Disclaimer: One of Arteri’s managing editors, Simon Soon, was part of the judging panel for BMS 2010. However, no conversation has taken place between the writer and Simon Soon regarding the exhibition or competition.
Organized by the National Art Gallery biannually since 1974, Bakat Muda Sezaman (Young Contemporaries Award) has always gotten the art scene heated up, with plenty of bitching and healthy (plus unhealthy) debate surrounding the exhibition, artists and winners. This year, the buzz has been relatively low, especially considering the last BMS was in 2006. A lot can happen in 4 years in this fast-changing country, and I speculate that the goalposts for artists have moved elsewhere.
There is a sense that BMS is no longer the lightning rod that commands the attention of the art scene once every two years. I wonder if this is reflective of the many transformations that have happened at National Art Gallery in recent years – changes in Director General, other top-level staff and lately, legislation. Both the institution and the awards seem unsure of their roles in the shifting landscape of Malaysian art, but are soldiering on ahead regardless.
This uncertainty shows clearly in BMS 2010. The exhibition is very uneven. 36 artists were chosen to exhibit, out of a total 84 applicants. This year introduced a new format: candidates must be nominated by someone in the art community, whereas previously entry was by open invitation. Chosen candidates are then invited to submit and exhibit one work. The judging panel chooses 4 winners based on works in the exhibition.
It’s interesting to note how closely BMS 2010 mirrors the art market sales process. We can conclude that awards are essentially given based on a single artwork – not quality or consistency of art practice sustained over a period of time – quite similar to a collector picking out which work he or she would like to buy. Likewise, the nomination process introduces a kind of mutated ‘curator’ aspect. It may have been put in place as a quality control measure, but it reduces artists’ autonomy. Instead of presenting themselves and their works for consideration in the way artists deem best, this important exercise in self-representation is now mediated by another party.
Furthermore, chosen artists had less than 6 months to conceive and submit new, original works for exhibition. It’s no wonder that many are slip-shod and sloppy – in terms of concept or execution, or both. Most works have lengthy artist statements. Perhaps banning artist statements would force artists to communicate more profoundly through their art. As it is, so many works are shallow one-liners – they try to get a point across, but fail to activate the perceptions or thoughts of the viewer.
In addition to the short production time, this could be caused by the competition aspect – since they’re being judged, artists want to make sure their message (any message) is heard loud and clear. A sense of conviction or intellectual exploration through visual language is really missing, replaced by a kind of desperation and need to impress… I cannot help but wonder whether, instead of encouraging it, BMS actually stunts the growth of young artists.
More than half the exhibition deals with Important Social Issues. You name it, it’s in there. Goh Chi Kuan’s ‘Aiyah… It’s Not Mine Lah’ is concerned with cigarette smoking, Mohd Fazli Othman’s ‘Aku dan Persekitaran’ is about recycling, Aznan Omar’s ‘Gerbang’ about politics and power, Mohd Sharudin Sabu’s ‘The New World Disorder’ about Middle East conflict, Rozana Musa’s ‘A Little Something to Share in a Little Wooden House’ about body issues, Wan Zulkifle Wan Yaacob’s ‘Kehidupan Baru’ about migrant labour, Muhammad Rasfan b. Abu Bakar’s digital prints about the health of our oceans and so on, and on and on and on.
The pitfall with being socially engaged is that artists can easily mistake their good intentions for good art. So many visual gimmicks! I often felt like I was on the receiving end of an extended advertising campaign about every reason why our world is messed up.
You can clearly see the difference between works that jumped out of the artist’s brain onto the floor and those that have been built up, worked and reworked in the process of making. These are more subtle and open-ended, less ruthlessly decoded in the artist statements. Yim Yen Sum’s ‘How Did It Go’ is a good example of using of materiality and the plaster casting process to explore ideas about memory, traces and history. Sabri Idrus’s ‘The Park Project’ is a quiet and well-made kinetic installation that gently seduces the senses, and Issazeral Ismail’s inkjet print ‘Bill – Is Hero’ is simply a witty, mysterious and inspiring image. Other well-resolved works include Umi Baizurah Mahir’s ceramic pieces in glass cabinets, main prize winner Haslin Ismail’s ‘The Way It All Works’ and jury prize winner Tan Nan See’s ‘Rupa Malaysia: Jewelry’.
It’s no coincidence that these artists already have years of practice under their belts. The age requirement for BMS 2010 is 20 – 40, so the potential difference in experience between artists ranges up to 20 years! That’s a lifetime in any field. Unfortunately, the exhibition isn’t arranged in any way to make sense of the discrepancy (e.g. by adding birth dates to the labels). Likewise, there are no categories in the competition – either by career status or medium. The organizers may have sought to maintain the ‘open platform’ spirit of BMS, but what has resulted is a watery soup of young contemporary art in Malaysia – messy, without direction.
It’s a shame. This year the stakes are higher, with cash prizes that will make artists’ eyes go $_$. RM20,000 goes to the main winner, and three others will receive RM10,000 each. $_$! Alas! It’s not easy being the National Art Gallery. It’s clear that providing monetary incentive and other resources is not enough – what audiences and artists desperately need in a national institution is leadership. The awards have been given out, but beyond the attractive number of zeros, we don’t know what they mean. Here’s looking forward to a better, more meaningful BMS in 2012.
More reading: Faizal Sidik’s excellent analysis and suggestions for revamping the structure of BMS.
Winners of BMS 2010 were announced last Tues, 18 Jan 2011. Main prize winner: Haslin Ismail. 3 jury prizes: Tan Nan See, Diana Ibrahim & Helmi Azam. Heartiest congratulations to the winners.
Sharon Chin is co-founder and managing editor of Arteri
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