In the visual arts, a distinction has always been drawn between craft and art. The handmade objects that decorate our homes like a quilt made by a loved one or an embroidered pillow are consigned to the category of craft and considered unworthy of the museum and gallery. Yet these objects, most often made by women, require artistic skill, effort and time to produce. In response to this exclusion, feminist artists in the 1970s began to use mediums and aesthetics regarded as feminine, and therefore craft, in their art. These artists deliberately used methods like knitting, embroidery, and ceramics in ways that interrogated gender roles and the patriarchal order of society.
Some of this tension between what we consider art and craft runs through the works in Ivan Lam’s Faux, an exhibition currently on display at Wei-ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, which features floral arrangements made by the artist’s mother for her church.
However, in Faux, authentic representation is a bigger preoccupation than resolving or breaking the binary of art vs craft. From the exhibition’s title to Lam’s choice to paint from Whatsapp photos rather than the actual floral arrangements, Faux interrogates our current reality. The question of what is real, while more destabilised than ever before, is not new. While technology and mass production first threatened the artist as author, women’s authorship has been erased for centuries and is still invisible in many ways. Lam acknowledges this to some extent. In the exhibition catalogue, he writes, “To my loving mother; without whom none of these pieces would have been made.” Thus, through the act of painting, Lam memorializes a work of art that would otherwise decay.
The idea of permanence is clearly a major concern of the work. Each painting is paired with a different type of marble, creating a diptych. By contrasting the paintings with marble, a material prized by sculptors and architects throughout the world both for its beauty and durability, Lam seems to be underscoring the fleeting beauty of the floral arrangements. The resin finish on the canvases also lends the paintings a plasticky sheen, and what better way to preserve something than to replicate plastic, a material that can take up to 1000 years to decompose.
Of the nine paintings, the composition of Always Waiting struck me as the one painting that betrayed its origins as a Whatsapp photo. The floral arrangement is off centre to the right of the frame leaving more negative space and appears slightly cropped. It most closely resembles its original form, a photograph taken quickly to be shared with family and friends without much thought of its visual composition.
Despite the limitations that the Whatsapp photos impose, such as composition and low resolution, it is clear that Lam’s authorial hand is present in the painting. The painting features a chalice and alms bag, details that are present in the other eight paintings in different positions. The presence of these objects, which play an important part in the Catholic mass, references the religious symbolism present in early still lifes from the Middle Ages.
What I found fascinating about the inclusion of these religious objects is that they were probably not present in the original photos. When you enter the gallery, a blown up Whatsapp photograph is paired with a piece of dark brown marble with yellow veins (Ivan Lam, Vrai de Vrai, 2018). Unlike the other paintings in the show, this work, a photograph, features a floral arrangement and a blue dishcloth with white daises, a plastic cup, a white mug, and strangely, a Mandarin orange. By choosing to omit these more domestic, feminine objects, Lam establishes himself as the author of the paintings and the work itself in a tradition of classical art. Though Lam’s mother, the original author of the floral subjects, named the paintings, she remains elusive to us. Her original work remains only as stored photos in the phones of her family members.