Towards a Mystical Reality: Documentation of Jointly Initiated Experiences
Podium presents, in English and Chinese and with minor edits, Krishen Jit’s introduction to artists Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa’s publication Towards a Mystical Reality: A Documentation of Jointly Initiated Experiences, as well as sections 2 and 3 of that publication, which accompanied an exhibition, a debate, and a written manifesto launched in Kuala Lumpur on 2 August 1974.
‘Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, who share the same affinity for rejecting support and edges in painting, have moved into a new dimension which totally annihilates illusion and accepts the actual physicality of things.
To understand their intentions, one has to dispel every association with that of picture-making, which had its origin in the Renaissance spirit. Their iconoclastic attitude has been the result of a systemic search for an identity arising out of their experience in this country. The minimality and simplicity of their art is almost Zen in spirit.’
‘You do not look at my paintings but you look into them and THROUGH them. In the richly textured surface of my works, one sees the entity of matter, concentrating on the sum of energy of both pigment and material. In the transparent work, as a result of the dematerialisation of coloured surfaces, one is exercising a simultaneous reading of both matter/anti-matter, volume/void, figure/ground.’
‘My works exist within the same reality as the viewer’s. The time and the space are the same. My works are always existing in the present. In a sense, my works cannot be sold. This is because the experience I am forcing upon the viewer is a real experience. My works may be constructed elsewhere, in which case they will constitute an altogether new experience. The person buying my work will really be buying an actual experience not an artefact.’
By Krishen Jit, Deputy Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa will be satisfied with nothing less than a revolution in Art. Like most revolutionaries, they reject all that has happened before them, including their own early work. The clean slate becomes the most wonderful point of reference. It is therefore no accident that both proudly call themselves ‘savage innocents’.
No total rejection, however, is meaningful without a profound understanding of that which is discarded. Their manifesto is a rich tapestry of the history of aesthetics: a demonstration of their right to rebel. Seldom have we witnessed such a strenuous effort to achieve clarity. Inevitably, their unambiguous and uncompromising stance renders them awfully vulnerable. For me, that is the whole point of an exhibition. By so fearlessly offering themselves, they fulfil the graceful function of giving.
Their main target is the humanistic-subjection tradition, the colonial hangover from which so many of our Asian artists suffer. Easel painting, picture making, all forms of esoteric, come under total attack as anachronistic and harmful. The flow of creativity, they say, cuts through illusion and all other intermediaries, so that the artist can directly confront nature. Their roots and their final resting is Asia, from which they construct a distinct artistic identity.
They also say that the real exhibition is their manifesto. Lest this be misinterpreted as an admission of a failure of creativity, let us be reminded that they question the very basis of Art as it is presently understood. By extending the limits of Art, they wish to touch infinity, which has been the external search of man. Yet, they are no mere visionaries. Their starting point is the real, the concrete; those daily happenings of everyday life, which are so easily taken for granted. Our fragmented and categorised life is thus blown apart to reveal an overwhelming wonder.
I hope I will be forgiven by them when I say that their exhibits interest me as theatre. I don’t wish to compartmentalise, but to simply suggest that the live situations, which have been ‘initiated’, are intrinsically dramatic. They communicate to us at a fundamental level, expose us to our everyday reality, and when we communicate with them, singly or collectively, we enter the realm of primordial theatre. It is a measure of their hunger for total comprehension that Piya and Sulaiman are willing to enter into all kingdoms of creativity in pursuit of their vision.
In the last two years, for example, they have related intimately with theatre. They made the set designs for ‘Uda dan Dara’, ‘Alang Rentak Seribu’ and this year ‘The Birds’. They have challenged theatre and have, in turn, been challenged by it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that part of their new vision derives from theatre, especially their emphasis on phenomena.
