What the Malaysian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale really says about us

What the Malaysian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale really says about us

Carrying the torch into Europe, 4 artists present their personal narratives of being Malaysian at the Biennale. We pay a visit and bring back reports.

By Rebecca Yeoh

The world is now talking about the power of Malaysian people; how generations have come together, setting aside faith and race to put forth our belief for a change. During the 14th General Elections last year, Malaysia voted in its first regime change since its independence in 1957.

This power of the people did not stop within the geographical boundaries of Malaysia. Lim Wei-Ling, a renowned gallerist from Kuala Lumpur rallied supporters and funders to take an extra step forward to make one other dream come true for Malaysia, in Venice. She put together the nation’s first pavilion for the 58th Venice Art Biennale 2019. Appropriately themed May You Live in Interesting Times, the Biennale has a total of 90 participating nations. 

Malaysian Pavilion

Entrance, Malaysia Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, 2019. Courtesy of Malaysia Pavilion.

The title of the exhibition at the Malaysian Pavilion is Holding Up a Mirror, featuring artwork by Zulkifli Yusoff, H.H. Lim, Anurendra Jegadeva, and Ivan Lam. This group exhibition addresses the concept of identity during a pivotal time in Malaysia. Within a small space and the complexity of the city of Venice, Wei-Ling and her co-curator, Gowri Balasegaram have managed to showcase the different aspects of life in Malaysia through the work of the artists. By bringing into focus each of their personal journeys, their work comes together to reflect the identity of a nation.

Timeframes, 2019 by H.H. Lim. Courtesy of Zoo Zone Art Forum.

The first artwork you encounter when entering the pavilion is H.H. Lim’s Timeframes, which is made of two different parts, Four Seasons and Comment Sense. Comment Sense fills the room with a large installation of chairs accompanied by a three-channel and a single-channel video installation. All of these are facing a large triptych on the wall titled Four Seasons.

Kebun Pak Awang, 2010 by Zulkifli Yusoff. Courtesy of the artist.

As you turn to your left, there is an installation of crafted wood and paintings, Kebun Pak Awang by Zulkifli Yusoff. It reflects agriculture in Kedah during the times of The Green Book Initiative, which emphasised the effective use of land for agriculture to battle against food deficit during the recession.

Yesterday, in a Padded Room, 2015 by Anurendra Jegadeva. Courtesy of the artist.

The room adjacent to it showcases Anurendra Jegadeva’s Yesterday, in a Padded Room. The floor and walls are lined with printed or painted cushions, and in the middle of the room stand two thrones. This references a scene of war from a myth in the Kedah Annals, a Malay literary work from the 18th century.

One Inch, 2019 by Ivan Lam. Courtesy of the artist.

Ivan Lam’s One Inch is an installation of 19 televisions with their screens facing in, an inch away from a dark wall. This creates 19 rectangular light frames coupled with sounds from Malaysian films from the 1950s to today.

[Read: Get to know the history of Penang’s art societies]

There have been differing opinions about the group exhibition at the Malaysian Pavilion. Marianna De Marzi, a curator from Italy said that the pavilion showcased a “coherent and balanced choice of works and artists fitting the concept” but that the artworks were packed in too tight in the space. Perhaps in wanting to be representative of the diverse narratives in Malaysia, the number of works may have felt overwhelming to certain viewers.

Lea Rozencwajg, Senior Communications Officer with King’s College London, would not have thought that the pavilion is Malaysian if not for the signage and found it difficult to understand the relationship or dialogue between the pieces. This disconnection may be an unconscious representation of the Malaysian lifestyle. Living in peace and comfort as we strive to become a globalised nation, we become a little more detached from one another than we hope to be.

In our interviews with Ivan and Lim, we aim to look closer at both of their works individually and in relation to some of the other Malaysian pieces.

Ivan mentions that One Inch dialogues best with Anurendra’s Yesterday in a Padded Room because “it is the complete opposite” of his work. Anurendra’s room is lively, inviting, and possibly more interactive than Ivan’s room which is dark and filled with white noise, prompting more reflection and deep thought.

At first, the white noise might make it difficult to focus but eventually, it leads the audience to ponder upon the sounds they are surrounded with. With a one-inch distance between television screens and black wall, the artist aims to draw attention to the need to step back, be open-minded, and to be objective with our views in life.

Similarly, Lim’s Timeframes, featuring his signature chair motif invites audiences to ‘rest’ as they ponder upon his works. He wanted to pay homage to the chair which he finds is always there in his life supporting him silently. Offering the same to his audiences, he gives them chairs to sit in comfort and observe the exhibition.

Timeframes, 2019 by H.H. Lim. Courtesy of Zoo Zone Art Forum.

Timeframes, 2019 by H.H. Lim. Courtesy of Zoo Zone Art Forum.

His video installations draw inspiration from his family. There are scenes of him singing, balancing on a ball, and with a pin to his tongue. The scenes capture a childhood memory and some of his mother’s “domestic philosophy”, perhaps showing a yearning for home as a Malaysian living in Rome.

“I think that identity is a kind of personal evolution for a citizen,” says Lim. Allowing audiences to take a peek into the diverse narratives of Malaysian lives, the Malaysian Pavilion also invites contemplation through different formats. After a year of drastic political change, Holding Up a Mirror invites us to step back from the race into the future and reflect on personal and global circumstances.

[Read: What these 4 artworks tell us about the Malaysian Identity]

Despite the initial difficulties and delays in getting the Malaysian Pavilion off the ground, Lim says that the exhibition now stands as proof that “our ideas are competitive”. This could be an invitation for Malaysians not only to look back at the journey we’ve come through but also to look forward to better developments.

Cover image: Yesterday, in a Padded Room, 2015 by Anurendra Jegadeva. Courtesy of the artist.

Rebecca Yeoh is a curator and writer. She graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia and King’s College London. With a Certificate in Curatorial Practices, Rebecca has curated in Penang and Venice.