Where are we? Critique culture in the Malaysian art scene

Where are we? Critique culture in the Malaysian art scene

Differing perspectives, risk of failure, and learning to listen—collector Adrian Jones and artists Christine Das and Ethen Ng reflect on the role of criticism in an art scene’s growth.

By Lienne Loy

The ever-daunting critique is an institutional practice that is so ingrained in the educational system yet something much less practised in Malaysia’s art scene. The practice of criticism can seem intimidating and to allow others to react openly to your work and even offer feedback requires a great level of self-confidence.

The process requires trust that others will go beyond merely deducing your works into parts they like and dislike. Critiques should allow people to situate your artworks within a larger context of their environments and social and political landscapes.

Holding practitioners to high standards

Not only do critiques invite the observer to participate in the conversation and add substantial perceived value unto a piece, but critical language is also essential in the development of an artist’s works and perspectives. While critical discourse within a supportive community of arts practitioners is done so behind closed doors, Asiart Foundation is emphasising the importance of peer and mentor reviews as means to hold practitioners to a high standard, by organising review sessions that provide the sharing of mutually beneficial feedback.

Asiart Foundation is a non-profit organisation that is working to encourage peer review circles by weaving them into its programming. Its founder Adrian Jones is invested in developing the art scene in Southeast Asia, and has been making a rippling impact from his initial focus on Vietnam and outward to Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere around the region.

Adrian Jones with visiting artist Ha Manh Thang from Hanoi for Open Studios Penang 2019

The foundation was established in 2009 and has been dedicating its efforts to a set of objectives that include supporting artists and their personal growth at a fundamental level. Doing so has produced artists who are able to participate in discussions of their works and in turn express themselves in a way that is relatable to the community.

The foundation has taken on the responsibility of ensuring that artists contribute to critiques with their peers through the form of reviews, to situate themselves as individuals in the world. ‘We can only ever see ourselves from our own position, since we do not have the perspective of others’ experience, even if sometimes we imagine we might,’ Jones says.

In essence, criticism can present an opportunity to process our understanding of ourselves, our values and why we think the way we do in comparison to others. ‘Gaining feedback from experienced peers, mentors, and critics whose opinions we respect is important in gaining a new perspective on ourselves and our work,’ Jones continues, emphasising that learning about ourselves should involve our professional peers and is perhaps not contained to the limitations of our formal education. Most importantly, a shared sense of respect should be acknowledged to create a safe space for the open exchange of ideas and opinions.

As for how these review circles are formed and how they operate, Asiart Foundation’s most productive approach is to have cold reads of artworks, in which artists are to present a piece of their own art to the group and before its concept is explained, others are invited to offer their impartial observations.

‘Each artist gets to experience multiple — often very differing — perspectives. It reinforces the idea that there is often no “right” or “wrong” way to interpret something but there are great differences between people,’ Jones points out. Reviews are not done in pursuit of black and white answers but rather the insights into what may or may not be. The grey moments that come up in discussion often have the potential to spark new ideas and produce significant learning outcomes.

Making way for safe spaces

Despite how niche the arts industry is in Malaysia and thus its community, many of its members exist in even smaller circles that resemble microcosms of a contented local arts environment, which could lead to artists not engaging in risky issues within their practice.

‘Artists have taken risks to be truly creative. Failure is often one or more of the most valuable waypoints on the route to something great,’ Jones states, considering failure as a powerful experience to aid in progress and hints at the roles of artists as potential commentators, who have the ability to record the zeitgeist in innovative ways.

Perhaps the lack of criticism in Malaysia’s art scene lies not only in its existing system but rather the country’s wider cultural attitude toward confrontation, which is one that would rather avoid contentious issues to perpetuate a sense of harmony.

Limitations of critiques

While it’s not certain that artists leave critiques with a refreshed sense of self and perspective of the world, their takeaways may be subtle and affect their practice in unexpected ways.

Christine Das, a painter, wildlife activist, and nature conservationist based in Penang, has attended several peer or mentor review circles. ‘I have had my works reviewed and to be honest, the critique did not influence or help my art practice or change my perspective about the world,’ she reveals.

Christine Das, I See You, 2020.

Instead, the process of discussion indirectly impacted her. ‘It taught me to listen and take only what is relevant,’ Christine expresses. The responses received during a critique may not always feel helpful but the skill of listening is one that will undoubtedly be a positive influence on an artist’s practice.

‘[Review circles] taught me to follow my own instincts about my own art practices. So far, my art career has been shaped and inspired by those who are not related to the arts. I find that to be very refreshing and it has enabled me to think out of the box,’ explains Das. Her confidence reflects her awareness of what works for her, a realisation that may have come out of listening to her peers’ opinions.

Do critiques influence an artist’s works?

Ultimately it depends on the individual and how they receive feedback. For Ethen Ng, a Penang-based watercolourist, participating in review circles have been pivotal in the direction of his works. His peers have provided insight into how he can improve his works and, in many ways, have inspired him to experiment with different media.

Ethen Ng in front of works created out of the painting studio he teaches in.

‘I have an artist friend who uses branches to paint and because that interested me, I tried to use it to paint as well,’ Ng shares. Often, if words aren’t enough to justify a thought, seeing and experiencing can be persuasive enough. The various participants provide learning opportunities to take advantage of, but mutual respect is fundamental to open discussion. As Ng eagerly expresses, ‘I’m very happy if they give their opinions on my work, no matter if they’re good or bad. It’s all quite useful to me, I appreciate that they don’t mind sharing.’

Critiques and reviews are invaluable and while their successes may not be quantifiable, the lasting impact they have on participants extend beyond just the technical. The act of conversing can improve one’s listening skills and ability to relate to others. If practised within respectful protocols, critiques provide a safe space to share and ultimately produce a dynamic community of individuals striving for a healthy and progressive arts ecosystem.

Conversation, with its temporal qualities, makes space for one’s opinion but if it is void of useful feedback and constructive criticism can be dissolved as speculation. On the other hand, having discussions and questioning the relevance and success of artwork is how we make art relevant to current issues. They push the potentials of, as Jones puts in, artists’ roles as commentators of our zeitgeist – a vital role in any egalitarian society that values liberal thought and culture.

Cover image by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Lienne Loy is a curator currently managing the programming for The Godown, a new art space in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.