Without doubt, this is the most important exhibition in Malaysian Art so far, if only because all our history is laid bare before us, albeit a biased history. No artist in Malaysia, no creative person, can neglect it or avoid a confrontation with it. I believe that if this manifesto is torn to shreds, Piya and Sulaiman will be not unhappy for they cannot proceed any further unless and until another resolution is fashioned. What they ask for is perpetual renewal.
Ironically, while they reject all history, they are also victims of it. It is strange and somewhat unsettling to discover that they are very traditional in their approach to history, in so far as they believe in the idea of progress. For them, one thing leads to another; the causal relationship is indeed the anchor of their being. But theirs is not a return; they are no children of the nineteenth century. They wish to embrace all time, past, present and future, and thus transcend it.
TWO: ‘ANTI-FORMALIST AND ANTI-AESTHETIC’
The present exhibition needs to be viewed as an extension of the Dokumentasi 72 show, which was held at the Dewan Bahasa Pustaka in May 1972. The exhibition featured the results of our individual experiments carried out between December 1970 and May 1972. We were then very much influenced by post-war developments in Constructive Art. In accepting the actual physicality of things, we had reached a point where our works drew attention to the ‘real-ness’ of elements that we were employing. We had abandoned illusionistic devices altogether by 1971 and had become involved with actual space, actual time and actual light. Problems pertaining to actual gravity and movement were also manifesting themselves in our scheme of things then. Our approach at that time was however still dictated by ‘formal-esthetic’ considerations. THE DIRECT CONFRONTATION WITH A REALITY THAT WAS NO LONGER DEPENDENT ON ILLUSIONISTIC DEVICES HOWEVER FORCED UPON US A RECONSIDERATION THAT HAD TO BE MADE IF WE WERE TO CONTINUE WITH THE MANIPULATION OF ACTUAL PHYSICAL SITUATIONS. HOW, FOR INSTANCE, WERE WE GOING TO CONFRONT PHYSICAL REALITY? AS CONSTRUCTIVE ARTISTS, WE HAD UNTIL THEN TENDED TO VIEW REALITY SCIENTIFICALLY AND OBJECTIVELY, BUT AFTER THAT SHOW WE BEGAN TO CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY OF APPROACHING REALITY FROM AN ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT PREMISE. The examples of certain modern Japanese artists who had attempted to view reality from an essentially oriental standpoint tempted us to re-question the validity of a scientific and materialistic viewpoint of reality that is essentially western in origin. This exhibition is the outcome of several developments which took place following that decision nearly two years ago.
There were two fundamental issues that occupied our attention after the Dokumentasi 72 show. We re-questioned two essential considerations behind the traditional work of art, namely, (i) THE RELEVANCE OF ‘FORMAL-ESTHETIC’ INFLUENCES IN THE WORK AND (ii) THE HUMANISTIC NOTION OF THE ARTIST AS A ‘UNIQUE’ INDIVIDUAL AND HIS EGO-CENTRIC INVOLVEMENT IN THE ACTUAL CREATION OF A WORK.
We were at that time fully aware of the ‘anti-formalist’ developments, which had taken place in the west during the 1960s. Having arrived at a point where we were faced with the prospects of having to deal with the actual physicality of things, it seemed natural that we should re-question the validity and effectiveness of ‘traditional’ art forms (i.e. painting, sculpture, relief, print, etc…). Our attention was inevitably drawn to such ‘anti-art’ artists such as the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Pierro Manzoni, Tinguely and John Cage (the composer of ‘silent music’). The conceptual work of the Japanese Conceptualist Yoko Ono also interested us at this point. The realisation that it WAS POSSIBLE to jettison all formalistic and aesthetic considerations from the work of art drew us quite inevitably to the notion of art as Conceptual experience. We became determined to work outside ‘formal-esthetic’ considerations. Again, the realisation that so many of the ‘anti-art’ pioneers of the west had in fact been inspired by essentially oriental philosophical considerations certainly bolstered our determination to function outside ‘western-centric’ considerations.
