Review of “UNPACK-REPACK: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim” @ NVAG (2015)

[Editor’s note: Shyan is a Malaysian collector / writer who runs the widely followed http://artklitique.blogspot.sg. This review is first published on http://artklitique.blogspot.sg/2015/05/unpack-repack-archiving-staging-ismail.html. It concerns UNPACK-REPACK: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim (1940-2013), an exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG, Kuala Lumpur), which runs from 28 March to 30 June 2015. This is the follow-up to UNPACK-REPACK: A Tribute to Ismail Hashim (1940-2013), a tribute show in Penang dedicated to the late photo artist. Both exhibitions are curated by Wong Hoy Cheong.]

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By Shyan

Adding on to the complications of showcasing an artist’s estate, Wong Hoy Cheong now has to deal with a larger space and public works, in this collaboration between private gallery (Fergana Art) and national institute (NVAG). Transplanting the tribute show from The Whiteaways Arcade (Penang) to Galeri 3A of NVAG (Kuala Lumpur), the curator aims to “…locate Ismail spatially in an environment and his community.” Chances of seeing degraded bicycle seats are less likely on Jalan Tun Razak as compared to Beach Street, and the sense of displacement immediately leads one to ponder upon the purpose of archiving and staging. Visitors are greeted into a passage of test prints from Looking Out, followed by Looking In to an odd corner of homely captures. The previously delightful room Going Bananas is now rendered irreverent, nestled deep within the gallery space in an exhibition that often takes itself too seriously.

Three cheeky arrows and a video of Ismail playing the saxophone bookend the walkthrough, but few other exhibits spell fun. A plywood wall of photographs in yang ‘tu yang ‘ni breaks the monotone, and marks the only obvious reference to an artist whose characteristic wit should be celebrated more. Inducing laughter are snapshots of furniture shops with arty signboards, bananas juxtaposed with a Marlboro advertisement, and a curious string of hilarious captions. Clever bilingual wordplay describe accumulated garbage at a lift lobby (‘Sambil tunggu, sambal sumbat! (Waiting is full-filling!)’), and a pigeon dipping its beak into a can of Coke (‘Macam mana gamaknya rasa The Real Thing? (Hey, I could do with some of The Real Thing!)’). Inspiring awe are pictures of potted plants hung on a dilapidated wall, romantically referred to as “A Thing of Beauty…”

Stuck on the flip side are photographs rearranged from the framed work ‘Ants can, Malaysians sure boleh!’ Such tinkering raises questions around the management of a deceased artist’s belongings. Is it acceptable to show unfinished works? Or in this case, to alter and create a new composition? How ethical is it for Fergana Art (which represents the artist’s estate) to show and sell test prints, or print editions from film negatives? Ansel Adams once said, “(y)ou can liken the negative to the score and the print to the performance.” Unlike the catalogue raisonné – a relatively simple listing of traditional artworks – managing a photographic archive is trickier. Presenting one’s worldview without his consent risks “…second-guessing the artist”, like how one author describes the posthumous exhibition of Garry Winogrand, which images were printed from undeveloped rolls of film.

2,000+ of the 14,000 items documented thus far are made accessible to the public (every Tuesday & Saturday) at Living Archives. In an effort to pique the viewer’s curiosity, personal belongings (a birth certificate, among others) are exhibited in the area before this last section. Why does stuff – potentially of no value to the artist when he was alive – matter in appreciating one’s artworks? Does analysing an artist so thoroughly beyond his art, an act of adoration or hero-worship? With so many groupings suggested in staging this archive, is the curator conforming to ‘bahasa museum’, or is he demonstrating the futility of categories? Browsing spreadsheets on a laptop, it is telling that the archive records are different from the exhibited categories. Objective qualitative measures like form and medium are included, although one odd field called ‘Value Level’ suggests a subjective measure.

Gillian Pistell writes, “(a)n archive is neither a collection nor a library.” Preservation and determination of Ismail Hashim’s archive are the responsibilities of the team led by artist-cum-archivist Nur Hanim Khairuddin. Working with limited precedents from a regional and medium-specific standpoint, the ongoing Tate Access & Archives project serves as a reference for assessing the team’s efforts. Does cataloguing standards cater to multi-level hierarchies in order to define contexts? In digitising a photographic archive, are the metadata standards more inclined towards librarian or visual art archiving? What are the sustainable infrastructures required to maintain both physical and digital archives? Are these issues and learnings shared with the National Visual Arts Gallery, and what can this project learn from the national institute in this aspect?

Scanning the contents of Living Archives, images of partially empty grids and quirky juxtapositions help increase my appreciation of Ismail’s works beyond contained spaces and coffee-related compositions. On a personal level, such observations fit into Hal Foster’s description of the archive “…as a place of creation, part of the embodiment of its utopian ambition – its desire to turn belatedness into becomingness (…) a move to turn ‘excavation sites’ into ‘construction sites’.” Artist-cum-curator Hoy Cheong’s reconstruction is an installation of others’ belongings, with the intent to highlight the difference between staging and archiving. For the casual visitor, however, appreciating hand-tinted photographs with witty titles is sufficient for an afternoon well spent. Like an Ismail quote on the wall states, “(t)he artwork is the most reliable source.”

“Christian Boltanski has said of the problems posed by preserving items within a museum setting:

Preventing forgetfulness, stopping the disappearance of things and beings seemed to me a noble goal, but I quickly realised that this ambition was bound to fail, for as soon as we try to preserve something, we fix it. We can preserve things only by stopping life’s course. If I put my glasses in a vitrine, they will never break, but will they still be considered glasses? … Once glasses are part of a museum’s collection, they forget their function, they are then only an image of glasses. In a vitrine, my glasses will have lost their reason for being, but they will also have lost their identity. (The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, Kynaston McShine, 1999)”

Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive, Sue Breakell, 1 April 2008 [Tate papers Issue 9]

Shyan is a Malaysian collector / writer who runs the widely followed http://artklitique.blogspot.sg. This review is first published on http://artklitique.blogspot.sg/2015/05/unpack-repack-archiving-staging-ismail.html.

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