“Am I Alone?” Tries to Answer the Unanswerable and Does A Pretty Good Job, Actually
Review by Lim Jack Kin

“The idea came to me when I first learnt about the story of Van Gogh’s painting,” reads “Am I Alone?”’s curator statement. The painting in question, “Self-portrait without beard (1889)”, features the gaunt artist staring back at the viewer with empty, pleading eyes, his red hair slicked back to expose a furrowed brow. It’s the perfect inspiration for “Am I Alone?”, the debut exhibition of curator Ranerrim, co-curated with the Projek Rabak artist collective and with Mohd Jayzuan as an advisor. “Am I Alone?” features the work of 11 artists from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, forming a deep, engaging exhibition centered around its contributors’ self-portraits, the differing cultural lenses that inform them, and the feeling of intense isolation that these introspections create.

Speaking of all-consuming loneliness, “Am I Alone?” is a virtual exhibit. And it’s hosted on Artsteps.

Hello darkness, my old friend. For the unfamiliar, Artsteps is a video-game-like virtual exhibition platform, and while it’s exciting and accessible and groundbreaking, it’s also uniquely frustrating to use. More on that later.

You’re meant to enjoy “Am I Alone?” by visiting an Artsteps page while referring to its online catalogue

My first impressions going into “Am I Alone?” were of how restrained it was. Its pieces span a range of influences and styles, with artists drawing inspiration from tarot card lore, traditional architecture, pop songs, and feminist Victorian horror literature, among many others. And yet, you never feel particularly overwhelmed; individual works are spaced out well, with relatively few pieces that nonetheless vary wildly in medium and tone. This results in an exhibit that has a meandering feel while still remaining tightly focused on its theme.

And what a theme it is. According to its curators, “Am I Alone?” intends to “reclaim the power of self-portraits and share their self-expressions with the world”, which sounds… daunting. The idea that self-portraiture as a genre has lost any power over the years doesn’t really resonate with me. In fact, it seems to be adapting remarkably well to the age of the selfie—so the exhibit’s stated intent sounded worryingly vague. How could any artwork deal with such broad, unanswerable questions about identity and self-perception without sounding shallow, superficial, or overdone?

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. ”Am I Alone?” absolutely works. Its artists are fascinating and their thought processes are made available through comprehensive and detailed write-ups. The work itself is stunning. Special mention goes to ANJU’s “This is ____”, which blends video and mixed-media art to create a dizzying experience, expertly communicating the feeling of disconnection from one’s body. Composed of several individual disjointed pieces, including a mouth, eyes, nose, and ears cut off from the rest of the face (which makes for a morbidly delightful Van Gogh parallel), its colours are explosively vivid and it’s easily one of my favourite works in the exhibit.

ANJU’s “This is ______” employs creative use of a number of creative mediums

Other notable works include Kara Yong’s “Identity, An Optical Delusion” series—three digital self-portraits of an intense art style, full of pulpy yellows and bold shading, that feels simultaneously assertive and introspective—and Kentaro Yokouchi’s Indigo Phase series, whose four works made with natural indigo paste, sugar cane, and tempera all contain delicate human figures on vast backgrounds of deep, rich blue in a distant, almost anthropological comment on humanity.

Kara Yong’s “Identity, An Optical Delusion” takes inspiration from Chinese names and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

There was also Jessica Tanto’s “Free! Personality-Reading Service (2020)”, a QR code that links to a personality quiz which made me laugh out loud in my bedroom, to the confusion of my family. You absolutely have to try this one yourself. No spoilers, but without trying, it easily offers the most succinct comment on class and poverty in the exhibit.

Jessica Tanto’s “Free! Personality Reading Service (2020)”. Scan this QR code. No, really.

There are missteps, though. Liflatul Muhtaroom’s “Kembali Ke Dalam” posits that the mother’s womb initiates all self-identities, but his rendition of an organic spaceship, undulating with breasts and arms and sprouting vegetation on a dead space-rock, feels reductive and objectifying. There is no actual mother in sight, just a boob-encrusted obelisk to ferry us on journeys of self-discovery.

Jun Kitazawa's “DUAL WINDOW” series suffers from being an unbuilt 3D prototype, with its unnatural computer-generated colours and textures—representing traditional Japanese and Indonesian window lattices—taking away from his detailed location painting.

The digital elephant in the room, however, is Artsteps itself. Through no fault of “Am I Alone?”’s curators, the platform itself proved thoroughly unpleasant this time. My framerate was choppy. UI elements took forever to load. But the worst issue had an impact on the artwork itself: there were at least three video-heavy installations that suffered from unbearable buffering times. They would start and stop in fits. If you left a video in frustration but forgot to mute it, it would buffer while you’re somewhere else, playing loudly, and you’d have to ‘walk’ across the gallery to turn it off. This is deeply vexing, to say the least.

Artsteps… wasn’t very fun this time around.

Thankfully, there is an option on the exhibit’s website to watch those videos on their catalogue. The exhibition is a great experience overall, and one I recommend. If you can get past the tech stuff, you’ll find an ambitious curatorial vision behind “Am I Alone?”, one that manages to carve out new, insightful messages to answer a looming question.

Am I Alone?” runs until February 3rd, 2021. The full catalogue and link to the exhibition is available here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Lim Jack Kin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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