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Postcards, thumbprints and the ordure of things

Sharon Cheah looks at the political art of Hoy Cheong Wong
THE OBJECTS that Malaysian artist Hoy Cheong Wong have put in his installation art couldn't be more telling.

Three judges' wigs and police batons made from cow dung, video images of protesters in the streets and sidewalks of Kuala Lumpur, a statement on freedom of expression from Malaysia's federal constitution printed on a parchment and sprinkled with dust from a vacuum cleaner, an accumulation of thumbprints and debris from street protests including a tear gas canister.

The objects in the installation speak of the present struggle in Malaysia for political change and wider civil and human rights which was triggered by the sacking and trial of the former deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim. After a long and sensational trial - initially on charges of sex crimes - Anwar was sentenced to six years for corruption.

The installation - Vitrine of Contemporary Events - is the 39-year old artist's most overtly political installation yet. Hoy Cheong became involved in political and social activism in Malaysia when he returned from his education in the United States in the late 1980s.

In 1994, Hoy Cheong set up an installation art piece by planting weeds in front of the Malaysian National Art Gallery then cutting and spraying them, in allusion to a 1987 crackdown, codenamed Operation Lalang, on 116 political dissenters. Lalang is the Malay word for "weed".

After the sacking of Anwar, Hoy Cheong co-formed a group of more than 100 Malaysian artists to assert the right to question and seek answers. Members of Artis Pro Activ (APA, which means "what?" in Malay) organised a three-week arts festival last year and one of their central aims is the repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA), measures instituted in the 1960s to repress Communism.

Hoy Cheong's installation at the Hayward will give visitors the opportunity to put down their thumbprints to support the removal of the ISA from the statute books. He has collected some 3,000 thumbprints since the launch of the campaign last October. Visitors will also get to sign postcards, one of the recipients of which will be the Prime Minister Dr Mahathir. On the front of the postcard to Dr Mahathir, Hoy Cheong uses a statement that the 73-year old leader wrote himself, 30 years ago, to the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman: "I humbly wish to convey what the people really think, that it is high time you retire from the posts of Prime Minister and head of UMNO [United Malay National Organisation].''

The Malaysian art critic, Niranjan Rajah, writes that in Malaysia: "Political authority remains quite concrete and artists have to negotiate the `parameter' or `perimeter of the possible' in order to assert feminist, homosexual, ethnic and other dissident expressions."

Hoy Cheong's debut in London is certainly negotiating those parameters.