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Abstract and Figures

In the 1960s, when Malaysian artists seemed to be influenced by the Abstract Expressionist art movement of the West, a group of Malaysian artists known as the New Scene were interested in the " cerebral and impersonal " , analytical and constructivists aspects of art making. They were mostly interested in space, colour and materials that were exhibited in art exhibitions such as The New Scene, experiment '70, and Dokumentasi 72. Only the partnership of Redza and Sulaiman Esa, in their effort to provide an alternative aesthetic to the Abstract Expressionists, lasted. Both artists' propositions on objects of real time and space were presented in the exhibition Towards a Mystical Reality in 1974 in which they took over the role of the critic by framing their own propositions, ideas, and concepts written in the manifesto published in conjunction with the exhibition. This essay attempts to discuss random objects without any aesthetic value selected by these artists as works of art by employing Dickie's Institutional Theory. Furthermore, it will examine a few aspects from the theory that justify the exhibition and its content as art and thus argue that it has its own aesthetics that demand our own contextual analysis and understanding.
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Jati, Volume 19, December 2014, pp203-217
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
School of the Art, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang
In the 1960s, when Malaysian artists seemed to be influenced by the Abstract
Expressionist art movement of the West, a group of Malaysian artists known as the
New Scene were interested in the “cerebral and impersonal”, analytical and
constructivists aspects of art making. They were mostly interested in space, colour
and materials that were exhibited in art exhibitions such as The New Scene,
experiment ‘70, and Dokumentasi 72. Only the partnership of Redza and Sulaiman
Esa, in their effort to provide an alternative aesthetic to the Abstract
Expressionists, lasted. Both artists’ propositions on objects of real time and space
were presented in the exhibition Towards a Mystical Reality in 1974 in which they
took over the role of the critic by framing their own propositions, ideas, and
concepts written in the manifesto published in conjunction with the exhibition.
This essay attempts to discuss random objects without any aesthetic value selected
by these artists as works of art by employing Dickie’s Institutional Theory.
Furthermore, it will examine a few aspects from the theory that justify the
exhibition and its content as art and thus argue that it has its own aesthetics that
demand our own contextual analysis and understanding.
Keywords: Mystical Reality, Redza Piyadasa, Sulaiman Esa, George Dickie, Institutional
Malaysian art today have shifted in terms of its artistic approaches as more and
more artists are working beyond the traditional compartmentalization of fine arts
(Abdullah, 2011). These new works, are of a different type. Leaving the less clearer
direction of artists in the early years of Malaysia’s post-Independence (Abdullah,
2010b), leaving the well-espoused Abstract Expressionists of the 1960s and
Malay/Islamic-centered art of the 1970s and 1980s. Malaysia art in the last two and
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
a half decade embraces a more universal subject, inter-discipline in terms of its
artistic approach. The eclecticism and the complexity of art making today can be
traced as early as during the 1970s, when a group of Malaysian artists known as
the New Scene were interested in the “cerebral and impersonal”, analytical and
constructivists aspects of art making akin to Minimalist art espoused by artists
like Carl André, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and others. These interests
were presented in art exhibitions such as The New Scene, experiment ‘70, and
Dokumentasi 72 and Towards a Mystical Reality: A Documentation of Experiences
Initiated jointly by Redza Piyadasa and Suleiman (sic) Esa (1974).
Only the latter Towards a Mystical Reality: A Documentation of Experiences
Initiated jointly by Redza Piyadasa and Suleiman (sic) Esa (or in this essay will be
referred to as the Mystical Reality) held in 1974 has been examined and discussed
recently as an important exhibition in the Malaysian art scene. Mystical Reality was
an exhibition held at Sudut Penulis (Writer’s Corner) of Dewan Bahasa dan
Pustaka and it was the first and the only Malaysian exhibition that was
accompanied by a 31-page manifesto akin to the manifestos produced by
European artists in the early 20th century. Although the exhibition did not bring
direct impact on the development of modern art in Malaysia, in the study of art
history, the exhibition is important as one of the initial catalyst that brought about
changes to the acceptance of conceptual ideas into the practice of Malaysian art
(Abdullah, 2008; 2010a; Mashadi, 2007; Soon, 2013).
The main contribution of the exhibition was based on the fact that it was
initiated and produced based on its conceptual premises. While the appreciation
and importance of this exhibition have been discussed, especially in terms of its
conceptual premise, this paper will focus on the legitimacy or authenticity of the
works of this exhibition based on the perspective of Institutional Theory as
espoused by George Dickie. Before we proceed with the argument, it is best for us
to first discuss the exhibition itself.
Mystical Reality, a Jointly Initiated Experience
In the late 1960s, a few Malaysian artists had begun to advance the idea of an
‘alternative aesthetic’ based on the premise that art should be cerebral-centred
rather than emotion-centred and this has accumulated in the works of artists that
have been influenced by the Hard Edge or Conceptual Art such as Redza
Piyadasa, Sulaiman Esa, Tan Teong Eng, Tan Teong Kooi, Tang Tuck Kan and
Choong Kam Kow. Artists promoting these perspectives in Malaysia at that time
included those who had arrived in Britain in the mid-1960s and witnessed a
change in the principles of art education in the United Kingdom where several
leading English art colleges that had introduced ‘Basic Design’ subject founded
based on the Bauhaus pedagogy.1 While these new approaches were not uniformly
Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
or simultaneously implemented across all art colleges in England, much of the
agitation for change in art education was initiated by Hornsey College of Art in
London, in which two Malaysian artists, Sulaiman Esa and Redza Piyadasa were
enrolled. The cerebral-centred versus emotion-centred art discourse can be traced
in how these artists attempted to challenge and displace the Abstract
Expressionist2 aesthetic as exhibited in the GRUP exhibition and The Expressionists
of the 1960s. In the 1960s and even until today, Abstract Expressionism has been
one of the Western art movements that has influenced many Malaysian artists
despite the fact that most of the content or subject matter were local (Abdullah,
2013: 455-465).
