Thursday, October 23, 2014

Amir Zainorin - 'Me, We' by Sharon Chin

Amir is someone I’ve yet to meet in person. I know him only through email, blogs, Facebook and a parcel containing catalogues and a DVD of his work he sent to my house. Yet from these thin, mostly electronic, threads we are weaving a conversation, the beginnings of understanding, and perhaps a friendship.

What do I know about Amir? He grew up in Kelantan and Johor. He studied in the US, returned to work in Malaysia and now lives in Denmark with his wife and son. It’s no surprise that his art deals with identity and representation – living and working in different places can turn your sense of self into putty. Even crossing the street or buying bread becomes a cultural experiment!

The questions of identity are the eternal ones: Who am I? Who are we? At the same time, these questions have an everyday urgency, like buying bread. Somewhere in between there lies a political dimension, where this ‘who’ becomes a ‘what’ – What am I? What are we? In that political space, identity is associated with power.

What is it like to be Malaysian right now? Interesting would be one way to put it. Scary would be another. Since the March 2008 general elections, we have been living in times of huge political change. The political dimension has expanded to touch every aspect of life. You couldn’t escape it even if you wanted to – the roads will likely be jammed tight because of some by-election.

Issues of identity have become especially heightened and complex. Old certainties are now up for questioning – the social contract, the monarchy, even the federation itself. It is as though we are waking up from a collective dream, dazed and confused, but more energized than we have been in decades. Our political masters feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. In order to rally support to new political needs, desperate games are played that draw lines deeply in the raw, soft sand of our identities. Being told what we are (Bumiputera, Si botol, Si mata sepet, Dan lain-lain) makes us much more manageable, just like in the colonial days.

It is into this space, that Amir brings his art and his questions: Who am I? Who are we?I won’t betray the spirit of Amir’s work by limiting its scope to this specific moment in Malaysian identity politics. He clearly states: ‘Even though I am a Malaysian citizen, I don’t see myself as a ‘Malaysian artist’. I am just an artist, born in Malaysia with a big interest in what is going on in the world. My influence is global, not only based on my roots in Malaysia.’ However, by locating it here, we can see how Amir’s search is not about trying to establish answers. Instead, it’s concerned with enlarging the space of how we can look at and make meaning of ourselves.

He starts with a view of himself – a self-portrait. The video Mind My Hat shows him donning variously the headgears of the Sultan, Tok Guru Nik Aziz, a Jew, Yap Ah Loy, Uncle Sam and many others. Watching it on Youtube, I wondered about the lo-fi quality – you can clearly see where the images have been digitally altered to replace Amir’s face with that of the abovementioned subjects. It uses the rough cut n’ paste techniques of most internet ‘mash ups’, that is, digital videos, music or images that consist of original content altered in some way. Amir’s self-portrait treats images, including his own, like disposable shells – each one recognizable for an instant, then falling away to reveal nothing but another image, and another. We may well ask ourselves what such disposable images are doing in a gallery, a place where we expect images (paintings, photographs, etc) to be precious… valuable…

The question brings us to the subject of Pop Art. There is tendency in Malaysian artists and intellectuals to confuse Pop Art with a technique or ‘style’, rather than recognize it as a particular moment in the development of modern art in Europe and America. Campbell soup cans, bright colours, Andy Warhol, silk-screened images of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley selling for millions of bucks – this is what Pop art means for many people. In an essay for one of Amir’s previous solo exhibitions, Mad(e) In Malaysia, Badrolhisham Tahir says as much: ‘Amir is known as a Pop artist. This is what many don’t understand and want to know more about.’ He goes on: ‘Sometimes a public story can become a powerful myth and even though we know how Amir became an artist, the public story has so much power, it becomes believable.’ Unfortunately, Badrolhisham doesn’t delve much deeper into the relationship between Amir’s ideas and Pop art, allowing the myth to hang in the air as part of the artist’s constructed identity.

Pop Art developed around the 1960s, at a time when western society was being reshaped and defined by its relationship to mass media (by late 1950s, TVs were to be found in almost every American home), fame and consumerism. Things other than objects could become commodities – such as human values or images. The perception of something could be more valuable than the thing itself, hence the rise of branding and advertising. When it came to determining value, fame (i.e. when something is widely known or reproduced) was just as, or more important than, exclusivity. Warhol explored these ideas in art by becoming an art machine, manufacturing images in the same way a factory produced canned soup. He commented on the system by being fully complicit in it. Decades after his death, his work continues to command astounding prices.

