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On 8 Sept 2016, a reporter from Malay Mail Online contacted me on Whatsapp. He’d gotten my contact through a friend I trust and respect. He wanted to do a story about political art, focusing on the contradictions when artists collude with the establishment despite making anti-establishment artwork. When I told him I live in Port Dickson, he suggested an email interview, to which I agreed. This is what transpired:

1) This reporter did not write to me from an official MMO email address, but a personal one.

2) He sent me a series of basic questions, to which I replied in detail, with links that I contextualized and summarized.

3) When I requested that he be specific in his questions, he stated he had no specific questions to ask.

4) I replied that the generalist critique would have to address how every human on earth is currently compromised by power and capital, because ‘art, like journalism, or medicine or international aid, is not separate from the social conditions that produce it’, that such a conversation was beyond this interview, and once again requested specific questions to respond to for the purposes of his piece.

5) In a one-two of self-justification and professional insult, he defended journalism’s complicity in the status quo because it is more ‘relevant and accessible to the common people’ than art.

6) I told this reporter that if he had no specific questions, I had no more to say. He followed up with a question about my position on commercial galleries to which I replied at length. He also asked for my permission to quote, which I gave, indicating that the entire email exchange was on the record. I have attached these emails in full at the end of this post.

7) Zedeck, my partner, upon reading our emails, felt outraged on my behalf, and posted a rant on his Facebook detailing our exchange. I did not stop him from doing so. He does not name the reporter, but identifies him as being from the Malay Mail Online. This is Zedeck’s post:

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8) The reporter identifies himself in a comment on the post, and over the course of several hours, posts a series of insults, gendered slurs and veiled threats. He scolds Zedeck and myself for revealing what he deems a ‘private conversation’. In fact, earlier, he referred to our interview in a Facebook post (now deleted), giving me credit for being an artist who cops to her middle class privilege, ‘something you cant say about the rest of em sadly’. This is the post:

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9) He exchanges private messages with Zedeck and posts the screenshots of this actual private conversation on his Facebook. This is the post:

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10) Overnight, he deletes the comments he left on Zedeck’s original post.

11) As of writing, he is threatening us with a police report and legal action.

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I want to make clear that I believe these events are reflective only of the actions of one individual and in no way representative of the Malay Mail Online and how they operate.

This exchange is still ongoing and no doubt will blow over – if it hasn’t already! – to be replaced by some other social media storm in a teacup. Personally, I am deeply irritated at having to spend my limited human time on a ridiculous spat, which creates nothing of use but more clicks and views that drive up Facebook’s valuation.

I have the highest regard for journalists and their work. Having tried my hand at independent journalism, I appreciate the craft, labour and difficulty in navigating the ethics and moral positions of reporting on other people – especially in these times, when anyone may disrupt your narrative even before you’ve had a chance to construct it.

The power of forming a narrative about the world and other people is a huge one to have. For better or for worse, the internet has given each of us a bit of that power, turning all of us into potential independent publishers. I bless the internet everyday for this reason, and I do my best to use it well. Who knows how long it will last.

If anything good can out come out of this kerfuffle, here is a commandment to everyone, and my fellow artists especially. Do with it what you will:

Write before you’re written about. Write about yourself, and if you can, write about your friends. Do not wait for other people to tell the narrative. Create a body of work and context around yourself that you can refer others back to when needed. Always treat journalists with respect, but a healthy dose of skepticism. Question their agendas. The good ones are here with a specific job to do, the bad ones can harm and misrepresent you. They are not your friends, and they’re not meant to be.

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This is documentation of the email exchange between myself and the reporter:

 

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Image: Detail from Local Fauna linocut series, 2016.

Here is a taste of what I’ve been working on for the past few weeks, in a little attic studio at the top of Hotel Penaga, where I’ve been artist/parasite-in-residence since mid-May.

These linocut illustrations for Zedeck’s ‘Local Fauna’ story collection have been in progress for two years. I checked the date of the very first sketch I made, and it was 2 Dec 2014:

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In 2015, we pasted the first 10 linocut designs that I finished on bus stops around Jalan Pudu, and later some of them were collected in Little Basket, the new anthology of Malaysian writing published by Fixi Novo.

