January of discontent: Wawasan 2020: Townhall and May We… @ Tun Perak Co-op
Review by Ellen Lee

Liew Kung Yu, “Bersatu Menuju Wawasan”, 1993, photo collage

A relatively new art space in the heart of Kuala Lumpur has been host to two back-to-back art exhibitions that prod at certain open wounds in recent Malaysian history. The first, rushing in right before the new year, was Wawasan 2020: Townhall, which explored the legacy of former-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 90s-era “Vision 2020” ideal, and right after it – but halted in its tracks by the MCO 2.0 – was May We…, which examined the legacy of the deadly May 13, 1969 race riots.

The setting is Tun Perak Co-op, which could not have been more apt for these two particular exhibitions, since it’s right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Perfect for a town hall meeting (even if only a figurative one) and also near some of the historic locations of the riots.

I caught Wawasan 2020: Townhall in person, while I had to vicariously experience May We… via a short walk-through video screened during an artist and curator Zoom talk on February 10, 2021.

Townhall, organised by A+ Works of Art, essentially felt like a reiteration of their Rasa Sayang group show from 2019, featuring most of the same artists, and with the same group show vagueness about it. Going through the space, one encounters the artworks one expects to encounter: collages by Liew Kung Yu featuring the unfulfilled flying-car dreams of 2020; the obligatory caricatures of Mahathir by Kenneth Chan/PB4000XL; and works by Pangrok Sulap, Sharon Chin, Yee I-Lann, and Tan Zi Hao, all of whom are by now pretty much mandatory for any commercial group show on Malaysian politics. A pleasant surprise came in the form of some poems by Nelson Dino, printed on plain A4 paper tacked to the wall. The exhibition closes with a 72-minute-long recording of “Futures of Malaysia”, a performance by members of Five Arts Centre in 2018.

Mark Teh, Fahmi Reza, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, Imri Nasution, Lee Ren Xin, Roger Liew, Syamsul Azhar, Wong Tay Sy, June Tan, Five Arts Centre; “The Complete Futures of
Malaysia projects (Version 2020)” (detail), 2018, 72-min performance documentation and props

Standing in that space for an hour watching the performance play out, I became conscious of minor aggravations, like the sound of central KL traffic outside the heritage windows, the feeble rotation of a fan in the corner, the occasional mosquito, evening coming on sooner than you expected, hot still air and idleness, and I think this all sums up the post-Wawasan 2020 condition.

In Five Art Centre’s performance, the actors become progressively delirious on stage and start throwing plastic waste about in a representation of Vision 2020’s delusions of grandeur (major emphasis on the delusions part). I thought back to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US in the summer months of 2020: how underlying the genuine sentiment of anti-racism was also the financial and spiritual poverty of lockdown, how so much of the destruction of businesses and public institutions was really desperate catharsis masquerading as revolutionary politics. And that’s okay.

“Futures of Malaysia” masqueraded as intellectual reflection on Vision 2020, but it really felt more like the catharsis of years of idleness spent staring at politicians on TV telling lie after boring lie, while the weather outside got hotter. Young people born in the fading wake of Wawasan 2020 are gradually realising that the future holds nothing for them, and they’re dropping out of the game, which is different from refusing to play. The exhibition did not provoke any new revelations so much as simply state the obvious a little bit too late, at the end of a year already full enough with stagnancy and indefinite postponements.

In contrast, May We… felt more purposeful and focused, emerging from young curator Rebecca Yeoh’s seven-month conceptualisation period as a fellow in Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur’s 2020 Curatorial Workshop. Serendipitously, the talk that I caught with all the artists and curators was moderated by Mark Teh, the director of “Futures of Malaysia”.

The exhibition opens with Shamin Sahrum’s “Kisah-kisah Ibu”, an assemblage inspired by stories of the riots told to him by his mother featuring symbolic objects shrouded in a ghostly mosquito net, then progresses upstairs to Dhavinder Singh’s “Salvation can happen here; it may require some salt”, where the visitor is invited to walk through half a ton of salt and feel the discomfort of metaphorically rubbing salt into the historical wound, then on to Ali Alasri’s “Belas Masa”, which gives the May 13, 1969 page on Chinese calendars an update, and closes with Paul Nickson Atia’s “History’s Repositories – chances of freedom, serenity, and sanctuary”, which begins with a participatory feet-washing performance as the prerequisite to an obstacle course of tripodal structures that visitors need to navigate to exit the exhibition.

Paul Nickson Atia; “History’s Repositories – chances of freedom, serenity, and sanctuary” (detail); 2020; wooden strips, fabrics, hemp string, and glass. Photo: May We… exhibition

At the time of the Zoom talk (the final instalment in a series of supplementary online programming for the exhibition), the exhibition was still pending a public opening due to the sudden reinstatement of the MCO. And so, in a bitter twist acknowledged by the curators and artists themselves, the site-specificity of the content ended up undermining the curatorial intention of sparking conversations about May 13.

In the talk, co-curator Azzad Diah called the exhibition an “un-monumental monument” while artist Shamin spoke about how the unattended exhibition reminded him of his grandmother’s grave – a site that exists in public, but the exact location of which is only known to initiates. While the lack of visitors does muddle the exhibition’s stated purpose, I found it rather moving to imagine this monument to a traumatic and difficult period of Malaysian history standing in the now-stilled heart of Kuala Lumpur, gathering dust perhaps, but existing all the same without requiring external validation. The country must be filled with silent monuments to May 13, 1969, candles burning in quiet homes for private losses.

Screenshot of the Zoom talk between the artists and curators, archived on Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur’s Facebook. Accessed Feb 13, 2021.

All of the participants in this talk were born after 1969, so they referenced current events to reference the past: a frequently-raised topic was the January 11, 2021, declaration of a new state of emergency to tackle COVID-19. This comparison felt kind of distracting, like scratching the area close to but not quite the itch. Violence, coups and riots are all critical to our current time, but in a bigger picture beyond the suggestion of this rather literal comparison.

Perhaps due to this generational gap, the exhibition seemed to prefer tackling the silence surrounding the event rather than the event itself; circling around it without looking it directly in the eyes. This (unintentional, I think) avoidance of violence topped with the (also unintended) barring of the exhibition from public view only extended the distance between the exhibition and its subject. Without addressing the very thing that made this event so unspeakable, the exhibition felt intellectually potent but emotionally stunted, leaving audiences to make disproportionate comparisons to the past without the words to grasp how bad things can really get.

The shortcomings of these exhibitions are not necessarily the curators’ or artists’ faults. We live in a disjunct time, one in which art – a very contemplative activity – struggles to keep up with the strangeness of daily reality. Exhibitions in the present moment feel like silent private monuments to things long dead, of which we’re unlikely to have the words for processing for a long time yet. (Unless art can find a way to be more sublime than reality.)

Mural on the facade of a building opposite Central Market, near Tun Perak Co-op.

Wawasan 2020: Townhall, a group exhibition by A+ Works of Art, ran from Dec 31, 2020 to Jan 10, 2021, at Tun Perak Co-op.

May We…, a group exhibition curated by Rebecca Yeoh, was slated to run from Jan 16 to Feb 7, 2021, at Tun Perak Co-op, but was interrupted by the implementation of MCO 2.0.

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Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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