Redza Piyadasa, Sulaiman Esa and a few other Malaysian artists as listed
above have consistently initiated the so-called ‘alternative aesthetics’ in which is
characterized by its ‘cerebral and impersonal’ approach in exhibition such as The
New Scene’69 (1969), experiment ’70 (1970), dokumentasi 72 (1972) and Mystical
Reality (1974). Eventually, Mystical Reality became the pinnacle of both Sulaiman
Esa and Redza Piyadasa’s attempt in shifting the perspectives of Malaysian artists
at that time. Even though it may be argued that such conceptual attempts had
already begun with The New Scene ‘69, the Mystical Reality manifesto claims to
reject all previous developments in Malaysian art (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 6).
However, despite this claim, various aspects of the exhibition and manifesto reveal
that the exhibition was, nonetheless, still an extension of dokumentasi ’72, and to an
extent, of experiment ’70. This is particularly evident when considering the premise
the artists promoted -- a context of art concerned with actual space, time and light
and its reference to Zen and the premise of the Conceptual art approach, which
had been flagged by these two previous exhibitions before. In the exhibition, the
artists put up everyday objects or artifacts to highlight the concept of ephemerality
based on Zen/Taoism ideology.
Besides that, the artists managed to make the ideational premise of the
work known through their manifesto, in contrast to other artworks of that time
which attended almost exclusively to its appearance. The manifesto extensively
outlines its structure, in which the artists frame their own propositions, ideas and
concepts to the public. In the manifesto of the exhibition, Piyadasa and Sulaiman
Esa (1974) outlined the underlying thoughts of Malaysian artists in the 1960s and
early 1970s. They wrote about the dilemma faced by the artists in Malaysia in their
search for a national identity. They also criticized the local artists whom they
consider as imitating Western art. Their stance is anti-formalist and anti-aesthetic,
against various other artists whom at that time were mostly producing Abstract
Expressionist artworks. In the premises of their conceptual work, they stated, ‘We
had abandoned illusionistic devices altogether by 1971 and had become involved
with actual space, actual time and actual light.’ (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 8).
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
The alternative models as espoused by Sulaiman Esa and Piyadasa
followed the Eastern philosophy, or so they claimed. T.K. Sabapathy in the
“Introduction” explained that Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa have put
themselves in a position of confrontation that deals between Eastern artistic
practices and Western artistic practices, but highlighting new artistic approach that
is derived from the mystical and philosophical traditions rooted in Asia, Taoism
and Zen, in particular. This alternative approach that they assert consciously, seeks
to replace the Western artistic model, which is based on humanism and scientific
empiricism spirit. Sabapathy said that their attempt to reflect on the expectations
of Asian artists reached the level that art is based on something that is real or art =
reality (Sabapathy, 1978: 33). This perhaps could restore the Asian values as the
main subject, especially for Asian artists and it could also lay the foundation for
artists in examining local realities in which could also be investigated in the
context of arts (Sabapathy, 1994: 68).
The exhibition, however, was not well received and became somewhat
become polemical. The polemics were primarily based on the way the manifesto
was written and the premise suggested by the artists. During the opening of the
exhibition, Salleh ben Joned unzipped his trousers and urinated in another corner
of the exhibition space as part of his protest of the ‘premise’ of the exhibition. One
year later, polemics on the event was published in Dewan Sastra magazine by
authors such as Siti Zainon Ismail, Redza Piyadasa, Ponirin Amin and Salleh ben
Joned, who voiced their opinions about the event (Amin, 1975, Ismail, 1975, Joned,
1975, Piyadasa, 1975). It must be noted here that the ‘premise’ of the exhibition
was criticized by Salleh, Siti Zainon Ismail and Ponirin Amin while Redza
Piyadasa defended the objective of the exhibition.
The objects or artifacts exhibited, however, due the fact that the objects
chosen did not fit the idea of what an artwork should be (or not), have been left
unexamined. Therefore, this paper is an attempt to examine how the objects or
items listed in the previous section are works of art. On the other hand, this paper,
will not further discuss the cerebral, conceptual premise, the Zen aspect or even
the manifesto of the exhibition. The question that will be discussed in this paper is
why found objects or termed as ‘artifacts’ as listed above are works of art? The
answer to this question is vital, especially for those who are not familiar with the
historical development of modern art. It must be noted that the exhibition itself
has not been well received from certain quarters.
Examining Mystical Reality
In this essay, we will discuss Mystical Reality and the acceptance of the objects that
were exhibited as artwork by using Dickie’s Institutional theory. Reading the list
of objects that was exhibited in the exhibition, one would wonder how randomly
Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
collected objects or artifacts could be regarded as artworks. It must be noted,
however, that this is not the first case that random objects have been conferred as
art objects though this was the first attempt in Malaysia. The attempt to use
everyday objects or what was termed as ‘readymades’ by Marcel Duchamp as
works of art has superseded Mystical Reality about fifty years ago. The Western art
world in the mid-1960s consists of what Arthur Danto called the ‘mere things’.