Today, we are living in a different world, one defined by instant connectivity and information technology. We can now broadcast ourselves every moment of every day, using digital text, images, video and sound. Amir’s ideas about how mass produced images influence the way we perceive identity, value and power are indeed related to those that gave rise to Pop art. In the series of digital prints, he creates new stories and narratives by digitally piecing together images found on the internet or taken on his digital camera. The images come from modern art, history, advertising, news, the landscape, family portraits, etc – it doesn’t matter. They are all flattened to create new, instant and disposable fairytales for a generation of Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter users.  

Like Warhol and the other Pop artists, Amir also plays these ideas off the art world. One work consists of Facebook updates collected from his network of friends over a period of 3 months. During this time, he updated his own status daily with thoughts about art. He has arranged these to produce a large digital print that reads ‘Status’. Placed in a gallery, these little fragments of selves literally and symbolically claim their status as art. Another work, Mr Prime Minister, looks like an average painting, but in fact, it has been out-sourced to a company in China that specializes in copies of famous masterpieces. Skilled labourers produced the painting according to a digital image created by Amir in Photoshop. These funny, quietly subversive works make us rethink how we view and value art.

Given that so much media content is disposable, how do we reconcile the fact that words and images continue to exert such power on us? It was only recently that cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) caused uproar across the world, erupting in violence and even death. Closer to home, the right of non-Muslims to use the word Allah has been fiercely debated. Again and again, this modern technological age will bring us into close encounters with those who are different from us. We will see and hear things that shake our beliefs, values and worldviews. How do we negotiate between what we must hold sacred and what we can hold in common? Or perhaps it is better to say: what we can hold sacred and what we must hold in common? Who am I? Who are we?

Yes, words and images hold immense power, but let’s not forget, so do actions. In a performance held at the entrance to the Danish embassy, Amir turns the usually de-humanizing process of visa application into an opportunity for human conversation and exchange. Meanwhile, his online project Like A Prayer asks people of any (or no) faith from all over the world to submit a prayer via email, which is then posted on a blog for everyone to read. Similarly, I see his three interviews with Malaysian art icons Redza Piyadasa, Jeri Azahari and Rahime Haron as acts of listening and recording. It is interesting to observe how actions are not subject to same games of representation and power. Through his interventions into real and online life, Amir illustrates that actions not only communicate, they open up pathways – roads for us to make meaning in art, in our lives and in the world.

Sharon Chin
Nov 2010

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nordic Country and Fottball - Ava Galleri - Rio De Janeiro

Title: Messi
Medium: papercuts
Year: 2014

Title: Neymar
Medium: papercuts
Year: 2014

This exhibition is supported by The National Visual Art Gallery Malaysia

Paper Cuts at Gallery Alstrup

Paper Cutouts and other works

The paper cut outs  address issues on identity. These cuts outs
are taken and made from old art magazines
done in 2013, following up from Amir’s collages that he has developed eversince
year 1998. The paper cutouts though have a different approach than his
collages. They are very simple and minimal in execution where the depth of positive
and negative space are interplayed with one another.

The portrait seriesfrom the paper cut outs for eg. reminds the audience of oneself through another
person. The self reflection is made possible because of Amir’s used of mirrors in the background of the images.

The other works from the paper cutouts series make some kind of attachment or connection to the
immediate surrounding.  The negative space that he created gave the audience to see right thru the works to the back of the wall in the gallery or any given space.

In this exhibition, Amir also shows his paintings done on paper. One of the works is a portrait of an
American Beatnik poets, William Burroughs,  standing with a rifle in his hands. The work is done with word play where Amir has painted the portrait using rubberstamps instead of the normal paint brush. The used of rubberstamps to make the paintings was inspired by his frequent visits to the Immigration office in Copenhagen and from a public art performance which he did infront of the

In this performance, he placed a table and dressed himself up as an “immigrationofficer” and stamped on pieces of paper using rubberstamps with text that included Approve, Rejected, Alien, Other, Exotic, Obey. This spontaneous public art performance drew curiosity from the people that passed by and those that
were going to the Immigration office. Some stopped to ask him what he was doing and started to play along with the performance and some actually thought that he was working for the Immigration office. By doing this performance in public space outside he was able to create a temporary alternative environment where, the often times anxiety producing and depressing reality was subverted through
An installation work entitled ’ the untold story ’ is a roll of white paper hanged from the wall and
rolled down to the ground. This work has a philosophical approach to it and  is inspired by the quote ’ History is written by the victors’ . At the top of the paper, the word ’ the untold story’ is collaged to the paper while the remaining of the paper remained blank. There is a guideline in this work which ask for the audience participation where they are invited to write in the blank space of the paper of any story that they wish.

