Eyeful of Statements
Contemporary art challenges the perception that art should only be pleasing to the eye, observes Samantha Joseph
IN the display space of the ArtCube Gallery in The Intermark, Kuala Lumpur a single painting takes up an entire wall. It is almost a landscape contemplation — verdant green grass rolling towards a bright blue sky — if not for the figure of a garbage collector to the left, slightly stooped, in the company of litter and dull dumpsters. It’s an orchestrated contrast between the pristine environment and the man who cleans it, a man and a vocation considered dirty, and the maestro here is Mohd Fazli Othman, also known as Chik.
The work, Selepas Majlis, is accompanied by Malas — Sleeping Mask, a rubbish collector in grimy orange curled up in white sheets, and follows Chik’s previous pieces on environmental consciousness. Earnest and easygoing, Chik wears the traditional uniform of contemporary artists — jeans, T-shirt and an unruly mop of hair.
Interaction With The Environment
He has been conceptualising works on domestic waste and recyclable material since 2008. The idea struck him when he witnessed a relatively mundane incident: A man in a lorry throwing trash out the window.
“He just didn’t get it. In his mind, it was so easy: Roll down the window, throw the trash. Easy. And I wondered, really, what’s going on. What’s happening to people? Where’s the adab when we interact with the environment?” he questions.
Methodical, Chik draws on experience to fuel his paintings, putting himself in the situation that he wishes to highlight. The garbage collector seen in his various works is, in fact, himself. This Universiti Teknologi Mara Manjung art lecturer carried out a year of research, donning the orange jumpsuit and white bandanna to study the aspects of a garbage collector’s daily grind. In a sense, these works are self portraits, a reflection of the artist and the cause he believes in.
His research only cemented this observation. Chik recounts an expedition to a night market, where he and a few friends set out garbage bags and bins. “The people walking to and fro would still throw trash on the ground. It’s not that hard to lift the bin cover and throw the rubbish in but they would still throw it around the bin or on top of it.
After my research, I realised that for people these days, there is an understanding that’s been lost about our adab and trash, our adab and recycling.”
His works aim to highlight this loss, and to bring attention to our interaction with the environment.
Art, he believes, should make a statement.
“If you show this work to 10 people and then ask them what their perception is, maybe a few would get it correct. That allows me to come in and tell my story, the story of this work. To me, every work needs to have its story, needs to have its statement. It’s the (search for) that statement that allows the artist to mature,” says Chik.
Ever since he began this series, he says, there have been galleries that refuse to show his work because it deals with the subject of trash, a subject deemed dirty and ugly. Our own photographer, mulling over Selepas Majlis, said that it was a beautiful piece of work — but had no place in a home.
“The works deal with the environment, with domestic waste but that doesn’t mean that the end result is not something beautiful.”
For artists like Chik, the lived experience becomes part of the story of the painting, enriching it with perceptions and reactions. Using his art as a social experiment, making people question their discomfort with garbage collectors while they thoughtlessly fling cigarette boxes out of car windows or drop crumpled receipts on the street.
Dhavinder Singh represents a different breed of contemporary artist. Immaculate in a checked shirt and black-rimmed glasses, he is a physical representation of his clean, minimalistic works.
“I don’t like to complicate things,” he says of himself, an apt comment for his art as well. “My art is very minimal. This work now, in a nutshell I would say that it is a painting. What I am doing now is a painting. It’s not on a canvas but it’s a painting.”
Dhavinder’s definition of a painting may be unconventional and it follows that the medium he utilises would be a deviation from the old guards of acrylic or oil.
“I’m just actually experimenting with different mediums. So rather than using a brush and wet base paint, I use something else. There’s still colour to it but it comes in a different form. It could be anything, black sand, black soil for black and white flour to represent the white.
I’m using more natural based colours, turmeric, saffron, to get the red and the yellow.”
Eschewing cluttered landscapes that feature heavily in local and Indonesian contemporary art, Dhavinder most often uses a background devoid of colour for his works, both on canvas and installation.
In its minimalist fashion, his works are easily described as pleasing to the eye. Each piece has a sense of restraint embedded within it, a purposeful separation that grips the viewer. But Dhavinder’s pieces are deceptively simple.
For Magnum Opus: Landslide, two acrylic triangles are custom-made to his specifications, along with the clips used to mount the production. A pulley creates a parallel angle to the larger triangle, attached to a separator between the large, turmeric-filled triangle and the smaller triangle filled with black sand resting against its tip.
These spartan works, he says, have significant symbolic meaning behind them. Dhavinder’s latest works deal with the subject of multiracialism and separation. His previous piece, Magnum Opus: Disseverance, also utilising clean-cut segments of different sizes, sought to illustrate the separation between races in the country.
Landslide is a reaction to “possible socio-political fallouts” in the country, a result of the artist attempting to contextualise his experiences and observations into a three dimensional format. Both the name and the setup of the installation brings to mind a collective under the looming threat of a potential disaster — a landslide of misfortune, waiting to break.
Contemporary art lends itself to the documentation of social commentary. It is up to the artists to choose the form in which the discourse appears.
“Some people use very simple forms to convey the message,” says Dhavinder. “For example I’ve used the simplest forms, the most basic shapes of art and design — the basic elements that we have, the fundamentals of art and design.”
As simple as his works seem, there is still space for viewers to muse on the meaning. Dhavinder admits that in his chosen medium, it is difficult to directly depict the intended message, resulting in a range of reactions from the viewer.
These reactions, he says, are most welcome.
“For them, it might be a bit strange at first. For me, I would take it as a compliment if someone looked at it and wondered, what is this. I’d like that whole wondering part. I’d like them to wonder what this whole thing is about.”