Now, I’m at 20 linocut designs, and we printed editions of all of them! There is no part of these prints that my (and Zedeck’s) hands haven’t touched. We pulled them by hand, with pitch-black oil-based ink on handmade Thai mulberry paper, and a ton of elbow grease. Both ink and paper are beautiful. I caught myself wondering if making linocuts was just a way to show off the raw beauty of those age-old materials… you get weird thoughts during the long hours of printmaking.

So we are doing an exhibition! It’s at Run Amok Gallery in Georgetown, which is an art space and collective run by friends we love. It opens tomorrow. There are 20 linocuts, and we’re selling some editions to raise funds for a book. Yes, we are making a book, tentatively called ‘Local Flora, Local Fauna’. It will have 50 animal stories and 25 plant stories by Zedeck, and each of them will have an illustration by me… so 20 linocuts down, 55 to go…

Here are some of the prints in the exhibition. Interested in buying a print? Email info AT runamok DOT my for the full catalog. We’re taking international orders too. 

Update 25 July 2016: The full catalogue of prints is now online. Please visit: http://runamok.my/localfauna/

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Maybe after all the prints are gone we will finally be able to get some sleep? Until the next round of printing…

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1. Ten Weeds and Ten Thoughts On Revolution

2. On Turning 35

3. How To Look At an Art Exhibition

4. Thoughts On Boxing: The First Time I Sparred

5. Mother Tongue, Daughter Language

6. How I’ve Been Using Readlang to Study Malay

7. Ten: Ten Friends and Ten Things They’ve Learned By Doing A Thing for Ten Years

8. Thoughts on Boxing: Hurting and Getting Hurt

9. Thoughts On Boxing: Fear

10. On Hearing My Own Voice

(Blinking cursors)

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On 20 Feb 2016, I sat down to have a conversation in public with Sze, my friend and cohort. I’d been wanting to do a talk about taking part in APT8 (8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art), but was tired with the usual slideshow-followed-by-Q&A format. Sze suggested doing the talk as an interview, which she’d experienced and been inspired by while studying in the UK. I loved it immediately.

We’d actually been conversing for months – since the middle of last year, when she interviewed me for her Masters thesis about politics, art and public space in Malaysia. Talking with Sze – in bars and cafes, on gchat or email or SMS – has been like getting into a trolley cart with my thoughts and ideas. Everything moves forward, inch by steady inch.

This time though, we were gonna talk in front of an audience.

It was experiment for the both of us. My relationship to speaking is not the same as the one I have with writing. My spoken voice feels to me the weakest muscle in my possession – I can hardly put any weight on it; I just don’t know what it will and won’t do. But as Durga Chew-Bose, one of my favorite writers today, says: ‘I do believe there is a power in conversation and dialogue. I think the transcribed voice for women is really important to women because the essay voice is edited and we’re self-editing from the day we’re little girls’.

AUDIO

Below is a full, unedited recording of the talk. We’ve ‘mapped’ the conversation with quotes and comments to help navigate the 1 hour 40mins of audio. It’s in two formats:

1) Sze visualized the talk using Timeline JS, a free, open source tool originally developed for journalists. Click through the timeline to see quotes, links, photos and comments that follow the flow of the conversation. To scroll through: point your cursor to the bottom of the timeline, click and drag left or right.  The audio is embedded as a Soundcloud track in the second slide, click to play. Access the timeline separately here.

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2) Click to play the Soundcloud track. Topics, quotes, comments and links are arranged according to timestamps in the Google spreadsheet below. Access the spreadsheet separately here.

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ZINE

I made a zine for people to use as a notebook to scribble or doodle in during the talk. Here it is in PDF format, available for download.

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LINKS

Artist Shika/Shieko Reto blogged about the talk HERE.

Liyana Dizzy and Syar S. Alia recorded an amazing conversation of their own about Spectacles HERE (or click on the image below). It’s full of insights and totally worth your time.

