PROSPECTS for art school graduates in any part of the world are limited at best. Opportunities here are less bleak than in some nurseries of creative talent, but those who want to be full-time artists usually have to rethink their life plan at some point.
The first problem an artist is likely to encounter is how to find an audience. No matter how high-minded their intentions might be, they have to sell their work to establish a reputation and, in most cases, to survive.
Attracting buyers in a market that is generally averse to young hopefuls is already a demoralising experience. Multiply this hurdle by the number of artists coming out of an ever-growing number of schools and only the most determinedly Darwinian survivors are going to make it.
Why can’t Malaysia be like Bali, at least in the respect that visitors are often there with the intention of bringing back some art? This used to be more the case in the past than it is now. There is an impressive number of Malaysian masters that have been repatriated from overseas collections for events such as the Henry Butcher auctions. Having far more art schools than ever before does not mean that either locals or visitors are thronging the galleries to acquire some of this increased productivity.
In the 1960s there was only one art school here, the Malaysian Institute of Art. Nowadays there are about 30, and every one was approached by the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery for its latest exhibition, Tanpa Nama/Anonymous. The response was almost 300 works, selected by the schools themselves. Not all are on display, but those that aren’t can be viewed on a computer in the gallery and brought out by the ever-helpful staff for potential buyers to inspect.
There is a lot to look at, and nowhere else is there such a range of young artists’ efforts. It’s not the sort of material that would excite commercial galleries, although a few have been scouting out the exhibition to see if there are any prodigies that would be worth their while promoting. It’s a classic Catch 22, of course, or perhaps a “Catch 22 per cent plus another 22 per cent”. Gallery commission can go up to 50 per cent of the sale price. Buyers prefer artists with a track record of exhibition display, while the artists have little opportunity to acquire this without the support of galleries. The galleries have to be pretty confident about their proteges to give them this break. In return they will be digging deep into the financial fruit of the artists’ labour.
The situation is different at the Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery. There is no commission, for one thing, and there are no names either. As the title of the exhibition states, it is all about anonymity. The art is supposed to speak for itself, without any of the potentially prejudicial baggage that comes with artists’ names. This is One Malaysia for the eyes. It’s a level playing field on which judgments are made according to taste rather than considerations of race and gender.
A third component is value. To create extra interest, a number of established artists have also participated, keeping the price of their works artificially low in order to give buyers an opportunity to acquire paintings (mainly) that have a higher value than the RM3,000 that is placed on everything in the exhibition. The artists’ names are revealed only when the purchase is made.
Most of the works are considerably less than RM3,000. At RM650, one of the most intriguing for visitors is a huge welded metal shoe that has attracted the interest of more than just one-legged giant circus clowns. This is one of the few sculptures submitted for the show. Next door to it is the only installation in the exhibition.
Considering how popular installations are at the most earnest and elitist end of the market, it is quite revealing of Malaysian artists’ practical approach. They may have picked art as their career but they are still smart enough to know that installation works are a tough sell. It’s a fad that is probably fading anyway. The buyer of items such as Damien Hirst’s famous pickled shark are already finding that these works may sometimes offer value for money in terms of size, but the maintenance factor will lead to a lifetime of expense and conservatorial heartbreak.
The solitary installation at Tanpa Nama has yet to find a buyer. It probably won’t be gracing the head office of an infant-formula manufacturer as it comprises a collection of artfully wrought ceramic milk bottles oozing a substance that looks uncomfortably like blood.
So, sales-savvy artists have opted for what is easy to appreciate and uncomplicated to display. Traditional painting is making a comeback around the world, and Malaysia appears to be part of this trend. Certain themes are popular, such as ecological issues, which puts them in the mainstream of art marketing. There is a fiesta of options for turtle lovers in particular. A fascinating ceramic composition featuring three pairs of lungs in progressive stages of decay could be a statement about the environment or is perhaps part of an anti-smoking campaign.
Landscapes, flowers and abstracts abound. Being Malaysia, there are plenty of references to food. Less tempting, but imaginatively executed, is a pair of mixed-media interpretations of bananas well past their sell-by dates.
No nudes have been submitted, which probably tells us more about the artists’ self-censorship than their own true preferences. Political comment is very limited, but there are opportunities for householders who feel that what their walls lack is a portrait of Osama Bin Laden or Colonel Gaddafi.
Surprisingly, nostalgia appears to be an affliction suffered by the young. In most cases, rather than being about deceased terrorists or dictators, it is the simple pleasures of nature, old houses and scooters. Batik is making a comeback too. Handled quite differently from past masters such as Chuah Thean Teng and Khalil Ibrahim, it’s reassuring to see art-school students engaging with the traditional in a lively and innovative manner.
On the whole there is a freshness to the contents of the exhibition. Slavish pursuit of originality for its own sake is not a priority, and there are the inevitable tributes paid to Malaysia’s established artists in the form of fairly close imitation. Jolly Koh and Latiff Mohidin are just two whose influence is clearly felt among the younger generation. Mostly, the Tanpa Nama artists are eager to express their own identity, and to do this in a way that might lead to a sale. It’s an entrepreneurial approach that fits in with a society that doesn’t place much value on the misunderstood rebel.
Although even in this volume of work there won’t be something to suit all tastes, this is the future of Malaysian art, on view in the country’s most attractive gallery. Among these artists are some who may dominate the field for the next decade or two, so it’s worth having a look. Just in case the works on offer don’t seem good enough value, there is an astonishingly inexpensive catalogue (RM5) to go with the equally affordable cafe on the ground floor of the Museum and Art Gallery.
The exhibition is on until July 8, the cafe and catalogue will be around for much longer.