Against the Day is borrowed from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same title. That postmodern piece of literature spanned a collapsing old order and the effervescent beginnings of a future beyond the bounds of what had once been envisioned. While the exhibition does not cover as much of a historic expanse as the novel, it does still propose that there is currently a threshold with which to contend. The works in the exhibition reflect shifting worlds that are being imagined in the light of current affairs. They reflect on the artists' ideas about the contours of this new future and indicate the directions in which these claims might be addressed. 

The six artists for Against the Day at OUR ArtProjects are encountered in the drawing of particular compasses that navigate immediate conditions, so that futures can be shaped, and demanded. Drawing, in the language of visual arts, establishes material – whether by means of charcoal, pencil, pen, or crayon. It is also weighed down by notions of pictorial integrity – drawing as sketches or preliminary studies for a final work. Drawing defends itself as an autonomous genre, relying on the fact that it is an immediate and spontaneous construction of subjects proximate to the artist. In Against the Day, we will find that Chong Siew Ying, Gan Sze Hooi, Jalaini ‘Jai’ Abu Hassan, Kow Leong Kiang, Minstrel Kuik, and Nirmala Dutt propose that such defences for drawing extend beyond their use of conventional drawing tools, and the immediacy that they draw out are narrative, processual, and performative possibilities relating to lived realities. 

A recurrent observation that emerged in conversations with the artists is that talking politics has been exceptionally present in spaces where such discussions were previously absent. In Jai’s Cerita Malam Semalam, such is the subject. What does it mean when politics is talked about openly? It is here that we find that drawing for him elicits a witnessing of how people, and society, change. Jai’s idea of drawing is that it dismisses unnecessary stylistic distractions so that visibility is elevated. In his artist statement about drawing, he mentions that “the focus was the issue the work carries rather than its stylistic features” (2011). Drawing is the preliminary point of eloquence, and it articulates interiors that have been silent and are now speaking. 

Drawing for Minstrel proposes a rupture from the frequent fixation on the documentary image. While the Bersih Rallies in 2011 and 2012 are the subject of the series that Jangan Tipu (Do Not Lie) 2 belongs to, her work reveals the coming forth of an image. Looking like a latent image, the work reflects that visibility reversed is not invisibility. Rather, the negative of an image shows how objects are located in the visceral space and how this exercise of perception actively calls for development. Constructed as a drawing, it prolongs the impact and wonder. Instead of using a camera, Minstrel now posits herself as one who processes the print with absolute gestures of mark-making. Considerations have been made in her exploration of other techniques which allow for modification from the image itself to its effects. In drawing, Minstrel is confronted with tonality to balance this. What could have been invigorating elements in a documentation of a protest now leads us to the ethos of such congregations of individuals reckoning with their image in society – “Jangan Tipu”: do not lie. 

Photographs as a means to drawing is appealing to Leong Kiang, not as a mode to reconstruct the clout of interpretation around images but through the revival of classical compositions. All You Need Is Love is a part of a body of work that locates the genesis of his methodology on life drawing in Yogyakarta. The formal exercise lying behind Leong Kiang’s works involves an elaborate staging of bodies in a cube. The question that arises here is: to what extent can a square contain such excess? We find that the studies and sketches, when photographically mediated, are not his drawings. Rather, the way that photography renders subjects flat reflects drawing’s essential quality of bringing depth to an image. Leong Kiang’s insistence on returning to classical, formal ways of constructing an image gives rise to the idea that immediacy in a medium like drawing also offers a submission to a gradual perception of time.

The directness intrinsic to this act also proposes a mode of perception when an image demands drawn-out encounters with the subject and the artist. Siew Ying’s drawings depend largely on memory: muscle memory and memory of the picturesque imaginary. Considering the gravitas in the formal elements of the “classical,” it is almost as if drawing surpasses even the conditions of the painterly and realises itself as an autonomous property that contends with perspective and emotive expression. The poetic expanse Siew Ying is known for is achieved instinctually and immediately, without exercises in sketching. In the absence of the colour that might be expected in painting, her works are bound to very different demands that are settled through her long-standing approach of marrying classical Chinese landscape drawing with Western-inspired vistas. Dancing on the Lake also stages her return to the figure, as spectral as the body that inhabits the space of this image. 

This capacity of drawing to hold space for gestation is also reflected in Nirmala’s practice. In a conversation with Wong Hoy Cheong in 1998, she talks about this incubatory process necessary to manage the fervency of her encounters. In this way, these relations crystallise into allegorical subjects that direct us to universal traumas. As a channel that evokes arduous conditions that confront hyper-empathic temperaments, drawing is a compelling act that sits through what Nirmala describes as torments. “But when the incubation period is over and I feel ready, the creative process comes naturally. Then it is between the canvas and me.” After Goya: The Disasters of War dilutes not the excesses of terror, but exposes the inadequacy of any representation of the aftermath. 

The bigger pictures that resound in Sze Hooi’s works, however, consolidate the condensation of time. In The Way Not Taken, there is a confluence of events in a singular moment and a coexistence in a spatial aggregate. Here we see Bukit Bintang as a cartography of events that have brought forth conversations about politics from people who, as in Jai’s observation above, used to be reticent. Sze Hooi gives a bird’s-eye view of Pavilion, Starhill, and BBKLCC as the localities of discursive and social incitements. Like most of what he has drawn, the picture is an attempt to make sense of the big picture in terms of moments and spaces on the threshold. It grounds firsthand encounters with a site and manoeuvres us into an aerial view of this psychogeography. Drawing walks the hunch and eventual solicitude towards the parts society has gotten lost in.

Jai, Minstrel, Leong Kiang, Siew Ying, Nirmala, and Sze Hooi come from various practices and generations. Their works are not often associated with one another. While Against the Day treats drawing as a medium in its own right, the six artists propose varied ways of drawing realities that are palpable to them. Bringing them together raises questions about the demands of drawing; in turn, their individual values and artistic labour offer an unequivocal answer: that drawing is the tool of choice in exploring the shifting inner and outer worlds of this imagined community that we call ‘country’. 


Text by Sidd Perez