Voice Of The Voiceless
13 - 28 May 2016
Action in fraction: Random notes on social issue-based art
Modern and contemporary art is all about the balance of power. To understand the nature of modern (and contemporary) art, one requires “willingness to accept the self contradict interpretation of the art object so we can see their true nature (of art) for what it is – a site of revelation of paradox governing the balance of power.” In this sense, power referred to the authoritative structure dictating the production, evaluation and distribution of art. The discussion regarding power in art, may be well illustrated in our contemporary times. The tradition of taste and form give way to new artistic convention since the inception of avant-garde movement in the twentieth century. Art has become more and more universal, destabilizing the notion of institutionalization. Some artist has taken a direct action to question the limitation of art in wake of global hegemony. This may as well parallel to the growing consciousness towards socio-politic and economic movement, defining the contemporary culture. Terry Smith argued there are three major waves – shifting and influencing each other – shaping the current world today:
- Geopolitical and globalization of economics – which gave rise to hegemonic struggle with regard to the exploitation of natural resources and information, where there is an increase in the cultural and identity awareness among society (instigated by decolonization).
- Societal formation through citizenship offer, government initiatives and local political activities, while issues of inequality and identity differences have become so prevalent that it is difficult for any single government, ideology or religion to dominate, and for liberal ideals (in form of of individual as well as collective freedom) to be achieved.
- Culture – identity and self are collectively constructed. Man becomes the subject of immediation, and is loaded with infinite information (there even exists a community modelled by visual simulation) which easily accessible with the help of technology.
All of these contribute to the burgeoning trend of global society. Culture has since transcended into a revolutionary medium, epitomizes the current world-image. Art subsequently grows into a form of communication, rather than merely as an object of aesthetics. Artists and cultural workers throughout the history has been using art as an instrument to comment on social, politic and economic conditions where they find themselves in. Art have been conceptualized into a radical gesture to promote social change, thus becoming part and parcel of social and political upheavals. The ancient Greek channeled their social critiques through theatre and stage play, as Aristotle coined the term ‘catharsis’ – an emotional impression from looking (and listening) to the artworks. While Francisco de Goya infamously illustrated the grim reality of war by depicting a group of man receiving death execution by firing army in his painting El Tres de Mayo de 1808 (1814) directed to the event during French occupation in Spain.
In unsteady social situation, art inclines to depart from traditional values and canons, seeking to actively contribute to social change. Great deal of artworks was produce under this circumstances challenging both the art world and authority. The production of art not merely to glorify one’s aesthetic pleasure, it was infused with a criticism and commentary directed to the latter. The term social commentary frequently associates with the type of work that imbued with social and political nuances. In general, social commentary is an act of expressing critical opinion towards complex social and political realities. This often done using rhetorical means to provide commentary on issues in a society with the idea of implementing or promoting change by informing the general populace about a given problem and appealing to people’s sense of justice. Such generalization often overcast its original intention as a design, a mere form of art.
How effective the arts being subjected as social action? Does social commentary inclusive of action towards certain issue, or rather a personal expression? How can art contribute towards building a better society? These are the question regularly comes into a debate and discussion. Artist operates on the same territory as ideology. The notion of art being a critical potential and affirmative manifests a powerful and productive outlook under the context of the socio-politic rather than in the context of the market. Higher authority or the government strategically uses visual media as part of their image making or propaganda in their political campaign. Propaganda images are attempts to persuade us towards particular viewpoints or actions promoted by public or private institutions such political parties, lobbyist, governments, or religious group. The artist as social commentator may simply make us more aware of the human condition as he/she perceives it, without suggesting particular action. Art activism in other hand, are motivated to transform the world through art – not merely criticize the art system or the general political and social conditions under which the system functions. Rather, to change it by the mean of culture outside of art system, the reality itself – through intervention and direct participation. In either case, the power of visual images has frequently used to persuade masses of people to accept beliefs, take action, or follow leaders.
Particularly, this exhibition featuring the works of five artists; Gan Chin Lee, Chong Kim Chew, Gan Sze Hooi, Ruzeki Harris and Siund Tan is an effort to translate current and recurring social issues through a personal artistic approaches. These artists have demonstrated a fair share of concern towards their environment, and recognized the potential of visual art capable to delivers important messages to the public. Although each works possessed a personal attribution, nevertheless the thoughtfulness to social cause brought them together. Title of the exhibition, ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ inspired by the song with the same title by Rage Against the Machine. The song was written in support of Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther movement convicted of killing the Philadelphia police in 1981. Abu-Jamal was a radio host in Philadelphia, where he was referred to as “The Voice of the Voiceless” for his exposure of issues in poor and underrepresented communities. In this sense, the exhibition does not rally for the cause of any particular or specific individual or entity, rather shared a sense of responsibility to respond to the marginalized realities.
