"Seal" a video work by artist: Liew Teck Leong
"Dreary" a video work by artist: Wong Eng Leong
Paintings in "The We Project"
The Leader | Oil on canvas | 2' x 3' | 2010
Truly Malaysia | Oil on canvas | 2' x 3' | 2010
Urban Landscape 1 | Oil on canvas | 16 x 22cm | 2010
Urban Landscape 2 | Oil on canvas | 16 x 22cm | 2010
Urban Landscape 3 | Oil on canvas | 16 x 22cm | 2010
Urban Landscape 4 | Oil on canvas | 16 x 22cm | 2010
Opening night of "The We Project"
Reality: Recent Conceptual Adventures of
PHUAN THAI MENG
PHUAN THAI MENG
by Suraya Warden
Phuan Thai Meng, on The WE Project, August 2010:
I think I want communication. I bring up the problem, and then we can talk.
Richard Lewis & Susan I. Lewis (1995) The Power of Art, p. 429:
Like Minimalist pictures, Superrealist pictures are cool and calculated performances.
Phuan Thai Meng reemerges on the art scene with a quasi-experiment, and offering a unique viewing experience. A solo show, The WE Project is also more than a typical art exhibition and more than a sale of works, although it is of course both of those things. The work – it is on one level intended as a singular work - pushes the boundaries of Phuan Thai Meng’s art practice into new, fun and exciting territory, where his skills in painting in a photorealist style are proven (one could say exposed) to be the means by which he expresses messages, and the language which best tells his stories, which should not be simplified as ‘…honing in on the ordinary…’1. Indeed, a significant potential benefit to viewers or students of The WE Project, and one of its most exciting aspects, is that they may learn more about the artist through this exhibition than ever before and perhaps hear his message all the clearer. As much as the standard incentives of viewing art also apply, learning of Thai Meng’s ‘Malaysian-ness’, his understanding of social relationships, his finding his way in an environment of urban paradoxes, is the underlying joy of experiencing this exhibition. Where else can we see Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia this way except through Phuan Thai Meng?
The WE Project is an installation, and it is an art exhibition. If viewed as an installation it also becomes a ‘fake’ show, and utilises the Chinese to English translation of the sound ‘we’ and the character 伪 which is fake - a calculated move by the artist while giving the exhibition its title. The title (in English) refers to Thai Meng’s precious recurring themes surrounding the functionality of societies, particularly Malaysian society, and also refers to the use of other artists’ works within this one, which transforms solo into collaboration. Among others, the Johor-born artist is taking into account himself as a Malaysian. Of his choice to explore local themes he has said,
“When I was small, I didn’t know Malaysia. Most of the media was from Singapore, so all the information, the culture, was from Singapore. Now when I go back to my hometown I see most of my family is still like that. And I think it’s weird. I have the same problems as artists outside, so my focus is here. Then if I go outside, especially to Singapore, I bring something from here.”2
Through this work he is also addressing every other inhabitant of Kuala Lumpur; ‘ordinary people’ at large globally; artists and activists who want to discuss Malaysian society; and viewers of a tiny experimental exhibition inside a commercial gallery in a shopping mall in Bangsar. Nobody is excluded from the term ‘WE’ here.
