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Pathfinder#PC12, the eagerly anticipated solo by cult favorite contemporary artist Masnoor Ramli Mahmud, is based on a journey the artist made through Northern America, Greenland and Iceland to reach England. Masnoor joined an adventurous group of aviators on a voyage escorting a Pilatus PC-12 plane, which is a single-engine, single-propeller aircraft, generally meant for passenger and cargo transport. Pathfinder#PC12 documents the two-week maiden journey of this particular private plane. Documenting the actual experience of travel in his signature narrative style, Masnoor chronicles his expedition via a stunning series of paintings and photographs, thus deconstructing the fundamental desires for exploration and adventure inherent within mankind.
Tales of mankind’s desire to fly are as old as humanity itself. The earliest legends, such as the Greek myth of Daedales and his ill-fated son Icarus, tell of men fastening birdlike wings, cloaks and other devices to themselves in an attempt to conquer the skies; later inventors such as Leonardo Da Vinci would attempt to come up with workable mechanics to allow humans to take to the sky. While the invention of the airplane was the result of theories and tests that spanned several centuries, the official recognition of the first airplane is attributed to the Wright Brothers in 1903. Since then the aviation industry has exploded, and today in the twenty-first century, flying is so entrenched in the fabric of modern day travel, it is taken for granted. Pathfinder#PC12 examines the role travel and flying occupy within the human psyche, presenting an alternative perspective that Masnoor intertwines with ideas of nationalism in the twenty-first century that he gleaned along the way.
Masnoor was inspired by his journey accompanying a Pilatus PC-12 on its maiden voyage from North America to England. Dotted with frequent stops and specific conditions necessitated by the plane’s make up, the voyage differed greatly from the usual flight from North America to England today. Due to the single-engine, and single- propeller-based nature of the Pilatus PC-12, which is unable to handle long, direct flights like a jumbo jet can, the route traveled from Denver to London was highly specific. What would take nine hours on a regular, non-stop commercial airline flight became a
two-week long journey. Taking off in Denver, the team would pit stop in small private airports around the USA every two or three hours, until they reached Canada. They then continued onto Greenland, Iceland and Scotland, before arriving in London, the final destination. In this way, the artist was offered a rare glimpse into the technicalities of flight and plane collection, and a unique insight into the physical and social landscapes, current and historical, of the areas visited on the expedition.
Malaysia was hit hard by the dual tragedies of MH370 and MH17. These incidents make it an interesting time for conversations on Pathfinder#PC12. Flying in the twentieth century has become effortless; it is now possible to cross the globe in twenty-four hours, a journey which historically would necessitate ships, and months of sailing. In this particular journey, certain sections of the flight had strict regulations; for instance when crossing the Atlantic, the passengers had to wear special thermal suits, so they wouldn’t contract hypothermia should the plane have to make an emergency landing in the ocean. Clearly, flying long distances on a single propeller plane opens up a lot of risks and uncertainty, and in the era of the jumbo jet, the question arises why anyone would choose to fly under such precarious conditions? The answer lies in the pleasure found in traveling, and appreciation aviators have for the act of flying, as expressed in the painting “Jackson Halloway”. The length of the canvas is covered in a close-up of the body of the plane, cropped in a manner that renders it almost abstract. Without clues, such as the silhouette of a plane overlaid like a logo on the Pilatus’ blue mid-section, or the geographical co-ordinates stenciled at the edges of the canvas, it might be difficult for the viewer to decipher what this object covering the surface really is. In a show of painterly skill, Masnoor layered reflections of the mountain range bordering the Jackson Hole Airport, along the entire length of his painted plane. The reflective surface of the painted plane simultaneously shows the beauty of the Pilatus PC-12 and the physical landscapes witnessed along the stops necessitated by the plane’s specific flight path. Masnoor then cleverly overlays a silhouette of a large bison across the canvas for which his viewers could have easily missed. Since bison is unique to North America, it is an apt symbol to mark the plane’s journey.
The landscapes of America were strikingly different from those the artist witnessed in Northern Europe, as evidenced by the contrast between the bright, sun-drenched “Jackson Halloway” and the somber, grey-toned “Norseman”. The majority of “Norseman”’s canvas is covered by a map of Iceland, with a partial shadow of the Pilatus
PC -12 falling over it. A bleak grey background stretches across the top third of the work. Iceland is known for its scenic landscapes filled with volcanoes and auroras, and the artist was struck how different it is to Malaysia’s tropical scenery. Masnoor’s entire time in Iceland was marked by stormy weather, leading to a predominantly grey hue that tinges even the large yellow map. A tall Viking, holding a spear aloft, seems to be leading a charge across the map, which is a replication of the maps used in Medieval Times. Masnoor incorporates Viking imagery throughout Pathfinder#PC12, understanding them to be among the original explorers. Through their often-violent explorations, the Vikings’ influence has been deeply entrenched in Europe for centuries. European nations’ subsequent colonizations of most of the world have since led to a lingering impact of the original Norsemen, not only within the continent, but globally. Masnoor found himself fascinated by the way the Viking expeditions resulted in large- scale migrations, which has ensured their culture maintained its relevance up until present times, underscoring the cultural advantages gained from explorations.
