20/11/2012 UPDATE - Fei just emailed to tell me his next solo exhibition opens on 7 Nov 2012, at Valentine Willie Fine Art, KL. Artist Talk moderated by Yap Sau Bin on 17 Nov, 4PM. It’s art ‘For the Refined and For the Masses’ – which group do YOU fall into, dear reader?

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Hello, dear readers! I’m excited to share a new series on this blog – Fertilizer Fridays!

These interviews with artist friends are about honest, casual conversation, sharing ideas + busting myths about being an artist/making art.

First up is Liew Kwai Fei. We met while working as gallery assistants. I wrote the introduction to his 2008 exhibition ‘The Rhythm of Doing’, and have a set of his minimalist, geometric paintings hanging in my bedroom.

Here he answers my questions in his characteristically poetic, sharp and sardonic way.

Photo of Fei by Minstrel Kuik. One of his paintings is in the background.
Fei standing in front of a recent painting. Photo by Minstrel Kuik. 

Just like everyone else, artists have good days and bad days. Could you describe what your working day is like, a good one and a bad one?

a) GOOD - Bad
b) BAD - Good

Life is so difficult, and humans are so fragile. Good or bad doesn’t matter, being able to work in the studio already means a grateful day.

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You studied painting at Malaysian Institute of Art. What was the most important thing you learnt there?

Have you met anyone else in the Malaysia contemporary art scene who is from an ink painting educated background?

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Like you, I had a formal art education (sculpture at Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne). Art school gave me artistic direction, but I’ve found that I needed to ‘unlearn’ alot in order to find my real creative voice. What are some of the things art education can’t give you?

Bravo! I think you are the first person to put Malaysian Institute of Art and Victorian College of the Arts on the same level. To me, a major in Ink Painting in 3 years diploma course at MIA is hardly to be recognized as formal art education.

Old folk used to say : “授人以鱼不如授人以渔”

(English translation: It is always better to teach a hungry person to fish than to give him some fish.)

Now we can say: The master teaches the young man how to fish. But he can’t guarantee if there are still any fish left in the river. 

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4 Ekor 仙人指路, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 208 x 198 cm

About education levels – I have doubts that Victorian College of the Arts was better education than MIA, it was just much more expensive! I think that raises a reality we seldom talk about honestly in Malaysia: the question about unequal hierarchy of information, related to social class and race. 

Does certain information (e.g. overseas education vs. local) have higher value in terms of access to opportunities and power? Does certain information (e.g. local knowledge, vernacular language knowledge) have higher value in terms of access to local communities and politics (also power)?

This occupies my mind alot. I get valuable insights from your artwork about this. When I see the many little parts of your paintings that you arrange differently in space, it’s like breaking down systems of meaning and remaking new ones. Can you give your thoughts?

Let’s be honest, Malaysia is run by a bureaucratic, capitalist and racist government. If both of us can enroll in UiTM to study art like our Malay artist friends, why should we have to spend lots more money to study in private colleges locally or overseas? (Our parents’ tax money pays for UiTM as well) But can we?

After talking about the dark side of what’s happening in our country, it totally destroys the mood to talk about my art work. No wonder not many people in the art scene are pleased to honestly and openly discuss this – it’s really not a modern bourgeois lifestyle art topic. 

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Orang Murah Barang Mahal 贱人贵物, 2012, Acrylic on canvas

Looking at your work over the years, there’s many different approaches. I love and highly respect artists who change and experiment, not just their ‘style’, but their whole way of looking, thinking and making. My own work is ‘all-kinds of things at once’! Sometimes I worry about seeming inconsistent and unfocused, because I don’t have a ‘strong brand’. Do you have the same worries?

Everyday our mind and body will not be the same as before: we are getting old, dying. There is some peacefulness – as we experience more, worries get less. But then comes the urgency to make something true to yourself.

But who is yourself? What you want to do? Artists live in an environment, art doesn’t come from pure vanity. The world is far beyond the control of the artist, so she needs to respond to this. The more she feels deep and understands better, the higher the chances of making good art.

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You’ve been on some artist residencies, locally and abroad. Can you explain what an ‘art residency’ is to someone who hasn’t heard the term before?

A high class culture foreign worker business/research/holiday trip. It’s a global phenomenon.

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A work from solo exhibition Color, Shape, Quantity, Scale, 2010, Acrylic on paper, Five pieces: 8.5 x 129 cm

On paper, a residency sounds like the ultimate opportunity. But I know from experience there can be down-sides. Artists often don’t feel comfortable talking about this because it makes us sound ungrateful. What are some aspects of residencies that could change in order to be more fruitful for an artist like yourself?

1) If you know the hidden agenda beforehand, then please think twice. If not, then happy-go-lucky or lucky to be unlucky.

2) It’s all about transparency and respect, which is the responsibility of both parties, the artist and the organizer

3) The most terrible organizer is the one with a ‘mercy’ attitude towards artists.

4) The artist should always remember there are no free lunches. You need to pay for everything you get. Maybe not in currency, but there are hidden costs. ‘Free’ is the most expensive price to pay.

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A work from solo exhibition Color, Shape, Quantity, Scale, 2010, Acrylic on paper, 9 pieces: dimensions variable 

Something has been bugging me for a long time about the art profession in Malaysia: the fact that galleries and collectors often take months (sometimes years!) to pay artists for works that have been sold and delivered. Has this happened to you? What do you think is the cause and how can we improve this situation?

A basic art business deal involves two or three parties. There are many factors why the buyer or middleman delays payment for what is bought. Some of this can be fixed by business law, but the major part is about trust – being responsible and caring about others in the deal.

I’ve worked in galleries for years, and I have yet to meet any gallerist doing business with good ethics or ‘full-time’ art collectors who are humble and open minded. How do improve? Sometimes a cheeky smiling face with sexy (or macho) body will do better :p

For further reading about the art economy, check out Hans Abbing’s book

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A work from solo exhibition Color, Shape, Quantity, Scale, 2010, Acrylic on paper, 12 pieces: 49 x 39 cm each

What’s next for you?

with Metta:
Listen to the whisper of my destiny.
Reading more kampung stories.
Seeing the shadow in the darkness.
Dancing with my dear lady.

and physically:
I need to learn how to be cheeky and build up my skinny body or else next year will still be hard. Haha!

Thanks, Fei.

Everyone, if you liked this fertilizer and want more, see you next Friday!

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Fei recreated his whole studio as part of the exhibition Color, Shape, Quantity, Scale in 2010. 

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Fine Print: Images are Copyright Liew Kwai Fei 2010 – 2012. All Rights Reserved. Wouldn’t hurt to ask before using. But if you’re taking them anyway, credit correctly!