One of the more avant-garde exhibitions happening right now is Malaysian artist Vincent Leong's one at the Valentine Willie Fine Art KL gallery. Writer Danny Lim visited the art installations, talked to Vincent, and penned his thoughts:
Among Vincent Leong's art installations for his exhibition entitled 'You Are Here' is an array of lightboxes displaying photographs taken by Leong of the reflections that appear on the screen of a dead television set. The skew of barrel distortion combined with the misty sheen of a dimmed fluorescent screen lends a dreamy, romantic ambience to the habitats set before the television. These are vistas of our interiors, our living spaces, refracted to accent the vintage of old coffeeshop window grills, the clutter of shophouses and the hushed stillness of our bedrooms.
"It's about documenting the ephemeral" says Leong. Each reflection portrays the story of our lives, acted out at the receiving end of the audio-visual industry. We're on TV, only unscripted and unrecorded. The power of this piece of observation is that when we turn off the very tubes we habitually depend on to see the world, we see ourselves.
How we see ourselves is the crux of Leong's You Are Here. Identity politics in Malaysia is a never-ending saga, keenly diagnosed as the cause for many national ailments without any agreement on the cure. It's not like we haven't thrown up answers in the hope that something sticks – answers that we have built monuments for – but the very questions have yet to be settled. You Are Here throws more questions into the mixer here by probing and paring down the iconic edifices the nation is built upon.
The exhibition's title is inspired by guide maps found around the city that locate you with the sign "You Are Here". Thus the most literally apposite artwork then is the 'KL Map Digital Print'. This is Leong's composite of hand-drawn maps of KL created by strangers and friends, a scrawling mess of divergent lines representing our patchy memory of the city, edifying in showing how different people centre themselves in relation to the city.
What remains constant for different people are the city's landmarks, of which Leong makes piquant observations in his other works here, by pitting our grandstanding exhibitions of modernity against the detritus of development. So famous landmarks are framed through the knocked-down walls and barren windows of decaying abandoned buildings.
Naughtier still is when Leong delves into issues of race, that old chestnut of the identity debate. In 2009, Leong did Run, Malaysia, Run, a video of Malaysians running in a marathon dressed in ethnically-coded attire. The video projection is constantly rotated so that different races of Malaysia are 'racing' around the room on a loop. Leong takes his outlook on race to another level with 'Rubber Keris', where Leong parries the symbolically potent thrust of the keris by rendering it in flaccid rubber. Another work remixes historical Malay portraiture with a racial riff in separate photographs of a large Chinese and an Indian family dressed in Malay costumes.
In the transition from the irreverence of 2009's Run, Malaysia, Run to the more overt provocativeness of his current work, Leong found himself ill at ease with inter-ethnic portrayals.
"After Run Malaysian Run, I did not feel comfortable anymore about presenting this muhibbah (goodwill between races) image because this is the government's job," Leong laments. "For some reason it doesn't feel good anymore."
The increasingly fractious tenor of recent political climate has rubbed off on Leong, filled with a greater urgency to up the ante in his critiques and incite debate. "I'm trying to exaggerate the truth, maybe put it forward in time. Make a small thing bigger just so that people will think about this issue."
So if Leong, as he says, no longer wants to show muhibbah images, it's not because he doesn't believe it happens. He just wants to peel the veneer of such government-trumpeted tropes, and throw his pet issues into sharp focus. "I'm stripping away the layers, not because it's unimportant, but because I want to clear the clutter around the issue."
The act of playing and paring down popular icons and symbols is also a way of connecting his art and critical view to larger audience. "I’m not speaking a language that only arts graduates, or art history graduates or people who know me can understand. It needs to speak to the general public. That's my targeted audience. Why do I do that? It's to simplify… Sometimes artists like to exaggerate certain truths, to make it a bit more obvious. So it might not be true, but we’re just highlighting it."
Leong grew up in Kuala Lumpur without ever really questioning his identity. "I was always quite confident that I'm Malaysian, and that Chinese-Malay-Indian thing is just the cover of your looks. It doesn't really matter to you."
Things changed after he came back from studying in London in 2004. "Maybe I was older, or the political scene had changed. There seemed to be a lot of strife. Something was not right. I felt the tension. It was encroaching into my life. I’m from a Christian family. All the churches in Malaysia had agreed that they would not get involved in politics. But when the church was attacked, suddenly things started changing, even within the church, which was my sanctuary."
Leong didn't seek out politics, it was politics that came to him. "It will come to everybody, whether you know it or not, it affects you. I don’t care about politics, but politics cares about you."
Words by Danny Lim. You Are Here will be showing at VWFA KL until July 7.