This development in the Modern art context resulted in the difficulty of picking
out artworks from non-artworks, since the art that was produced resembled or
consisted of non-artworks.
George Dickie is a professor of philosophy who proposed the Institutional
theory in order to explain the forms of contemporary art in the post-modern era in
Euramerica. In his works, Dickie argues that art actually exists in a larger social
institution as works of 'art' when it has been conferred. Only then the object is
considered valid and worthy to be treated like a piece of art. He has rejected the
earlier theories of art such as imitation theory as espoused by Plato and expression
theory as proposed by Clive Bell. He argues that these theories cannot explain the
works of art that accepts the elements of inadvertence or chance as the nature of
the artworks and even the non-objective artworks such as those produced by
artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Victor Vaserely,
Frank Stella, Dan Flavin and others (Dickie, 2007: 220).
It must be noted that, Imitation theory refers to the works of art that can be
identified by its function as a representation of the subject, whether through media
such as painting, sculpture, literature or music. The existence of works of art such
as paintings that does not denote or represent objects (or non-objective) shows that
imitation is not a mandatory element in a work of art. The failure of the Imitation
theory in understanding the nature of non-objective artworks has spawned debate.
In the context of various proposed theories of art, Institutional theory as suggested
by Dickie on the other hand has enlightened our understanding of art that cannot
be explained by imitation and expression theories.
Dickie extended the theory of the ‘artworld’ that has been proposed by
Arthur C. Danto. Arthur C. Danto, in his book Transfiguration of the Commonplace,
sheds some light on the dilemma in the current art world where aesthetics or
beauty is no longer the main characteristic of arts anymore. In the 1960s, more art
works that consisted of what Danto called ‘mere things,’ were produced. This
development resulted in the difficulty of picking out artworks from non-artworks,
since such art works resembled or consisted of non-artworks. Danto’s contribution
to the discourse is by finding a definition which is not only consistent with radical
disjunctiveness of the class of artworks, but explains how the disjunctiveness is
possible as well (Danto, 1996: 284).
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
In the process of searching for a definition of sound art, Danto examined the
exhibition of works such as "Brillo Box" (1964) by Andy Warhol and "Bed" (1955)
by Robert Rauschenberg and writes,
‘To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry -
an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history of art: the
artworld.’ (Danto, 2007: 214)
According to Danto, what distinguishes an object as an artwork is subjected to two
cases: first, theories of art and the second, the artworld. Arising from that
viewpoint, Dickie expands his view and argues that that the artword is actually in
a social institution that cannot be seen by the outward eye. Dickie compares
Danto’s term ‘the artworld’ with the wider arts institution with an example of the
art of theater that existed since the Greeks to the present. He gives the example of a
system such as performance or theater that must be represented by the writers,
management crew, the casts and the audiences. Even the script of the plays must
be written and produced within the theater-world framework. Dickie uses the
simple definition of ‘institution’ taken from the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary -
- ‘3. That which is instituted as: a. An established practice, law, custom, etc., b. An
established society or corporation.’ Therefore, according to Dickie, similarly in the
example of the theater-world framework -- that there must be a common
convention in the production of the artwork, in which the works will be displayed
(Dickie, 2007: 221).
Dickie argues that the existence of a framework in the the artworld allows
an object that may not be considered as a work of art to be accepted as a work of
art. So when Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to an art competition on display
as ‘works of art’ in 1917, several things happened at the same time - first, the
status of ‘art’ has been conferred to the object which initially did not have any
special value and is not any different from the urinal sold in stores.
It must be noted that the nature of the work (or its properties) and the
beauty of an artwork is usually the main focus in a normal exhibition context. In
such ‘normal’ context, only the values of the representations or expressions
generated by the work are being appreciated by the audience. Whereas the
intangible nature of the work that cannot be exhibited or what is termed as the
‘non-exhibited properties’ are usually neglected. In the context of Duchamp’s
work, Dickie argued that Duchamp has acted indirectly as an agent of the artworld
and has conferred the status of ‘works of art’ to the urinal. So in that circumstance,
the audience is forced to accept the urinal as an art work. Dickie, however, viewed
that the process of conferring an object as an art work within the framework or
artworld as something that is actually more flexible as it covers a wider art system
that was put forth by Danto (Dickie, 2007: 222). He argues that the act of
Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
conferring of an artwork can occur based on the definition of ‘artwork.’ Dickie
puts forth his definition of this term in the form of classificatory. A work of art
according to him is, first, an artifact and second, sets of aspects of the work
conferred with the status of art on behalf of a particular institution in the art
The second condition has four interconnected notions (1) [someone] acting
as the representative of the art world (2) [the act of] conferring status of the
artwork (3) [artifacts] as a candidate and (4) appreciation [by the audience]. The
first and the second notion can be exemplified with the act of a king conferring a
knighthood, the power of a judge in passing a ruling, or the conferring of Ph.D. to
a candidate by the university. However, according to Dickie, in any artworld or
institutional contexts, the conferring of a work to an art status does not necessarily
exist via certain formal legislation, but it can also take place in an informal way.