The installation provides much opportunity for reflection and interaction by a viewer. All over the walls is Super Model, the floated decals of faceless officials. Their body language, familiar from television and newspaper reporting, seems to be saying, “This area cost… and achieved…”, “Note here if you will…”, “Soon this will be…!”, and everything similar. They are patting their organisation, company or government department on the back with each phrase and milking the opportunity for publicity with each exaggerated pose. The result is hilarious and timely local-themed “wallpaper”3, which, while conveying the atmosphere of a rapidly developing nation, also loosely ties in to another instantly noticeable part of this installation: House. This nine-foot-high structure is there under notions of ‘dwelling’ and ‘inhabiting’. It is there to be enjoyed, thought about and walked through. Elsewhere, two large colour paintings by Thai Meng face a borrowed piece of video art about free-speech4; the physical relationship between these three items - more so than that of other items in the installation - is deliberately organised by the artist. At the back of the gallery in lower light another piece of borrowed video art is projected on the wall. Lastly, a series of four small, painted, black & white ‘photographic’ images in typically domestic gold framing hang throughout the gallery. There need be no further explanation or description of the basic physical make-up of this piece here. As Dennis Sporre has suggested, “An enormous amount of nonsense is generated by such questions as ‘Is it really art?’… A more proper question would always be, ‘What can we get out of it at this moment?’.”5
The WE Project ties together in this way: each individual piece of art is part of the one installation, just as each person is part of (a) society. As the artist wishes to point out that every common thing is “connected” to the bigger “social environment”, interpretation of this work/show really can be that simple, or the viewer can go deeper.6 “It is a way of thinking and analysing; getting more [by going at the same thing] from a different angle,” Thai Meng says.7 The artist has concocted The WE Project to push himself, and to generate conversation. “Overseas is more theory-based but I try to be fun [being based in Malaysia].” The artist’s efforts are not in vain as the piece brings two broad ends of a spectrum together by placing concept-heavy art in a shopping center where materiality is king, to tickle his own interests in society and exhibiting art. As a package the total outcome is all Thai Meng. On one level he is putting skills, style and content aside and playing with the space allowed in a small commercial gallery. On another level he is sparking discourse along the general themes of his art, approached also in previous works and solo exhibitions, which suggest that Malaysian society could probably function differently. Even in its planning stages, the many possible reactions to his combining these two levels of experience was undoubtedly a delight to the artist.
A particular strength of The WE Project is that the photorealist skills of the artist and the painted elements within the installation make the heavily conceptual layers of it all much more accessible. Later of course the same heights could be reached with Phuan Thai Meng’s paintings alone, as has occurred in the artist’s past, should he do more typical exhibitions in the future. Any paintingonly exhibitions he might create have the potential to be no less ‘conceptual’ and hopefully will be ‘the next step’, that is: provide expansion and progression, for the artist and eventually for any viewers. But The WE Project serves (and is no doubt intended to serve, on one of its several layers) as a fresh perspective in the somewhat ridiculous ground-level arguments of whether it is possible to do something special and meaningful with painting anymore. Of course, in Malaysia and elsewhere, painting and sculpture serve an enormously valuable purpose by providing the accessibility of art generally and also just the idea of other types of art, to the intimidated or uninitiated. But for the sake of argument, it should be noted that this experiment from Phuan Thai Meng evolved organically and thereby propelled him further as an artist, into himself. Therefore any attempts here to present possibilities in art are also side effects of the artist simply exploring his own practice. This is absolutely something to enjoy and take advantage of. It can be a beautiful, wonderful thing when an art exhibition leaves a viewer excited by art or having made an easy connection. In general, Phuan Thai Meng’s art contains a powerful combination of form and content, rare amongst photorealists globally and in history, to successfully make that a reality.
Painting in That Way
It also provides a chance to learn a bit about Photorealism in mainstream art history, which can then also help viewers to understand Thai Meng’s art, perhaps by assessing his similarities and differences with members of the movement. We will get the ball rolling here. Primarily, it should be considered that Phuan Thai Meng, in not only the production but also the display of his art, if allowed, would leave absolutely nothing to chance, luck, or limitations of someone else’s dictation. His installation here, while meant to be fun and lighthearted and played with, is calculated down to the last conceptual millimetre. The artist is meticulously controlling and self-controlled, almost out of suspicion and mistrust of the commercial local art scene (but this is another topic for exploration elsewhere) as much as out of intense perfectionism and motivation, and so does everything by himself and also nothing for himself at the same time. As Richard and Susan I. Lewis argue in The Power of Art, Photorealism and Minimalism although so different in appearance were actually similarly organised, controlled and calculated reactions against Abstract Expressionism. But, more generally, where infamous Minimalist artist Donald Judd worried “that art made it difficult to perceive reality”8, Photorealism (also called Superrealism) in painting9 created paintings that looked just like basic photography. This is the entry point through which Phuan Thai Meng – and through him Malaysian contemporary art – gets tangled up with an interesting time in art history.
