23 Aug - 19 Sept 2013
THE FIGURATIVE IN THE FIGURE: hypothesis and conjecture.
Rarely in Malaysian visual arts, as is the practice here, is the human anatomy studied in depth or portrayed and celebrated for its own sake. However, our fascination with the human form in figurative art stems from its effectiveness in documenting people, giving fairly accurate indications of their stations in life or details of the era they lived in while in the hands of the maudlin, the lone figure, the gaiety of children, the wrinkles on faces of the aged or sad countenances appeals to a spectrum of emotions connected to our fondness for sentimentality and nostalgia. For the common minded painters, it is useful to ignite simplistic sentiments of ethnic, cultural or nationalistic pride (think social/socialist realism approaches ubiquitously employed on national monuments, buildings and predictably, exhibitions held in conjunction with national or cultural events all over the world). This is based on the assumption that the human form, its various parts and other natural subject matter for that matter, rendered (preferably) in almost photorealistic manner (which for many are signs of one’s ‘mastery’ of ‘art’), are readily recognizable, easily understood and can be effortlessly appreciated when compared to other less direct approaches or difficult genres in visual art practices. Was that the reason for the demise of the semi abstractions and other adventurous stylizations that used to be the ‘in’ thing employed in public, schools murals, sculptures etc. before the 1980’s? The unthinkable happened when bureaucrats in collaboration with their contractors took over the role of artists, resulting in the numerous expensive, illogical monstrosities around the city which they try to passed off as ‘art’ for society. If ‘Art’ according to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s foreword in the National Art Gallery’s first national loan exhibition in 1958, the year of its establishment, “expresses and reflects the spirit and personality of the peoples who make a nation”, then the constructions of literal, oversize pitcher plants, hibiscus, traditional cups, pots, earthenware, silverware and other traditional decorative elements taken and applied out of context instead of representations of the spirits of the times through artistic means, does say much about who we are or what we’ve became today.
‘Figurative Trajectories’ features the latest artistic explorations and expressions by Yeoh Choo Kuan, Seah Ze Lin, Sung Kang Jye, C.K Koh, Siund Tan, Gan Tee Seng and Chong Kim Chiew. They were carefully selected based on their background training and outlook which differs vastly from one another to play-off and complement each other’s strengths. This clever selection of young artists (though not all specializing in figurative art) by the proprietor of Gallery G13 for this exhibition however is an attempt to counter the usual expectations we have of figurative art.
From the onset, their distinctive styles of presenting or distorting the human form to reflect their psycho-aesthetic preoccupations are unique, idiosyncratic and even thematically unsettling. Seen are the bodies in various imaginative poses and dispositions, its characteristics and moods amplified by its surreal settings. By presenting the high and low, fantasy and realism, parody or social commentary through abstraction, illustration and other representational tropes, the eclectic approaches assembled for this exhibition allows and encourages for more liberal (as opposed to literal) interpretations of these artists’ works. The themes and concerns addressed centres mostly on self, memory, society and even spirituality.
The body so to speak, becomes the platform where subliminal longings, fears and desires are projected or unveiled.
The human form, in monotheistic beliefs is the epitome of the ideal, bestowed by the ‘Creator’ to His ‘best’ creation, privileged over all creatures on earth. However, the created was led astray by curiosity; disobedience was the cause of ‘it’s downfall while pride, lust and ignorance accounts for much of the evil and destruction ‘it’ has wrought. Therefore, to these followers and even those adherents of other value systems of the world, the body is an undertaking to be worked at, its baser instincts to be overcome, with penance and piety as the route towards salvation. In the case of Christianity, it is no coincidence that the image of the crucified Christ as depicted through paintings, sculptures, reliefs etc. serves as a potent symbol calculated to inspire deep reverence and fear. To see a tortured and bloodied body nailed to the cruciform, ( the pain inflicted on the flesh of others is something that most of us can ‘feel’ and dread) and to be told that it was the Creator himself assuming that human form to undertake this symbolic self sacrifice by which humanity’s inherited ‘sins’ are cleansed and absolved, AND further, to bring this additional gift of eternal life in exchange for one’s faith and submission, is a concept that is truly astounding and a visual experience that has stirred the deepest emotions of even the most obstinate and savage.
However, those who are inclined to place their ‘faith’ in the theory of evolution instead, sees humanity as ‘progressing’, evolutionarily from primates to the primitives and finally to the progressives, metro-sexuals or hipsters of today. Their optimism in ‘progress’ is perhaps misplaced, for these ‘modern’ looking men are in actuality, according to Desmond Morris, naked apes, living and working in an expanding concrete jungle who passes the other half of their days in expensive cage-like dwellings and gated communities. Domesticated and made servile by an upbringing that alternates mechanically between rewards and punishments enforced and sanctioned by conventional society, who now grows up encultured, socialized and alienated from their natural habitat. Their neurosis kept momentarily at bay by being constantly fed with a series of spectacles and simulacrums engineered by local and multinational vendors vying for their short attention span (monkey mind), to persuade their allegiances or their hard-earned ringgit. The novel, saccharine, erotic and mind numbing stimulants however are temporary distractions. Behind the bored and disinterested poker faces, the apes’ psychosis becomes increasingly apparent by their awkward gesticulation and appearances. Yet these Homo sapiens (or Homo Rapiens according to John Gray) still have the audacity to try to shape its surrounding according to its own image. Therein lays the root of our conflicts. To shape the world according to our incompatible visions; on one hand the utopian made appealing by ideologies and value systems while the other, the pragmatic established by everyday realities.
To the observers of human behaviour, humanity is a walking, talking libido bloated with existential anxieties. It remains in essence insecure and infantile, swayed by the pleasure principal and horrified at any pain or discomfort. Its growth towards maturity could become stunted at any of the developmental stages that a person must go through due to trauma or addiction to excessive reliefs from anxiety. No matter how it tries to conceal its true puerile selves by presenting a facade of rationality coupled with its elaborate pretence behind congeniality and morality, their ‘personalities’ are nothing but carefully constructed alibis, an assorted responses collected and rehearsed as a routine necessary for daily transactions to take place. Underneath their publicly professed principles, displays of propriety and avowed abstinences, men are each privately and perversely, a strange melange of restless drives and complexes with insatiable animal appetites ever eager to feast or to be fed (as a consumer!).
Feeling guilty of the past, fearful of the future and apprehensive of the present, the infantile seeks myriads of ways of discharging this burden, chiefly among them, is to go shopping…
The human form in figurative art and other approaches never ceases to amaze as it and the various trajectories pursued are the sensual embodiment of the spirit of times, a display or the results of our vices and affirmations of who we are.
By TS HON
Click to view Artist Profile
- CC Koh
- Chong Kim Chiew
- Seah Ze Lin
- Sun Kang Jye
- Yeoh Choo Kuan