Meeting People Is Easy: Visitation Notes

by Azzad Diah +

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Azzad Diah Ahmad Zabidi graduated from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in Degree of Fine Art. Worked as independent art writer before joining Galeri PETRONAS. Current affiliation with ILHAM Gallery as Assistant Curator. Writes and curate exhibition for various local galleries Including Zainal Abidin Musa’s  Tengkujuh in 2014, also participated in local and international exhibitions including Bakat Muda Sezaman (Young Contemporary Art Award) finalist in 2013, Art-Chipelago at National Gallery of Indonesia and Yogyakarta Open Studios 2015, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2015.

ENG / BM

Dec 2017

Even though the title of this original text is in English, it was originally written in Malay language. It is generally said that language shapes the way of thinking. Each language, whether speech or writing, has unique structures which differentiate between action of thoughts and understanding of its practitioner. This essay does not aim to tell the long tale of language, and in fact has nothing to do with speech. Honestly, the title was copied from a program which this essay is dedicated. Meeting People is Easy or its loose translation to Malay language, Mudah Berjumpa Orang. Sounds rather odd. Literal translation of each word. Meeting People is Easy is an open studio program by artist Gan Siong King.

 

Gan Siong King has been involved in the art industry for about 20 years. After completing his studies at Malaysia Institute of Art, he remains active in the creative industry. Even so, Siong King likens his artistic career to a puppeteer of shadow puppet (tok dalang wayang kulit) in the olden days. Puppeteers (in the olden days) was not a full-time job. It was only after working hours these Tok Dalang started their practice. Tok Dalang is not a career, it’s a vocation. These idea has taken a shape in his working process, whereby he is not tied up to any specific practice - however its root is deeply embedded in arts.

 

“Most of the works that I’ve done previously were to expand my practice as a visual artist – theatre, film, community project, art collective - all of which that are outside of what I’ve learned in school – painting.” Perhaps because he’s too busy with various projects, he’s rarely seen as a productive artist. Working in this industry, Siong King is exposed to the craft of becoming a better artist - whether through observation, production, performance and art appreciation. Even though not as a professional visual artist (since he’s not making money from art), the first 15 years of his career was a very useful learning curve; understanding and experiencing art in various form and approach, expanding his artistic vocabulary up till now. “Everything is clear to me now. I no longer want to work for someone else.”

 

This open studio is pretty much celebrating his career as a full-time artist. It has been planned out earlier, however, he is only able to materialize it now. According to him, this program is almost like bringing outsiders into his world. A world that is filled with vision and imagination, reality and fantasy. Anyone who visits, will be welcomed with drawings, paintings, videos, tools, materials and objects that are used by Siong King in his works. It is an exposure, like a cave that is opened for exploration. Siong King exposes everything - personal, ideas and his objects of obsession - to be explored and to be viewed by the public. Life that is often considered isolated, far from people’s sight, only known to few, is now open to everyone.

 

Traversing through the neighbourhood in Sri Petaling, perhaps no one would expect to find an art studio within it. From outside, a single storey terrace house appears similar to the houses surrounding it (which are mostly family houses). Nothing ‘artistic’ about these other houses. But art has always been perceived as a tool and flexible to absorb any intention behind it. There is no need for artsy fartsy neighborhood to practice your art. Today, there are plenty of housing developers that are trying to slip in artistic elements in their housing projects. The common views, art symbolizes culture. Cultured societies, reflects a highly civic minded people. This is only an assumption. Most of these houses with ‘artistic themes’ are a mere marketing stunt.

 

Like ‘art’, making ‘art’ also can be molded from just about anywhere. It is proven that art activity influences space, whether in public, private, isolated, institution, suburban, jungle, lanes and alleys. Allan Kaprow had made the vicinity of exhibition as his studio for his piece Yard (1961), whereby the piles of used tyres are arranged at the front yard of Martha Jackson Gallery. “A painting will stop becoming a painting and melts into its surrounding,” said Allan Kaprow regarding the act of artist who lives in his daily environment. What is really meant here is that, artists need to make peace with their space or site and becoming ‘one’ with their environment.

 

Studio is a mystical place. A place of creative reproductivity. Within it, the artistic spirit besets - where all the energy is centralized. A safe house for ideas, meditation and conversation. There are walls that separate the studio and outside world. But this does not mean that what happens inside the studio has nothing to do with the world outside. It’s only that art commands a specific language to be read and understood.

 

I imagined Siong King’s studio to be liken to an organization which converses in its own language. Like learning a new foreign language, the first thing to do prior to understanding is to experience the language.

