Feeling Adrift at Balai Seni Negara’s “Minta Perhatian: Media Baharu”
Review by Lim Jack Kin

Balai Seni Negara has gone virtual! By and large, that’s an incredible achievement for an institution with a 63-year history and a collection of over 3,600 individual works in storage. The closing of its doors in August last year for a round of major renovations (no doubt also affected by the ongoing COVID-19 situation) felt sad and heavy. For a lot of us casual art enjoyers, we simply didn’t know of many other places to go, unattuned as we were to the complex word-of-mouth network of galleries, curators, and artists that always seemed to have juuust gotten done with an exhibition by the time we heard about it.

So it’s encouraging, then, that BSN returns to the public eye with a virtual exhibit of Minta Perhatian: Media Baharu (aka Attention Please: New Media), curated by Tan Hui Koon, in a form that is easily accessible, freely available, and above all, safe. Featuring 29 different works, made by Malaysian new media practitioners between 1987 and 2016 and sourced from the National Collection, it feels like part history lesson, part art show, and part tribute to a diverse, innovative milieu of Malaysian artists across the last few decades.

Even so, it’s not a perfect experience, and some of its issues, both technical and curatorial, speak to the messiness of the organization and the problems that arise when it tries to engage with the intensely nuanced, political nature of Malaysia’s artists.

One of the first bumps I ran into was that I could barely find the exhibition, with the only mention of it I could find being a paywalled article on The Star. It wasn’t on the National Art Gallery’s homepage, nor anywhere else. It’s clear that a lot of love went into preparing the panoramic photographs that make up the exhibit, but I do wish that there was more attention drawn to it.

This “dollhouse” view and an accessible layout makes navigating this exhibit a breeze. Image taken from virtual exhibit.

The content itself is breathtaking. “New media art” is a dynamic, shifting practice, and Minta Perhatian tries its best to showcase the various forms it has taken over the last 30 years. From photography and digital art to 90s-era computer animation and contemporary videos and audio-visual experiences, there’s a dizzying amount of content from a vast array of artists. Minta Perhatian captured my attention for a good few hours, and as that time unfolded it felt more and more like I was tracking an evolution in practice, in the use of new media to tell stories that were relevant and forward-looking. There was a vaguely sci-fi feeling to it, a sense of being intensely concerned with the future and what its implications were for art, for politics, for how we communicated. As if to lampshade this, Minta Perhatian playfully includes two Soviet sci-fi lino prints from the 1970s in the exhibit, made by I. Necrasov and gifted to the gallery by the Embassy of the USSR.

The artwork on display is gorgeous and varied. Images taken from virtual exhibit

These Soviet-era lino prints, gifted to the National Art Gallery, speak to the forward-thinking intentions of the exhibit’s work. Image taken from virtual exhibit.

Still, I would be remiss not to point out Minta Perhatian’s flaws. Its technical integration into Matterport feels incomplete. A significant number of descriptions are left completely blank, with information either not loading properly or yet to be filled in. Notably, Liew Ting Chuang’s “Wheel of Fortune: Abyss Within Malaysia Landscape” goes painfully uncredited. It’s a massive installation, composed of QR Code stickers arranged in flowing, concentric patterns. Scanning each code leads to a different work, clearly labelled and arranged according to their formal properties, making it a wonderful teaching tool. But without any guidance on the gallery’s part, it sticks out as a piece that’s hard to fully enjoy, especially if we can’t even acknowledge the artist who put it together.

It’s not the only artwork to have this problem. The fact that there was work that couldn’t be traced, artists that couldn’t be found, and statements that couldn’t be read is a huge disservice; it creates a disconnected feeling, an inability for me to make sense of what I was looking at without knowing who made it, or when, or how. You can see entire pages of text written by the artists, just a bit too blurry to be legible, and clicking on them just leads to an empty speech bubble. It’s intensely frustrating.

Liew Ting Chuang’s “Wheel of Fortune”, and accompanying lack of credit or other information. Image taken from virtual exhibit.

Curatorially, while the body of work on display is engaging, the statement that ties them together is vague and bland. What does it mean to serve “as a platform to initiate a discourse on media art”? There is so much context to be had here, so much more information to provide a hungry public. The statement goes on to say that the exhibit “provides [...] an equilibrium between creative expression and theoretical research that could potentially generate local epistemology”—but how? Aside from an unhelpful textbook-ish timeline on one wall, there isn’t much educating going on here. This issue is distilled in Nadiah Bamadhaj’s “Taking it Personally”, a series of digital images projected on a wall; presented on its own without any accompanying statements, I had no idea that it was an attempt to examine the architectural and political history of Kuala Lumpur.

All of that, of course, feeds into a larger concern about the National Art Gallery and its ability to even stage challenging work, let alone communicate the nuance they require. It faced criticism for taking down four artworks from an Ahmad Fuad Osman show in February last year, allegedly after a complaint from a BSN board member. Not exactly a confidence-inspiring move, especially considering the political nature of Ahmad Fuad Osman’s work and when so much of Malaysian art deals with provocative subject material. Ahmad Fuad Osman features in Minta Perhatian as well (as the physical exhibit was launched before the controversy); it’s awkward seeing it if you’re familiar with the history.

As a side-note, the BSN website is so incomplete that its initial press release page for that Ahmad Fuad Osman show is completely blank. There has never been a more perfect metaphor presented as a technical error.

A more metaphorical technical error cannot exist. Image taken from National Art Gallery website.

There are clearly systemic and institutional barriers that hamper the ability of the National Art Gallery to provide us with a complete experience. BSN feels like it’s operating as a collection of discrete departments that aren’t talking to each other. As a result, trying to enjoy the gallery as a visitor is a bureaucratic nightmare. The nonexistent marketing, unnavigable website, technical issues that lead to a lack of crediting, and the organisation’s conflict with the wider art world all work against the National Collection’s contents, isolating them from a greater appreciation. And that’s a heartbreaking blow to art, as well as to artists.

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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