An artwork titled ’ Holger Danske in Arabic ’ is a playful work which is done with ceramics.  The work was inspired by the artist’s visit to Kronborg, the famous Danish castle in Helsingør where he came to face with the big sculpture of Holger Danske. Holger Danske is regard as a Danish
National symbol and so is  Amir’s use of the red and white colors in the artwork which reminds of the Danish flag.
But he chose to use arabic calligraphy or alphabets instead of using the normal latin alphabets to
write the name ’Holger Danske’. The audience who come close to the artwork will
be rewarded with a note explaining about the work which is placed next to it
and to those who don’t will be left wondering.
’Spicy skull’ is an assemblage made of plastic and spices. A skull is covered with spices such as star
anis, chilly, curry, cumin, etc. This piece has a historical narrative to it in how the west and the east came into contact with each other. Malaysia was colonized for 500 years  before getting its independence in 1957.  Back then, Melaka, a state in Malaysia was the most busiest  port in the world for traders  trading spices and the fact that three different western countries fought each other to get hold of the port can be
seen reflected in the artwork.

Land Art Rebild

Artwork title: Seeds of love
Year: 2014

Location: The park near Rebild Convention Center

Why seeds of love?
Love is the most important element in life. In order for love to grow, it has to be planted at an early age. Just like a plant, it begins with a seed and later it needs to be nurtured for it to grow.

Seeds of love is a text based artworkshop where I will be working with the school children for a week creating art from trash or found objects. They can be made from piece of paper, milk carton, pap kasse, etc
The children will be guided how to carve or cut the word ' love' and stick them on BBQ sticks.
The target is to create as many words as possible that could fill a single field with the word 'love'.

A refugee crosses his tracks

Title Project/Performance Art: ‘ A refugee crosses his tracks’.

Location: To be performed during the opening day of Land Art Exhibition.
Rolling a round bale of hay from a farm to the the exhibition space Thingbæk Limestone Mines Communication Centre.

‘ A refugee crosses his tracks’ is an art performance inspired by the Norwegian/Danish author Axel Sandemose’s novel called ‘A refugee crosses his tracks’. The novel describes a village life where social and moral standards are dictated by the Jantelaw. The law among other states that, you’re not to think that you are anything special, as good or better as we are.

This performance addresses movement, migration, crossing boundaries or tracks to fit in and integrate.

The wheel of hay is also a symbol of the wheel of life. Where does it takes us? And do we dare to break out of the boundaries where we feel safe and blend in with the crowd? The wheel of life is not easy to push. The act of rolling the hay in a small town in Jutland is symbolic to my life journey, and attempts to fit into new surrounding. As an immigrant living in a new country and also a person that is used to the city life, I still feel like an outsider in many cases.

photo credit: Viel Andersen and Jette Noyes


This is an interactive art performance took place in Kulturhuset Brønden, Denmark, as part of the exhibition for the Global Village traveling exhibition. The public were invited to throw the dart art the target and the first person to reach 51 points win a mono print, portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. as a prize. Nuno, a young man from Portugal won the competition beating 24 other competitors. Have a look at some of the actions!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remove the cancer of racism in our heart and soul

Remove the cancer of racism in our heart and soul

Everyday, one of my daily rituals after getting up in the morning is to switch on my computer and opening up my Facebook account to keep up with the news from friends and family from back home. It helps cure my longing from being there and feeling homesick especially when I am living in another continent and a country faraway where there is only a handful of Malaysians living here.

The place is Denmark, a country of 5.5 million people who made the world headlines some years ago when a Danish artist drew a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad. The infamous incident led to the burning of Danish embassies, flags and protest from the Muslim countries all around the world.

One of the laws that the Danes are proud of is the freedom of speech and press. You are free to practice in what you believe in, religion, God, no God or what not, as long as you don’t hurt anyone. You can be a Muslim and practice your religion freely; nobody is going to stop you.
If you decided to be an atheist the next day, nobody really gives a care. You don’t have to worry about Islamic police come charging at your door and forced you to repent according to their understanding of what Islam is or worry about being arrested for committing apostasy, a ‘murtad’ and be fined and jailed for a period of time just because your opinions are different from them.

In Malaysia, the ongoing case with 80-year-old Kassim Ahmad is a fine example of how religion is being forced on you, whether you like it or not.  This is opposite to the basic teaching of Islam, which says that faith or religion should not be forced to a person. The only way you can find peace and freedom through Islam is when you freely submit to it. By forcing people doing something they don’t like doesn’t solve anything. It simply makes it worse. People will only rebel to it.