Photorealism can encompass Photorealism/Superrealism and also Hyperrealism10. Phuan Thai Meng’s method can be considered very close to basic Photorealism (because his paintings sometimes look like photographs and he sometimes paints from photographs) although he is not really exploring painting techniques and is therefore not part nor continuation of the original movement. Painting, rather, is his mechanism for communication and photorealism is one of the languages he uses. This has been the case for artists in history who are typically included among the original Photorealists, who were expressing themselves “…in stark contrast to the private, mysterious language of Abstract Expressionism” 11. Audrey Flack is one such artist. But Phuan Thai Meng is not reacting to previous movements in painting as well. In a broad sense, art in general is a more so a method of communication today than ever before, and all the forms Thai Meng creates his art in are his “visual language”12.
In a discussion of Richard Estes’ oil on canvas Central Savings (1975), created at probably the height of the Photorealism movement, Lewis & Lewis note:
In a methodical way, he is imitating the way a camera records reality – utilising the harsh contrasts and precise focus of mechanical vision… His subjects are always drawn from the world he lives in… But he never imposes his personal viewpoint or glorifies his cityscapes.13
Phuan Thai Meng is absolutely methodical. He does not glorify his cityscapes or other subject matter, yet his art often hits the viewer with a wave of emotion fuelled by familiarity and/or imagery of decay and overuse. Thai Meng also offers no opinion, or social commentary. The only fixed commentary involved in The WE Project that could be considered intended is the suggestion that we are all a contributing part of a bigger picture. The work was not created to suggest any right or wrong path, to teach anything, to force anything, or to provide anything pre-conceived except fun in experiencing art for the viewer/participant. And Thai Meng certainly draws from the world he lives in. These are some of the reasons Phuan Thai Meng joins the Photorealist community, albeit on the fringe.
Hobbs and Duncan point out that while Photorealism was traditionally intended only as an exploration in painting techniques, “it is difficult not to see the subject itself” due to the works often containing scenes of the banal, everyday variety. Thus, they argue many Photorealist paintings are “representative of an era”.14 Photorealism in Malaysian contemporary art as presented by Phuan Thai Meng is also representative of an era. In these modern times it is sometimes actually the glare of the computer screen and the static surface of a mid-price-range television set that Phuan Thai Meng emulates. In the colour paintings of The WE Project, the element of photography is replaced but the degree of realism is still arresting in the art. The artist has stated:
I have ideas on whether I go for the realistic look or not. When I paint an image on the television I am painting the image on screen, not just the image. If it is from tv or video [for example], it might be fine but not sharp.15
And in his re-creation of those effects, he is calling attention to the information age, and to the free-media “way of seeing” 16 as the traditional Photorealist also did in the past, “by meticulously copying photographs, [calling] attention to the abstract effects of the camera’s special way of seeing.” He is also manipulating the perspective of his art to reinforce his notion that “Local issues become global” and “Issues that are local are actually international problems”.17 His painting of technology, and development, from a Malaysian perspective, confirms the place of this society as just one part of a functioning world. And this does, unsurprisingly, parallel other aspects of the installation.
So with this work Malaysian contemporary art participates quite directly in the sharing of global art history; at a theoretical place where everybody’s voice is valid if only they would have one, and where some artists are happily producing an extension of previous art that is entirely their own rather than always trying to be ‘completely unique’. But this is somewhat unintentional, or to put it in the artist’s own words:
I looked into Photorealism of the 70s or what, when I first started [painting this way], I read books on art theory and I’m not going for that. That was a style, a movement. I use different techniques, I mix it, and this is my visual language. But maybe next time [I won’t do] Photorealism.
He then adds with modesty, “I think if you look at KL, yes Photorealism is exciting. But if you go elsewhere it’s common…”18. The skill itself may be common but the exciting element is that Phuan Thai Meng’s artistic voice – a combination of his message, his practice, his execution and talent, his heavily thought out concepts – is not. It takes Malaysian contemporary art to new arenas of discourse because unlike the Photorealists, Thai Meng is using his skills to make references to urban landscape, and issues of social framework and the functioning of his beloved society. There is no opinion dictated, but within The WE Project, in the black and white photograph-sized works the (Urban Landscape series) for example, there is a great amount of affection in each image, as if begging for an answer to explain away the despicable. It is such a tender treatment that the subject becomes uncharacteristically beautiful. It also seems such a true image of (one aspect of) what life is like here in KL that – just for a moment - the viewer might not want the real situation corrected or fixed or changed at all.
