The gesture: between the ideal and practical

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.

Feb 2022

The pandemic has forced us to put ourselves in a confined space while constantly on the edge of a mental breakdown. “New Normal” has become a familiar catchphrase to ease us into accepting reality. Our urge to assemble, gather and reconvene with others is part of our psychological need—thus prompting us to look towards technological solutions to complement what we lack. We gradually embrace the isolation, separation, and seclusion while trying to make sense of the situation. For Gan Siong King, the pandemic seems to be an absurd phase of his life, as well as his artistic career. 

 

Prior to the lockdown in 2020, he had been invited to participate in the Koganecho Bazaar 2020, an artist-in-residency program in Yokohama, Japan. Unfortunately, he could not be physically present in Yokohama due to the borders being shut, but that didn't stop him from attempting a different output—the residency took place digitally. "I don't know what to feel when they informed me about the residency. I was happy to be invited but at the same time stressed out because of the pandemic," he said.  

 

Koganecho Bazaar is an art festival that takes place every autumn in Koganecho, a neighbourhood within Yokohama. The area was infamously known as a centre for illegal and grey-area activities, particularly sex trading in the 2000s. That changed in 2005 when the police shut down the sex shops in Koganecho as part of a nationwide effort in clamping down on sex work in urban entertainment districts (kanrakugai). The “cleaning” effort pulled resources from a diverse group of individuals, communities, organisations, institutions, with the support of local government and authority in keeping with the safer environment. Gentrification was carried out to reclaim and revitalise the area from such activities. The Koganecho Bazaar was conceived in 2008 to regenerate public life and transform the neighbourhood's image from a shady spot into a lively artistic site. The festival draws art producers—both locally and abroad—to experience, produce and exhibit art during their residency program in the city. 51 artists were involved in a two-part exhibition for the 2020 series. 

 

The Bazaar provides an opportunity for Gan to consider the questions that perennially surfaces when defining the notion of "art" and "community", as both are used extensively in the domain of contemporary art. Moreover, Koganecho Bazaar is also a form of community within its territory, specifically to reconnect its place, history and people. Gan felt a disconnect in community-based art towards whom it benefited more. As an artist mainly working in his immediate environment, being involved in the community gave him a better understanding of the potential of art beyond the presumably closed bubble. In a way, we often take for granted what "community" means in a world where interdependence is becoming evident in the face of a global pandemic. "I wanted to extend my art production to the realm of the public as a form of knowledge transfer, rather than viewed as an external object of fascination," he explained.

 

The Koganecho Gesture was conceived through a period of solitude and distance. The 26-minute video reminisces the experience of his artistic journey and pays tribute to the individuals, communities and institutions that contributed to his practice up until recently. The video installation was supposed to be his post-mortem or iteration of his emotions and concerns on the situation he and other people were confronted with. It is an accumulation of his thoughts during the pandemic as he tries to make sense of his artistic career and art community as a whole. The work is narrative-driven, given most of his musings departed from his position as an artist, inspired by things and places he experienced before the pandemic. Now, reflecting on that in isolation provides a clear direction about what he wanted to achieve. 

 

"What are the circumstances of making an artwork? I believe artists are responsible for the organisation, collectives and the public who invested in the production of the arts." Instead of romanticising the immediate past, The Koganecho Gesture reflects on Gan's artistic practice, an inquiry of his role as an artist and making sense of his achievements so far. Reflecting on his career for more than 20 years has turned him into his own critic. This, however, is a common feature of his method. Through the process of deconstruction, he can navigate through the uncharted areas of art practice, experimenting with new vehicles to unravel a common perception of art and its practice within the art community and the wider audience. The Koganecho Gesture is an open-ended question, an optimistic intention to extend the possibility of opening up more spaces of interaction within the art production. In this sense, Gan is seeking an appropriate way to conjure his idea of art-making into a broader context, not only around an introspection of the self. "I think artists are like farmers. Working towards an exhibition is like working towards a harvest. We work for a year with no income, towards something that doesn't guarantee an income."

 

Gan's artistic sense developed from involvement with different representational modes—from painting, theatre, film, and community projects to art collectives. Each of these modes shaped his working process and influenced how he thinks about art. Spending most of his earlier career as a studio artist has prompted Gan to question his practice, particularly his role as an artist regarding his relationship with others. The romantic perception of an artist often lies in tangent between ideal, genius and mystery. At least, this is what we learn when reading art history—the artist is progressive, blessed with a talent to move emotion, with a splash of eccentricity that reminds us of the wonders outside of our daily routines. In a world where capitalism moves everything, the notion of “artist genius" is increasingly obsolete. 


