Artist Interview: Ilse Noor (Selangor, Malaysia)

Your works refer to ideas of cosmology, architecture and religion. Could you tell us more about that?

The South China Sea and the Indian Ocean harbour precious and delicate seashells, which inspired me to recreate images of a very refined and ancient Asian-Polynesian, Hindu-Buddhist culture.  Its sublime architecture is reminiscent of stupas, temples, and pagodas, which may be even aligned with the universe. These shapes lead our imagination far, far away into an endless contemplation of East Asian-Polynesian philosophical beliefs, interweaving architecture with the cosmology of the divine and the relationships between man, heaven, and earth. 

There are shells, studded with pearl-like knobs in circular movements, similar to water droplets. One can find the embodiment of these natural embellishments on temples and pagodas as well on the headgear of dancers. Gongs and musical instruments like gamelan also show the same bulging knob in its centre, reminding me of water droplets. When joined with the singing of the human voice, music streams forth from these instruments like a spirit, as if emitted by the movement of stars, music of the universe, all composed from the essence of the elements.

You studied graphic fine art and painting early in your artistic career. Did learning about those mediums impact your current practice?

I was born in Germany during WWII. There was no paper, pencils, or other writing tools when I went to school. We were writing like our forefathers on a slate with a slate pencil. It sharpens your sensory movements and your observation.     

The word graphic comes from the Greek word “graphos” writing. What you learn is to control the strength of the drawn line. The method to create beautiful, even letters is to increase or decrease the pressure on your writing tool. Upstrokes create light lines, and downstrokes, dark lines like the swelling of water. It is called calligraphy.        

Later, when the German economy improved, we got exercise books made from paper and pencils to write with. A hard pencil (H) created grey lines and a soft pencil (B) almost black lines. Then a penholder with nibs and black ink followed. Without being aware of it, after four years in primary school and by the age of ten, I had learnt three different graphical techniques.

Your technique focuses on etching and aquatint. Could you tell us more about how you decided on that, and what appeals to you?

Writing and drawing were the subjects I loved the most. My interest shifted almost naturally from drawing to the technique of intaglio. Pencil drawings and my love for fine, grey tones blending over to almost black ones fascinated me, but they started to tire me a bit. Painting I liked, but I could not see certain colours without getting a migraine.    

Etching was a true challenge that excited me. As a young child, to work on a slate with a slate pencil proved for me a sort of forerunner for etching. Now I had to work on a waxed metal plate with a metal pencil burnisher and the fine grey or dark lines were not created by increasing or decreasing the pressure on the tool, but by control of the acid – a chemical procedure. The type of metal plate is important for the choice of acid. I prefer to use copper plates only and a Dutch Bath as acid. The copper plate sometimes shows a sort of resistance “merujuk” (in relation to it) and the acid increases in strength and power like an incoming storm. The electricity makes the acid work faster, which shortens the time of the etching process.

Battling with the metal and the technical process of intaglio, with its unforeseen difficulties, keeps me working.

How has moving to and living in Malaysia, after being born in Germany, affected your practice?

I grew up in the countryside, in a 300-year-old house with a “penunggu,” (deity or guardian spirit) surrounded by a lot of forests, rivers, lakes, rain, snow, animals, fairies, and mystical stories. There was not much change I would say, coming to Malaysia. It was like coming home to a lot of forests, rivers, lakes, rain, sunshine, animals, fairies, mystical stories, and old houses with “penunggu” inside. Yes, there was one difference.                     

In Germany, people told me I believed too much in fantasy. Nobody believed what I heard and saw of the invisible world. In Malaysia, I never heard this remark. As a result, my practice changed. I took great efforts to improve on executing my technique to bring to life this very refined, almost intangible, and beautiful world.

Your works depict the mystical bird Cenderawasih as described by W.W. Skeat and Hang Li Poh, a figure largely debated by historians. What draws you to these characters and beings from the myth and cultural history?

It is difficult to say what draws me to these characters and beings. Suddenly they are there. The Cenderawasih surfaced before when I wrote the poetry book Cenderawasih – Seven Dreams and Seven Palaces, which was published by Pustaka Cipta in 1989. The figure of Hang Li Po appeared suddenly as well when I was working on my big etching. Inside the illuminated shell appears a beautiful, fairy-like figure floating upwards with a white gown and long black hair.  Her arms, stretched out like wings, carry a jewelled crown – and the name “Hang Li Po” appeared in my mind and stayed until now. Similar to Cenderawasih, the Bird of Paradise, is Hang Li Poh – a glittering star, a symbol, and manifestation of beauty and fantasy, the essence of pure Malay art and culture.