We live in an era obsessed with individuality. There is yearning especially in the arts for a sense of self-expression. Whether it’s political commentaries, self-portraits or a little bit of both, the singular individual is often put on a pedestal. In Collective | Individual, the underlying theme seems to be that the separation between the ‘collective’ and the ‘individual’ is a myth. All of this is represented through the works of 7 collectives – Foursome, Huaguoshan, Make It Happen, Mekar Studio, Rumah Studio, Run Amok, Titik Merah and the Secret Hideout – consisting of 44 artists and art practitioners (more or less) in total.
As a person, we are always influenced by our interactions with the rest of the world, and no assembly of people can function without the fervor (or at least tacit participation) of the individuals. Sharmin Parameswaran, from Interpr8, who is also the curator of the exhibition, portrays these overlapping qualities in her own special way through Collective | Individual.
Floating above the entrance of the gallery is a piece of nostalgia and organization,named Uniformity II by Caryn Koh. The fact that it hangs from the ceiling seems to represent a lingering, slightly ominous, presence of the past (or the present, if you’re still in high school). Very quickly after the standardized imagery of Uniformity II, the works of SLiZ stands in stark contrast with its anti-establishment undertones.
The exhibition is filled with these two elements battling against each other for space, showcasing a coalescing of the two.
Embracing the Collective
One of the first pieces you see as you enter into the gallery is the chaotic confluence of colours and shapes by Bono Stellar. As an opening salvo to the Make It Happen collective, “It’s Okay to Analog!” is a piece that was used in the music video for The Otherside Orchestra‘s song “In and Out” .
“What she’s trying to say with this work and the collective is that more of us in the art industry need to go and do. Make It Happen is all about figuring out how to help each other do that”, said Sharmin.
“It’s Okay to Analog!” is a testament to all of that. Like the title suggests, it is done almost completely through analog, using scraps of paper to bring out the fluctuating and unstable nature of a relationship between a boy and girl in the song “In and Out”.
As is true with Bono’s narrative of getting people to come together and just do, Make It Happen seems to be the most integrated amongst all the other collectives.
Embracing the collective does not necessarily entail a compromise of the self however. Nadirah Zakariya is another artist of Make It Happen and through her series Hitam Manis, she captures herself through her photography. The art behind her pictures is how she owns the flaws (or at least what society dictates as “flaws”) which she has and gilds it with tiny, sparkly embellishments.
“As a child, I was often called hitam manis. However over the past decade and a half, I have developed a skin condition called vitiligo where pigments of my skin disappear at random places and time. I have no control over them, but I’m slowly embracing my ever evolving outer appearance. I wonder if people still see me as that hitam manis girl now that I have lost some of the colour from my skin”, said Nadirah on the description by her artwork.
“Nadirah is very poetic”, said Sharmin. “Documenting herself is a big part of her creative process”.
The second collective in the gallery is Titik Merah, gathering the likes of Elena Kravchenko, Ajim Juxta, Latif Maulan and Adi Putra. Further portraying the nebulous nature of the individual is Elena Kravchenko‘s work, Inner Zoo Talks (Diptych). As she gets influenced by the artists around her, she paints small images that should resonate with everyone who sees her art. One of which is a piece called “I’m okay”, speaking to the notion of part-denialism/part-optimism that we drown ourselves in to convince ourselves that everything is alright. Elena describes her art as “our “inner zoo” of instincts and reflexes”, where fear of failure turns into procrastination, where “good children” turn into neurotic overachievers”.
And then, there’s The Altar. which takes it up a notch, literally taking in objects from passers-by.
More than just what the artwork represents, there is also the more practicable and hands-on feeling of collectivism among the artists. One of which is when one of them started painting outside of the frame and beautified the walls. Eventually some of the other artists followed suit, creating a glaringly loud and bombastic corner of the gallery.
Sharmin facilitated this spirit of gotong-royong. “It was very important for me that in this exhibition that the artists would visit the space for a number of times. After everyone comes in and set up their own spaces, we also wanted the collective to start mingling and start talking to each other”.
Like Make It Happen, Mekar Studio also has a theme for their collection: Virtual Reality. It speaks to current realities where people find their collective and their sense of belonging beyond the realm of physical communities anymore. Collectivism has moved on to the internet space, and whether or not that’s good or bad is what the narration behind the pieces convey.
