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Why is everything a metaphor?

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I was road tripping the other day going from somewhere to somewhere outside of KL and looking at the strange and depressing generic housing estates that crop up by the side of the highway. A billboard of some apparently blissful new development read: ‘Planter’s Haven, So Close, It’s Far Away’.

As time passed in the car I pondered the genius of such profound use of language and marketing strategies, it’s so close, it’s far away (wow) and then I suddenly noticed a huge cement factory all metallic and tubular. And being of the poetic persuasion I immediately processed this image (photographic references streamed through my brain at break neck speeds) and converted it into a metaphor.

I was framing what I saw into a picture, and then coming up with an alternative, worthy symbolic meaning for it. Instead of a cement factory it was a metallic intestinal shrine to modernity, to blind progress, to theatre, to the Fall of Man. But in reality it was just a cement factory.

Not beautiful, not romantically ugly, just a seemingly practical product for profit. It’s a site where cement gets made, jobs get lost, people eat lunch, smoke cigarettes, hate their bosses and all that normal real life stuff. Maybe its because I have been doing too much research on photography and Barthes’s observation of how photography turns subject (ie living persons) into object (a thing to be observed aesthetically and to project our own imaginings onto) is guiding the way I look at everything now, which is starting to feel like a curse.

And so through its distinctly shaped ugliness, the Cement Factory (I have to capitalise it now, like a title) became cinematically compelling and Modernist to me. I had Artified it. So I asked myself the question: Why in Art, does everything have to be a metaphor for something else?

Why do we seek alternative, more worthy validation for images? Is this something that makes Art + life more meaningful, enjoyable or something that blinds us to banality of the real. Should an image of cow, just be an image of a cow? And not an image to symbolise the cow head drama, and political/religious tensions of the country? Should Art make everything beautiful or meaningful in some way, including the everyday things outside the gallery? And if we do this, aren’t we all a little self indulgent or as a friend commented to me a few weeks ago a bit ‘tra la la’?

What am I going on about?

Well, what I am trying to interrogate is the battle between image and concept, and subsequently how writing functions as a conduit for this. We always go on about conceptual practice being marginalised, which is a shame because we think its smart and meaningful and lament the stagnation of contemporary painting in Malaysia which feels a little too dependent on the visual/decorative elements and not enough emphasis on concept, experimentation or multiple meaning. I know that there should be a happy middle ground but sometimes, I feel myself wildly oscillating between the two: just absorbing what I see in Art without thinking too much or reimagining what I see in Art and subsequently the visual world (conceptual or not) as stimuli for more intellectual, romantic understandings about life. Hmmm I suspect a long bout of mental travel sickness on this one….




Image taken from Outback Photo

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 12 May 2010.

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