Fictional bureau uncovers findings on George Town’s visual culture

Fictional bureau uncovers findings on George Town’s visual culture

Hoo Fan Chon turns relatable local images on their heads in his exhibition Biro Kaji Visual George Town, revealing the city’s beliefs, quirks and absurdities.

By Deric Ee

Up a thin cement staircase sits a reception desk, behind which hangs the coat of arms of the city of George Town along with the words Biro Kaji Visual George Town — Malay for Bureau of Visual Studies George Town. Next to the desk glows an organisational chart showing each individual responsible for various aspects of the ‘bureau’ including public relations, merchandise design, and even cocktails. There’s something remarkably formal about Hoo Fan Chon’s latest solo exhibition, which included an opening ceremony conducted entirely in Malay, but a closer look at the coat of arms exposes several unusual details.

His cheeky, new exhibition at Narrow Marrow, a delightfully eclectic cafe, features seven curious exhibits which clue observers into the visual culture of George Town. A multidisciplinary artist whose vast skill set spans painting, wood carving and photography, Selangor-born Hoo is recognised in Penang as a curator revered for his work with art collective Run Amok.

Prior to this, Hoo was making waves in the United Kingdom. He was shortlisted for Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4’s New Sensations Prize in 2010 and soon became the youngest artist to exhibit at Eleven Spitalfields with his debut solo show Into the world of palpable objects and fruitful delight.

The artist at the opening of his solo exhibition

“I haven’t had a solo exhibition in eight years, but I had ideas which I haven’t been able to execute or finish due to time constraints. To have a conceptual structure which helps all these things make sense together is to have a fictional bureau that handles visual studies of George Town and validates all these nonsensical projects,” Hoo responds with a laugh when asked about his choice of exhibition title.

Each piece in Biro Kaji Visual George Town explores a specific theme but also seems to engage one another in dialogue. A row of coffee-inked reproductions of male-enhancement instant coffee packets stare at prints of female nightclub entertainers from the 80s. Between them sits a gloriously absurd wood carving of three bomohs atop a bird-shaped boat.

The exhibition’s titular piece, carved entirely out of wood, infuses the vernacular into George Town’s coat of arms.

Hoo’s redesign of George Town’s coat of arms

Its original pair of heraldic dolphins – a British element often mistaken for dragons or seahorses – has been adjusted to include a mudskipper, a native fish known locally as ikan tembakul. Hoo’s other innovations include localising the plant species which crowns the coat of arms, and rewriting its motto. It’s a great conversation starter on the remnants of colonial influence in Penang’s visual culture, and how we could (and should) pay more attention to the stories contained in our symbols.

‘I think a good piece of work is one which people feel they can relate to, but as they get closer, the more confusing it gets,’ Hoo notes. ‘For instance, some of the people who came were confused as they don’t remember how the original coat of arms looked like anymore.’

You chup, I snap appears as a photographic collection of discarded equipment on the roadside, but a quick turn of the brain-cogs deciphers them as ‘no parking’ signs. There’s a revelation here as the meaning of visual culture becomes immediately obvious: subconsciously, the people of George Town speak a complex visual language, one which substitutes words with tires, wooden planks, and coconut shells.

A close-up of you chup, I snap documents the many visual methods employed by local residents to reserve parking spots

Exhibition producer Jamie Oon is a first-time collaborator of Hoo’s. Elated to stage the exhibition in Narrow Marrow, which she operates alongside artist Alvin Neoh, Oon is a believer in Hoo’s art and work ethics. She jumped at the chance to host Biro Kaji Visual George Town upon reviewing Hoo’s exhibits. Her contributions include organising the merchandise section and even arranging the pieces in you chup, I snap to resemble a street map.

‘He gave me his general idea on how the exhibition should be, then we worked out how to utilise the space and I came up with a layout,’ Oon recalled. She said that if decisions from the team were backed by solid reasoning, Hoo would encourage them to share their creativity in putting the show together.

While there is an abstract quality to a couple of pieces from the exhibition, budding art enthusiasts will appreciate the exhibition’s highly informational zine put together by Hoo with Lithuanian designer Tauras Stalnionis.

‘The idea was to keep the visuals as formal as possible, like we were imitating a government branch or ministry,’ Stalnionis noted. ‘We wanted to play with ideas that were fun and even cheesy, such as the clip art and icons you see on our organisation chart, but we didn’t want to make it too funny.’

Stalnionis, a regular at Narrow Marrow, designed visuals and custom fonts which complemented the concept of Biro Kaji Visual George Town. His research included visiting KOMTAR, where the offices of the Penang State Government and Penang Island City Council are situated to analyse their visual language.

Carved out of sapodilla (locally known as ciku) timber, riding the waves in search of the great bird pays tribute to the region’s deep-rooted mysticism and spirituality

Impossible to miss is riding the waves in search of the great bird, a wooden sculpture as peculiar as it is pleasing. Three men in suits and songkoks, captured mid-ritual on a boat shaped like a bird, are out at sea. The colours are saturated, the movements dramatic, and the cultural influences diverse. It’s evocative of Confucianist ancestor worship — the work is influenced by local deities such as Na Tuk Kong — but there’s unmistakable nusantara flavour and mystical weight.

‘People pray to you because they respect you; it’s just like any other Chinese temple. We can choose whoever we want to be a deity.’ Hoo explains, referencing the deification of the late Punjabi politician and lawyer Karpal Singh in Teluk Intan. ‘I think Raja Bomoh is very much in the folk vernacular, so I picked him.’

The piece was created in memory of the three witch doctors who performed rituals to locate missing flight MH370. Beyond its humour and meme-like quality, Hoo’s sculpture attempts to make tangible the cultural complexities which spark in our soil, while recognising extant spirituality in times of tragedy.

However, Biro Kaji Visual George Town is more than a matter of imagination, or ‘dreaming for one’s country’ as emblazoned on his revamped coat of arms. In one corner of the space is a looped video interview and a glass case with photographs of Anita and the late Ava, two members of Penang’s celebrated drag collective Wax Follies. Ava’s studio portraits are chronological, tracking her growing affinity to physically expressing herself as female through the 50s.

Studio portrait of Anita and Ava

Anita & Ava provides glimpses into a George Town of the past, a merry place in which ‘female impersonators’ lip-synced to cabaret numbers for the Chief Minister in the prestigious Dewan Sri Pinang. With a pair of headphones, we hear Anita and Hoo exchanging laughs during their interview, bringing a much-welcomed warmth to the display.

Visitors experience Anita & Ava through a video essay and an archive of photos

Hoo’s latest solo effort may feature a small number of works, but the set has enough depth and surprise to keep observers chatting after leaving the exhibition. His exciting, anthropological approach to visual culture emphasises the relevance of art as a medium for critical discourse on local history and heritage.

Irreverent, bizarre, and laden with humour, Biro Kaji Visual George Town is eager to unravel the history and visual language of George Town, along the way revealing different facets of local culture.

Biro Kaji Visual George Town runs from 14 December – 7 January (except Wednesdays), 11am – 6pm at Narrow Marrow, 252A Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town. Admission is free.

Event photos courtesy of Lo Shih-Tung. All other photos used with permission from Hoo Fan Chon. Cover photo features Bermimpi Demi Negara (To Dream for One’s Country), 2019.

Deric Ee is a writer and producer with experience in theatre production, art writing, and placemaking — which he hopes to channel towards community-driven projects.