FRANK ZAPPA has a song that goes: “Your mouth/Is your religion/You put your faith/In a hole like that…”
He’s right, you know. We humans spend a lot of time talking. We talk ourselves into trouble and out again. At parties we hide behind balloons of small talk. And at symposiums we generate a tremendous sense of self-importance with a lot of big talk.
But what else can we do?
Well, we could draw pictures. Which is what I did after attending a few sessions of the First ASEAN Symposium on Aesthetics, organized by the National Art Gallery under the auspices of the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information.
However, the editor wanted me to produce a few columns of words in addition to the drawings. Okay, here’s more verbiage. It’s good for you. Keeps you regular.
Please forgive me. After listening to some of the papers presented at the symposium, everything I utter sounds a bit absurd.
It was all very serious and scholarly, of course. We must develop new STRATEGIES for the visual arts. Our aesthetic traditions are in dire need of REASSESSMENT. Meaningful criteria for Contemporary Expression have to be IDENTIFIED and DISCUSSED. (Pytograhpical errorrs, if any, are regretted.)
Academia… will there ever be a cure for this deadly disease?
A purely rhetorical question, I’m afraid. But they’re so much fun to ask! Now… if Abstract Expressionism was an artistic movement spawned by the CIA, was the birth of constructivism midwifed by the KGB? Who was behind the Victorian water-colorists?
Has Ibrahim Hussein been parodying himself? If Haji Marsidi has turned his back on Nature, what is he looking at? His own spectacle frames? How about Sharifah Fatimah Zubir… is this alluringly demure and enigmatic abstractionist a high-level operative of the diabolical TDC? And is NAG director Tuan Syed Ahmad Jamal really one of the secret chiefs of Toastmasters? Alas, we’ll never know.
Fortunately, I do have a few facts at my disposal: the whole event (which included a workshop and exhibition) cost less than $400,000 to stage – next to nothing in comparison with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which left us $90,000,000 poorer.
The workshop was attended by Haji Marsidi bin Haji Akip and Awang Othman Haji Moksin (Brunei Darussalam); Drs Gung Wayan Tjidera and Tisna Sanjaya (Indonesia); Dr Chew Teng Beng and Syed Thajudeen (Malaysia); Manuel D. Baldemor and Norma Belleza (The Philippines); Goh Beng Kwan and Tay Chee Toh (Singapore); and Prayad Pongdam and Sawasdi Tantisuk (Thailand). Each artist subsequently donated one painting or print to form the basis of an ASEAN art collection.
Pretty tame stuff, if you ask me. With the exception of Goh Beng Kwan (whose sickly collages aren’t very pretty) and Tisna Sanjaya (whose etchings aren’t exactly tame), the artists were playing it safe (and saleable?) by sticking to technique.
The symposium itself stretched over four days of laborious talks, discussions, excursions, tea breaks, lunches and dinners. Each participating country contributed two papers to the symposium, which was held on the 4th floor of the National Art Gallery amidst the persistent beeping of electronic smoke detectors.
Apart from the visiting delegates and artists, there was a handful of local painters, sculptors, art lecturers, students, collectors, aesthetes, and busybodies. But hardly as many as there ought to have been, perhaps on account of paltry publicity.
Redza Piyadasa, well-known mouthpiece of Malaysian fine arts, was conspicuously absent (“I was busy with university exams,” he explained later). However, the Philippines delegation comprising Alice G. Guillermo, Ino M. Malino and Alice A Panares did their bit for a lively debate.
Malaysia’s Tuan Haji Ismail Zain was also on hand to stir up the occasional controversy, especially on the issue of whether participating artists should be allowed to turn these academic exercises into marketing campaigns for their own works.
Art, Business, Politics. Add a dash of Science and what do we get? A strange gooey substance called Life. Now put in a pinch of Religion – and watch it all blow up!
Nothing quite that explosive happened at the symposium. But Malaysian artist and lecturer Wong Hoy Cheong did provoke some thought with his conscientiously researched paper on the contradictions and fallacies of contemporary art in a post-colonial culture:
We forget that our cultural past was made by men and women. And in forgetting this, we have (unintentionally) objectified and reified culture: the past has been reduced to a trail of shapes and colors, motifs and symbols, materials and textures. Myths and legends have replaced the joys and sorrows of the living. Humanity has become tangential to culture and to our search… if we do not begin to record the present with… empathy and honesty, we will be finally leading ourselves into a future without a past. A future without any truths.
Wong pointed out that Van Gogh’s paintings were considered great – “not because he was a genius or a man on the brink of lunacy or a victim of circumstances but because – when he painted a peasant, you could smell the peasant’s sweat.”
In other words, Van Gogh was honest. Who needs deodorized art? Wong then went on to say that contemporary artists could learn a thing or two from cartoonist Lat: “Because, after the laughs have subsided, you begin to realize that behind the entertainer is a humanist, a man with a profound empathy for the people.”
Another stimulating encounter at the symposium was discovering Tisna Sanjaya – a young printmaker from Bandung, Indonesia. He populates his etchings with a wild and wacky parade of nightmarish characters – reminiscent of caricatures found in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, George Grosz and Pablo Picasso – as well as in traditional Javanese masks.
Among his pieces my favorite was Pesta Pencuri (Festival of Thieves) which shows a raksasa-like creature in a T-shirt inscribed “Top Gun” – presiding over a corporate boardmeeting of assorted bullies and buffoons. The Devil conducting a symposium in Hell.
Looking at Tisna Sanjaya’s work made me think of Ralph Steadman and Robert Crumb – two inspired eccentrics who haven’t quite found a cozy niche in art galleries.
Steadman, a Briton, is the master of unrestrained viciousness. His manic depictions of human weirdness rip right through the fabric of polite convention. (Lat has occasionally borrowed Steadman’s style but not his misanthropic sting).
Robert Crumb, godfather of the American underground comic, is brilliantly subversive. With unforgettable characters like Schuman the Human, Mr Natural, Dirty Dog and Horny Harriet Hotpants – he blew gaping holes through the mountain of middle-class morality and mutated the nervous systems of an entire generation.
It was also Crumb who once declared war on Art, calling it “a hoax perpetrated on the public by so-called artists who set themselves up on a pedestal… promoted by pantywaist ivory-tower intellectuals and sob-sister critics who think the world owes them a living.”
Meanwhile, the Great Hoax continues to flourish. In fact, the National Art Gallery is preparing for a grand exhibition next year by American pop art megastar Robert Rauschenberg. We’re talking about a $500,000 event here, folks. Forget about Aesthetics. Forget about ASEAN.
Remember it’s all a hoax, folks. When the walls start tumbling down, who cares what you’ve got hanging on them!
2 November 1989