by Vatsala SethiMay 17, 2023
Since the times of the illustration The Vitruvian Man by Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, the human body has been of ample interest to the artistic practices to gauge its relation with nature, and in contemporary times it is seen as a versatile site to draw socio-political meanings. Keeping in view that the body with its presence or even in its absence, enables a stir in the sensitive minds, ILHAM Gallery and Singapore Art Museum (SAM) present the exhibition The Body Politic and the Body at ILHAM Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition features work by Malaysian artists from the permanent collection of the Singapore Art Museum, as well as loans and a commissioned performance, to foreground the relationships and negotiations between personal and communal bodies, observing their turns within Malaysian history.
Rahel Joseph, the exhbition’s curator and the ILHAM Gallery Director, in an interview with STIR answers the question, when the discipline of art has regularly interrogated the body that has been a site for scripting the narrative of power and violence, how does this exhibition re-engage the audience with the concept of the body through the works at display. “This exhibition aims to expand the audience’s preconceived notions concerning the body. Each artist diversely conceptualises the topic, which implies that the definition of the body may be subjectively interpreted, and that each artwork differs in its connotations, which are naturally context dependent. The opening piece, Yap Sau Bin’s The Grand Phantom Narrates (2004), frames the entire exhibition and acts as both an aesthetic obstacle and a threshold to the other works in the show. It was created during the time following the resignation of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in 2003. The asymmetric nature of both the form and colour of the artwork signifies the blatant power imbalances within a hierarchical (top-down) system. The installation suggests how institutional power - whether cultural, as with a museum, or political, as with the prime ministership - shapes and influences individual subjectivity,” says Joseph.
The inherent to the notions of the body politic is the importance attached to the role of individuals to make a constructive society. This duality defining the body has extended its meaning to include action and responsibility. The body at the centre of the exhibition carries the collective and subjective experiences to reflect upon the historical and cultural movements of Malaysia. When Malaysian history has had a strong impact on its socio-cultural fabric, the exhibition with body and body politics at the core of its display aims to address the importance of history in a creative and civil society with works such as Redza Piyadasa’s May 13 1969 (1970, reconstructed 2006) and chi too’s 13/05/1969, Reformasi and Bersih 2.0.
Redza Piyadasa’s art piece with the black sarcophagus and a fragmented Malaysian flag relooks at the bloody state of the nation in the aftermaths of the racial riots of May 13. The New Economic Policy was put into practice in the wake of this event. The displayed artwork is artist’s reconstruction (done in 2006) of the original work that refers to two historical events of Malaysian history: the first is conveyed within the title, while the second reference the original sarcophagus he had made for an exhibition a year after the riots.
The three-panel piece 13/05/1969, Reformasi and Bersih 2.0 by multi-media artist, Chi, too interestingly illustrates the street demonstrations of May 13, 1969, by recreating the paintings of the road surface markings at specific geographical locations associated with the event. Here, the absence of the human participants from the installations shifts the focus from the mere corporeal body of the human to its action on the streets to fight for the democratic rights. Chi Too explains it further, “My experience with civil disobedience is on the streets and every time I find myself in one, I recognise that we are on a street, occupying it … there lies the power of our action.”
The history of the art of resistance has incessantly evoked the body to blur the lines between personal and political in order to challenge the state machinery. The Body Politic and the Body reiterates the importance of the body to narrate the political history of our times that is never far from the personalised selfhood.
The Body Politic and the Body was on view till April 12, 2020 at ILHAM Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.