The conferring of the status of ‘art’, for example, can be made by those who are
involved or play a role in the artworld. It can be artists, writers, composers, film
directors and museums, critics, art historians, art lovers and others (Dickie, 2007:
223). What is important here for Dickie, is the context in which the artifacts are on
display or being a candidate. The act that a plumbing equipment salesman
displays his urinal over the counter in stores is different than Duchamp exhibiting
the same urinal in the gallery. Duchamp's work is recognized as a work of art
because it was a candidate in which it was conferred by the artists and the act of
conferring happens within the artworld support system. The selected objects on
display have been consciously presented and the way the artwork was created (by
the factory) is not a question. The next criterion is appreciation that demands the
audience to accept, understand and appreciate the work (Dickie, 2007: 223-224). As
Marcel Duchamp said:
‘All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the
spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by
deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his
contribution to the creative act. …’ (Lebel, 1959: 78)
Therefore, the audience also plays an important role in the relationship as
described above.
Duchamp, who was also the protagonist of the Dada movement, has
brought about the ideas that bring forth the issue of anti-art and rebellion against
the art in terms of aesthetics, meaning and purpose. In the context of the Mystical
Reality as posited in this essay, Piyadasa himself refers to Duchamp. He writes in
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
‘Duchamp will perhaps emerge as the greatest artist in the twentieth
century on the strength of what he single-handedly achieved as early as
1913-1915 - debunking the myth of the art-establishment.’ (Sabapathy, 1978:
If ‘Fountain’ (1917) by Duchamp can be accepted on the basis that its art
status was conferred, works by Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa in the Mystical Reality
exhibition have features that work in tandem with ‘Fountain’ -- although they are
different in terms of reasons and directions.
In the exhibition, the artists put up everyday objects taken from their
original settings in the exhibition space as a means to promote the concept of
ephemerality based on Zen/Taoism ideology (Figure 1). They advocated a new
way of confronting reality based on how the audience should ‘conceive’ reality
through concepts rather than ‘seeing’ things through the visual or retinal sphere.
All of these can be understood in how they posited the title or the lists of artifacts
or objects of their works:
A list of artifacts or objects that were exhibited in the exhibition:
1. Empty bird cage after release of bird at 2.46 pm on Monday 10th June 1974
(Figure 2).
2. Potted plant watered and looked after by the two artists over a period of
seven months.
3. Empty chair on which many persons have sat on.
4. Two half drank Coca Cola bottles.
5. An outlined area occupied by the shadow of the poet Usman Awang made
at 4.05 pm on Saturday 8th December 1973. 36”X36”
6. Empty canvas on which many shadows have already fallen. 1974. 36” X
7. Discarded silk-screen which was used to make many beautiful prints.
8. Burnt out mosquito coils used to keep away mosquitoes on the night of
25th March 1974.
9. Discarded raincoat found at a Klang rubbish dump at 4.23 pm on Sunday
13th January 1974 that must have belonged to someone (Figure 3)
10. Randomly collected sample of human hair collected from a barber shop in
Petaling Jaya.
Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
Figure 1: Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, “Mystical Reality” (1974). View of Mystical
Reality exhibition held at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur.
(Source: Vision and Idea: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art. 1994. Kuala Lumpur: National Art
Figure 2: Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, “Empty Bird-Cage After Release of Bird”
(1974). View of Mystical Reality exhibition held at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala
(Source: Vision and Idea: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art. 1994. Kuala Lumpur: National Art
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
Figure 3: Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, “Mystical Reality” (1974). Discarded raincoat
found at a Klang rubbish dump at 4.23pm on Sunday 13th January 1974 that must have
belonged to someone (discarded after the exhibition).
(Source: Towards a Mystical Reality: A Documentation of Jointly Initiated
Experiences by Redza Piyadasa and Suleiman Esa. 1974. Kuala Lumpur)
Based on the theory of imitation and expression, all of these objects
exhibited by Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, do not have the quality that an artwork
should have based on their physical look. They explained,
‘The realization that the “object” is really an event draws the spectator’s
attention to the fact that it exists within a continuum just as he does. The
realization that he and the ‘object’ are both processes existing in time results
in a breaking down of the essential differences between the “thing” and “the
person”. In a sense, both are essentially energies in an infinite situation.’
(Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 22).
Such listings of objects to be presented in an exhibition setting without being
artistically manipulated are odd and are not all in tandem in the general
understanding of what forms an artwork during that time. The duo, however, had
chosen the objects as the candidate of works of art and the objects were displayed
in a place related to the institutional context of art. Thus, the conferring process
occurred either formally or informally by various institutional agents -- the Dewan
Bahasa dan Pustaka (that function as a gallery space), artists, dignitaries,
administrators, writers, as well as the audience or visitors as agents of the art
Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
world. These people have either directly or indirectly conferred the status of art to
the objects by attending the exhibition and being a part of the exhibition itself.
Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa first, should be seen as the agents and
spokesmen who have played roles as a representative of the artworld and that had
conferred the status of 'art' to the objects on display during the Mystical Reality
exhibition. This was further supported by their preexisting roles and positions in
the Malaysian art world at that time both were very competent artist and vocal
critic of the art scene in Malaysia. Their roles were further consolidated by writing
a provoking manifesto that is being distributed during the exhibition.
