Interview with Lydia Chai and Tahi Moore for my solo exhibition Sensors: Banned Books and Other Monsters.
Tahi Moore: How does time come into your work?
Sharon Chin: I don’t have enough time! I’m working exclusively off a particular list of banned books in Malaysia since 1971.
TM: What I meant was, with a book it’ll take a month to read. With a banned book it’ll take no time to read it.
SC: Ya-ha. These banned books have become non-books. They’ve become reduced to book covers, or titles, instead.
TM: Sex Pistols had a #1 hit (can’t remember which) but the song wasn’t banned, the band’s name was. And Salman Rushdie was made incredibly famous by the reaction to his book.
SC: Are some writers being controversial for its own sake? I guess I am an opportunist.
TM: What kind of opportunist are you?
SC: Hm, I don’t know whether I am yet. But I don’t enjoy gaining notoriety for myself.
TM: What’s so interesting about banned books?
SC: The idea of giving/taking offense, and arbitrary moral values. It’s close to insane when tyrannical societies try to ban things left, right and centre.
Lydia Chai: Do you think bureaucracy is based on mistrust?
SC: Well, it’s a fear of chaos. How would you feel if someone took down one of your paintings? Or would you feel thrilled?
LC: There was the time somebody stabbed my painting few years ago.
SC: Oh yeah. Did you find it upsetting?
LC: No, it was more amusing. The more you laugh at something the less power it has. That’s why I think that in a dictatorship people learn to laugh whereas in a democracy they learn to complain.
SC: That’s very interesting.
TM: When Reinaldo Arenas was in Cuba, he sold more books than when he escaped to America afterwards [because people were less interested in him when he was ‘free’.] Later he got an angry call from his translator asking him why he didn’t want his books translated into English anymore.
SC: It’s about dissemination of information and that itself is hard to control. Writers think of 2 things: making the work and how it will be seen. The 2nd bit is out of his hands, depending on market forces, party/state policy, etc. So that sort of information, or which information is allowed to flow and which isn’t, reflects a lot on a society and its time.
TM: Is there a consistent number of books banned per year in your list?
SC: No. It’s strange and arbitrary.
TM: Is there a published criteria for books in Malaysia?
SC: There are guidelines. For example, anything that is ‘harmful to national security’ cannot be published.
TM: The thing about national security seems to be a recent innovation [globally].
LC: You mean since Sept 11? Sharon, do you agree with any kind of censorship?
SC: That’s a hard question. It’s difficult, for example, to come up with rules for what’s harmful to children. It’s all entirely arbitrary.
TM: [When governments go about it] it’s about actively seeking something to guard against as opposed to discerning when a line is being crossed.
SC: Is that a sign of a stunted society?
TM: I just think it’s less subtle. William Burroughs once said, “The enemy will be ignored out of existence.”
SC: Each person has to mark the line in the sand for themselves.
TM: And the line itself can disappear just as easily.
SC: The idea of morality in Malaysia is even divided into 2 sets. Tahi, in Malaysia non-Muslims are taught Moral Studies in schools but Muslim students have Islamic Studies. For non-Muslims, we are taught specific definitions and values and are assessed on how well we regurgitate these definitions verbatim. And the Muslims in turn have a totally different approach to their assessments. Theirs is based on their behaviour (akhlak) and, of course, the Quran. I think this split in the way we learn something as fundamental as values reflects the schizophrenia of our society. It has had a profound effect on our generation but I don’t know what effect this is yet.
TM: So it becomes just another subject to study, right, so no one takes it seriously.
SC: Yeah I guess so.
LC: Okay shall we give this transcript to Sharon to edit? I mean, as a symbolic gesture?
SC: Ha ha-
LC: Or Tahi and I could do several versions based on how leftist and rightist we want it to sound, and then it’ll be the luck of the draw which ones people get at Sharon’s art opening. Maybe Sharon could determine at the opening who she deems conservative / liberal and hand out the versions accordingly.
TM: I think people should be allowed to decide for themselves which type they are.
LC: It’s an art opening. Everyone will say they’re left.
TM: We’ll do the several versions then. For the various categories, “liberal”, “ethical”, “moral”-
LC: “PC”, “parent”, “critic”-
Lydia Chai is a Malaysian artist and writer, currently residing in Auckland.
Tahi Moore has exhibited extensively within New Zealand. He recently participated in Telecom Prospect: New Art New Zealand at the City Gallery in Wellington. Moore’s work spans performance, video, painting, sculpture and music. He is also known for his writings on art in such publications as Hue & Cry, Crease and artist catalogues. His current website project is http://darlingtonwinterfell.net.
Tahi and Lydia married each other in 2005 and are currently based in Auckland.