Artistic practice is often understood as being individual and personal. But what does the individual or personal mean? The modern artist seems to thrive on the creation of self and originality. According to Boris Groys, "Modern artists revolted against the identities imposed to them by others to seek the right of sovereign self-identification. The question of identity is not a question of truth but the question of power." Within these parameters, artists are fully aware of their environment that demands identification within a socially constructed dominator reflected in their artistic practices. Despite being quite specific in some respects, artistic work is not fully autonomous. It relies on the social, economic, technical, and political conditions of art production, distribution, and presentation. 

1 https://www.e-flux.com/journal/45/60134/art-workers-between-utopia-and-the-archive

 

All the Time I Pray To Buddha, I Keep on Killing Mosquitoes is an iteration of The Koganecho Gesture he made earlier for the Koganecho Bazaar 2020 Vol. 2 in Yokohama, Japan. Borrowing the title from Kobayashi Issa's haiku, it grasps at the duality of nature and an idiosyncratic view of the world. "Not everything is as clear as black and white; there is always a grey area that allows us to be flexible. The assumption that money will destroy art's purity is no better than money is needed to produce art. The question is not whether money is important or not, rather how we can manage to its fullest potential." 

 

Gan believes there is a boundary delineating artistic practice and its audience hidden behind the exhibition space's serenity. "Art is created by chaos, don't be fooled by the calmness of the gallery." All the Time I Pray To Buddha, I Keep on Killing  Mosquitoes manifests the concern he put in The Koganecho Gesture. Gan wanted to focus on the "production" and "distribution" of art in this iteration. Joining him is a long-time collaborator, Wong Tay Sy, as producer and other individuals operating as technical support, copywriting, publicity, public relations and venue manager. 

 

All the Time I Pray To Buddha, I Keep on Killing Mosquitoes demonstrated an element of extension with Gan taking on the role of an initiator, bridging the gap between his works and the public by offering up a platform for expression. The exhibition includes new video works titled Citizen in collaboration with Makarim Salman and four conversations exploring the many spectrum of arts, community and art-making. 

 

In the first program, Gan and Makarim unfolded their collaboration process in the making of Citizen. Makarim Salman, a British-born Japanese citizen, shared both his love of Japanese culture as well as his displeasure towards the social orthodoxy and displacement within certain parts of said culture. He also shared the notion of a global citizen that enables every human being to live beyond their given identity—race, religion, and belief. Citizen was conceived from an open call invitation, where the public sends their stories to be included in Gan's latest video installation.

 

A second program focused on the technical aspect of filmmaking and moving images with panelist Isazaly Isa. The conversation steered into the potential of sound and sound design within the premises of artistic work. Next, Mark Teh and Junya Utsumi shared their approaches to collaboration for both short-term and long-term projects. Mark Teh, a long-time collaborator, looked into the different terrains of collaborative processes and negotiations regarding authorship. Meanwhile,  Junya Utsumi, who was also the curator for Koganecho Bazaar, explained his experience in organising and managing the festival in times of pandemic and negotiating the representational outlook when the artist is not present. Lastly, the fourth program unveiled the women behind the scenes—Kyoko Kugai (Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur), Wyn Hee (PJPac) and Wong Tay Sy (producer) discussed their roles in creative production in a conversation moderated by Rahmah Pauzi. The administrative and managerial tasks often go unnoticed when talking about exhibition-making, yet their presence dominates the decision-making and distribution of art. To put them under the spotlight can be read as a tribute to people behind the scenes, whose contribution plays an integral part in artistic production. 

 

In the context of contemporary art, to make art is to show things as art. Gan produced work and blurred the boundaries between making and displaying art. The traditional division of labour within the art system was clear—artists produce art, and the curator selects them to display in the gallery. Conventional art exhibitions consist of artworks placed next to each other and viewed in succession. The exhibition space is considered neutral, and the viewer in this setting remains outside the art. However, an artistic installation presents the notion of democracy whereby the responsibility is extended to the audience as well. 

 

All the Time I Pray To Buddha, I Keep on Killing Mosquitoes was intended to unveil Gan’s thoughts and processes that revolve around identification, conversation, engagement and recognising patterns. This allowed him to democratise the artistic production by leveraging the workload and dividing it into several roles. Each role is expected to operate within its limitations to engage and interpret the main idea. By working with collaborators, Gan hopes to reveal the creative process behind the production that involves negotiation and navigation during the planning, distributing and presenting of the artwork—through the different roles of his collaborators. The artist's decision to allow a multitude of individuals to enter the space of the artistic production could be interpreted as opening the closed space of an artwork to facilitate a more democratic process. This enclosed space is then transformed into a wider area for public discussion, democratic practice, communication, networking, education, and so forth.