 

Apart from speech (sound), language is also visual. Texts are images. The merging of texts forms meaning, and this meaning is understood (if one already knows how to speak). Sign language requires the user to understand the symbols from complex hand gesture. Chinese calligraphy extracts the shapes from human surroundings, like mountain, animal and house. The treasury of English language is very wide, and each word stresses on action or a specific meaning. The Malay language on the other hand, uses a lot of its object as subject - therefore, if ‘makan’ (to eat) is an action, with the affix ‘-an’, it transforms into an object - ‘makanan’ (food). Each language has its own character and requires different entrance to comprehend it.

 

As diverse as it may be, the linguistic ethics branches out from universal structural understanding.

 

Reaching the studio’s door, my sight is caught by the color chart that is hanged in the studio living hall. It is not the nearest object and positioned just behind a table, yet strikingly dominant to the space. Its squared living hall was arranged just like an exhibition with paintings hanged on every wall. It goes from the living hall, and followed straight to middle of hallway, slightly bigger compared to the previous room. This house carries the features of 80s architectures (perhaps even older) - its high ceiling completed with built-in air windows brought a nostalgic sentiment. There are three rooms - one of them are turned into video editing room and storage area. Siong King actively produced video works as well as his paintings. To him, working with video provides him a liberty to play around in its process.  

 

Like watching a film without subtitle, I tried to capture the recurring details in his artworks. It is like the experience of understanding the context of conversation in foreign language, despite not knowing the details. Each object in the studio have its own relationship although not explicitly. There is a ‘fetishism’ that could be traced in the images exhibited. Not just in his paintings, but also appear in his video works. Siong King often used microscopic and close-up shots in his image compositions. “Mechanical ‘porn’!” he kids. His compositions sometimes appear abstract, but lies a certain process behind the surface.

 

Science and history appear as strong influences in his paintings. A round steel capsule, skull, toys, portraits of bearded figures (most likely a scientist), policemen from bygone eras, animals - everything appears abstract and unplanned. I tried to seam together the constellation of these images with the personality of Gan Siong King. I believe, each object created by the artist has its own history. The history that I’m referring to is the bond between artist and his thoughts which are ingrained in his artworks - the history of Gan’s ideas.

 

What excites me is how Siong King uses the similar structure and applies it in different forms and mediums. There are three important components that translate Siong King’s vision in this particular open studio program: object, image and exhibition. He perceived the identity of an object can be shaped to construct a new meaning. Each of these components are read from the different entry points.

 

So imagine the entry point is arranged as the following:

 

Object

(physical reality)

 

 Image

(narrative representation)

 

Exhibition

(political representation)

 

Outwardly, anything that separates object (usage of two words; ‘thing’ and ‘object’, to differentiate specified meaning between both. ‘Thing’ refers to physical, while ‘object’ is theoretical). For instance, painting is ‘object’ - within it exists the structure of wood, canvas and paint (whether oil or acrylic). In painting contains image. The language of image is read via the formation of sign and meaning, semiotic. This combination of images on the other hand, are placed in exhibition, which are read through the language of power and representation. It is also used in the process of his artwork making:

 

Object

(physical)

 

Colour

(technical)

 

Image

(semiotic)

 

It is a strategy to form a consistent meaning, reflected as an epistemological and ontological quest. Everything that is found in Gan Siong King’s studio is the fractions of the artist’s thoughts. It was a converging process. “If one wants to build a career as an artist, one must possess a strategy and consistency along with it,” advises Siong King.

 

Chaotic and process - two elements that are opposing in one place. Abstract images, experimental shapes, nonsensical subjects, are placed in the studio space with an arrangement that is pleasing to the eyes. Binary opposition hold crucial elements that balance both positive and negative forces that are essential to life. The synergy between artist and his environment shapes its own aesthetic.

 

Open studio program, like its verb - open - inviting many possibilities. Each dialogue shapes a new meaning. Each question, creates opportunity to explore new answers. This openness exposes everything. The quest of meaning is a commonplace each time we are confronted with an art objects. Even though there are those who opine that artworks are subjective, they have always been objectified from the view of the artist. There is always a reason behind every creation, despite they can sometimes be difficult to be expressed through words.

 

Artist, according to Franz Kafka, is someone who does not say anything. This means, art, essence of art itself is message-less, without opinion, non-persuasive, but - in brief - a witness. Even so, each of which that is witnessed, contains truth itself. Being one of the guest who experienced the program first hand, the objects presented here left me wondering the artist’s root of inspiration. This could also possibly be the reason why Siong King hosts an open studio. To encourage communication. Not only with the objects in his studio, but to initiate conversation with the artists. Meeting People is Easy - but perhaps not so easy to meet when there is nothing to talk about.