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CREDITS

Many thanks to Ronnie Khoo for producing the audio recording.

Image of the talk from audience member Hing Lim’s Facebook post.

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Spectacles – Cermin Mata: (Goh) Sze (Ying) interviews Sharon (Chin) about taking part in APT8 (8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art) was a conversation on 20 Feb 2016 at Awe Gallery.

I’ve known and loved Kwai Fei’s works for almost a decade. Painting Suite (2008), a triptych* of his earliest minimalist geometric paintings hangs in my bedroom.

[* A triptych is a set of three separate works that are meant to be seen together as one complete work. A diptych would be a set of two separate works. Quadriptych a set of four and so on.]

My favorite in this triptych I’ve hung across from the bed, so I wake up to the light slanting on those tiny off-white triangles floating on four rectangles of black acrylic paint. Below it, on a chest of drawers, sits a small, framed photo someone sent me long ago, of sailboats on the pacific ocean, seen at great distance from the top of a cliff – sharp, three-cornered shards of white cut against a limitless blue sea.

Both painting and photo remind me of the order, and disorder, of my own imagination. It’s a purely visual effect, like music, but for your eyeballs. I get the same feeling looking at the work of fashion designer Isabel Toledo, who has described what she does as ‘romantic mathematics’.

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Installation views of “Color, Shape, Quantity and Scale” at 15 Jalan Mesui (2010)

 

Kwai Fei’s subsequent exhibitions “Paintings for All Ages/Paintings with Extended Space” (2009) and “Color, Shape, Quantity and Scale” (2010) filled entire rooms with units of colorful, minimalist geometric paintings in oddly shaped frames. They leaned on walls, fit around corners, and climbed up the sides of doorways. These memorable works were probably influenced by the wonderful Thai artist Mit Jai Inn. In turn, I see their influence on fellow Malaysian artist Chi Too’s bubble wrap paintings in last year’s “Like Someone In Love”.

It seems like a huge, disjointed leap from there to this current show, at Richard Koh Fine Art, on the top floor of Bangsar Village II shopping mall.

I find the new works strikingly ugly. I thought about starting that sentence with ‘sorry’, but I’m not someone for whom ugliness is a bad thing. In fact, seen against the backdrop of BVII’s glitzy shops, Kwai Fei’s art is like chewing on a bitter herb after eating too many sugary doughnuts.

I’d argue that there is an unbroken thread that connects those minimalist haikus from years ago with the current pun paintings in “Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?”. To make sense of this show you have to see it in the context of that continuous arc.

At the heart of his geometric works was the idea of modularity – that is, a system of discrete units that can be rearranged to form larger structures. IKEA kitchen and office furniture – that’s a modular system. It’s as if Kwai Fei broke a painting down to units of colour and shape, so he could put them back together in new combinations, like a drummer improvising rhythms.

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Above and Middle: Installation views of “Painted Words & Written Paintings, for the Refined and for the Masses” at Valentine Wilie Fine Art (2012). Bottom: Installation view of “Kami Bukan Hantu, Ah Pull & Ah Door” at Run Amok (2013).

 

Next came a series of word-play paintings in Painted Words & Written Paintings, for the Refined and for the Masses (2012) and Kami Bukan Hantu, Ah Pull & Ah Door(2013). Those works looked as if a Chinese dictionary, manga art, and old school hand-painted signs had been put into a blender and spit out  – they couldn’t be further from the simple shapes in saturated colors that had come before.

In fact, however, they come from the very same place – Kwai Fei was taking the approach of breaking down and reconstituting units, and applying it to language.

“Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?” is also about language. There is a crucial difference in style. Put those 2012-2013 paintings beside these current ones, and you’ll see it. There’s a… voluptuousness in the images completely missing from the new works, which are lurid and brash.

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Above: Installation view of “Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah? 我的名字哈苏丹。You Look F**king Funny Lah!” (Image from Richard Koh Fine Art). Bottom: Interacting with God Breast You, 2015.