There were some implications about the move toward a Conceptual involvement, however. For one thing, we realised that our art-college backgrounds had left us with very little to go on with. The many skills that we had acquired suddenly seemed irrelevant and with it, the many aesthetic theories that we had been exposed to in Art History. The crucial issue now seemed to point to a philosophical involvement! It was here that we found ourselves very inadequate. One outcome of this realisation has been a voracious reading programme that has lasted nearly two years. We read eastern philosophy as well as western philosophy. The realisation that the task at hand was a difficult and complex one resulted in our deciding to enter upon an intellectual collaboration that was to finally lead to our deciding to produce works together. This was not achieved until very much later, but it seemed inevitable even then in 1972.
The voracious reading programme then constituted the most important aspect of the search. Besides reading philosophy, we also read books on the art of the east and west in the hope of discovering essential differences, which exist between the artistic traditions of the east and the artistic traditions of the west. We began to find, even at this stage, that local artists were unable to help us very much as their interests lay in ‘picture-making’ pursuits that were still dependent on stylistic and technical considerations that are linked to a ‘formal-esthetic’ approach. One outcome of this fact has been a dependence on persons outside the Malaysian artistic community. We consulted, at various stages, people outside the art scene who were very well versed in the history of ideas and with the evolution of historical events. We consulted university lecturers, historians, sociologists, religious experts, writers and dramatists. The search for a philosophical rationale that would allow us to function outside a ‘western-centric’ viewpoint of reality demanded that we think and function beyond the confines of art itself.
The desire on our part to reject ‘formal-esthetic’ considerations in our scheme of things must also be attributed to our belief that what is needed in modern art in the 70s is not so much an involvement with techniques and styles, but rather a new way of confronting reality that is not hampered by purely ‘artistic’ considerations dependent on formalistic and aesthetic criteria. Very simply, the crucial issue in modern art today is not so much the problem of how we ‘see’ things (visual/retinal) but how we ‘conceive’ reality (conceptual). This new attitude in art today demands that we re-question the very validity of a codified Art Criticism, which has so far been founded upon aesthetic and formalistic criteria. That the validity of a schematised art criticism founded on an objective methodology is today being attacked by younger artists points to a deliberate desire on the part of the serious artist of the 70s to view aspects of reality without the limitations of certain ‘relationships’ of codified data, which are based upon the art historian’s form-inspired view of art. There is today a deliberate desire on the part of the most serious artists to understand ‘phenomenal’ processes via dialectics and this seems to have brought the artist to a position that is akin to that of the philosopher’s! The deliberate attempt to reject the myth of the ‘unique artistic soul’ and with it, the notion of the artistic experience as being an interplay of esoteric circumstances between the ‘artist/creator’ and his ‘stimuli’ has in fact been motivated by a new respect for the spectator’s ability to confront reality directly. This new reconsideration of the spectator’s relevance in the whole scheme of things has in fact resulted in a reconsideration of the very purpose of art itself.
THAT ART IS BECOMING A VERY DIALECTICAL AND CONCEPTUAL ACTIVITY TODAY IS INDICATIVE OF A NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS, WHICH SUPPOSEDLY ‘MODERN’ ASIAN ARTISTS ARE YET TO BECOME AWARE OF! Aesthetic and formalistic influences then become quite irrelevant and obsolete in the new scheme of things, for they are essentially founded on the notion of art as something that is ‘created’ out of the manipulation and organising of the various elements of design (i.e. line, shape, colour, texture, form, surface, design, etc…). Very clearly, the modern art commitment today is pointing to an involvement that transcends preoccupation with the manipulation of materials and styles and finding its raison d'être in a dialectical reconsideration of phenomenal processes that exist outside a ‘form-oriented’ notion of art. The artist has, as a result, been forced to re-question: the nature of his idioms.
