Review of MATAHATI: FOR YOUR PLEASURE exhibition. Published in Off The Edge, Nov 2008.

Matahati

Matahati was formed in 1989 between a group of friends who met during their art school days at UiTM. Out of the original seven, it now consists of five artists with established careers in their own right: Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Masnoor Ramli Mahmood, Hamir Soib @ Mohamed, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed and Ahmad Fuad Osman.

For Your Pleasure was a major survey of their works over the last 15 years. Organized by Galeri Petronas, it ran from 29 Feb – 13 April earlier this year. The exhibition was stunning in its extraordinary breadth and depth – more than a hundred works from 20 collections displayed across 4 venues, accompanied by a lavish publication featuring substantial essays locating Matahati as a group as well as examining each member’s individual practice.

The exhibition’s impressive and unfamiliar grandeur of scale provided a spectacle that was difficult to separate from the art itself. Time has allowed distance and the ability to see more clearly.

For Your Pleasure seemed to indicate the return of a national institution to the foreground of visual art in Malaysia, which for some time now has been devoid of an established ‘center’. This has resulted in a Malaysian rakyat largely unused to seeing art displayed as if it matters – for we lack an awareness of even a tedious, officially- sanctioned ‘national art’; the very notion of art itself has been pushed to the periphery of public perception and concern. For the arts community, institutional recognition of Matahati’s work heralds another sort of center-periphery dynamic – that art which was previously seen to be ‘rebellious’ – that is, art whose subject matter confronts social issues and communicates them in a direct and uncompromising manner – is now not only acceptable, but celebrated.

That there is a profound rift between the rakyat’s notion of art and that of arts practitioners is made all the more apparent by For Your Pleasure, precisely because Matahati’s work is seen to be strongly infused with social commentary. In her essay, For Your Pleasure curator June Yap quotes Lida Geh reporting on Matahati’s first exhibition in 1993: ‘the social message is supreme in all their works, it is almost as if they must imbue every work with an urgent meaning.’

Two separate articles [1] about For Your Pleasure published on Kakiseni inadvertently reveal and confirm the existence the above-mentioned rift. Rachel Jenagaratnam’s ‘Heads On, Hands Off’ is an anecdotal piece focusing on her subjective experience of visiting the main show at Galeri Petronas. She describes two instances of fellow visitors carelessly (albeit innocently) touching the art in the gallery. Nur Hanim Kharuddin’s article however is much more ‘art historical’, beginning with ‘sesiapa sahaja yang bergelumang dalam bidang seni tampak negara sudah tentu sahaja sedar akan kehadiran sekumpulan 5 orang pelukis ini’ and goes on to note that ‘segelintir menggelar mereka sebagai ‘rock-stars of the art scene’ dengan sejumlah ‘groupies’ yang terdiri dari pelbagai strata masyarakat.’

‘Rock-stars of the art scene’ versus a public that pokes paintings with joyous irreverence – what does this tell us about the role of art in Malaysia’s social-political landscape?

Wong Hoy Cheong outlined an essential conflict between center and periphery, rebellion and complicity, when he spoke of Malaysian artists (including himself, no doubt) in an interview with Krishen Jit in the 1990s: ‘the majority of young artists would find no awkward contradictions between rebellion and a need for the support of the dominant art institution. But I see this as a development of a parasitic culture. It is a contradiction that needs to be discussed and confronted although, at this point, I don’t know whether this tension can or needs to be resolved. You are critical of the power structures and yet you are dependent on these very powers to legitimate and evaluate the worthiness of your work.’ [2]

While I am in agreement that resolution is neither required nor possible at this stage, it is clear that, even more than a decade later, we are no closer to confronting this acutely observed contradiction. As a result, our ideas about art and its relationship to social life remains stagnant – we vacillate between a fervent championing of ‘art for social change’ (bringing art to the people) or aloof scepticism (which has its roots in pessimism). In between lies art (including the art of Matahati and of this writer) that, to varying degrees, seeks to validate itself by drawing imagery, materiality and other resources from the social environment around it.

Meanwhile, although it exhibits an endearing enthusiasm for physically touching art, the public remains mostly indifferent to being touched by it in any sense, whether profound or otherwise. This humbling and somewhat painful reality returns us to what really lies at the heart of Wong’s above-mentioned inconsistency about rebellion and institutional support: perhaps it is driven not so much by an insecurity about one’s status and position in the Art World (although this is rife), but rather a more profound insecurity about the place of art in the world. This fear is not confined to the modest shores of our great country. I speculate that it is what drives the proliferation of art Biennales and Triennials around the world – as if in the face of war, famine and terrorism, art can only remain relevant via grandiose spectacle; as if visibility equates to pertinence.