The interference or intervention by Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa by
selecting the objects and positioning or exhibiting them in the context of a gallery
had also initiated the objects or at least acted as catalyst for the audiences’ mind in
appreciating objects as an artistic idea. This is further supported by the attendance
of people in the art scene at that time -- their discussion on the displayed works
and even the premise of the exhibition through the manifesto could also be argued
as overlapping with the functions of the art institution that had conferred the
status 'works of art' to the works on display. Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa acted as a
trigger or 'initiators' of a mental process that occurs among the audience or visitors
due to the fact that they are in a situation that has already being planned in
advance. The goal is to get meditative empathy from the audience to be aware of
the power of reality in which the audience has become a part of. The end product
of the process, however, depends on the thinking experience that takes place in the
mind of the audience (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 21).
The brave exhibition in the context of the development of modern art in
Malaysia however, has a totally different purpose from Dada. The selections of
objects that complete the Mystical Reality artifactuality element are, however,
different from Duchamp's ‘readymade.’ Duchamp exhibited ‘readymades’ such as
urinal, clothes hanger, shovel and a bicycle wheel. Mystical Reality, on the other
hand, delved into the deeper beliefs of the eastern traditions and suggests new
interpretations of the role of the artist. Taking the example of the dalang, the
shadow puppet player, Piyadasa associates the role of the artist as a mediator or
liaison between the audiences and his work (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 16).
The continuum, however, in this case, in which the object and the viewer
coexist were placed in two different constructs are -- firstly, the Western
perspective (spatio/temporal/sensorial) and second, the Eastern perspective
(mental/meditative/mystical). Mystical Reality demanded the audience within the
construct of Dickie’s theoretical framework to not only have the intellectual
capacity that enables a formal appreciation, but also mystical awareness in order to
be able to understand the form of sensorial perception itself.
Their main argument in the manifesto is that scientific and empirical point
of view that comes from the West is only one reality from many other different
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
perspectives (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 16). Largely attributed to this view, the
manifesto is trying to lay the foundation of art activities on the basis of the
mystical and philosophical Taoist/Zen exists in the East despite it is being far from
the concept of national culture and the core beliefs of Malaysians at that time. They
‘Taoist thinking concerns itself with the understanding of life and reality
directly instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.’
(Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 18)
Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa included elements of time or time in the context of
selected artifacts. They wrote, ‘The Taoist/Zen tendency to view object as an
“event” rather than as ‘form’ presupposes that objects existence within an
interrelated field or continuum. Time, in this case is a ‘mental’ time that cannot be
measured for all measurements, can only remain relative.’ (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974:
19). They felt that the concept of time or space, as practiced in the West are indeed
in contrast with the intrinsic concept of the Eastern time and this has not been
explored or understood by Eastern artists.
‘The western artist’s attempt to create works which exist ‘within the viewers
own space’ then must be quite redundant to the oriental artist. Similarly, the
commonly held notion amongst so many “Kinetic” artist that their works
are only active when ‘switched on’ would seem very naïve to the Taoist.
Whereas, the western artist has tended to envisage time through “physical”
action, the oriental artist feels it mentally. It is essentially a very
metaphysical concept of time that the oriental artist deals with!’ (Piyadasa &
Esa, 1974: 20)
Thus, the works on display do not only display the aesthetic arrangement in line
with the concept of beauty, harmony, structure, style, symbolism or techniques.
What is required from the audience is awareness of the mental time but not in the
shape or form. They cited the views of Mario Bussagli in his book Chinese Art that
explains, for Chinese artists, plants and animals do not only exist as a form of
physical existence, but it has a relationship with something that is uncertain and
cannot be defined. This is consistent with the nature that Chinese artists believe to
have mystical elements. Believing in the union in nature, Eastern artists reject the
static and limited happening at one time (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 19).
Evidently, their writing through the manifesto has rejected the concept of
Western physical time that can be activated or de-activated (switched on/switched
off) with respect to kinetic works by artists such as Naum Gabo, László Moholy-
Nagy, Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely, Julio Le Parc, Nicolas Schöffer, Takis and
Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
many others. The duo do not only highlight the physicality elements of the
artifacts or objects that are potential to be conferred as an art object as done by
Duchamp but also incorporate elements of Eastern time mental and metaphysical
nature that should be felt mentally (Piyadasa & Esa, 1974: 20).
In tracing the early artistic inclination of Redza Piyadasa, the artist
explained that his early works examined the involvement of actual space in art and
denied any attempt to create symbols. His interest in ‘reality’ could be traced in his
works earlier in even during the dokumentasi 72 exhibition which he pointed out
that the fact that there should be no demarcation lines between illusion and reality
or the painting and the space occupied by the painting (Piyadasa, 1972:
unpaginated). In the catalogue, he explains,
‘There is something very religious about my obsession with actual space. It
is almost metaphysical. The emptiness and the detachment are reminiscent
of the spirit of Zen. The Zen garden, sand arranged in furrows and a few
rocks, is the image of stillness. The more still our position and the less
disturbed the immediate environment, the greater the possibility of the
deepest penetration of reality. This is exactly what meditation is really
about. …’ (Piyadasa, 1972: unpaginated).
The exhibition was forgotten over time as it was just a hara-kiri and it has not made
a deep impact on Malaysian arts in general and Malaysian artists in particular --
the exhibition is important in the context of art history as an initial attempt by
Malaysian artists in trying to change Malaysian artistic practice at that time.
