Monday, April 5, 2010

Familiarity breeds contemporary

..."We will know when we get there." You said.

HOARFROST, Sonic Youth

Thoughts on 4 Malaysian photographers & their Malaysia
by Pang Khee Teik

What happens when a billboard is stripped of its promises of comfort or love or unity? Just a giant tablet in the sky demanding our reverence but offering us nothing? A blank billboard is not like a missing billboard. It is conspicuous for advertising blankness.

Photographer Lim Thian Leong scours the city of Kuala Lumpur for such billboards. To him, these blank canvases represent what he calls the liminal state; a state of transition before new perspectives, new slogans; and invested with the potential to be whatever. In Thian Leong’s pictures, these billboard— ambiguous, epic and alone—acquire the resonant silence of Stanley Kubrick’s monolith in “2001: Space Odyssey”. And as blank slates they possess more eloquence than all advertisements put together.

The liminal states of Thian Leong’s blank billboards spill over their boundaries and infect the landscapes around them. In these photos, we see traces of urban neglect, overlit highways and flyovers going nowhere. Perhaps it is not just the billboard that is in transition but the entire landscape. And this state of transition and transience has become the permanent state. Are we a land in perpetual change, kept waiting with empty promises that never come true? Lim Thian Leong’s liminal blank billboards describe perfectly a nation whose slogans are stripped bare.

Some amateur photographers unwittingly channel existing propaganda by glorifying public buildings or celebrating cultural clichés. Thian Leong, whose maturing visual language and worldview, gelled by his own academic research and involvement within more critical photo communities, has led him to interrogate his earlier impulses. Perhaps his search for liminality is reflected in his own transition into a serious photographer. His work, simultaneously personal and expansive, shows the making of the artist as a modern-day prophet whose message is that there are no messages left—and that perhaps there was never any to begin with.

But it isn’t just oversized screens that demand our attention. The news, with its plethora of depressing images, is the greater inducer of paralysis. For this reason, Bernice Chauly’s diptychs, “Killing Time”, are eerie and devastating. Bernice’s children and friends are posed as the late political aide Teoh Beng Hock as he was found on 16 July 2009 after a night of interrogation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. But Bernice’s photos are more ambiguous, her subjects looking as though they’ve merely collapsed—from fatigue or bliss or resignation, one can’t really say. These pictures ask: Are we chilling because life is sweet, or are we chilled by the futility of beating our wings against the system? Either way, Teoh Beng Hock lies lifeless. Somewhere between dreaming of a better future and working for the opposition, he fell.
Having previously created works that bridge documentary and art, Bernice now adds the surreal and conceptual to her responses to real world events. After all, from performances by the government’s actors to her subjects’ performances, there exists another state—not so different from the one hinted at by Thian Leong—in which we must ask ourselves: Why are we lying here so? What will it take to move us out of our inertia? As the song by T Bone Burnett says: “The frightening thing is not dying, the frightening thing is not living.”

Though not blatantly political, Tan Chee Hon’s images invite us to look with bemusement at the way we are defined by our relationship with the habitat we’ve created, replete with symbols of our desire and duty to belong here. While capturing the longing for a time past in a series called “Nostalgia”, it is quite unclear whose reminiscences he has caught on film. As historian Farish Noor repeats often in his writings on Malaysian history (“For too long, we have been held captive by a singular and totalising account of history that admits no contenders and no other alternatives.” – A Million 13 Mays, The Nut Graph), Malaysian politicians love to invent hibiscus-tinted accounts of their role in national history. But the present climate of Malaysian politics—like a house of cards on the threshold of a sneeze—has forced Malaysian leaders to serve new deliriums of patriotism and spectacles of unity to convince us—and themselves—of their relevance. Confronted by such schemes, we feel like Alice behind the looking glass looking at the queens’ antics, we find it hard to tell the real from the unreal.

But in Chee Hon’s gaze, what is real is hardly interesting in photography. Going around with his old Yashica and its malfunctioned lens, coupled with his wry humour and gentle absurdity, he looks for moments of timelessness. And what is more timeless than a photo? These distinctions—real / unreal, soft focus / hard focus, involved patriotism / detached observation—they collapse into an infinite series of imaging and reimaging. Simulacra. Malaysia as an exercise in nostalgia seen through a broken lens.

Taking it global by making it personal, Minstrel Kuik invites us into her home as she deals with “flux of migrants around the world”. Having studied photography in France and exhibited around the world, Minstrel sympathises with the restless dreams of migrants. For the contemporary artist, which home should be accorded more loyalty? Her family? Her country? Her world? All the above? Extracted from a larger series which includes pictures of her family, herself, household items, her neighbourhood, uncooked vegetables and meat, these images reveal how she employs photography to question and relinquish answers, to arrive and depart again, to rediscover her role as both artist and subject of her own art.
Which is why Minstrel’s juxtaposition of metaphorical objects against the sky, shot from her balcony no less, stands out for one thing: her awkward hand. Without her hand, the images are quirky at best and corny at worst. Her hand defies conventional aesthetics in an age where Photoshop would allow one to remove traces of such crude manual gestures. But she lets her hand enter the frame: making her mark, reclaiming the view. Crossing snapshot photography with performance art and art installation, Minstrel challenges the form and our expectations.

The works by the Malaysian photographers in “Through The Looking Glass” challenge us to examine ourselves. As the nation turns its eyes to images that offer familiar representations or even averts them out of disenchantment or fear, these contemporary Malaysian image makers offer their images as reflections of those curious representations. They may not help us answer the question—which side of the looking glass are we living in?—but they may help us realise there is another side.

(Essay for the exhibition Through The Looking Glass presented by The Annexe Gallery & 2902 Gallery)

Through The Looking Glass opens at The Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, on Sun 21 Mar, 3pm, and continues till Sun 4 Apr. After which, it opens at 2902 Gallery, Singapore, on Thu 22 Apr, 7pm, and continues till Fri 7 May.