Art is not — and should not be — purely about pretty paintings, although there is much to be said about an exhibition that makes your heart sing for its sheer aesthetic properties. Art also has the responsibility of being provocative, insightful and inspiring, even to the point of making its viewers uncomfortable. German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht put it very well when he said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Wei-Ling Gallery founder Lim Wei Ling has always found this to be true and, through various exhibitions at both branches of her gallery, has never been afraid to push back the boundaries with shows that bravely explore a range of issues that hit close to home. Late last year, she was particularly taken by the subject of surveillance and the fact that we are always being watched.
“We never question the cameras that watch us, the CCTV that records our movements,” she says. “But they are always there. So, who is then watching the watchers? Who is looking over what they see?”
Seen is the result of that retrospection. This bold, unusual exhibition brings together 10 leading Malaysian and renowned international artists to showcase their visual and activist projects — from documentary and photography to conceptual practice, and from the appropriation of censored imagery to the re-contextualisation of leaked footage. It provides critical insights into contemporary surveillance culture, exposing the hidden monitoring tools and anonymous watchers who are absent from thought, yet present in plain view, thereby blurring the boundaries between the private and public spaces.
The exhibition boasts some of the most interesting names in contemporary art. There are specially commissioned works by our own Ivan Lam, Anurendra Jegadeva and HH Lim that sit beside pieces by Ahmet Öğüt (Turkey), Roger Ballen (the US), Heather Dewey-Hagborg (the US), James Bridle (the UK), Paolo Cirio (Italy) and Viktoria Binschtok (Russia).
“These artists are exhibiting in Malaysia for the first time, and we are very proud to have such provocative works in what I believe is a very important exhibition for us,” says Lim. “The idea for this came up ages ago, but with the recently held election and altered perception of our government post-GE14 (14th general election), the timing could not have been better.”
Seen is not a very expansive exhibition in terms of the number of works on display, but the impact it has leaves you reeling. From cameras perched on street stands to anonymous figures who inconspicuously blend into the background, the all-encompassing gaze of surveillance has transformed our environment. Yet, beyond the initial questions of “who is watching?” and “for what purpose?” comes an awareness of the gaze that has transformed an individual’s relationship with society.
The political undertones of Seen are unmissable but that is to be expected considering its content. Öğüt’s work, a video installation called The Missing T, addresses topics such as surveillance, state suppression, censorship and resistance in the Mexican seaside town of Tulum.
Binschtok’s Suspicious Minds features a selection of photographs of public figures, but the focus is on their security detail. In each of her three images distilled for Seen, she extracts the “watchers”, selecting section, point of view and image formation in a way that exposes these guardians who inconspicuously shadow their forerunners with a stern poker face.
A personal favourite is Bridle’s Every CCTV Camera, for its ability to be disturbing and yet charmingly British somehow. Over two months, he took photographs of every CCTV camera in London’s Congestion Charge zone — several thousand devices, captured in 989 images.
Lam’s artworks convey a similar sense of defiance and wit — in Ivan Lam’s xxx, images of Kuala Lumpur from various perspectives are installed on parabolic surfaces. In each image, the dark grey façade of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission building — once a symbol of repression, now less so — is visible.
Dewey-Hagborg lays bare the potential of biological surveillance with Stranger Visions, which I find to be especially chilling. After collecting traces of ordinary individuals from discarded cigarettes butts, chewing gum and stray hairs found in public spaces, she used them to identify each person’s race, sex and further intimate details. The extracted DNA was then analysed computationally to generate 3D-printed life-size portraits of what these people might look like, based on genomic research.
Disturbing in its potential to transform seemingly innocent traces into likely profiles, the installation calls into focus the developing technology of forensic DNA phenotyping and the intrusive emerging era of biological surveillance as well as how it changes our perception and experience of the public space.
HH Lim’s piece, Target, is both a great place to start and end one’s experience of Seen. Comprising a mirror mounted with stickers, the work shows the disparity between images and languages to reveal the inevitable uncertainty of, and contradiction between the linguistic function of words and reality.
Reflected in the mirrored surface of Target is Anurendra’s two works, which are located on the other end of the gallery. This makes a most interesting point — who is looking at whom, and who is actually the target here?
'Seen' runs until July 1 at Wei-Ling Contemporary, Level 6, The Gardens Mall, Lingkaran Syed Putra, Kuala Lumpur. Gallery hours are from 11am to 7pm (Tues-Sun). Call (03) 2282 8323 for details. This article first appeared on June 18, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.