Essay about Australian artist Tony Twigg’s work. Published in ‘Tony Twigg: Encountering The Object‘, a book edited by Gina Fairley and published by SLOT.
I first encountered Tony Twigg’s work in Aesthetics of Addiction (2006). The exhibition was the culmination of a yearlong residency at Rimbun Dahan, a lush estate an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur city center. A curious title – the negative, turbid associations of the word ‘addiction’ seemed at odds with the elegantly restrained constructions on display.
Aesthetics of Addiction centered on a found object: discarded fish boxes discovered at a nearby construction site. In the sense that addiction has connotations with highly personal, compulsive behavior, a closer inspection indeed revealed intense fixation upon the identification and exploration of that specific object.
One work in particular encapsulated this heightened attention. Bearing the same title as the exhibition, it consisted of two fish boxes stacked on top of the other. (The Aesthetics of Addiction, 2005, enamel paint on found objects, 115 x 39 x 19 cm) The one above was treated to highlight the austere beauty of its wooden surface, while the one below was cut away to reveal a choice selection of half-empty bottles of local liquor. Those efficacious liquids suggested Twigg’s rich, heady experience behind his encounter with the seemingly banal fish box.
Twigg’s approach to the found object treats it as a site containing numerous material and spatial implications, which the artist unpacks through a series of formal interventions. How does this strategy sit in the Malaysian art context? Furthermore, what does it mean for an artist coming from outside the local context, to search for a mark that characterizes local time-space, using locally found materials?
Use of the found object in Malaysian art is not new. In the early 1970s, Redza Piyadasa (1939 – 2007) employed it extensively to challenge notions of meaning and perception in art. In Two Chairs (1976), he painted sections of two used chairs with plaster, leaving the rest untouched. This simple gesture destabilized the objects, causing them to straddle the worlds of reality, art, and our perceptions of both. For the most part we see this particular section of Piyadasa’s wide oeuvre as couched in terms of conceptual art of the 60s and 70s, but the notion of destabilization also informs Twigg’s contemporary practice today. Piyadasa was trying to freeze that moment in perceived time-space when a thing becomes more than what it is. In Twigg’s work however, that moment is reached and gone beyond. The fish boxes then pass firmly into the realm of art objects that yet seek to retain and heighten the essence of their original context.
This insistence on provenance whilst transforming the found object into artwork creates a tension that is also present in the very different works of Liew Kung Yu and Raja Shariman. Because of his attention to materiality, Twigg has more affinities with the latter, a sculptor and keris maker. In his landmark series Gerak Tempur [Battle Moves] (1995), Raja Shariman uses scrap metal to forge figurative sculptures of extraordinary grace and ebullience. He does nothing to hide the industrial coarseness of discarded machine parts, chains and saw blades, just as Twigg calls attention to the irregular lines and battered surfaces of the fish box. Both artists harness the intrinsic aesthetic qualities of their found objects to find or enhance new forms.
Instead of materiality, Liew Kung Yu is much more concerned with the social context of the readymade. Wadah untuk Pemimpin [Tribute to Leaders] (1999 – 2001) is inspired by a visit to Galeri Perdana, an RM16mil (AUD$5.4mil) gallery complex located on Langkawi island which houses a singularly astounding display of souvenirs, gifts, tokens and awards presented to former prime minister Tun Dr. Mahatir Mohammad during his tenure. According to Liew, these include ‘paintings, musical instruments, ceramics, porcelain pieces, glassware, woodcarvings, pewter, carpets, an ancient revolver, silk, silverware, keris, textiles, crystals, stones, blowpipe, swords, replicas of buildings, a wooden bicycle and cars.’ Taking cues from this parade of kitsch, Liew creates his own series of ‘tributes’. One is a patriotic plastic clock mounted on an ornamental frame, decorated with gilded synthetic flowers and fairy lights (Wadah #4, 2001). Another is a printed floral plate with Mahatir’s visage pasted on it, also garlanded by plastic flowers (Wadah #3, 2001). These calculated, highly kitsch constructions pose as found objects themselves. Their garish aesthetic becomes a mischievous, biting critique of the hubristic diplomatic fawning that Mahatir inspired.
In contrast, Twigg does not refer explicitly to the social context as such. Although he speaks of ‘jamming with the original maker’, his engagement is essentially formal in nature, which expands to explore perceptions of local space. The way his works stack rigid yet rickety lines on top of each other reflects the urban experience of living in a developing city like Kuala Lumpur, which is modern in so many ways, and yet calls for endless adaptation in the necessity of day-to-day life. In this respect, Twigg’s work is curiously in tune with that of Choy Chung Wei, who incidentally happened to be Malaysian artist-in-residence at Rimbun Dahan during the same time. Choy’s practice involves collecting all manner of urban detritus such as scraps of paper, packaging, cigarette butts, straws, etc, which he then collages into dense paintings. These paintings can be seen as abstract maps of the ordered chaos that is urban living. Where Twigg takes off from a single reference point – the fish box; Choy trawls the city and lays it out like a giant puzzle on canvas.
The way the two artists’ practices run in parallel with each other; converging and diverging in several places, is doubly interesting considering their different contexts. For a local audience, the question of ownership of signs in regards to Twigg’s work cannot be avoided. In an increasingly globalized world, the position from which one’s gaze originates also becomes a question of politics and power. Therefore to place his practice in the context of Malaysian art is to provide a starting point from which we may begin to look at it from both within and without.
For his part, Tony Twigg’s commitment to exploring the found object is another way of engaging closely with one’s place in the world. The rigorous attention he gives to a seemingly everyday thing expands our view of locality. In that multiplicity there lies immeasurable value.