Salleh ben Joned later accused the Mystical Reality manifesto as containing
elements of juvenile bullying. When he acted by ‘opening up his zipper and
zipped his mouth shut,’ and water the exhibition catalog with his urine – Salleh
can be seen as representing the art world institution itself and the incident can
actually be examined as indirectly conferring the status of the objects on display as
artworks. His urine had symbolically conferred these objects or artifacts as
artworks in the art world, formally and legally at one corner of the Writer’s Corner
in DBP. Salleh who was also a credential agent of the art world institutions
claimed his act was also inspired by the Zen spirit. Salleh himself was apt as a
poet/writer who comes from literature background. Therefore, this incident can
also be argued as a very brave cross-disciplinary interaction: a protest against
what he saw as hypocrisy, conflict and as a challenge towards the ideas that was
brought forward by the manifesto. The explicit and implicit credential of Salleh as
a poet/writer was then further revealed in response to the open letter that was later
Sarena Abdullah & Chung Ah Kow
published in Dewan Sastera. He analyzed the Zen concept deeper than what had
been articulated by the manifesto. Salleh explained that he was practically
illustrating a Zen master’s anecdote who licked the buttock of a monk as an
Enlightenment metaphor (Joned, 1975: 59). The challenges and symbolic act made
by Salled as he peed on the catalogue can be argued as another form of conferring
(anointing/consecrating) the exhibition that had increased the value of the event.
1 Bauhaus teachings emphasise the analytical and investigative aspects of visual perception
and the structural properties of visual design, rather than the emotive-intuitive approach of
previous academic traditions.
2 The term Abstract Expressionist in Malaysia is employed loosely to describe the kind of
work, which moves towards abstraction, or non-representational art that seems to
communicate exclusively through formal means of line, shape, colour, space, and texture
and physical aspects such as brush strokes. These abstracted forms and colours are
produced to communicate their emotional and spiritual states. The association of the artists
labelled as Abstract Expressionists culminated in a group exhibition called GRUP in 1967 at
the former AIA Insurance Building on Ampang Road. This was followed by another
exhibition entitled The Expressionists of the 1960s in 1974.
3 The work was “The Fountain” (1917) by Marcel Duchamp.
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Chan (Eds.), New Asian Imagination. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine
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independence. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (JATI), 15(1).
Abdullah, S. (2011). Thematic approaches in Malaysia Art since the 1990s. Journal
of Southeast Asian Studies (JATI), 16(1).
Abdullah, S. (2013). Contextualizing abstraction and abstract expressionist art in
Malaysia. In H. Hussin, M. R. M. Ariff, L.B. Bautista, R.C. Jubilado, C.
Yun, D. Quintero & W.Q J.R. Javier (Eds.), 5th International Conference on
Southeast Asia (ICONSEA 2013). University of Malaya: Department of
Southeast Asian Studies, University of Malaya.
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Re-Examining the objects of Mystical Reality
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response to Higgins. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54, no. 3
(Summer 1996).
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nature of art. CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Dickie, G. (2007). George Dickie, art and the aesthetics: An institutional analysis. In
T.E. Wartenberg (Ed), The nature of art. CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Ismail, S. Z. (1975). Suatu esei untuk Piyadasa. In Dewan Sastra 5, no. 5.
Kuala Lumpur. (1970). Experiment '70.
Joned, S. B. (1975). Kencing dan kesenian. Dewan Sastra 5, no. 7: 56-59.
Lebel, R. (1959). Marcel Duchamp. New York: Paragraphic Books.
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during the 1960s to 1980s (2007). Singapore: Singapore Art Mudeum.
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72: Recent works by Sulaiman Esa and Redza Piyadasa. Kuala Lumpur: Samat
Art Gallery.
Piyadasa, R. & Suleiman E. (1974). Towards a mystical reality: A documentation of
jointly initiated experiences by Redza Piyadasa and Suleiman Esa. Kuala
Piyadasa, Redza (1975). Satu lagi jawaban untuk Siti Zainon. In Dewan Sastra 5, no.
Sabapathy, T.K. Piyadasa. (1978) Kuala Lumpur: Archipelago Publishers.
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Lumpur: National Art Gallery.
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N.H. Khairuddin, B. Yong & Sabapathy, T.K. (Eds.), Reaction -- New critical
strategies: Narratives in Malaysian art. Kuala Lumpur: RogueArt.
... Pada tahun 1970-an pula, wujud pameranpameran yang dikuratorialkan untuk mengekang kerancakkan (AE) seperti pameran Towards a Mystical Reality (TMR), 1974 oleh Redza Piyadasa dan Sulaiman Esa. Merujuk kepada Abdullah & Chung (2014) menyatakan bahawa pada tahun 1960-an, ketika para seniman di Malaysia sangat dipengaruhi oleh gerakan (AE), sekumpulan seniman Malaysia lain yang dikenali sebagai New Scene tertarik dengan aspek-aspek pembuatan seni cerebral and impersonal, analitikal dan konstruktivisme. ...
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Di belakang seniman hebat, adanya seorang kurator yang hebat juga. Namun, siapa kah kurator hebat yang telah melahirkan seniman hebat tersebut? Semuanya boleh dijadikan topik kajian samaada peranan kurator ini mampu melahirkan seniman hebat atau peranan kurator ini sekadar mengisi kelompongan yang sedia ada. Sesetengah pengamal dan pemerhati seni visual kontemporari di Malaysia hari ini melihat bahawa peranan kurator tempatan gagal dalam mempamerkan kreativiti dan aspek kritikal dalam mempersembahkan sebuah pameran. Apatah lagi, menghasilkan pameran yang mampu melakukan satu anjakan atau memberikan impak signifikan terhadap perkembangan seni visual di Malaysia. Akan tetapi, keseluruhan isu atau permasalahan ini tidak adil diletakkan semata-mata di atas bahu kurator. Bidang kuratorial ini adalah satu kelompongan yang diisi oleh mereka yang kebanyakkannya mempunyai latarbelakang sebagai seniman. Dalam ertikata lain, seseorang yang mempunyai pendidikan seni halus atau penghasil seni yang asalnya adalah seorang seniman mengisi ketiadaan seseorang yang mempunyai pendidikan khusus dalam bidang kuratorial.
