sculptures such as a Hans Arp (1886 – 1966) or Constantin Brancusi (1876 – 1957). The sanded surface is meant to make them appear like pseudo artifacts while implying to the passing of time.

Wallpaper sticker, waterfall scene taken from the KL Bird Park, in Lake Gardens.

Photographed by Eiffel Chong.

The painted-objects or “transformed” masks and the combined wooden sculptures suggest to the idea of transformation and transmutation of cultural debris through displacement, movement, digitalization and combination. This imagined migration of the objects is not political or environmental but is caused by economic motives. My observation at how minute parts of a country’s culture and natural beauty, are translated into consumable and commoditized items, whether objects or images and are finally “consumed” by outside interests. This image is also played up and exaggerated by institutions in an attempt to market the country as a alluring “paradise”. Modern anthropologist always considers the souvenir or tourist object as inauthentic, because it is made as an object for cultural consumption and is seen as operating within the Western economic exchange system. This perspective points to the framing of the image of the proboscis troop initially discussed that were framed within the Western’s audience’s gaze and that aesthetic and formal principles are compromised by the desire for profit.

This exhibition in Kuala Lumpur is meant to contextualize my work within the Malaysian context, framed through the lenses of the tourism industry and object trade in which “parts” of the country is put forth in the format of alluring images and decorative objects to be consumed by foreigners. Their displacement and movement will result in both formal and symbolic mutations to occur.