While Viking icons might describe past natives of Europe, Masnoor was equally struck by the present-day inhabitants he met along the way, such as the little Greenlander girl his audience meets in “Narsarsuaq”. Beginning by painting the flag of Greenland over the entire canvas, Masnoor proceeds to juxtapose an image of the Pilatus PC-12 against an old world map. The repeated inclusion of old maps throughout Pathfinder#PC12 is a reminder of the ways in which people traveled historically. By overlaying images of the propeller plane on these maps, Masnoor speaks about technological advances shrinking the world. While acknowledging the benefits such advancements bring, he asks his viewer to contemplate the possible flip-side of increasingly homogenous societies. Creating tension between current and classical imagery and thought is a tenant of contemporary art, as it describes the development of society as the world rapidly progresses.
Along the way, Masnoor reflected on the histories and anthologies of the societies he encountered, linking their characteristics and fates to Malaysia, in an attempt to describe the border less state global society finds itself in today. One of the most striking works in this series is “Immigrant”, featuring a portrait of the Native American Indian warrior, Geronimo, set against a background of Mount Rushmore. The top of the painting features the text “Homeland Security” and replicas of American passport control stamps, with “Fighting for Terrorism Since 1492” inscribed at the base of the
canvas. Masnoor considers Geronimo, who fought hard for his people and his land against the invaders, a hero for Native American Indians. In the end, Geronimo surrendered to the enemy, which Masnoor reason was his only choice due to the continuous slaughter of his tribe by European settlers. Turning to local Malaysian history, the artist further questions on who would be the Malaysian equivalent of Geronimo, who fought against colonialism and oppression? He speaks to the need within Malaysian society to better disseminate information on who the heroes of our society are, reasoning this will bring a much-needed stronger sense of patriotism.
Additionally, as a Malay, Masnoor was personally struck by the histories of the Native American Indians who originally populated America, and the realities of their post- colonial fate. He easily relates this to the post-colonial landscape of modern Malaysia and the resultant economic and political struggles faced by Malaysians. The phrase “Fighting for Terrorism Since 1492” struck the artist as a justification by the new settlers in displacing the original inhabitants of America, and he compares it to the ability of the Malaysian Malays to avoid a similar fate by way of the NEP and social contract in the constitution.
The expressive triptych “Go My Hero…For the Love of the Country” continues this thought. Full of rugged, typically Northern American terrain, the base of the large central panel is lined with a row of four Native American Indian warriors. They hold guns, a mark of the precarious relationship the indigenous Americans had with the settlers. These portraits of the Native American Indian warriors represent those who eventually lost their land and their home. On the left is a painting of a General, and there is a portrait of a young soldier and his wife on the panel at the right. Masnoor depicts the settlers flanking the Native American Indians as they closed in and fought them for land. Eventually the settlers emerged victorious and the landscape of America today has been dictated by their influence. The title is highly suggestive of the situation at the time the European settlers were colonizing the American continent. “Go My Hero…For the Love of the Country” is clearly a statement by an English speaker, underlining the sentiment amongst the settlers that this land they had discovered was theirs to colonize. Masnoor paints a memorial to those whom he views as the real Americans, and speaks a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of succumbing to colonialism, the loss of cultural identity, and the displacement that follows. Again, he contrasts the fate of the Native American Indians who, having lost control on their land, find themselves
living in squalor as the minority in America, against that of the Malays, who today enjoy economic success and mass migration into urban areas as the majority, due to the successes of the government’s policies.
“Go My Hero…For the Love of the Country” is an example of Masnoor’s affinity for capturing gestures and emotions in his paintings as opposed to perfect realism. The landscape and figures he has painted, not only in “Go My Hero…For the Love of the Country” but throughout Pathfinder#PC12 exemplify the use of his skill set as a base from which he is able to break free, and express his narrative thought process. Indeed, the increase in layered, multicultural societies around the world has necessitated a broader visual language. Given that art mimics the state of society, this has naturally led to a sharp rise in multidisciplinary artists, which is how Masnoor is categorized. When the artist feels realism is the vehicle most suited to expressing his concepts, he switches to photography, as he has done with the limited edition set of photographs accompanying his paintings and mixed media works in this solo. Shying away from describing himself as a photographer, the artist instead describes his carefully composed photographs as paintings, albeit with a camera instead of a brush.
The mechanical beauty of the Pilatus PC-12 struck Masnoor. Throughout the journey he took a series of photographs, so as to document the plane’s form and surface at its peak. Masnoor cropped the images into squares, choosing ten that were then blown up to four feet by four feet in size. Flanked on all sides by a black border they are reminiscent of Polaroid pictures. Printed on aluminum, and finished with a matte surface, the photographs invoke reflective elements of the plane itself, without appearing mirror-like themselves. The unusual, dreamy quality of the colors is a result of the experimental printing process Masnoor utilized. Normally, the printing of images requires four base colors, one of which is white; here however the artist employed only three colors. The neutral grey of the aluminum acts as a substitute for the white, and so the final colors are less intense, while the textural quality of the aluminum itself is maintained.
Through his work, Masnoor strikes up conversations on the world he lives in, drawing inspiration from his exploration of his surroundings. Pathfinder#PC12 is a stunning example of his ability to absorb his surroundings, weaving narratives through images. Mixing together symbols is a particular strength of his, particularly in the easy manner
with which he connects international and local icons, demonstrating his innate understanding of the fabric of the global society that exists in the twenty-first century. This understanding of the contemporary environment he lives in is further bolstered by his ability to switch between mediums, as can be seen through the mix of painting and photography in Pathfinder#PC12. Indeed, Masnoor’s ability to understand and relate history and anthropology, through an activity as technical as collecting a private plane, marks the natural affinity he has with his audience, explaining the strong pull viewers feel to this highly talented, multifaceted artist’s works