... Though "Statement 3"(1975-79) is literal and straightforward, these photographic montage techniques or methods were still new in Malaysia at that time. Since artworks that explore postmodern strategies were still in its infancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the simplistic photographic montage approach in Nirmala's work was actually pragmatic in comparison with conceptual art approach taken by Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa in their Mystical Reality attempt (Abdullah & Chung, 2014). This is because the usage of photography as a form of modern expression in the Malaysian art at that time was relatively still new. ...
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Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam is one of the second generation artists in Malaysia. Nevertheless, besides a four-page essay on the artist in Modern Artists of Malaysia (1983) and a few art catalogues, there are hardly any articles written about her. Despite the very limited sources available about the artist and her work, this paper attempts to draw on the limited understanding of postmodern theory, which fails to include her work as one of the early postmodern artists in Malaysia. This paper, by examining the artist's usage of montage, representation of difference and allegory contends that her works should be seen as some of the early postmodernist works in the Malaysian art scene that emerged in the 1970s.
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At the zenith of the Mahathir era, amidst the economic boom and rapid development of the early 1990s, Malaysian art exhibitions were charting a novel path in the arena of installation and performance art. This paper will closely examine three seminal installation art exhibitions, namely Sook Ching (1990), 2 Installations (1991), and Warbox Lalang Killing Tools (1994), where some of the artists involved chose to perform and/or collaborate with dancers and theatre makers, culminating in some of the earliest experiments with performance art in Malaysia. What sets them apart from other installation exhibitions of that period is their use of performance as a tool to confront, unsettle, and challenge audiences in institutional spaces, thereby opening up new possibilities for experimentation and risk-taking.
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Art exhibitions play an important role in developing and supporting art activities in Malaysia and are often used as platforms to showcase works of the visual arts to the public. The National Cultural Policy (NCP) (1971) had a profound impact on the development of the visual arts in Malaysia. This policy is the country’s official attempt to establish a Malaysian identity, especially in the arts. Indirectly, it also challenged the boundaries of the definition of art in terms of philosophy, sociology, and aesthetics, in the context of exhibition practices. This paper discusses two local art exhibitions— Towards a Mystical Reality (TMR) (1974) and Rupa dan Jiwa (1979). This paper discusses both exhibitions in the contexts of the NCP, particularly by focusing on the aspect of (Malay) nativism, and through the introduction of new ideas and concepts with an intellectual component.
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Pameran seni memainkan peranan yang penting dalam kegiatan pembangunan dan sokongan seni di Malaysia dan menjadi platform yang kerap digunakan untuk mempamerkan karya seni visual kepada umum. Dalam bidang seni visual, Dasar Kebudayaan Kebangsaan (DKK), 1971 memberikan pengaruh yang besar kepada pembangunan artistik Malaysia. Dasar yang menekankan nilai kebudayaan nasional menjadi percubaan rasmi negara untuk membentuk identiti Malaysia terutama dalam bidang seni. secara tidak langsung, dasar ini turut mencabar batasan pentakrifan seni sama ada dari segi falsafah, sosiologi, dan estetika dalam praktis pameran. Oleh itu, penulisan ini akan membincangkan konteks pameran seni tempatan, pameran Towards a Mystical Reality (TMR) (1974) dan Rupa dan Jiwa (1979). Penulisan ini membincangkan kedua-dua pameran tersebut dalam konteks DKK, khususnya dari aspek entiti keperibumian (Melayu) dan pembawaan idea dan konsep pemikiran baharu yang mengandungi unsur intelektual.
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In Malaysia, the implementation of the National Culture Policy in the early 1970s reiterated the ethnic preference policy of the National Economic Policy (NEP). As a result, the subsequent 1971 National Culture Congress (NCC) and the Islamization Policy undertaken by the government in the late 1970s had great influence on art practices in Malaysia, especially during the 1980s. These policies could be seen as an official attempt to shape the Malaysian identity, especially in terms of visual art in post-Independence Malaysia. The first part of this article will discuss the indirect consequences of the 1971 National Culture Policy and several Islam-centred policies since the late 1970s and how several assertions were made through a few writings about Malaysian art: that only certain modern art forms, aligned with the rhetoric of national agendas, were produced and exhibited in the late 1970s until the mid-1990s. This paper will problematize the assertion by discussing some disjuncture and inconsistencies in relation to this narrative of Malaysian art. Thus, this paper will argue how, despite the general perception that the National Culture Congress (NCC) and the Islamization Policy had great influence on art practices in Malaysia, a deeper examination of exhibitions revealed that art-making by most artists still depended on the artists’ own endeavours and own modern artistic practice. Nevertheless, as this paper will also highlight, this period is an important attempt in decolonializing modern art in Malaysia by ways of state and institutional support, albeit its limited success.
