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Torn photos and only two shots of penguins? Local photographer’s mysterious Antarctica exhibition an alarm call

How often do you hear about Malaysians going to Antarctica?

A continent covered in dirt, ice and snow may not be a popular work or holiday destination but scientists and researchers love Antarctica. In fact, Malaysia even has its own research foundation dedicated to Antarctica in the form of Yayasan Penyelidikan Antarctica Sultan Mizan (YPASM).


In any case, Petaling Jaya resident Mahen Bala went to Antarctica earlier this year after winning the POLAR Ice Challenge, organised by the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (MOSTI) through YPASM. He got on a research vessel with other scientists and visited points of interest around the Antarctic peninsula, withstanding sub zero temperatures to snap pictures in the icy continent.

Imagine our surprise when Mahen’s photography exhibition No Man’s Land greeted visitors with torn pictures hanging from a line. Behind these photos of snowy landscapes hung more snowy landscapes with an occasional whale skeleton or dilapidated structure in the foreground. Something seemed amiss.

Why Mahen, why? Why this depressing set of visuals for your Balai Seni Negara showcase?

The reason, it turned out, was printed near the entrance. Placed next to a portrait of penguins, No Man’s Land welcome display left no room for doubt. Antarctica is a penguin paradise, visual feast, and ticking time bomb. The world must acknowledge that this icy realm holds valuable insight into the world we live in but it also can put the human population at peril.

Here are a few things we got from one very intelligent Malaysian who went to Antarctica and brought back photos for visitors to tear apart.

4240A33200000578-4688662-image-a-12_14998653462311. A chunk of Antarctica has broken off

Back in July this year, an iceberg the size of Luxembourg split from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. It broke off the peninsula and began drifting in the Weddell Sea. The iceberg measured approximately 5,800 square kilometers — the equivalent of six Penangs or one Bali — and it is melting slowly into the ocean.

But to put things in context, Antarctica has been covered in ice since God knows when, ice which have been around for millions of years, some holding remnants of prehistoric life and are valuable to researchers. Did someone say global warming?

Hence the string of damaged photos hanging in the concourse of Balai Seni Negara. These photos of Antarctican ice shelves have been perforated to enable easy tearing, tempting visitors to tear off a piece when they drop by No Man’s Land.

Fun fact: this iceberg is only half as big as B-15, the chunk which came off the Ross ice shelf in 2000. Did someone say global warming?

2.  We once murdered whales like there’s no tomorrow

It’s not just the immaculate, icy whiteness of Antarctica which tugs at the heartstrings. Though stunned by the purity of Antarctica’s landscapes, Mahen was equally drawn by the remnants of human settlement in the region.


Many different whale species migrate towards Antarctica during the austral summer to feed. This discovery led to an influx of commercial whaling stations in Antarctica which hoped to profit of whale blubber. Since the beginning of large-scale Antarctic whaling in 1904, whale populations have plummeted.

A single 90-foot blue whale could yield up to 120 barrels of oil, and blue whales were killed by the thousands from about 1900 onwards. The slaughter peaked in 1931 when over 29,000 were killed in one season. After that blue whales became so scarce that the whalers turned to other smaller species, first of all the Fin whales and then when these in turn became scarce, to Sei whales in the 1960’s and then to the much smaller Minke whales in the 1980’s.

Cool Antarctica

There are whales left in the waters of Antarctica but none were photographed during Mahen’s trip.

3. What does analogue photography have to do with this?

There’s something unnerving about images in a digital era. Consider that a lot of our understanding of the world today is based on we see on screens. In an age where photos can be edited and warped beyond truth, how do we know for sure what is or isn’t real?

Poster - Analoga photography

In conjunction with the closing of No Man’s Land, Mahen Bala, Dr. Azril Ismail and Jeffrey Lim will be conducting Obsolete(?), an analogue photography sharing session and demonstration at the National Art Gallery. All three have different mediums and processes and they’ll be showing us how their analogue choices guide their artistic process. Dr. Azril is an art academic and a respected photographer while Jeffrey Lim is synonymous with his Kanta Box Kamra and Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map Project.

There’s a key reason why an analogue photography session is being conducted on this day and it relates back to Antarctica — drop by the National Art Gallery on Sunday to find out more.

21728095_10159281301795048_1268543842959766055_n4. Mahen Bala is the sort of Malaysian we love

We all want to be like Mahen when we grow up. Mahen is inclusive, critically-acclaimed and cool; this photographer-cultural mapper-filmmaker has made a documentary in Cantonese, won an award for an online short, and also directed the music video for Ali Aiman‘s “Breathe” (which The Daily Seni highlighted at Urbanscapes 2016).

Think of this Kuala Lumpur-based slashie as like Think City and DBKL combined but double the efficiency. Come meet him at Obsolete(?) this Sunday and ask questions about trains, coffeeshops, prayer altars, Antarctica or anything under the sun. He has many more pictures from his expedition which he may just reveal if you ask him nicely.

No Man’s Land runs from 12 September – 1 October 2017 while Obsolete(?): A Conversation on Analog Image-Making Processes in a Digital World takes place from 9:30am – 2:00pm on 1 October 2017 at the National Art Gallery. Both programmes are free for the public but reservations for the analog photography session can be made through the Facebook event page, e-mail ( or phone (+6016-641-1564).

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