Some are more tongue-in-cheek. Rumah Studio‘s mural on KOMTAR in Penang received a lot of flak and criticism from the public. As a steadfast statement of indifference and straightforward middle-finger to the masses, their installation included printouts of the comment section on Facebook attached to the article of their ‘Tallest Mural’ announcement. Bibichun, one of the artists from Rumah Studio made his intentions clearer with the scattering of these printouts on the floor. “This piece is meant to come down. The people at Urbanscapes kept asking to clean it up. And I kept telling them “It was mean to be like that!”, recounted Sharmin.
Deconstructing the Individual
The exhibition was also rife with resplendent, cynical, somber and colorful expressions of the self. Shiela Samsuri‘s pieces were her visual interpretations of the already mystical and psychedelic sounds of the music group, alt-J
Sherwan Rozan brings visitors back to his kampung through his work, No 8A, Jalan Tarom. He uses geometric elements to portray the things he thought were the most important factors in a village, i.e. electricity and water.
Sharmin told us about Sherwan’s artistic process. “When you see his sketches, you don’t see how they can turn into such a geometrical final phase”.
One of our favourites were the works of Latif Maulan through his Violence Pornography series. The narration of his paintings are of contemporary issues and its commentary, but painted through the traditional and realist depictions of figure and scenery.
There is also unrequited love, expressed through the simplicity of a child-like drawing on an exercise book by Fong You Xiang. It is brutal, graphic but at the same time innocent too, as if testifying to a simpler time in school when a heartbreak meant the end of the world.
Run Amok‘s entire collective on the other hand honours Trevor, an artist from their collective who recently passed away. They open up an office-like space that seems to simply be a promo gallery at first of Run Amok exhibitions until you discover a framed paper with a text on it that harbours a hidden message – depending on whether or not you know who Trevor is.
In addition to that, Minstrel Kuik has an entire installation of crumpled paper (sharing a similar tone of dissolution and mess with Rumah Studio‘s KOMTAR piece) where gallery visitors can just come and throw them into the wastebaskets provided. The paper are actually copies of contracts, and the fact that it’s being treated like rubbish is meant to be a big “screw you” to corporate structures and the binds that corporations impose upon an artist.
Liew Kwai Fei‘s work also complements this anti-establishment attitude. The pictures he posted of boats with Chinese writings on it is a statement of the overlap between individuality and collectivity. “The Chinese writings say ‘Same Boat But Different Boat’, as in we’re all in the same boat but are actually different in our own way”, said Xujen Teo, founder of Mampu Art Market who helped to curate the exhibition. There is also We Have Finally Made It (But Not without A Price).
Just around the corner is the Secret Hideout collective; a collective as enigmatic as their name. “There were so many people working on this piece, and I didn’t have a complete idea about what they were doing. I didn’t know they were gonna hang these things. But I kept telling myself to ‘trust the process’ and it turned out wonderful”, Sharmin stated.
“It was my friend who told me that this piece is actually very depressing. You can sort of see an endless loop, that as a person you never really go anywhere”, said Xujen.
“Once upon a time, long before the enforced genocide of imagination live a girl; a boy. Their minds a technicolour glow of vivid visions and rabid fascinations” – The Beginning of the End, Secret Hideout
The most poignant part of the entire installation however is the text that accompanies it. It comes off as a preamble with some semblance of poetry. From another aspect, it’s almost biblical in the language speaking of the genesis of ‘individual’ and ‘society and how the former gets repressed by the latter.
Another noteworthy testament of individuality is the gloomy and introspective depression emanating from Observer by Bibichun. The piece when put together is actually a mini figurine of Bibichun observing his thoughts. It truly is a very hard-hitting piece, as it is honest in its content, but innovative in its construction.
There is a lot to behold in this gallery. Beyond the aesthetic and creative risk taken, there is much to take away with regards to the message as well. “The only thing I want people to be able to take away from my exhibitions is enjoyment. I want them to remember the next time they see the word “art exhibition” it is not going to be “Oh, its too pretentious or elitist” since they had fun here a Collective|Individuals.”, said Sharmin. “I want people to know that these works have something to say, if you only take the time”.
“They don’t have to just stand there and pretend to be introspective. They can interact with it however they want, even if it is from behind a phone or through pictures”.
In this modern age, attempts at modernizing the art gallery are aplenty. “To me, if these people just go through the whole gallery in less than 5 minutes, it means I have failed. So besides just making sure it’s cohesive, and exciting at every corner, it also so happens that some of our artwork becomes an Instagram-friendly spot”, she joked.