Elements Within The WE Project
Further on the Urban Landscape series, the images are extremely localised; extremely valid to locals or anyone who might want ‘a piece’ of KL. As a result of both his techniques and personality, the image of KL through the eyes of Phuan Thai Meng is the image of the city as it is right now. This is not to say that in this exhibition he is pointing out the ordinary. And of course, there are other ways to record what is going on around KL, but it is the approach itself that is significant. Australian Peter Dallow has argued this recently:
However realistic, an image is always a work of imagination, a construction and/or selection, ‘always from a particular point of view’ (original emphasis). An image is a negation of the world. What is simulated is not reality, but the situation of the artist-image maker: ‘a particular intention of consciousness’, as Satre puts it. As such, it also, by extension serves as a momentary trace or line across the discursive and psychological conditions, the cultural formations, around the situation within which the artist operates.19
Another way of putting it is: The WE Project presents something very personal. For this exhibition, Thai Meng takes the perspective of everyday life as a citizen of this town, and the humility is poignant. When asked if he is observing society here, the artist’s response is immediate: “I’m not teaching.”20 Thus, partly by way of knowing what he intended not to do with The WE Project, Thai Meng created this installation. In a discussion of his four black and white paintings the artist has elaborated on this:
[One is a site] beside the Pudu station, but I’m not saying ‘you can recognise the place’. It can be very general. And also with the stadium [Urban Landscape 2] it can happen anywhere, so no need to be specific [about] that building. Even if you cannot recognise the place it’s okay, [and] if you know the place ok, maybe you have another story there.21
The entire installation is presented in this way, although there are some deliberate connections made by the artist. The black and white works are somewhat related to the house structure, as Thai Meng describes:
The house is skewed, one side is lower a bit, not looking very stable, I think to reflect to the [black and white paintings]. A lot of our development policy is very temporary; and it [can get] very creative to cover that up. I’m not trying to illustrate the issue but just the bring up the issue, that’s why the material is contractor netting… it also directs us to contracting, it has the message inside the material itself, and then I try to use the very temporary technique to build the house. Maybe someone will go ‘why you didn’t make it properly?’, so I think the message is there.”22
The treatment is of utmost consideration to viewers, confirming that Thai Meng intends his art to belong to society, primarily for the purpose of provoking thought within individuals that may in turn provoke discourse within the community.
We can consider the subjects of his colour paintings, chosen for their ability to encompass many issues – many initiators of thought – at once. Truly Malaysia contains elements of mystery, which fight against the total realism of the painting technique. These elements provide a ‘searchability’ that is both physical and intellectual, whichever the viewer prefers if any at all. The work borrows a video by artist Vincent Leong, although it does this indirectly. Phuan Thai Meng has pointed out that looking for that video on YouTube will raise issues, and could also lead to viewing any videos at all which then indeed would be connected in some way to this artwork ‘and everything else’ in society. In addition, on a surface level the artist is having fun with the idea of internet usage and lack of control by the user. He laughs, “Maybe it’s slow or just stuck there already! Maybe [there’s reasons for that] we cannot see.” 23 The work also represents avenues of information, and popular media. Related of course is The Leader, painted along similar themes in the image of Prime Minister Najib Razak giving a speech, in which he is saying “If you help me, I help you” 24. The news crawl or ‘ticker’ below, in Mandarin characters, provides three headlines. The first refers to issues of bankruptcy and Mahathir’s Wawasan 2020, the second of admission - with the excuse that money and politics cannot be separated - that votes can be bought, and thirdly of how the Malaysian economy might look from outside this nation. Although the second headline is most closely related to the imagery presented, the inclusion of these three topics deliberately provides “conflict and contrast”25 to further open up the painting’s possible meaning.
