From KL With Love

02 March 2018

The Kuala Lumpur art scene stepped up its game recently by staging an ambitious international arts festival, the KL Biennale.

A biennale is very much an international affair with participation from various countries. In terms of scale, an art biennale is gigantic – think 500,000 visitors – making it not your usual art festival. The first ever art biennale was in 1895 in Venice, and today has spawned chapters in numerous cities worldwide, including our neighbours Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore.

Bashir Makhoul’s Shift installation of tin houses greets KL Biennale visitors.

It was only a matter of time before Kuala Lumpur followed suit, and last November, the city launched its maiden biennale featuring 12 participating countries including India, Sweden, Japan and Palestine. Themed Alami Belas (Be Loved), the exhibition features five ‘petals’ or subcategories of love: Belas Insan, Belas Warisan, Belas Alam, Belas Haiwan and Belas Kerohanian. While Balai Seni Negara is the main venue for the exhibition, the festival also has satellite events such as the Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan exhibition at Ilham Gallery, and the kampung house installation, Rumah Waris Uwan by Siti Zainon Ismail.

Flower Does Not Talk by Eric Peris

Since opening, the festival has received a steady flow of visitors. “The response from the public is encouraging,” says Tan Hui Koon, who curates the Belas Alam segment of the KL Biennale. “We received a lot of new visitors, the theme is easy and inclusive, and a lot of families spent quality time and visited the exhibition over the weekend and during the holidays.”

“For schools, it is educational, engaging and fun because of the diverse genre of arts under one roof.”

Bibi Chew’s interactive installation MAP invites visitors to partake in shaping the country.

Organising a mega-exhibition like a biennale is no easy feat. While preparations can be made to the best of the organisers’ ability, it’s hard to avoid some hiccups along the way, especially for an inaugural chapter. Since its launch, the KL Biennale has had some criticism from the local art community, while a censorship scandal shrouded the event in controversy in its first week.

“You can’t avoid teething problems,” says artist Thangarajoo. “You cannot compare [this to other events] because this is something new and when you do anything new for that matter, you have teething problems. Every exhibition will have its pros and cons and this is one of them.”

Although small, the Belas Haiwan section of the KL Biennale has some interesting exhibits including this clay, glass and plastic artwork by Mohammad Radzi Ismail.

Thangarajoo, considered a veteran artist in the local scene, has his works featured on the third floor of Balai Seni Negara as part of the biennale. Cosmic Dance touches on the theme of spirituality; its series of ultra-magnified atomic particles is a reflection on how separation is non-existent by seeing things on a bigger plane. The artist spent three years on the artworks – inspired by a near-death experience – and worked on it continuously without sketching or erasing as the painting progressed.

Despite being very happy to be on the roster for the city’s first biennale, Bibi Chew reveals she has mixed feelings about the whole exhibition. The artist behind MAP and RIVER for the KL Biennale feels the curatorial team should be more transparent on how they select and decide on participating artists.

Thangarajoo’s ‘Cosmic Dance’ sees a zoomed-in version of atomic particles.

“I do hope that [the KL Biennale] will be continued and won’t be just a one-off event, with a good curatorial team formed from a very early stage,” says Chew, who has been in the local art scene for over 30 years and is well-known for her interactive art installations.

“The theme and objectives should also be clear and transparent in the selection of artists and artworks, with the public being well-informed on the progress.”

Thangarajoo is considered a veteran artist in the local scene.

Teething problems aside, one issue that’s been hanging over the KL Biennale is censorship. Just a few days shy of its official launch, the event suffered a setback when art installation Under Construction – a collaborative effort between Malaysia’s Pusat Sekitar Seni and Indonesia’s Population Project ­– was removed for allegedly containing “elements of communism” by authorities. As a result, the seven artists involved withdrew themselves from the exhibition.

“It is an unfortunate event as I fully support freedom of expression,” says Saiful Razman, whose work A Gaze on the Impermanent Object features as part of the biennale’s Belas Kerohanian subtheme.

“However, we need to look at both sides of the story. It couldn’t be censorship from the organisers as the conception of ideas had been discussed with the curatorial team [beforehand], and yet there has been no further explanation [from the curators] over this matter,” he says.

A Gaze on the Impermanent Object by Saiful Razman takes a look at the broken symbolic nature of the arts.

Saiful’s work for the biennale is a tribute to late artist Syed Ahmad Jamal’s now-demolished Puncak Purnama public sculpture. It’s made up of tissue, toilet paper and medical gauze – disposable everyday objects revised, reinforced and made to last – and symbolises the artist’s struggle at understanding the meaning of existence and loss.

When asked, curator Tan Hui Koon wouldn’t comment on how the KL Biennale committee plans on handling censorship in the future.

A tribute to the old Razak Mansion by artist Leon Leong Wai Pung is a definite highlight.

With the biennale about to wrap up at the end of March, Saiful suggests that the next instalment should have a foundation set up with a professional artistic director, more curators and a systematic volunteer system. “The ‘experience’ could come with a good curatorial framework and artistic direction for a big-scale event such as the biennale.”

From a curator’s point of view, funding is key. Tan hopes that parties from both private and government sectors will be able to support, collaborate and sponsor a large-scale exhibition like the KL Biennale, so it can continue to grow and thrive in future instalments.

KL Biennale is ongoing at Balai Seni Negara, 2 Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak, 53200 Kuala Lumpur (03 4026 7000) until 31 March 2018. Open daily 10am-6pm. Visit for updates.

By Nadia Rosli
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi


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