Friday, March 21, 2014

National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia

21 March 2014

Today we headed to the northern part of KL for the National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia, or Koleksi Balal Seni Visual Negara (in Malaysian).  Somehow, this turned into a typical Phebe and Richard adventure.

First, we managed to find our way to the train station behind the bus station that is downstairs from our hotel.  These are the intra-city trains, mostly elevated.  We figured out how to use the machines and bought our tokens.  We used the maps to find which train to catch, and got on the next train.  We even got off at the right station.  Where we asked for directions to the art museum.

"Oh, take a teksi, just outside," we were told.  "It is far."  

"How far is it?" we asked.

"Oh, 500 meter."

Five hundred meters?  Half a kilometer?  That's nothing!  That's a stroll down the block.  

So off we went.  We double-checked with a taxi (teksi) driver - oh, 500 meter from the taxi area.  Near the big building with the blue roof in the distance.  Okay, now we had a point to head to - we could do this.

We walked on the sidewalk in the 90-something (30-something C) heat and humidity.  Along some speeding highway.  And then, the road veered off in the opposite direction from the blue roofed building.  Seemingly going around the back and away.

But there was an underpass.  We stopped a few men heading to the mosque (there was quite a gathering, it must have been time for the midday prayers) and asked - yes, take the underpass.  Yes, next to the blue roof building.  How far?  Oh, maybe 500 meters.

Not much else to do, having already walked at least 500 meters - we went down the stairs, through one pedestrian underpass, through a little park-like area, through another underpass, and came out on the other side of the multi-lane highway.  Continued walking.  Realized we were on the opposite side of the highways from the blue roof.  Walked on.  Eventually passed the blue roof building, and found the art gallery.  Complete with a pedestrian OVERpass this time.  Ugh, I hate those things - I get vertigo, and the cars rushing by below makes it worse.  Up the stairs, quickly walk across, down the stairs, voila, we are there.  Finally!  (My pedometer clocked about a mile and a half walk at this point.  NOT 500 meters!)

The art gallery was definitely worth the trip, and we both enjoyed our trip, crazy as it was to get there.  The website is:

You can't take photos inside the gallery, just in the entry area or outside.  But the two huge pieces of artwork in the lobby were great - there was the giant multi-coloured almost grafitti piece, looking like a long quilt made from strips of colour with random animals, flowers, and street or people's names superimposed over it.  It may have had a deeper meaning, but since I don't read Malaysian I couldn't quite get what it might have been.

The other piece, in more muted earth tones, was more interesting to me - it was comprised of five canvases (making it a polyptich) with a giant numeral 1 in the center; to each side were designs, calligraphy, random little gold things.  This called for closer viewing.  Ah, one side has writing in Chinese, the other in Arabic.  Oh, and look, the Chinese side has tigers, and the national seal of Malaysia.  Okay, the side with Arabic writing has the national seal, but designs that are decidedly Arabic in origin.  Hmmm, and there's some kind of writing, like Thai but not quite, maybe Malay?  So put it all together and I interpret this piece as saying that Malaysia is comprised of all these diverse cultures, the Chinese, Indian, Malay, Muslim, minority groups - but the country is one.  United.

Of course, the narrative about the piece is in Malaysian, so I talked with the lady at the desk (who had limited English) but yes, we managed - and yes, my interpretation was accurate.

The portrait gallery was interesting, and one gallery downstairs had some lovely abstracts as well as other paintings - architectural, cityscapes, landscapes, animals.

But the third gallery was riveting - the show was entitled ABSURD(C)ITY - focusing on the paradoxes that surround us, especially within the context of a modern city such as KL.  Paintings tended to focus on the traditional meeting modern - farmers and their oxen next to guerrilla warriors; a robot-bodied boy with sneakers and balloons.

And the absolute best piece in the entire place was by Haslin Ismail, entitled "The Way Things Work."  (Photos of this piece from the web, because I obviously couldn't take photos in the gallery.)  Just an AMAZING piece!  One side of this three-dimensional work was sort of a small cardboard village and a large bookcase full of altered books - pages cut into shapes, glued together or folded or painted, each book telling a new and different story from the printed pages, telling a story in form instead of words. 
The other side of the bookcase was almost like those pop-ups in children's books - you know, you open the page and a house or animal or something opens up and is 3-D.  That's what was this was like, a fold-out-pop-up castle, with rose windows and a tower and various animals, people, and mythical creatures, possibly from the stories in the books.  And posterboard flames shooting up from the top of the bookcase, in back of the castle, as if it was on fire.  It was all made of paper and heavy posterboard, everything in brown, beige, black, white, grey.  

WOW!  First there was the visual impact and the child-like joy at such a cool piece of art - it was like a toy!  But then I noticed how intricately cut and folded this was, how much work it would take to create this piece out of huge sheets of posterboard.  Just the planning - it wasn't quite Escher-esque, but almost that convoluted.  (I was absolutely blown away thinking about how the artist conceived and then executed this piece!)  

And then - what does it mean?  Again, I couldn't read the information, so I just looked and admired and thought.  I think it's all about imagination, the imagination to write a book, the imagination sparked by reading a book, the story coming to life and growing and building on itself.  Part childhood, part education, part reminding parents to read to their children?  The power of the written word, the permanence of something that is written down, that our civilizations are built on the written word.  Our stories are our foundations, our history, our culture.  

I'm not sure.  Any and all of those interpretations.  It just was such a fun but deep piece of art, and so different from the paintings around it.  I just loved it.

The upstairs galleries were being renovated, or new exhibits put up, or something, we weren't sure.  At this point, my brain was full, Richard was finished looking at art for the day, and we were ready to go.  The sky looked ready to rain, thunder threatened from the distance, and so we went out to the highway and hailed a cab.  (Sorry, taxi.  No one knows what a cab is, here they are always called taxis.  Or teksis.)  We explained to our driver where we wanted to go, somehow he was confused, and we had a lovely sightseeing tour around KL as he drove one place and then another trying to figure out where we meant when we said "Plaza Rakyat bus station" - apparently Plaza Rakyat is the train station, not the bus area.  We figured it out eventually, and made it back to the hotel.

So - yes, go to the National Visual Arts Gallery.  Take the train.  From the train station, take a taxi.  

The place is worth a visit.  And it's free!  

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