The video art that The Leader and Truly Malaysia are placed in proximity with is borrowed from artist Liew Teck Leong.26 Within the installation the artist intends that the video work’s original meaning is not altered, but rather is seen in a new light because the message of the video art (very generally: speaking freely) is also one of the messages of the show. “So I bring it in and try to extend the issue…,” Thai Meng explains.27 The use of another borrowed piece of video art, by Wong Eng Leong28, mirrors Thai Meng’s ongoing ttempts to address communal issues from an individual viewpoint:
[In Eng Leong’s work] the artist tried to look at the everyday things [and here in The WE Project] I have a mixture of the same thing. For our show here it’s ‘from the big issues we need to extend to our daily life.’ So like the [image in the video] we actually ignore it, it’s just ok, it’s an LRT track…but from there we can xpand. It shares with my previous paintings like the pipe, it’s from a small issue like the water’s cut out, and from there we can look at our social environment.29
To Thai Meng, the LRT track is a symbol of development.30 Of course, the artist is also exploring the physical use of another artist’s work within his own, as a development in creating and exhibiting art. There are no accidents in Phuan Thai Meng’s handling of his own ideas. The WE Project work is firmly on the unique path of previous and future creativity by the artist, and as such truly allows us to see the individual that he is while at the same time gathering our own responses and experiences from the work. For Malaysian contemporary art, the bonus is that the artist’s themes and imagery are so specifically from this area and, it seems, will continue to be. “I try to use the very common things,” the artist summarises, “to say: maybe this is our culture la.”31 Asked what subjects he might tackle next in his art practice, Thai Meng is straightforward yet cryptic: “My next step may be the economy and how people live. It’s the same thing from a different angle. Maybe they are happy.”32
1 Yee I-Lann on Phuan Thai Meng, quoted in the Made in Malaysia (Phuan Thai Meng solo show, Kuala Lumpur, 09 - 26 Sept) catalogue essay by Simon Soon, the full quote being: “His process is described by artist Yee I-Lann in The Painting Show as ‘honing in on the ordinary as an attentive observer to the awkward relationship between these spaces and its inhabitants.’” 2 In conversation with the artist, July 2010. 3 In conversation with the artist, August 2010. 4 Ibid. 5 Spore, Dennis J. (1991) Reality Through the Arts. New Jersey: Prentice Hall., p.12. 6 In conversation with the artist, July and August 2010. 7 In conversation with the artist, July 2010. 8 Lewis, Richard and Lewis, Susan, I. (1995) The Power of Art. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College., p. 427. 9 There is also Photorealism in sculpture, often using casting. See works by Duane Hanson, such as Janitor (1973) in the Milwaukee Art Museum collection, or Ron Mueck’s Pregnant Woman (2002) in the National Gallery of Australia collection. 10 Hyperrealism: the painting of our reality with an extreme perspective that produces the image of an altogether new reality. Subjects are often political and social commentary sometimes rife – or not – in Hyperrealism. Examples of this category of fine art include, as pointed out in various places online, some paintings by currently practising Malaysian contemporary artist Latif Maulan. 11 Lewis, Richard and Lewis, Susan, I., The Power of Art., p. 430. 12 In conversation with the artist, July 2010. 13 Lewis, Richard and Lewis, Susan, I., The Power of Art., p. 429. 14 Hobbs, Jack, A. and Duncan, Robert, L. (1992) Art, Ideas & Civilisation. 2nd edition, New Jersey: Prentice Hall., p. 491. 15 In conversation with the artist, July 2010. 16 Hobbs & Duncan, Art, Ideas & Civilisation (2nd Edition)., p. 491. 17 In conversation with the artist, July 2010. 18 Ibid. 19 Dallow, Peter, ‘The Virtually New: Art, Form And Consciousness’., p.80, in McLeod, Katy & Lin Holdridge (Eds.) (2006) Thinking Through Art: Reflections on Art as Research. pp. 73-86. London/New York: Routledge. 20 Op. cit. 21 In conversation with the artist, August 2010. 22 23 24 25 Ibid. 26 Seal by Liew Teck Leong can be viewed at http://liewteckleong-jitjitluluetling.blogspot. com/ 27 In conversation with the artist, July 2010. 28 Dreary by Wong Eng Leong can be viewed at http://findars.blogspot.com/2009/08/xi_27.html 29 In conversation with the artist, August 2010. 30 In conversation with the artist, July and August 2010. 31 In conversation with the artist, August 2010. 32 In conversation with the artist, July 2010.