In 2012, Malaysian artist Azam Aris (also known as Helmi Azam B. Tajol Aris) underwent a year-long residency at Rimbun Dahan, working both on paintings and three-dimensional work. On August 5 2015, his solo exhibition YEAH opened at HOM Art Trans and was officiated by Angela Hijjas. The text of her speech is below.
Thanks to HoM for the invitation to speak tonight at the opening of Azam Aris’ new works. I would like to take the opportunity, first of all, to express my appreciation for all that HoM, the House of MataHati, has done over the years in supporting young artists by giving them an opportunity to mix with a broad range of people and influences, and to explore new ideas in a very supportive environment.
I first met Azam when he participated in our Art for Nature exhibitions, where his quirky clocks were always a huge hit with visitors and collectors. He used battery operated clock hands to animate his figures in weird and wonderful ways.
I got to know Azam a little better when he was a resident artist at Rimbun Dahan in 2012, and became very familiar with the works he made at that time. His show at Rimbun Dahan was a great success and he contributed significantly towards our programme. I’m sure too he benefited from the joint experience he shared with the Australian artist, Jonathan Nichols, with whom he staged an exhibition with us in early 2013.
The current works on display tonight are a surprisingly intense distillation of that past practice in which he explored the supernatural and the extra terrestrial, with a cunning insight into Malay culture and its superstitions and our quite natural fear of the unknown.
The figures in this new body of work have completely lost the individual quirkiness of his earlier works, and are repeated to such an extent that one is forced to look very carefully to search for what Azam is trying to say: individuality and personality are squeezed out by the sheer force of numbers, and the density of his compositions is relieved only by the lightest of variations… could all this be a reflection of the current atmosphere in our beloved Tanah Air? Who are these people and where are all these figures going? How indeed are they going to move with the fluidity of his mechanical hands, arousing the magic of the bomoh and the waving of a magic kris? A few individuals in the mass manage to wave in desperation or jubilation, like drowning victims or audience members at a rock concert, but they retain the look of the ultimate selfie…. Repeat repeat repeat, losing their individuality at the expense of the instant gratification of a self styled and posed photo of how we want the world to see us… but unfortunately no one is looking, no one is going to see one small figure and find it remarkable, only in the massing is there something remarkable that has an energy that a single figure cannot accomplish.
I can’t help but infer some political message in these massed figures: here we are, all crammed together, lacking any capacity to make decisions and shape our own destiny, wandering like a herd, waiting for a leader to organize us into a rational and responsible machine. The energy and numbers are there but is it fear of the unknown that makes us reluctant to take the next step? In a society that has known nothing else for over half a century it is always hard to see a different way ahead, but there is indeed a different road, and I hope that Azam’s figures work it out soon!
I doubt if I spoke to Azam about this he would say that he had any political agenda with these works, but in the light of these dark times it is hard to ignore. He has looked at the dark side before in his Republic Sulap works, where mad scientists manipulated weird machines against a backdrop of outer space, and Malay bomohs looked blindly on creation while mouthing unintelligible incantations; but with these works tonight I wonder if I am looking at some insoluble image that I have to stare at until it coalesces into an understanding that once made can never be forgotten, and inevitably the thought occurs to me that with today’s preoccupations with corruption at the very core and at every level of our society perhaps we are all complicit, every single self that is replicated repeatedly… we have stood aside for so long that we no longer have any capacity to act. I certainly hope that this isn’t the case.
The enormous changes that the Malays particularly have had to cope with in the last 40 years have not been strong on cultural and political development. Instead the changes that were wrought by education and urbanization, by leaving life in the kampong and substituting it with life in a condo have proved to be a little empty. Pursuing the dream of comfort, convenience and security in the modern world is not an end in itself, we still need a sense of purpose; and then technology stepped in with another promise: use your iPhone and experience the world, be a part of everything, in effect be a cog in the elaborate plot of buying and consuming the latest technology; but in the end it will not change your life at all. To do that we still need our individuality and our own powers to think and act.
We have the magic of instant communication at every moment to every corner of the world, our selfies plaster our self-awareness with a sense of accomplishment that is no more real than the bomoh’s incantations. We have been hoodwinked into thinking that we have an intrinsic importance that repeated images surely validate: but communication should be a means to an end, not an end in itself, and I think these works are a poignant reminder that we are in danger of being hoodwinked ourselves.
Thank you, Azam, for these works, and for inviting me this evening, and I hope this show will give all of us the impetus to be more than just a cog in a machine.
Angela Hijjas, August 5 2015