Texts by Simon Soon

A bit of exercise and a sense of release. These are the things that Shahril Nizam finds in his long walks around Kuala Lumpur. Keeping to this near daily routine for many years, he has ambled across different parts of the city, often to be in proximity among others, to closely observe the rhythm of urban life - not to seek interaction or draw himself into any facile observation but to simply dissolve into the swirling mass of unceasing movement that make up urban flow and flux
The art of derive, or drifting, is a double bind. One that suggests an application of aesthetic conceit and control over what is essentially a desire for the unplanned and spontaneous. It delicately balances an appeal to knowledge and familiarity of place with discovery of the new.

Historically, this thread has been explored directly in relation to the experience of urban spatiality, exemplified in the practices of the Situationists International. Drifting, while embodied in the negotiation with one's physical surrounding, is also simultaneously a cerebral reverie. One could even venture that perhaps the operating principles behind the flaneur, described by Balzac as the 'gastronomy of the eye', are, if one is to dig a little deeper, intimately driven by the surrealist penchant of the uncanny, whose sensibility is projected and writ large in our urban environ.

That these threads are brought into immersive vicinity as an exhibition in Shahril Nizam's In Between: Transitions and Dead Ends, suggest that the pictorial expression of one's mindscape in Shahril's art plays to concept of the roving, curious and implacable eye. Moreover, it is an ocular vision that registers one's sense of place and the act of place making.

These paintings, sculptures and drawings of the multi-verses in flux are unlike the psycho-geographical exercises that have largely site the practice of drifting within the methodology of mapping physical locale. The visual output of the latter tends to be a cartographical reflection of one's negotiation with a spatial terrain.

Instead Shahril's painterly wellspring has taken the inner life worlds that teem with psychic tumult as a point of departure and struggle to express its foibles and moments of illuminations as conditions of urbanity. As such, it is not immediately recognisable that the measure of distance and nearness afforded by the mobility of movement necessarily translates to a body of works that may not have direct references to the physical world it speaks to and navigates through.

Perhaps it is Imitation of Life that most succinctly illustrates the affinity between the external reality and internal mindscape. This composite of found and hand painted objects displays an assortment of paraphernalia, packed together in a wooden case, are stringed to the planchette that sits on a hand drawn Ouija board. These red threads take on the symbolic form of absorption from the thingness of the memorabilia - an old family portrait, a copy of Life Magazine, a plate, paper money and coins, and other heirlooms - some transference of occult virtues through contact with the unseen. They allude to an invisible plane that has a parallel existence to our everyday reality. In this way, art as practice taps into this reservoir of inner life and facilitate its appearance in our world of things.

The works reveal an artist's sensitive investigation into the shifting and impermanent forces that animate our being, making manifest the textures of change in their various stages of permutation from birth to death - dream, struggle, strife, love, desire, intimacy. They conjure a broad range of ideas about our expectations, hopes, and defeats through a mature and skillful exploration of metaphors, pastiches, ornamentation, and other symbolic devices that express how we relate to one another.

The breadth and depth of Shahril Nizam's body of works range from evocative portraits that encapsulate the listless ennui and whimsicality of daily living to expressive depictions of free floating amorphous bodies dissolving into each other and their environment within a turbulent and shifting psychological universe.

Let us briefly compare two paintings. Supplication depicts the head of a figure, with downcast eyes, peering out from a vertiginous pool of gyring colours. One is never quite sure if the face, almost withholding the display of any strong emotions is meant to dissolve into the thick cloud of forgetfulness or represents a figure stumbling his/her way out of the delirious smog.

Fortune, on the other hand, is an ironic title for a piece that portrays an archetypical figure of penury. The morose figure withdraws into foetal compactness while in front of him sits three cups of various sizes. They are counterpoint in Shahril's lexicon of how human life is represented; in which the daily grind of ordinary person whom one sees on the street is one that pulsates on another level within a maelstrom of emotional vortex.

These works, brought together, can be understood as attempts to describe the complex interactions that form our identities, whether on social or intimate levels. They project life as an unceasing process of transformation, as well as the trivial and everyday human experience of joy and suffering. In this manner, art becomes a language that has the power to give our modern world and life meaning: from the pointless, the small, the secret to the forceful, effervescent and grandiose.