Gan Chin Lee epitomized old expression and translated it into a poetical painting inscribed with a commentary of recent political event. The series of painting, namely The City Tales, directed to the specific events and issues of the nation, such as BERSIH rally, immigration, illegal business, and high court controversy. Although some of the painting appear to be straight forward, Chin Lee approaches to infused each painting with proverb extending its meaning beyond the appearing images. One of the series, City Tales VIII “Bagai Aur dengan Tebing” (meaning great relationship or cooperation) recounted the clash between Bersih supporter and police in one of the series of Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur. In this context, Chin Lee attempts to reframe the both visual and text in its subtlety, linking the knowledge of the past within contemporaneity framework.
Stressing on displacement as his general theme, Chong Kim Chiew navigates within a dialectic of self and others, outside and inside, inclusion and exclusion; while investigating the history, politic and power governing the real and imagine boundaries. His works explore the relation of constant shift of these border – constructed by geo-politic and global hegemony – towards an individual and society. By intervening the physical site, the artist altered the mobility in specific places that tend to develop a sense of identification, distinguishing territory and the formation of self-belonging.
Cities are the place to be these days, which means big changes for the historic communities that have populated urban cores. The constant urbanization and revitalization projects resulting an inevitable displacement and gentrification. In this particular work, Gan Sze Hooi highlights the struggle of Kampung Hakka community facing with the changing landscape resulted from development. Kampung Hakka was originally a tin mining village located in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan with 120 years of history and tradition since its establishment. Directly involve with the community, Sze Hooi artworks operates as a symbol of perpetual battle of the community during the rise and fall of the tin mining industry. The melancholy and somber feeling cast the uncertainty and mystery against the barren landscape illustrate the reality of face by the community in declining environment they lived in.
Language and visual symbols – the substance of political rhetoric – help to mobilize people. Adopting street art attitude, Ruzeki Harris fused an iconoclastic and satirical takes on current social and political issues. The message was direct, imbued with the raw and gestural expression that projects angst and discontent. The wig, in this painting, is particularly part of the court dress tradition wore by the judges. Against the flat background, the subject turn into an obscurity taken out of its original context. While the wig rendered in intricate details, the sprayed mark on the painting leaves an impression of vandalism; express in disagreement.
The explosion of industrial revolution in the 18th century Europe paved the way to current global economic system, capitalism. In today’s ever expanding world of materialism, we find our self subjected to subjugation and alienation. With the unstable economic situation, individuals were reduced to figures and seen as commodities. Siund Tan translated these pernicious situations in a highly stylized figurative painting stressing the hierarchical reality of modern society. The surreal ambience saturating the painting reminisce the ambiguity and anxiety of the current situation.
Art doesn’t solve problem. But art change people, and people have the capability to solve the problems.
 See Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 2 – 3. “Modern art operated not only as a machine of inclusion of everything that was not regarded as art before its emergence but also as a machine of exclusion of everything that imitated already existing art patterns in a naive, unreflective, unsophisticated—nonpolemical—manner, and also of everything that was not somehow controversial, provocative, challenging. But this means: The field of modern art is not a pluralistic field but a field strictly structured according to the logic of contradiction. It is a field where every thesis is supposed to be confronted with its antithesis. In the ideal case the representation of thesis and antithesis should be perfectly balanced so that they sum to zero.”
 Ibid, 4 – 5. “Under the conditions of modernity an artwork can be produced and brought to the public in two ways: as a commodity or as a tool of political propaganda. The amounts of art produced under these two regimes can be seen as roughly equal. But under the conditions of the contemporary art scene, much more attention is devoted to the history of art as commodity and much less to art as political propaganda.”
 See Terry Smith, “Our Contemporaneity” in Contemporary Art 1989 to the Present, ed. A. Dumbadze and S. Hudson (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 18 – 19.
By Azzad Diah Ahmad Zabidi
- Gan Sze Hooi
- Chong Kim Chiew
- Gan Chin Lee