The notion of art as conceptual and dialectical activity then demands that the artist equip himself with the means to undertake such a complex activity dealing with the world of pure ideas! He has, as a result, been forced to look beyond technical skills and equip himself with some semblance of awareness of such diverse areas of knowledge as philosophy, linguistics, psychology, sociology, physics, mass-communication and even mathematics! The effectiveness of any serious artist of the future therefore will depend on his ability to think and function beyond the confines of ‘traditional’ notions of art itself. The best modern artists of the 70s are very clearly no longer makers of artifacts but rather thinkers and theoreticians, and this fact must surely place their contributions on the same level as those of the most creative and influential minds of our epoch. Art is finally shedding its somewhat traditional function and acquiring a new significance that places upon the serious artist of the 1970s a whole new challenge.
THREE: ‘NO HUMANISTIC OR SUBJECTIVE INTENT’
We discussed the possibility of jointly producing works even as early as 1972. The idea of producing works jointly brought with it some reconsiderations that had to be made about the artist’s ego in our scheme of things. The question of the artist’s ego, in fact, drew our attention to some fundamental differences which exist between the ‘western-centric’ and ‘eastern-centric’ modes of artistic expressions. The Humanist viewpoint with its emphasis on the artist as an individual and its scientific and objective view of reality, we found, contrasted with the traditional Asian view of things as it had once existed. The attitude towards Nature, for instance, was not so much ‘felt’ as in the case of the Chinese artist but observed and analysed on the basis of its outward appearances by western artists from the Renaissance onwards. The essential difference then was not so much one of viewpoint as that of attitude, we found. WHEREAS ONE WAS MOTIVATED BY MYSTICAL CONSIDERATIONS, THE OTHER WAS ESSENTIALLY SCIENTIFIC! Again, the realisation that all our important Malaysian artists have in fact functioned within a Humanistic and rationalistic attitude, which stems from the European Renaissance of the fifteenth century, seemed quite absurd to us. No one had bothered to re-question this tendency!
The essential difference between the individualistic approach of the western artist with his egoistic preoccupations and that of the oriental artist who remains a non-entity in his confrontation with Nature is also worth considering. Benjamin Rowland in his ‘Art in East and West’ sums up the situation by discussing the work of Michelangelo and the eighth-century Chinese painter, Wu Tao-Tzu:
Michelangelo’s violence and dynamic contortion appear as the outward manifestation of an internal conflict of forces mutually stimulating and paralysing each other. These titan forms are typical of the West, in that they are called from the vast deep of the soul of an individual genius and are the expressions of his unique reaction to the world. Wu Tao-Tzu’s forms are not so much expressions of an individual’s own state of emotion, but universal graphic portrayals of the flux of the world movement in action … the force that sucks up the tide and breathes the whirlwind. … Wu Tao-Tzu’s design has no humanistic or subjective intent.
IT WAS THE SELF-EFFACING ASPECTS OF ORIENTAL ART THEN THAT BEGAN TO ATTRACT OUR ATTENTION. That so many modern Asian artists involved with modern art have so readily accepted the scientific and humanistic view of things without having bothered to reconsider any other possibilities seems to us quite sad today. That they have up till the present time never bothered to re-question their acceptance and manipulation of art forms derived from the west must certainly account for the fact that, up till now, all the art forms produced have tended to remain little more than echoes of their western originals. CLEARLY, WE FOUND OURSELVES REQUESTIONING THE TYPES OF FORMS THAT WE COULD POSSIBLY MANIPULATE AND THE PURPOSE OF THESE FORMS. WE NOW HAD TO PURGE OURSELVES OF ALL WESTERN-CENTRIC INFLUENCES IN ORDER TO PROCEED FURTHER. THE DECISION TO THROW OVERBOARD EVERYTHING THAT WE HAD LEARNT IN A WESTERN ART COLLEGE BECAME A NECESSARY PREREQUISITE. THERE WAS NOW A SERIOUS NEED TO RECONSIDER THE ‘ROLE’ OF THE ARTIST IN OUR NEW SCHEME OF THINGS.
