Photo credit in this review: Tara Sosrowardoyo, Ahmad Zakii Anwar & RogueArt
HERE’S a very readable book on contempary art. Working, published by art consultancy group RogueArt is one of those rare reads on the making of art — the process of creation, the thinking behind the making and how the artist’s space and tools correspond with the creative process and its outcome.
From a personal standpoint, literature on local contemporary art can sometimes sound a little stuffy-upper-crusty. Sharon Chin says: “Why must curators and critics write in a so-called ‘objective’ or distanced way (often resulting in the use of jargon) in order to seem authoritative?” (Read her full article here). To be fair, though, I believe that the usage of jargon is sometimes unavoidable, particularly where critical art writing is concerned.
But first, to put things into perspective. Yes, the artistic landscape has become a lot livelier in recent years with all the art shows and launches that’s been going on; however, this is not reflected in the art literature and resource material (exhibition catalogues not included) that are available. Sad, but true. There are a number of reasons for this including shortage of specialist writers, limited or inadequate funding, the lack of people to mobilise such literary endeavours, and not enough interest from the general public (but this, IMHO, presents a chicken-and-egg scenario). And because of that, I am glad for the existence of the Arteri site, as well as SentAp! and ArtMalaysia magazines which help keep Malaysians updated with what’s happening in the art world.
Back to the subject: Working makes for another interesting addition to the current stash of art literature out there.
The book is sectioned according to its 10 featured artists: painters Ahmad Fuad Osman, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Chong Siew Ying, Hamir Soib, Kow Leong Kiang, and Jalaini Abu Hassan (Jai); sculptors Raja Shariman Raja Aziddin and Ramlan Abdullah, and Yee I-Lann, who works with photomedia. In terms of selection criteria, the artists are contemporaries in their artistic maturity and standing in the industry; it would be difficult to have a fair ‘comparison’ without a level playing field, says RogueArt director Adeline Ooi.
Working is extremely accessible with no use of jargon, so even the uninitiated will find this a breeze. The writers have employed a basic question-and-answer style, giving it a very candid and, for want of a better word, intimate feel. The layout is tasteful and similar to that of high society magazines or coffee table books, with large copy and even larger photographs, many of which are spread across two pages. What also helps to set the mood is the forward, which describes how interviews were conducted as well as some important observations. This gives readers an idea of what to look out for and helps them understand why some questions were asked and how they related to the topic at large.
I was most drawn to the studio and its importance to the artists. Artists often work in solitude and the studio is, after all, the inner sanctum, the Most Holy Place to which they withdraw to do battle within themselves and begin the process of creation. Thus, the presence of cameras and strangers in their studio was a severe invasion of privacy. Asking them questions like how they made art rather than what a particular work is about (which is far more common) also presented a challenge simply because many artists work instinctively, regardless if they created from a preconceived image or from the subconscious. In many cases, the interviewers had to conduct patch interviews to ‘fill in the blanks’.
Another highlight of great importance and interest for me was the artists’ favourite tools/objects. These often hold some kind of ‘special powers’ for the artists — a talisman, if you will — and range from ‘magic’ brushes (in Fuad’s case, it is an old, very keras brush), to a pair of ‘magic’ pants (Zakii paints with his ‘magic’ Calvin Klein khakis) and even the studio walls (Hamir, who paints large-scale works cannot do without huge spaces to prop his canvases).
Brief biographies of the artists have been thoughtfully included at the end of each section for the benefit of those interested.
Of course, pictures say a thousand words and what added to Working‘s allure was the beautiful photography by principal photographer, Indonesian Tara Sosrowardoyo whose portfolio happens to include seven TIMES covers and more. It helped that Tara is interested in and familiar with the local art scene and his photographs gave Working a warm, fuzzy kind of familiarity. Photo credit must also be given to Zakii who took quite a number of shots for the book.
Understandably, Working is not an all-encompassing representation of how Malaysian artists-at-large create art; to try and feature more artists than these 10 would deviate from its actual focus group, not to mention becoming overkill. Too much of a good thing, as they say…
Like every project, there is bound to be a naysayer or two out there. One can criticise on the selection of artists (smacking of cronyism, imbalanced, inaccurate representation), to the purpose of the project (vainglory, indulgence of ego) or even its size (too big, too difficult to read), but then we all know the saying, ‘those who can — do; those who can’t — criticise’. At the end of the day, the point is that these people have done something for art, nevermind their intentions.
It is important to add that Working was entirely self-financed from the proceeds of artworks sold by the featured artists (one artwork per artist) early this year. The book will be donated to local art educational institutions, libraries and galleries and is already available in bookstores. For more information, read my article in the Star here.
Since we’re on the subject of the article, I’d like to say that the interview process was fun. For one thing, it gave me an excuse to meet these personalities without having to rack my brains for a topic of conversation. Those of you whose internal public relations mode occasionally breaks down will agree with me that having a preset conversation topic is a blessing.
In my original copy, I had included some quotes by the project committee members which gave the story a more casual feel, and also allowed the reader a more intimate grasp of what the team had faced in the making of Working. However, space ruled (as it always does in the newsroom), and those quotes were, unfortunately, omitted — not that it in anyway altered the gist of the story.
The committee also mentioned the possibility of making the book or a part of it available online to increase its accessibility once distribution is sorted out. Keeping my fingers crossed and hoping it happens. Also hoping for more literature on Malaysian art. Keep it coming!