A conversation with Gabrielle Bates, published in the catalogue of my solo exhibition Pendatang/Arrivals.
Gabrielle Bates: Let’s start with the title of the show. I know that you struggled with finding a theme that would tie together all your concerns during this residency. Can you tell me how you came to settle on ‘Pendatang’ and what it means to you?
Sharon Chin: For many Malaysians this word ‘pendatang’ conjures feelings of unease or unpleasantness. My translation of it is ‘arrivals’. In August this year, an UMNO politician generated intense controversy when he used the word in a campaign speech leading up to the seminal Permatang Pauh by-election in Penang (which opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim eventually won against his UMNO opponent). It was used specifically in the context of ethnic Chinese Malaysians – to cast them as immigrants and therefore undeserving of equal rights, even though the Chinese have been here for more than 4 generations.
So, 50 years on from independence, this country is still negotiating its identity. The thing is, even as we are busy fighting over who belongs and who doesn’t, there are thousands of pendatang coming and going every day – not just in Malaysia, but all over the world. Some stay and some don’t; some are deported, many never reach their destinations.
The world is made up of many seas. One could argue we are all pendatang – yes, down to the last human soul – as well as being in a constant state of ‘arrival’. I think this is because all of us are searching for a place of safety, somewhere to call home.
This show is an attempt to think of ‘pendatang’ in a wider, more universal sense. It’s not a pointed political or social statement.
GB: As soon as I enter the gallery I see that you have covered the floor with grass mats. Why did you choose to use mats?
SC: In the newly opened Sire Museum, I read that Yeap Chor Ee, who founded Ban Hin Lee Bank Berhad, had come from China to Penang in the 1890s with nothing more than a straw mat! He went on to become one of the most important and wealthy people in Penang.
These mats are strongly associated with workers sleeping on the floor. They are the humblest of mobile homes – because you just roll them up when you’re done. And the act of laying it out is like claiming a piece of the land you put it on, even if it’s only for the night. At the heart of things, no matter who you are, rich or poor, young or old, everyone needs this: a place to rest the body and soul.
GB: My attention then moves to Pocket Seas, where you have chosen to use a variety of old dictionaries from countries that surround Malaysia. I’m interested to know where these dictionaries come from, who you think would have needed them and why have you chosen these particular countries.
SC: I found the dictionaries in the musty aisles of secondhand bookstalls in Chowrasta market. It’s like a dystopian library of Babel in there – hundreds of books stacked in yellowing towers threatening to topple over. So I don’t know where they came from, only that they belonged to someone else once upon a time.
One of the many things brought along when moving to a foreign land is language. Of course there are customs, cuisine, beliefs and other forms of culture, but language is the one closest to us. It resides deeply in the body, spirit and mind. So when these arrive in the new land, language arrives too.
Alongside the languages that are commonly used in Malaysia today – Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil – I was looking for regional languages that come to us from our neighbors: Indonesian, Burmese, Filipino. The books at Chowrasta are mostly from 2 – 3 decades ago, so the dictionaries I found don’t really reflect the diverse backgrounds of immigrants in Malaysia now. Perhaps in another 20 years I’ll go back there and find a flood of Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani language dictionaries!
GB: That certainly sheds light on the dictionaries, and also why you have transposed images of the sea onto each page of each dictionary?
SC: Each dictionary is printed with the frames of mobile phone videos I shot of the sea from 12 different points on Penang. I come from Kuala Lumpur, on the peninsular. Living in Penang I became aware of being surrounded by water all sides. We always think of islands in terms of isolation, but in Penang I felt it’s the reverse – there is a great sense of openness and possibility, but also vulnerability, because anything can reach you from anywhere.
I imagined these foreign languages floating in the sea towards Penang, and landing on its shores. Each language is an ocean, a great big verbal soup… and when it is in dictionary form, this ocean fits in the pocket, like a mobile phone.
This show is about scale and mobility: the sea is captured with a pocket device and transferred onto dictionaries which fit in the pocket, while bodies fit on mats which can then be rolled up and taken away. Everything is portable and in motion, that’s the point.
GB: Many people still think that art must be something they can take home to hang on their wall. Your work does not appear to be something that would be easy to “sell” or match with the drapes, you’ve even offered to let people take parts of the exhibition home for free. Can you tell me about your strategy in using installation and what relevance it holds for the wider frame of Malaysian cultural production?
SC: Hmm. Not everyone can afford to buy a piece of art, yet they still go to galleries and I’m sure they take something with them – an experience of seeing.
Installation is a way of using space and getting people to engage with spaces and places, as well as objects. It heightens the experience for audiences – brings it to the fore, because one interacts with their entire body, not just the sense of sight. Experiences that invite us to look beyond ourselves are important. This is one of the functions of art and it is meant for everyone, not only those ‘with taste’ or who can afford to buy a painting or sculpture.
Installation may still be new to some audiences, although it’s been around in Malaysia since the 1970s. We have yet to have a sustained dialogue about installation practice – the term itself is unfamiliar to many!
Like any medium, installation has it’s own history of development, knowledge of which can increase a viewer’s enjoyment and engagement with a work. But I think people should also be aware that no ‘secret code’ is needed to decipher what’s in front of them. The only thing required is a sense of openness and willingness to engage. That’s the exchange art requires from all who wish to be a part of it.
Balik Pulau, Penang
Gabrielle Bates is an independent Australian artist. She has been exhibiting professionally since 1993 and is the recipient of a number of awards, grants and local/international residency placements. Her work has been acquired for corporate, institutional and private collections in Australia, UK, USA and southeast Asia. Produced in series form to reflect the social/political climates in which she finds herself immersed, her practice extends to video, animation, object-based installation and private portrait commissions.