Participatory Utopias
Review by Ellen Lee

Sharon Chin, Mandi Bunga, 2013. Photo: Artsy

Art is over. It’s finished. The jig is up, everyone knows now that the entire art market is one big speculative scheme, thanks to all the news constantly breaking about astronomical and nonsensical auction sales. And with the advent of social media, it’s become more difficult for artists to square the corruption of their profession with any level of dignity; one of their attempts is by working in the genre of art known as “participatory art”. But will this succeed in redeeming art?

In contemporary art, locally and internationally, the past few years have seen an increased interest in participatory art, which is a genre broadly defined by audience engagement, often motivated by an ethical push for the greater democratisation of art and destabilisation of established institutional authorities. As the art market becomes even more alienating, many artists’ have turned towards a more practical idea of art, one marked by the keywords: “accessibility”, “community”, “education”, “engagement”. (Look closer and you’ll realise some of these terms can also be used in assessing a commodity’s market success.) Perhaps now, in our social media hyper-interactivity, the turn towards participatory art is simply the logical outcome of a heightened and more immediate awareness of social injustice all over the world.

Lith Ng, In Defence of Pleasure (detail), 2019. Photo: Artist’s website

Artists and curators attempt to cultivate relevancy by using art to address current events, and sometimes this takes the form of directly working with underprivileged communities through art. In projects such as Projek Dialog’s Merata Suara (2018), curated by Suzy Sulaiman, five artists were each paired with a “location partner” for six months and asked to produce artworks based on their experiences, which were then showcased in an exhibition at Projek Dialog’s office. In this way, artists actively worked to involve underprivileged voices and customs (those not usually recognised by established art institutions) in the production of contemporary art. In Lith Ng’s In Defence of Pleasure for Urbanscapes 2019, we see participatory art as a method for spreading awareness of a social malaise – in this case, breaking the taboo on female sexuality by inviting women to submit anonymous anecdotes of their journey with their own sexuality, which are then typed up, printed out and immortalised in a resin-based installation.

As an example of this sort of ethical approach to art, we can look to Lostgens’ collective, an influential Kuala Lumpur-based group with a strong belief in making art accessible and relevant to the wider public. According to their website, “Art also needs to be known and seen to engage with people in the public sphere. By empowering citizen participation between communities, art ties in together with culture and is relatable to people from various strata.” Their list of past projects is extensive, including notthatbalai art festival (2004, ’05, ’07) which challenged established institutional criteria for art; numerous collaborations with community action groups such as Buku Jalanan Chow Kit; a Petaling Street Community Art Project which used site-specific art to lead a communal protest against land expropriation for MRT construction; and much more. Their projects straddle art and community work, and even the ones that explicitly lean towards the “art” aspect seem more like community outreach than a piece of art.

notthatbalai art festival, 2007. Photo: Lostgens’ website

Among Malaysian artists working in the mode of participatory art, Sharon Chin has garnered much admiration for her thoughtful, socially-engaged artworks. Recently, she unveiled In the Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita) at the 2019 Singapore Biennale, a massive installation artwork made of recycled cloth from partisan flags stitched with messages and drawings from participants in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. A few years back, during the 2013 Singapore Biennale, she had also produced Mandi Bunga, a collaborative piece involving over a hundred participants joining her in a Bersih-yellow flower bath on the lawn of the National Gallery of Singapore. Most recently, she launched a web-based project, titled Letters to What We Want, inviting her friends to contribute letters to their deepest desires, “in 2021 and beyond” (although this is not explicitly presented as an artwork; just a fun project with a few friends).

Then, there is Roslisham Ismail a.k.a. Ise, whose practice extensively featured engagement with the public. For instance, in 2018, he hosted a by-raffle-only Kelantanese feast at ILHAM Gallery that brought the public together over a shared appreciation of food, a medium understood more easily than art. In the realm of participatory art in Malaysia, engagement with the public has been relatively stress-free and uncontroversial, with participants being asked to perform simple gestures or provide input on a simple matter. In contrast, Wong Hoy Cheong’s Tapestry of Justice (1998–2004), a collection of over a thousand fingerprints from friends and acquaintances supporting the repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA), represents an overt political position from participants, like an artistic petition.

These are only a limited number of examples of participatory artworks and projects in Malaysian art history. Unmentioned are public art, street art, or interactive art, all of which mean subtly different things but which nonetheless are defined by their consideration for the public: the “Mak Cik Kiah”s and “Pak Salleh”s, the average labourers, the businessmen, the housewives, the gig workers, the migrant workers, the Malaysians who are not initiated into the “art world” and in whose lives art is of the lowest possible priority.

Wong Hoy Cheong, Tapestry of Justice, 1998–2004, as presented in the exhibition The Body Politic and the Body (2019) at ILHAM Gallery. Photo: ILHAM Gallery Facebook

The phenomenon of street art, a subset of public art, has illuminated a pitfall in the utopian idea of the democratisation of art. When not done with due diligence through consultations with the surrounding public, public-facing art can inadvertently become a social menace; such as seen in the gentrification of the street art capital of George Town, Penang. While the appearances of something – in this case, the methods of art-making – may have changed, this doesn’t mean that its interior structure – its soul – has made the same change. The artist’s role in participatory art is often more like a producer or project manager, but they still retain ultimate authorship that’s subject to their own ethics, priorities and philosophies, all of which can always be questioned regardless of the number of participants involved.

Ironically, the rise of participatory art, rather than showing art’s relevance, actually seems to suggest otherwise. Artists are less interested in soaring mystical heights of vision and individual genius, but rather in simple and easily understood gestures that everyone, by design, can participate in; the final product of an artwork is outsourced to the whims of the ordinary person. The aim of this piece was not to denigrate the artworks listed or to write off participatory art as a whole, but rather to tease out the hurdles it has yet to overcome. Similarly, the numerous international protests and mass movements of the past few decades have all resembled each other, give or take a few adaptations, and yet they’ve failed to materialise substantial, lasting change. Participatory art, with its utopian mission of serving the people through art, is open to the same critique.

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

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