Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal explained the anomaly that allowed Chinese Contemporary art to flourish within Communist China’s tightly controlled–and politically arid–public culture. The secret, in part, was art’s limited audience who were by definition elite beneficiaries of the regime’s political policies. Today, the newspaper publishes John Krich’s story that shows what happens when a strong-man government loses its patience with the art world and its liberties:
It seems contemporary art, an elite and minute corner of Malaysian culture, is starting to feel the same watchful eye that’s applied to more popular expression like film and the press. The intrusion of civil society into the rarefied gallery world sparked a wave of debate on arterimalaysia.com, a Web site begun in February this year that’s devoted entirely to Malaysian contemporary art.
“In the past, no one paid attention if we mocked politicians,” says Ahmad Fuad Osman, founder of the artists’ collective Matahati. “But we’re not seen as weirdos anymore.”
So what has changed? For one thing, contemporary art has finally entered the complex fray of Malaysian politics, after decades of staying largely on safe and highly personal territory. As Malaysia struggled to define itself after achieving independence in 1957, artists looked to imitate “fine arts” trends in Britain or the U.S., or drew on Chinese water-color traditions. Even long after in-your-face pop and performance art became the vogue in the West, Malaysia’s better-known practitioners were still mired in murky abstract expressionism — in part to honor Islamic admonitions against the too-literal portrayal of living beings.
Another reason the government may now be noticing art: The market has heated up in recent years. As curator and painter Anurendra Jegadeva puts it, “All kinds of people are paying attention now that art has become a valuable commodity.” Since 2006, prices for the better-known Malaysian modern artists have soared — 100-fold in extreme cases such as the internationally known Ahmad Zakii Anwar — as the general international demand for Asian works has trickled down to one of the least-known markets.
Wealthy local buyers have emerged, as have collectors from China and India, suddenly curious about artists from their respective diasporas, who together make up a large proportion of Malaysia’s population. Malaysian artists are winning more commissions from Japanese and European museums and being invited to prestigious biennales around the world. And the Valentine incident coincided with the first major U.S. show by the Matahati collective, whose five members have long been known as the “rock stars” of the Kuala Lumpur scene. The show, in Los Angeles, was titled “Malaysian Contemporary Art to the World.”
A Matter of Expression (Wall Street Journal)