Our interest in the self-effacing role of the artist must certainly explain our decision to start looking at the traditional artistic forms existing within the indigenous cultural traditions of Malaysia. Our special interest in the ‘Wayan Kulit’ repertoire and especially the role of the ‘Dalang’ or the manipulator of this indigenous form of shadow puppetry, was to result in our discovering a new ‘role’ for ourselves in our new scheme of things. The ‘Dalang’ suggested to us the possibilities of functioning within a ‘mediumistic’ capacity. What seemed especially interesting about the ‘Dalang’ was that whilst he had to mouth all dialogue in the plot and play out the parts of all his puppets, the audience never saw him or learnt anything about him! His self-effacement, we discovered, was almost complete even if he constituted the real force in the whole performance! He was quite simply the ‘medium’ and the ‘initiator’ between the audience and his puppets. Here was very clearly an ‘oriental’ artist who functioned with no humanistic or subjective influences! Our idea of the artist as functioning within a ‘mediumistic’ capacity, then, must be attributed to the ‘Dalang’.
It was at this point that we decided to produce works jointly. THE DECISION TO PRODUCE WORKS JOINTLY WAS MOTIVATED BY OUR DESIRE TO PLAY DOWN INDIVIDUALISTIC CONSIDERATIONS AS FAR AS THAT WAS POSSIBLE. ALL DECISIONS WE DECIDED WOULD BE MADE JOINTLY AND NO EMOTIONAL CONSIDERATIONS WOULD BE ALLOWED TO DICTATE THE MANIPULATING OF THE FORMS THAT WE WOULD USE. THE OBJECTS WE WOULD USE, AS FAR AS IS POSSIBLE, WOULD NOT BE CONSTRUCTED BY US. IN A SENSE, WE WERE AIMING AT A CONSCIOUS DETACHMENT FROM THE WORK OF ART. THERE WOULD BE NO HUMANISTIC OR SUBJECTIVE INTENT! OUR WORK, WE ALSO DECIDED, WOULD BE MYSTICAL IN NATURE.
Image at top: Sulaiman Esa, The Mystical Reality Reinvented – Hua (detail), 2016, rattan bird cage, painted silver, 90 x 57 x 57 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. © Sulaiman Bin Esa
Krishen Jit was a celebrated theatre director, theatre critic, and lecturer, whose weekly theatre column in the New Straits Times ran for twenty-two years. He was the founding dean of theatre at the National Arts Academy in Kuala Lumpur, now known as ASWARA, or the Academy of Arts, Culture, and Heritage; and a member of the Department of History at the University of Malaya, where he held the post of Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Arts. In 1984, Jit co-founded the Five Arts Centre Theatre Company with dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz, director Chin San Sooi, playwright K. S. Maniam, and artist Redza Piyadasa.
Redza Piyadasa was an artist, art critic, and art historian who was central to debates and discussions around art theory and art history in Malaysia, co-writing Modern Artists of Malaysia, published in 1983, with art historian T. K. Sabapathy. With a grant from the Malaysian government, Piyadasa studied art and design at Hornsey College of Art in London, and completed his postgraduate studies at the University of Hawaii. He taught in the Faculty of Art and Design at the Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), and lectured in the Art Department at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. In 1998, he was presented with the Prince Claus Award.
Sulaiman Esa is an artist and scholar. Known for rejecting divisions between art and craft, and for integrating traditional Malay and Islamic icons and techniques into his work, he is celebrated as a leading figure in the development of Malaysian art. Esa studied in London, Paris, and Rome, before continuing his education in the United States, where he obtained a master’s degree in fine art from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, and a PhD in Islamic studies from Temple University, Philadelphia. Esa was a faculty member of the Faculty of Art and Design at the Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). See here for more information: www.sulaimanesa.com.