Walking into the space of the gallery, one is immediately ambushed by a dynamic display of large-scale drawings at Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan (Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, Equals), a solo presentation by the late Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail (better known as Ise).
These poster-sized drawings with their colourful characters and events, drawn in the visual vernacular of comic books, dominated the wall space at A+ Works of Art in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year. The exhibition has since travelled to The Lab at Singapore’s NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, where it is showing until 7 March 2021 – but the visual impact is equally show-stopping. Loud and dynamic, the collaged images of photocopied maps, annotated writings and drawings reveal the late artist’s lived experiences, albeit via fragmented narratives.
For the unacquainted: Ise was considered one of Malaysia’s hardest working contemporary artists. Participating in international exhibitions and residencies, his diverse art practice was a tool through which he explored ideas of community, culture, history and identity. Whether it’s an installation of six fridges used to highlight household living habits in his Singapore Biennale 2011 work Secret Affair, or a complex multi-sensory historical diorama of Kelantan to explore the land’s dynamic history, anOther Story (2017), Ise produced art with idiosyncratic flair and intellect that set him apart. Similarly, Ise used personal narratives and animated imagery to reflect upon themes of life, travel and relationships in this final project.
This particular exhibition is significant because it would have marked the artist’s first solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in nine years. Originally slated to launch in 2019, the project was delayed due to the artist’s saddening passing. Though the circumstances in which the exhibition is finally taking place are unfortunately very different, curator Anca Rujoiu has tried as far as possible to keep the exhibition as close to the artist’s own vision. Though she makes it clear that this show is not a retrospective, she remarks that it captures “the cosmopolitan ethos of Ise’s practice, [and the] encounters with places, friends and strangers alike that shaped his work and life.”
Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan consists of two bodies of work. The large format wall drawings are part of a series titled Operation Bangkok, which the artist created as a result of his residency at Bangkok University Gallery in 2014. The other body of work is a series of graphic drawings done in collaboration with the comic artist Ibrahim Hamid (Pak Him) in 2018. Though created four years apart, they carry similar themes of exploration and encounter.
The punchy pop-style graphics of Operation Bangkok were drawn on maps, though they don’t have a succinct narrative or route to keep the viewer grounded. Ise’s is a map that veers off the beaten track, sharing with viewers the ‘landmarks’ of a city that he bore a personal connection to. An abandoned shopping mall, a pop-corn bag that was a symbol of the 2014 anti-government protests and ‘fortune teller’s avenue’ next to Thammasat University – Ise presents an alternative topography of Bangkok.
As Rujoiu puts it, these drawings convey Ise’s distinct ability “to spatialise memories in [such] a way that narratives are neither linear nor complete.” The way that these works are displayed – seemingly haphazardly, in no apparent order – also mirrors the way we access our own memories. The process is simultaneous and incidental.
Like loose pages fallen from a guidebook, Ise presents fragments of the city of Bangkok in reflection of how humans truly experience and come to know the world – every individual draws their own personal map of the place they live and the cities they visit. These connections between places are not informed by geographical logic but by the idiosyncratic structures of our lives. Our knowledge of a city is built upon us fragmenting it and putting together the pieces of it that we want to know.
While these images were drawn from the memory and notes of the artist, I found myself wondering if I could recognise anything on the maps Ise had drawn on. How might I piece them together in a way that resembles my own memories of Bangkok? Was this a Bangkok that I too knew? Sparked by Ise’s images I travelled back to Bangkok through memories that I had stored away. The nature of these drawings and their display extend beyond non-linearity as they encourage an intertwining of narratives and perspectives between viewer and artist.
Placed directly in front of these drawings are Ise’s last body of works before he passed on: a set of large lightboxes displaying a series of comic drawings done in collaboration with the graphic artist Pak Him. These drawings trace Ise’s travels as an ill-fated tourist who encountered misfortunes such as being robbed in Barcelona and being stopped by police in Jakarta. However, unlike the drawings of Bangkok that present Ise’s view of the world, these comic strips showcase Ise within the world. They share with viewers the lighthearted and more intimate episodes of Ise’s lived experience, such as a complicated operation.
Resembling the neon lights of urban culture that invariably become fixtures of every city, these lightboxes signpost or rather, highlight, memorable moments in Ise’s personal life journey. Five lightboxes were displayed at A+ Works of Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur while only three were used at the NTU CCA Singapore, but in both exhibitions, one has to walk around these lightboxes to look at the drawings on the wall. I thought that this manner of display created an interesting interplay between background and foreground, layering and connecting different moments, perpetuating the theme of non-linear memory that cuts through the exhibition. It well conveys the interrelation between the personal and the public that defined Ise’s practice – a dynamic that perhaps every one of us constantly negotiates.
“If there is a theme that cuts across the whole exhibition, [it] is the leitmotif of traveling,” says Rujoiu. “Ise didn’t shy away from being a “conventional” tourist, an aspect that is playfully performed in the comic drawings. But traveling provided Ise so much more. Traveling was a means to connect with places and people, a medium for artistic research, and a form of escape from a local environment experienced at times as comfortable or limiting. In an interview published in the special issue of sentAp! that constitutes the publication of this exhibition, ruangrupa’s director Ade Darmawan points out sharply that Ise had that awareness that being an artist is also being in conversation with other contexts.”
These two bodies of work occupy a concentrated, defined space within the gallery but through their differing points in time and evocation of micro-narratives they create an expansive environment that the viewer explores. Travelling from city to city extends the project’s reach further. In keeping with Ise’s theme of non-linearity, this exhibition continues to be a place of intersecting narratives and perspectives as it connects with new spaces and visitors that come to see the show.
So, in a world where the buzz of human gatherings has been somewhat hushed and as the possibility of travel continues to be pushed further into the future, Ise’s solo project offers a point of connection and activity with one another.
Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan (Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, Equals) was originally presented at A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur, from 17 December 2020 to 9 January 2021. The exhibition is currently being presented in The Lab at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore from 16 January to 7 March 2021.
Feature image: Installation view of Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan (Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, Equals) at NTU CCA, Singapore. Image courtesy of NTU CCA.