Venice Biennale, The Malaysian Debut
Malaysia presents itself for the first time on the international art scene of the Venice Biennale with a plural and significant participation that activates numerous central themes in the dynamic multicultural landscape that makes today a place that we could define as interesting, as Ralph Rugoff reminds us.
Four eminent Malaysian artists – Anurendra Jegadeva, H.H. Lim, Ivan Lam and Zulkifli Yusoff – will represent the country in an exhibition entitled ‘Holding Up a Mirror’. The curatorial and artistic project was born with the premise of problematizing the concept of national identity in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society at its core. Collective and individual space, myth and history dialogue in a synchronic path that gives voice to the mobile and trans-cultural identities that constitute the very essence of Malaysian culture.
For the occasion we had the pleasure of debating with the curator Lim Wei-Ling, an emblematic figure for the promotion of contemporary art in the country since almost twenty years.
Simone Rossi: Let’s break the ice with a question that arose from the first moment I heard about your debut at the Biennale: how did this participation come about?
Lim Wei-Ling: It was born from a great sense of patriotism and nationalism towards the country and its people. The year 2018 brought with it a great change for the Malaysian people; all the walks of life united peacefully to elect a new government, without bloodshed or revolution. It was a moment of pride for everyone. It was the first change of government for the country in 60 years: an historical event.
As an ordinary citizen of the country, I asked myself: how might I be able to do my part? How could I contribute?
Having visited the Venice Art Biennale many times over the last decade, I have always wondered why Malaysia has never been represented on this platform.
I felt that if I could do something for my country it would be to make it proud on an international level.
I wrote a letter to the honourable Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed to seek his blessing, and I received a letter back to endorse and support my mission.
It has been a long journey, with challenges and triumphs along the way – and with a strong will to get there – we are finally here in Venice with our First National Pavilion!
SR: The focus of the first Malaysian artistic intervention in Venice is on the mirror. In terms of identity it hides many rhetorical traps: how did you approach this theme?
LWL: The phrase ‘Holding Up a Mirror’ from which the exhibition borrows its title, means “to depict something as it really is”. One of its first literary references appears in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy, where the eponymous protagonist impresses upon a troupe of actors that the “purpose of playing” is to “hold the mirror up to nature”. Hamlet was originally thought to be linking good acting with an authentic or natural performance. Another interpretation suggests that Hamlet was expounding on the importance of drama as a vehicle for truth, not merely as entertainment. It could be argued that Shakespeare’s use of the metaphor “holding up a mirror” was polysemous, and that both readings are ‘true’.
In today’s world, truth and its many versions can no longer be quoted without spin; fake news and conspiracies make the stuff of global headlines; fear and scaremongering underpin the rhetoric of politicians, and images. In this global scenario ‘Holding Up a Mirror’ presents four artists’ subjectivities on the concept of identity.
In the context of an art event as monumental as La Biennale di Venezia, and in the selection of four very established and prominent artists to represent the country, it was important that the artists, and what they stand for, are clearly expressed. Art comes first.
‘Holding up a mirror’ was deliberately chosen for the myriad of questions it poses and the multitude of readings it offers. It is broad enough to encompass what each artist requires to make a work that does not compromise their trajectory, but roots them in their reflection of where they stand as Malaysians, against the context of the world at large. Perhaps the way they see the world is actually a reflection of how they view themselves.
SR: All the selected artists narrate a different Malaysia, a country open to new influences. Lim spent several years in Rome, Yusoff and Lam completed their studies in the UK, Jegadeva lives between Malaysia and Australia: how do all these different experiences coexist and take shape in the pavilion?
LWL: The exhibition takes as its starting point the notion of identity as a space where the personal and the public intersect, where myth and history collide, and where national and international perspectives are constructed. Zulkifli Yusoff’s Kebun Pak Awang [Mr Awang’s Garden] is an ode to a way of life and values which are being eroded today; H.H. Lim’s Timeframes is an anthology of cerebral and physical journeys of the self, and actions attempting to transpose the abstract into the physical; Anurendra Jegadeva’s installation Yesterday, in a Padded Room is a satirical view of contemporary culture; whilst Ivan Lam’s One Inch is a phenomenological exploration of the space between ‘I’ and ‘we’.
Malaysia is a confluence of many cultures and multiple histories, which have intertwined over the centuries, integrating narratives of diaspora and migration. The artists exhibiting in the Malaysia Pavilion are themselves an illustration of these different ethnicities and origins; while each artist is Malaysian, their religious and cultural roots illuminate the many stories embedded in the Malaysian identity.
SR: The press release states that the artists “through different media – painting, video, sound and installation – offer a commentary on their own search around identity, embracing concepts and ideologies around alterity, cultural hegemony, patriarchy, and globalisation.” These are all fundamental topics for both an individual and a society. In your opinion, to what extent is public opinion sensitive to these issues in Malaysia? In which direction will (contemporary) art have to proceed to increase awareness?
LWL: This is a relevant and important question. There is certainly a segment of Malaysian society that questions and debates these issues, but frankly not enough to make a difference. Hopefully with more traction through social media, these issues are highlighted and discussed more openly in forums. The art community is small, but I do think that it is through contemporary art and statements by artists addressing issues and concerns of our time that we can reach out to the younger generation. Art and artists need to constantly be given a voice and a platform on which to be heard. I am constantly fighting for this.
By having the first Malaysian pavilion at the Venice art biennale, it has provided hope to the younger generation of artists that this is a place they can strive towards. They have a voice through their art.
SR: I would like to conclude this short interview with a question about the venue, Palazzo Malipiero. I’m intrigued to know how the artists interacted with such an iconic place in the Venetian basin: what kind of interventions should we expect?
LWL: I, too, am excited to see how everything comes together within the historical walls of Palazzo Malipiero!
We have spent months working with each artist on the spaces for each of their projects , but will only be able to see how all the artworks and projects sit within that space this week!