Another example is if you are born a Malay, then you are automatically a Muslim. You have no choice but simply have to accept that Islam will be your religion for the rest of your life. Islamic faith is being imposed on you because that is just how things are here. Force id used to instill fear so that the people in power will easily be in control of people and all for the wrong reason. If you do the otherwise, you will be seen as a sinner, a wrongdoer of insulting Islam and should be punished in the name of Allah.

As year passes by, the decisions made by the lawmakers is making the country moving backwards in terms of humanity. The action taken towards Kassim Ahmad was unjust.  Simply by arresting him for having different of opinions was unIslamic.

In this multi-ethnics country that boast about giving it citizens freedom of religion, why are we not even allowed to discuss about Islam, about what does it takes to be a good Muslim? Why are we not allowed to be different from others and let us be our own selves?

Doesn’t Islam encourage its followers to discuss about the hadiths and the content in the Koran so that we to have a better understanding of what the teachings are all about? Are we not taught to settle our differences in a peaceful manner just like the Prophet have shown us?

Well sadly to say there is no such thing as freedom of religion in this country. We are not allowed to voice out our opinions about Islam. We have no rights to be ourselves and the only way to settle our differences is through authoritarian use of force by the so call moral Islamic police, who blindly follow their orders by their masters whose faith were driven by their ego trip on power and control.

Being a good Muslim doesn’t automatically make us better or superior than any other people. Islam teaches us to be good to others and to treat everyone equally, regardless of their skin colors or beliefs. The minute we started to believe that we are the chosen one that is when we can find ourselves in no better position than those Jewish people who believe in the same manner.

In my conversation with people from back home, I was surprised to find out that even some highly educated young Malays have this kind of mentality.  This slave mentality, which imprisons their minds are driven by their own fear to be the righteous one, and fighting all for the wrong reasons in the name of jihad and Malay rights.

The Malay rights were formed to help the poor Malays to improve their living and economic condition.  But the Malays rights are quite outdated since the people only served to a few people. Government contracts for example are given to Malay owned ‘Alibaba’ companies, many of whom did not have the capability and capacity to undertake them and forced to hire others to actually do the work. The Malay rights have also neglected a vast majority of Malays and helped some very much more than others. It is time to unveil the truth and get rid of the hypocrisies behind this policy. Moreover, besides the poor Malays, there are also poor Indian, Chinese and other poor ethnics Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak who in need of dire help.

The mindsets of Malays need to be changed. Groups such as Perkasa and Isma are doing a fantastic job dividing the country, embarrassing and damaging Islam and the Malay race in the eyes of the world. I am deeply sorry and sad to hear the Malays who would say something like ‘ if you don’t like this country, then go back to where you belong’. These people are sick and their mind are brainwashed as if to say that this country only belong to them. Their way of solving problems through hatreds and threats are against the teaching of Islam and will only lead disaster. 

What is a good Muslim anyway? Who is the real devil? Just because we started to go to the mosque and pray 5 times a day make us better Muslims than those who don’t? Do covering ourselves from head to toes make us a better Muslim than those who don’t? Or just because we are Sunni Muslims make us better Muslims than the Shia Muslim? We could perhaps be abetter Muslim but not necessarily be better human being. 

Malcolm X said ‘ the true practice of Islam can removed the cancer of racism in the heart and the soul …’

If we can do that, Malaysia will be in no doubt could join Denmark, who has been frequently ranked as the happiest country in the world in cross-national studies.  Until then, there is still plenty of work to do.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dear Helle - Solo exhibition at Immigrant Museum Denmark


‘Dear Helle’ is the title of Amir Zainorin’s solo exhibition at the Immigrant Museum in Farum, Denmark.
Helle or her full name,  Helle Thorning-Schmid is the Prime Minister of Denmark, a political leader for people of different background and cultures.

In this exhibition, Amir made an installation with two big portraits of Helle, one is a portrait of the Prime Minister by herself and the one is the famous ‘ selfie’ portrait of her together with American President Obama and the Prime Minister of UK, David Cameroun.  

This installation is made of only postcards and pins, which are installed straight to the museum wall.  Prior to the installation, Amir has been collecting postcards from the public with messages addressed to Helle. The people who took part were asked to write about anything that was on their mind. They came from different backgrounds such as the immigrants, asylum seekers and school children.

Amir has used over 2500 pins and about 2000 pieces of postcards for this installation. He said that he likes the fact that the work is there for only a period of time. It gives this notion of things being ‘temporary’, that everything in this world does not last forever, like a man, a building, an empire or like art itself. 

The exhibition can be viewed at the Immigrant Museum, Farum Denmark from May 15 – August 29 2014. 
During the course of the exhibition, the public is invited to write postcards to Helle and stick them to the museum wall. At the end of the exhibition period, Amir will personally delivered the written postcards to her.