A Tale of Two Boundaries (2002), 3.5 x 0.6 x 2.8 m, laser cut stainless steel
At the sixth Asian Sculpture Exhibition 2001 Open Competition in Oita, Japan, Multhalib Musa's entry from Malaysia took second place. An architect by training, Multhalib's work in stainless steel, A Tale of Opposing Boundaries, was dominated by two facades with many different planes. A curved line was included to break the flow of movement and serve as a boundary. In his work Multhalib suggests that contemporary problems in Asian societies today need to be addressed. Asian value systems, he seems to say, are increasingly blurred with the onset of globalisation and need defining. His sculptural work, which defies definition, is a reflection of the state of modern art in Malaysia. Yvonne Tan reports.
Asian Art Newspaper: With the encroachment of globalisation, are you worried that people in Malaysia are in danger of losing some of their values?
Multhalib Musa: Occasionally I sense that some Malaysian values, pertaining to culture and tradition, are no longer evident in our society. I do not know about this in regard to sculpture since I have no idea about the historical account of Malaysia's sculpture. Maybe this is an indication of losing some of our values. Perhaps I can highlight a common awareness which is that our art is now being developed for commercial purposes to 'promote' our traditional cultures and values. This, rather than the original functions for which they were intended, when they were created by our ancestors. For instance the motifs on a piece of batik may be a mode of passing on a family story through the generations. But this mode is no longer applicable.
AAN: Do you see your work as Malaysian sculpture?
MM: My work is not in any way 'Malaysian'. The method itself is nothing traditional, using lasers and imported Japanese stainless steel. By default I am a Malaysian doing sculptural works which I find pleasure doing. Its form has no association to a certain place of origin. I can be from Honduras and my sculptures would probably fit into their contemporary galleries. The demands of globalisation has formalised my work. It lacks identity - but only because it is developed extensively through technology. And technology is universal.
AAN: How has your training as an architect influenced your approach to sculpture?
MM: My training as an architect has allowed me to approach the sculptural process slightly differently than probably that of a conventional sculptor. I give priority to how I construct my work to shape its final form. Ease of construction is important from an architectural point of view since this means better use of materials, minimisation of waste, structural soundness, faster construction period. Nothing is more fulfiling than to have a work that comes out as you planned. So planning is the key to my work.
AAN:Where do you get your ideas?
MM: Perhaps it is similar to how any architect would conceive their building or design. In conventional and contemporary terms, no architect or designer would actually go out and build their design with their own bare hands. Not the actual work anyway. My approach is different from that of a conventional sculptor, who would toil and put his blood and sweat into building the actual sculpture. I design and plan my work in advance and assume the role of supervisor. I provide instructions to my team of builders and have ongoing consultations with engineers to come up with proper and practical solutions to various design/construction problems. This is particularly important when it comes to big outdoor works. But the conception of the work is mine, and because of my approach and training, the work comes out exactly as it is conceived. At least most of the time.
AAN: Your work you say, derives from a 'spontaneous and nonlinear contemplation between what could be and what exists, what is meant to be experienced and what is actually felt'. Can you explain this statement?
MM: How do we come up with ideas for what we do? How are my works derived? Is it from a fixed rule of a step by step guide to coming up with a good design - if there is such a thing? A divine intervention? My work - or anybody else's for that matter - evolves, inspires, develops, mutates, unfolds on its own, both consciously and subconsciously. Its design comes seemingly out of nowhere, but I have to work to get it - to sketch and then to build. In other words, I do not know where my work is derived. Everywhere and nowhere. Everything and nothing. Any thoughts, emotions, memories that we have had, all of these are bases that can trigger an idea, or a certain form in particular.
AAN: Is the conflict between a simplistic two-dimensional drawing and its development into a three-dimensional form something you wish to resolve?
MM: The conflict will always be there. The two-dimensional world is completely different from the three-dimensional world, just like a fourth dimensional world, which can be understood only through the unfolding of space and time. In architectural theory there is a school of thought that suggests that the mode or methodology in which a design is conceived can have a direct influence on its final outcome. Consider this. You see a certain form or shape in your mind that is unique. Not a memory of something you saw but an 'idea' of a form that has yet to exist. It is not even 'resolved' so it lacks physical attributes. At this stage there is no way any expert or even yourself can build it. No matter how well you write about it, or explain it verbally. From this intangible stage of inception, how will you actually follow through to realise this idea in its final physical state? You need to make sense of it somehow. This formalistic idea can be dealt with by way of the traditional pen and paper, to sketch the idea … as a medium, to have a two-way dialogue between the intangible and the physical world. But the conversation is only two-dimensional, because you are using paper. The image on paper can only be seen in a three-dimensional perspective and represents a three-dimensional form (which it is not). Likewise the idea can be developed physically with clay that does have a three-dimensional quality. To resolve something you have to understand it. You need to identify and acknowledge that there is a conflict, however, that does not necessarily provide a solution.
AAN: How do you perceive your own 'finished' work?
MM: It is never finished at a personal level. All final designs - when presented publicly - have something that can always be changed somewhere, to make them better. Sometimes an exhibited work does not please its audience. But for some compelling reason I see it as a 'good' work, so it is 'finished' as it is. Maybe it serves a greater function in its current state or it conveys an idea more appropriately.
AAN: Are you a sculptor who is an architect or an architect who is a sculptor?
MM: As a sculptor, if there ever was a generally accepted definition of a sculptor, I don't think I qualify simply because my hands do not physically change the actual work. At least not yet. I shall consider myself as an unemployed visionary doing sculptural work in an architectural manner.