“What is disrupted has become more than just land. So it’s not just about land anymore.”
When Tan Zi Hao and Jun Kit, two young Malaysian artists, were planning their upcoming exhibition, the working title was “Disrupted Origins”. However, as time passed and their works evolved, they changed the title to “Gangguan” (translating to “disturbance” or “disruption”).
Yet both artists still tackle the idea of origins: whether these are myths of nationhood in Zi Hao’s multi media works, or Jun Kit’s pen and ink drawings rooted in place and memory. Both Zi Hao and Jun Kit have previously participated in a group exhibition (Eating Wind) at Run Amok Gallery back in 2013 but this is the first time they will both be debuting a comprehensive series of works each.
When I met the artists to talk about the exhibition, the evening was punctuated by a drizzle and the interview started almost two hours late in a noisy restaurant. You could say that these were minor gangguan as well. After all, our lives are constantly marked by certain disturbances that either directly or indirectly influence us in the way we think and react.
Zi Hao’s multi media artworks have an unmistakable political undertone and they certainly provoke thought and reactions. As well as being a multi disciplinary artist who works with photography, installation and performance art, Zi Hao is a writer who is currently pursuing an MA in International Relations. In Gangguan, his works often use language to critique the socio-political climate of Malaysia.
In “The Danger of Translation Lies In That Which is Left Untranslated”, Zi Hao presents sets of words in English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Punjabi. These are sets of words which are translated to be the “same”. Yet they bear different connotations once the language changes: something has been lost in the process.
Another striking work consists of three drip stands attached to three similar pots of soil: “Sejarah Melayu: Retention and Erosion at the Bank of a Running River”. Zi Hao reflects back with a chuckle on how he got his inspiration when he was in hospital with dengue fever some time back: “Drip stands are like parasites but yet it is supporting you, it’s for your own good. It is an analogy to the current situation, on how the government treats the Malays. They’re supporting the race, but still playing the ethnocentric card by stirring up emotions.”
Other pieces relate to our heritage, and the irony that we often don’t appreciate it until it’s gone. Zi Hao attempts to depict this contradiction through “Extraterrestrial Solids” with the brightly painted concrete fragments he collected from Pudu Jail, Jalan Sultan and Kampung Hakka respectively.
“Heritage stands out from other buildings, like modern structure. We can never truly appreciate heritage as a whole, we can only appreciate fragments of heritage,” says Zi Hao.
Are galleries still a “safe space” for artists?
“How then, does art relate to people in a confined space? Do you think the impact of your work lessens within a confined space?” I ask him. Zi Hao replies that art in the gallery could initiate debate. “The gallery becomes a safe space for artists to work with. But if I’m going to exhibit in a public space, I might chose a different subject matter or a different method to do something.”
Yet I couldn’t help being curious: in light of the recent removal of artworks from the exhibition Bakat Muda Sezaman at the National Art Gallery, are galleries still a “safe space” for artists?
“The disadvantage of your work being taken down is that your work becomes interpreted as something that is so black and white. There is no longer any space for discussion, it has become a symbol of anti-government agenda,” says Zi Hao. “You get a lot of publicity but the negative aspect is that the discussions you want to generate becomes narrower.”
“But the good thing is that it will be debated by a larger volume of people because I think very few people visit galleries” continues Jun Kit.
Jun Kit is a graphic designer, illustrator, and art director whose works have been featured in magazines like The B-Side, Esquire Malaysia and many more. Yet he does not focus on the digital medium. His work in Gangguan consists of ink drawings, depicting abstract humanoid figures intermingling with representations of nature.
“I wanted to feel something tangible, to hold something and work with real ink and real lines. I think craft is missing from our scene especially in the design world and I’d like to break from that convention.”
Jun Kit’s drawings adopt a Surrealist flavour, crossing into the borders of the imaginary and the figurative. His collection could be divided into three series and derive from his memory fragments of a certain place or time. To describe it more accurately, his works are evocative of his feelings or bonds to the particular space.
Take for example, “Memory Mantin”. The stark linoleum on print images of village life. This “love letter to Mantin” reflects on the current development that is demolishing old villages such as the 100 year old Kampung Hakka. It is a series that showcases Jun Kit’s connection to the place in which he grew up in and his familial ties to the land on which they live. While they do not live in Kampung Hakka itself, they too feel the impact and uncertainty of the development.
“Toyol Rave” is another intriguing and quirky example that explores the boundaries of imagination. Jun Kit tells me that he often travels by train. The passing landscape of foliage took on new forms in his imagination, especially during night as he imagined unseen occupants partying, invisible to our eye.
While Jun Kit’s work does not take on the same political critique as Zi Hao’s, both artists agree that the artist has a social role to play in making the invisible into the visible. “Maybe people will discover some other opinion or a different realisation. Have different viewpoints,” says Jun Kit.
What I took away from Gangguan was the challenge for people to address the ongoing disturbances instead of brushing them under the carpet where they will lay forgotten and unresolved. This is definitely one exhibition that calls for its audiences to reflect deeply.