This chapter examines the consolidation of curatorial practices of contemporary art in relation to the public, the market, and the creative industries. It describes a field in which curators in Asia are aligning themselves with the art market and the creative industries, in making contact with the public demand and interest for art. The focus is on curating Asian art, in leading some of the most versatile strategies and incentives in contemporary curation.
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In recent years, calls for a more globalised art history and the decolonisation of the Euramerican-centric approach of the field has encouraged new attitudes and approaches, especially the impact of artistic exchange in different parts of the world. As an area of research, the history of modern and contemporary art is relatively new in Malaysia. It has continued to be pursued within the construct of its national boundary, despite the long transnational history of the Malay Archipelago. For centuries, this area saw high migration and mobility that reached its height during the colonial era, as signified by its thriving port cities––namely Penang, Singapore, and Malacca. With the end of the Second World War and the retreat of colonial powers, young nations started to sprout in the region. By the 1960s, the nation-building project in Malaysia saw the establishment of the National Art Gallery along with several other national institutions. As the development of Malaysian modern art and art writing has always been nation-centric in nature, transnational interactions and mobility, either by people or by objects, tends to be disregarded in the writing of Malaysian modern art. Focusing on Malaysian art at the Commonwealth Institute in mid-twentieth-century London, and the cultural transactions it produced, the research presented here seeks to fill the lacunae left behind by this neglect. Looking particularly at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia and the Commonwealth Institute in London, this feature is grounded in archival research that will illustrate and discuss the links between London and Kuala Lumpur during the 1960s and 1970s, through several exhibitions of Malaysian art organised at or by the Commonwealth Institute. The discussion of these materials will situate them within the longer history of artistic engagement between London and Kuala Lumpur.
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Artworks in the form of "installation art" have become a widespread artistic activity in the current art world. In the context of the Malaysian art, the term has been initially used to describe a few artworks produced during the period of the 1990s (despite being mostly categorised as mixed media). This paper examines the evolution of installation art in the Malaysian art scene and discusses several early works that can be proposed as the early impetus towards installation art in Malaysian artistic practices. Clear historical outlines and assertions on the evolution of installation art demand a different nature of investigation. However, this paper is only limited to examining three concurrent domains or significant turning points in order to give a more lucid insight into the evolution of installation art as an artistic practice in Malaysia. The three domains that this paper will elucidate are (1) the two-dimensional and three-dimensional engagements or contestations during the 1970s, (2) Young Contemporaries Award (YCA) as a platform for installation art engagements and subsequently, (3) emergence of site-specific installation art projects during the late 1990s.
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This paper discusses the shaping of modern art identity in Malaysia during the 1950s and 1960s. It frames or investigates the development of modern art in terms of Malaysia's plural society. While writings by Malaysian art historians such as Redza Piyadasa highlights that Malaysian modern art only in terms of its linear development, this paper attempts to discuss the early development of modern art in Malaysia as being influenced either directly or indirectly by the political and social conditions of Malaysia, therefore shifting ways of investigating Malaysia art in a wider context of Malaysia's cultural and plural studies. Focusing on Malaysian fine arts in the 1950s and 1960s, this paper suggests the ways that Malaysia's early form of plural society had influenced the early modern art development among artists in groups such as the Nanyang, Wednesday Art Group (WAG) and Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (APS).
Conference Paper
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This paper discusses on the impact of thematic approaches taken by Malay artists in Malaysia since the 1990's.Malaysian art has become increasingly diverse in terms of its approach, subject, theme and media. This growing artistic diversity is discussed within a postmodern framework and is representative of a shift in tendencies away from a purely Malay/Islamic-centred artistic tradition to a more postmodern approach that is inclusive of Malaysia's emerging middle class. Since the 1990's, works produced by Malay artists have taken a more critical perspective aligned with the postmodern situation or situasi percamoden in accordance with Malaysia's leapfrog into modernization. Through their works, Malay artists raise concerns and issues pertaining to the consequences of development and modernization, and explore themes ranging from social problems, environment and urbanization, and contemporary issues thereby employing postmodernist approaches in their art. What is obvious is, that Malay artists are concerned with the immediate and near future, rather than looking back or glorying the past. These artistic tendencies epitomize the challenges, divergences and even connections of perspectives that define the growing Malaysian middle class especially in the context of the construction or even deconstruction of Malaysian society.
The early postmodern artistic strategies in Malaysian Art
  • S Abdullah
Abdullah, S. (2010a). The early postmodern artistic strategies in Malaysian Art. In sentAp!, no. 01/07.
Contextualizing abstraction and abstract expressionist art in Malaysia
  • S Abdullah
Abdullah, S. (2013). Contextualizing abstraction and abstract expressionist art in Malaysia. In H. Hussin, M. R. M. Ariff, L.B. Bautista, R.C. Jubilado, C.
Surat terbuka polemik senilukis
  • P Amin
Amin, P. (1975). Surat terbuka polemik senilukis. In Dewan Sastra 5, no. 8.
Arthur Danto: The artworld
  • A C Danto
Danto, A. C. (2007). Arthur Danto: The artworld. In T.E. Wartenberg (Ed.), The nature of art. CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
George Dickie, art and the aesthetics: An institutional analysis The nature of art
  • G Dickie
Dickie, G. (2007). George Dickie, art and the aesthetics: An institutional analysis. In T.E. Wartenberg (Ed), The nature of art. CA: Thomson Wadsworth.