 

It’s crucial, because Kwai Fei comes from a Chinese working class background. He was on home ground tearing apart the seams between and around Chinese language, image and identity, and he was fluent in putting it all back together.

With this new show, he tries to do the same to two foreign languages: Malay and English. As he writes in his artist statement (which holds the key to the exhibition title and exhibition as a whole; I’d argue that you can’t fully understand this show unless you read it), he has experienced these languages as instruments of ridicule and exclusion.

This is why “Siapa Dia Tong Sampah?” is unsettling for the viewer: the paintings look like jokes about race and class, the kind that Malaysians love to make to and about each other, but in this case we’re not sure if we’re on the inside or the outside.

They reveal the total effects of prejudice on an individual in our society – not just as a receiver of racism and classism, but a nurturer and perpetuator of it. No neoliberal niceties here. No easy, hollow, ‘we are all Malaysians first’ hypocrisy. Even the title excludes: you may or may not understand the Chinese component. It’s pronounced ‘wo de ming zi ha su tan’. Translated: My name is Ha Su Tan. Hasutan is Malay for ‘sedition’.

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Above: Jangan Ketawa, 2015. Middle: Lady’s F, 2015. Bottom: Takkan Seni Halus Hilang Di Dunia, 2015.

 

The works themselves literally invite you to uncover what’s underneath: lift up a ladies finger and you see a cunt, lift a keris to reveal the words ‘Seni Harus Untuk Melayu Shj’. The latter… ohhh boy. Ok, I’ll try to explain. It’s a reference to UiTM – one of the few public universities in Malaysia to offer a Fine Arts degree – and its Bumiputera-only admissions policy. It’s also a play on how Chinese speakers often pronounce ‘l’ as ‘r’. HaLUS means ‘fine’ in Malay – seni halus: fine art. HaRUS means ‘should be’ – Seni Harus Untuk Melayu Shj: Art Should Be For Malays Only. Puns upon puns upon inside jokes that don’t include you, because they are lost in translation. Miss the joke and all you see is a bad painting with a racist statement on it. Happens all the time in Malaysia.

The paintings are ugly because the subject uncovered is far from pretty. But the uncovering itself is done as skillfully and self-critically as such a difficult, I’d even say, impossible, task will allow.

These works sit uncomfortably in Richard Koh Fine Art. They don’t look like desirable commodities. But they sure do grab attention. I saw a security guard – Nepalese? Burmese? – walk past and linger, his eyes glued to the painting about migrant worker deaths suspended from the ceiling. For him, simply stepping inside the gallery would mean a greater transgression of racial, social and class boundaries than we can imagine. I thought about that for a long time after leaving the show.

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Above: Lu Siapa? Mana Kampung? Mana Mau Pergi?, 2015. Bottom: Shopping Class, 2015 and Xiao Portrait, 2015.

 

For an artist with Kwai Fei’s background, to be represented by RKFA means both artistic validation, and a level of social mobility. Yet, somewhat ironically, there may be too many hard truths in this particular series to be friendly to the market. ‘All that is gold does not glitter’, but the classes that buy art from RKFA generally prefer a thicker coating of sugar on their bitter pills. Eventually, this is how commercial galleries come to calibrate what kind of art gets made.

If I had the funds, I would buy one of these paintings to hang beside the sublime quiet of Painting Suite – to remind me of the work between them, of time and distance travelled by experience. These days, we’re hard pressed to give anything more than two seconds of our attention, let alone follow an arc that spans a decade. Also, to remind me that beauty and ugliness can inhabit the same room, like joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. It’s a good room that can invite both.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why I continue to look at and write and think and care about art. This is one reason why: it may seem as though we are unraveling, but artists are weaving threads that hold our story together – both the beautiful and the ugly. We need to pick them up and follow, so we can weave them together, strand by strand, to find our way home.

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Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?  我的名字哈苏丹You Look F**king Funny Lah, 16 – 31 March 2016, Richard Koh Fine Art

Review by Art KL-itique 

Feature in The Star