I went to see Munkao at his studio. He is sharing a temporarily vacant lot at Solaris Dutamas with other artists and the space has turned into something of an impromptu commune. Artist Chitoo’s creeper plants are making their way up a trellis, an artist has left her typewriter suspended in action, and knick-knacks and paraphernalia dot the lofty bare-concrete area. It is all – to sum it up the best possible way I can – very arty.
Munkao’s corner boasts his latest paintings, works-in-progress for his very first solo exhibition that opens at Wei-Ling Gallery this month. Munkao’s paintings of animals, popular ones from Feng Shui’s rich symbolism, have been set against plain dark backgrounds, and Munkao is quick to explain that these aren’t paintings, but rather ‘painstallations’.
“You have to write that seriously, OK?” he says. I write it down seriously, but get it wrong minutes later. So un-arty of me, but in my defense, ‘painstallations’ is a novel concept. What it means is that Munkao is turning his two-dimensional works into installations that require, in some cases, a bit of help from the audience.
This is a first for the artist and it’ll also be a first for many audience members. How many of us can attest to having peddled a bicycle to activate a water feature in a ‘painstallation’, as we will have to with Work.Life Balance, an image with a galloping horse that could’ve easily made the cut for a Marlboro ad?
Other works that’ll feature in Munkao’s exhibition, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit, also come to life. Three-legged toads’ eyes will set aglow, fortune-enhancing bats will boast spooky red eyes, and the octagonal PaKua will be fitted with a CCTV as a remark on contemporary life.
There’s also Munkao’s giant digital clock that doesn’t tell the time, but instead generates algorithms. Dont be mistaken though: “That’s not a painstallation, that’s an installation,” Munkao says.
It’s admittedly a bit difficult to follow, especially with most of the artworks still in their production stages when I visit and my Feng Shui knowledge at an alarming rate of nil, but I envisage great and auspicious things to come.
After all, Feng Shui has proven to do good. Listen to this early encounter Munkao had with the ancient Chinese art: “When I was eight, my parents brought me to a Feng Shui master and palm-reader and he said I would be an artist, so this is an homage to that.” Jealous. A fortune-teller told me I was going to be robbed.
My gloomy fortune aside, Munkao’s artworks are the result of an eight-year residency with the artist’s parents and the works are a look at how Feng Shui relates to everyday experiences, and, how contemporary art relates to contemporary life.
But, with much of today’s Malaysian art heading the course of serious assessments on life and society, where do Munkao’s latest works – paintstallations, prosperity sculptures, and auspicious neo-landscapes – fit in? And, what will audiences make of the exhibition’s guest curator, a soon-to-be-revealed Feng Shui master who will decide upon the hanging of the artworks in Wei-Ling Gallery based on their most fortuitous locations, and, who may also advise buyers on the best spot to hang them in their homes?
This added element at exhibition openings is, by the way, becoming a tradition of sorts for Munkao, having previously demonstrated how to cook vegetarian fare at the opening of The Best Art Show in the Univers in 2009 (there is a video on Youtube), and when he failed to get bodybuilders to grace another opening, invited a dancer instead.
Mockery or genius? You decide, but know that these quirky moments often manifest as the most memorable and that satire itself can be an art. I still remember being told that at a 1958 exhibition, French artist Yves Klein served blue cocktails to his guests, who purportedly urinated the artist’s signature International Klein Blue the next day.
If you’re unfamiliar with Munkao’s previous works, you can see a selection at www.munkao.com. Retro Munkao includes Ultraman and Godzilla, fun wordplay (like the floating eyeballs in Peeping Tomyam), figures in some incredibly carnal positions in the I Wish My Girlfriend Can Draw zine (NSFW), and in the website’s About page, you’ll learn how Munkao likes “fine dining, movies, long talks on the phone and meaningful walks by the beach during sunset.”
Despite Munkao claiming he’s “never had humour”, he is “a prosperous, serious person”, and that he is “going whaling” after this exhibition is done (don’t ask), I reckon his latest works not only enlighten us on Feng Shui, but also take a much welcomed poke at the stifling seriousness of what fine art can be.
Munkao’s paintbrushes, cleverly placed light fixtures, and soon, your peddling skills look to auspiciously debunk both the myth of Feng Shui and the myth of painting. And, if you’re not solely concerned by whether or not Munkao’s artworks will magnify your fortunes, you’ll also see how Munkao’s latest works are in fact very witty reflections on some aspects of contemporary life and how satire can be a great way to showcase this.
Art is more than end results on a canvas and Munkao, together with project curator, Simon Soon, have etched this notion deeply in this month’s featured exhibition.
Feng Shui – A Solo Exhibition by Munkao, Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, 50470 Kuala Lumpur (www.weiling-gallery.com / 03 2260 1106). 17Feb – 3Mar. Mon-Fri, 12.00-7.00pm. Sat, 10.00am-5.00pm.
This article was originally published for Time Out KL (February 2011 issue).
Rachel Jena writes about art for Time Out Kuala Lumpur and New Straits Times. She runs on coffee, loves fried bihun, and would like it to snow in Malaysia. Just once in her lifetime at least.
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