But I digress. In Malaysia, institutionalization of art has taken on a different character. The past 5 years or so has seen a decline of state arts infrastructure no less pathetic for the rapidity with which it has occurred. Plagued with a defective building, a rotating roster of directors, and a singular lack of vision, Balai Seni Lukis Negara is like a central core that has been hollowed out – adrift in uncertainty and trailing with it a flotsam of existing yet dysfunctional infrastructure. The effect this is having on artists and practitioners is complex, yet not without merit. It means that a great deal of creative and critical activity is now concentrated in artists, writers, independent collectives, commercial galleries and private collectors. Energy and vitality have abandoned the traditional center and taken root in the periphery.

But for this child of Mahatir at least, and no doubt many others, existence without a center is difficult to imagine and sustain – for without a center there is nothing to rebel against. What is left is self-determinism – the essence of independence. For Your Pleasure is interesting because, until perhaps 2 years ago, Galeri Petronas itself also seemed to be deteriorating into redundancy as an art institution. Increasingly however, it is becoming an active player again, perhaps the active player in time to come – commissioning new works and publications, curating exhibitions, participating in regional and international projects and producing shows of such ambitious scale as this Matahati retrospective. How will the arts community react to the presence of an active center once again?  Do we blindly embrace the new resources and opportunities for recognition available to us, or do we take this opportunity to reflect on the role art really plays in society – to question its pitfalls and potentialities? For while it is true that institutions have resources which allow art to reach a wider audience, as long as art remains marginalised in the minds (lives) of the people, no institution alone, and no art, regardless of how ardently it aspires to social activism, is able to make it less so.

Whither then Malaysian art? Or if were discussing this at a mamak, so how, now? It is not the intention of this article to cast as futile the endeavours of art institutions or art itself. Indeed, For Your Pleasure is a milestone event – it has allowed for scholarship and critical analysis of the Matahati group and its members, assembled a vast collection of their works in varying media which would otherwise not have been seen together, and significantly, it has mobilized the resources of curators, writers and venues to produce an exhibition that allows us to see the work of Matahati in some context. These aspects have been widely addressed in other reviews and articles about the show. No, my purpose is to put forth this argument: that art which contains social messages or imagery does not necessarily equate to it being less detached from social- political life in the active sense, despite institutional recognition and the higher visibility it accords.

This is not the ‘fault’ of the art or the institution. Neither am I pushing for us to harness our art practices under the yoke of activism or politics. Instead, art itself must be seen in a wider context. Writing about art and its social function in 1923 Leon Trotsky asserted that art was socially active and could not be separated from life and the environment from which it emerged, but condemned as ridiculous any attempt to make it serve the purposes of ideology, even that of his own – Marxism: ‘Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital!’ He believed that ‘religion, law, morals and art represent separate aspects of one and the same process of social development. Though they differentiate themselves from their industrial basis, become complex, strengthen and develop their special characteristics in detail, politics, religion, law, ethics and aesthetics remain, nonetheless, functions of social man and obey the laws of his social organization.’ [3]

For us, it is clear that Malaysia is undergoing a great and fundamental change that will affect all aspects of culture. The decay of our national institutions reflects accurately the rot of 50 years of BN-UMNO led bureaucracy, and art has likewise suffered. According to Trotsky, who wrote subsequently on art and politics in 1938 while exiled in Mexico and having seen the complete perversion of the socialist revolution under Stalin, ‘Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.

To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably – as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery – unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution.’ [4]

From this, I argue that the challenge of art in Malaysia today is not how to remain relevant or to gain for itself a slice of pie perceived to be rapidly descending towards chaos. It is to preserve, embrace and see itself as part of the spirit of universal change, without itself needing to be a driving agent of that change. ‘Now as ever, the role of art is determined by its relation to the revolution’. As artists, writers, curators and myriad lovers of the arts, we must cast off the fear of inadequacy and powerlessness in the face of social and political transformation. Let us not see our institutions as a security blanket to rail against when they fail us and then pander to when they court us; let us instead use them as a tool to wage a true rebellion – the rebellion for change not just in art, but for a better Malaysia.

MATAHATI: FOR YOUR PLEASURE, 29 Feb – 13 Apr 2008 at various venues, organized by Galeri Petronas.

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[1] R. Jenagaratnam, Heads On, Hands Off and Nur Hanim Khairuddin, For Your Pleasure: Kemuncak Nikmat Kesenian Matahati (March 2008)

[2] Quoted in Art Criticism in Malaysia – The Problem of Writing Malaysian Art by Eddin Khoo in Art Corridor Issue 11

[3] L. Trotsky, The Social Roots and the Social Function of Literature (1923)

[4] L. Trotsky, Art and Politics in Our Epoch (June 1938)