Malaysia makes history with the country’s first ever National Pavilion at the world-renowned 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia this year. It’s an important moment for Malaysia and Malaysian art as the exhibition highlights the development of the country’s contemporary art practices. The pavilion also celebrates the beauty and complexity of Malaysian culture and its recently renewed cultural identity and transformation.
Four eminent Malaysian artists – Anurendra Jegadeva, H.H. Lim, Ivan Lam and Zulkifli Yusoff – are representing the country in an exhibition titled Holding Up a Mirror. The exhibition contemplates identity in its various forms – self, society, culture and history – at a time of immense political and social change. It ultimately echoes the overarching theme of the Biennale, May You Live in Interesting Times, set by curator Ralph Rugoff for the 2019 edition.
Integrating narratives of diaspora and migration, the artists represent these different ethnicities and origins, their religious and cultural roots as well as the many histories embedded in the Malaysian identity. The phrase Holding Up a Mirror simply means ‘to depict something as it really is’. Within the global context, the exhibition takes as its starting point the notion of identity as the space where the personal and the public intersect, where myth and history collide, and where national and international perspective is constructed.
Zulkifli Yusoff’s Kebun Pak Awang (Mr Awang’s Garden) is an ode to a way of life and values, which are being eroded today. His use of different media and techniques is protean, ranging from print-making, sculpture, painting and drawing. The installation comprises a cornucopia of wooden objects mounted on opposite walls and arranged in a geometric pattern. Leitmotifs taken from tropical fruits like papaya, bananas, durians and jackfruit are overlaid onto a neat grid, suggesting the trappings of a more structured cultivation. The entire scenography is set in the 1970s era when the country’s development was regarded as a collective responsibility for all.
Penangite artist H.H. Lim is exhibiting two bodies of work entitled Timeframes: Four Seasons, a triptych painting and Comment Sense, which comprises Sitting Sculptures, a compilation of chairs, along with four short video films Patience, Enter the Parallel World, Red Room and Falo.
Timeframes is an anthology of cerebral and physical journeys of the self, and actions attempting to transpose the abstract into a physical subject matter. In Sitting Sculptures, Lim invites the public to sit on these chairs and view the work adjacent to each other. Sitting on these random chairs allows visitors to fully apprehend the importance of the chair as an object of physical and metaphorical support; our silent uncomplaining companion for rest, play, work and dining.
Anurendra Jegadeva’s installation Yesterday, in a Padded Room, on the other hand, is a satirical view of contemporary culture. It is based on an extract from the mythic Kedah Annals, a work of Malay literature believed to have originated in the 18th century, chronicling the foundation of the Malaysian state of Kedah. Stylistically, Jegadeva’s work is essentially a sardonic view of our love of kitsch and pastiche. The golden thrones, flashing lights and abundance of dime-store paraphernalia highlight the garish reality of our everyday desire.
Ivan Lam brings a phenomenological exploration of the space between ‘I’ and ‘we’ in his presentation, One Inch. The installation explores dualities and dichotomies in themes related to popular culture. The work consists of 19 television screens placed at eye level in a small dark room, like a receptacle of our subconscious. Interesting, the screens are juxtaposed to face the wall. Playing in a loop is a compendium of Malaysian films from the 1960s to today – the sequential play of the screens is never repeated throughout the day.
As one immerse in both darkness and light, audio and white noise, the one inch is the space between the wall and screen – and how the reversed screens feel uncomfortable and uncanny even. One Inch is a metaphor that reminds us of the importance of accessing the experience of the ‘other’, challenging our self-containment and self-assurance.
The four artists continue to question the different subjectivities of identity in its various forms, the diversity in their practices, and the wider diversity of contemporary art practice in Malaysia. When the varying personal narratives are woven into one shared fabric of public consciousness, the experience concludes with one unified identity.
The Malaysia Pavilion is commissioned by Professor Dato’ Dr. Mohamed Najib Dawa, Director General of Balai Seni Negara (National Art Gallery of Malaysia); Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture of Malaysia; and curated by Lim Wei-Ling. The inaugural Malaysia Pavilion takes place at Palazzo Malipiero, Venice from 11 May 2019 until 24 November 2019.