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A Case of Art Writing

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Art writing in Malaysia gets its fair share of flak from informed audience all the time. In our recent interview with a local collector, the language barrier between writers who write in English and artists who converse in Malay was insinuated as a class divide – those who hang out in Bangsar and those from the rest of Malaysia. I have offered my rebuttal in the comments section, highlighting how diverse art coverage can be in local print media in terms of its ubiquitous coverage of art events and exhibitions beyond the upper-middle class turf, known derisively amongst the class-conscious as Bangsar.

Unfortunately, this statement misrepresent another problem that art writing face, mainly its inability and refusal to adapt to the changing attitude and role that different artists assume, to communicate works that do not fit easily into the simple content driven allegory that has become the staple of contemporary practice in Malaysia and to presume that our audience/readers are too stupid to understand what artists are trying to say if artists do not conform their self-presentation in what is deemed to be proper and conventional.

Take the artist Liew Kwai Fei as an example. His recent exclusion from the list of emerging names in a local publication rests on one of the most irresponsible excuses I have heard. The journalist, who claims to have ten years of experience in art writing, states that the publication’s readers will not understand the answers provided. Not only has this writer grossly presume that the Malaysian public can only comprehend a very fixed and conventional response, the sort of questions that are being fielded expose the kind of lazy hackwork on the part of the ‘experienced’ journalist who did not even take the effort to frame his/her questions in order to elicit any form of intelligent response. Reproduced in the appendix are the highly amusing and mocking answers provided by the artist in response to the questionnaire. Yes, in case you’re wondering, the bracketed categories are part of the questionnaire. One can only imagine what this process of filtering will result in the final published piece.

In another local print daily, coverage of Liew’s recent solo exhibition was left unwritten after another journalist decided there was nothing to write about abstraction. Instead, art features often go on to highlight the big lavish opening parties and third rate Malaysiana narratives that have so saturated the local art market that one begins to wonder whether we as readers really deserve the kind of undigested pseudo-conceptual social commentary that inexperienced younger artists are often feeding us with through art.

As Zedeck Siew has pointed out indirectly his response to the comments thread of a previous article, critics (and art writers too) need to play catch up with what artists are doing and not fall into trap of writing what one knows best. This is even more pertinent to writers than trained critics who are probably quick to admit their background experience in the arts is limited. We cannot and should not resort to easy explanation and writing, and worse, believe that our readers could not value good journalistic art writing that can effectively communicate the complex ideas embodied in any artworks or artistic temperament into an accessible format for consumption.


[Who is he]

Describe your age Younger than my country.

Place of Birth and Art background (for instance, how long you’ve been involved in art, and other details you’d like to reveal) From my Malaysian mother’s ovum. I came out at the Kuatan State Hispital in September 1979 on a sunny day and you can feel the wind from the South China Sea.

How you got into Art When I know how to love art

Your Achievements (local and international), are you a full time artist? My artworks was in the National Art Gallery collection

Where have you exhibited your work? Still exhibiting in this world, looking forward to exhibiting on the moon.

Your favourite art exhibition in which you’ve participated. ‘Space’ group exhibition and ‘Dialogue’ at Rumah Air Panas in 2003. This was where I met my lovely girlfriend.

How is art fulfilling for you? Art never fulfills anyone. It rewards.

[What he does]

Describe your style of art. Fine Art.

Who or what inspires your art and why? The people.

The medium you work with Everyday life.

How have you progressed over the years in terms of your work and how has it influenced you as an individual? Do you mean how an artist lives with his art work? We love each other.

What do you think of your own work, from your early works to recent pieces? The Bodhi (True Wisdom) is not like the tree; The mirror bright is nowhere shining; As there is nothing from the first, Where does the dust itself collect? (Hui Neng, Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, 638 – 713 C.E.)

What’s the best and worst comment you’ve heard from people about your works? “……………”

[Why he’s hot]

Why we should watch out for you. Because I’m an artist.

What makes you stand out as an artist? I know what art is.

What makes you tick as an artist and how is it expressed in your artworks? Artist is the man who make the artworks, artworks make the artist.

In your personal and professional relationship and conflicts, is it often the case of art imitates life or life imitates art? How and why? Ya, we have a lot of conflicts. Me and my artworks are too sensitive to each other!

[How hot]

How do you sell your work? Go to my art dealer for answer.

What’s the average price for a piece of your work? Again, go to my art dealer for answer.

What’s the highest amount ever paid for your work? Hmmmm….. not more than what Malaysians have paid for the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ).

What will be your next art project about? Which medium? Next? It’s always a surprise!

Exhibition where? Somewhere on earth. Again, I’m looking to exhibit on the moon.

Do you think there’ll be any major changes in the future direction of your artworks? Life is really hard, so I really need to play softly.

What else do you want to explore in terms of art? Art for the people.



This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 17 August 2009.

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