Article about my solo exhibition Sensors: Banned Books and Other Monsters. By Jacqueline Ann Surin, published in The Sun, 25 Oct 2007.
It may be counter-intuitive to hold an art exhibition in a totally darkened room.
But in Sharon Chin’s Sensors exhibition, walking into an inky space with the help of a tiny torch becomes a loaded experience about censorship for the visitor.
The exhibition, which ran from Sept 21 to Oct 7 at the Annexe Gallery in Central Market, used the complete list of banned books in Malaysia from 1971 to 2007 as a critical building block for the artist’s discussion on censorship.
Sensors, which was supported by a grant under the inaugural Krishen Jit Astro Fund, comprised an installation in two parts.
The one in the pitch-black room consisted of several wall-mounted doors which visitors could open only to discover, by the dim light of their torches, monsters and mythical creatures painted on lists of banned books.
“Thinking about censorship draws for us merely shadowy shapes of our fears, which disappear like wraiths when exposed in the light of knowledge and discourse,” the press release publicising the exhibition said.
The installation in the well-lit adjacent space – ostensibly characterised by objectivity, empiricism and rationality in contrast to the secret, irrational atmosphere of the other installation – consisted of several buzz wires stretched along the gallery’s length in a game commonly found at fun fairs.
The buzz wires were shaped into histogram charts of five book categories that have been banned in Malaysia since
1971. Using a hoop, viewers were invited to trace these wired shapes but a warning light and buzzer would go off each time the hoop touched the wire.
In an e-mail interview from Australia where she is currently on the Australian High Commission Visual Arts Residency at Gunnery Studios in Sydney until early December, Chin, 27, says her interest in censorship was sparked by “morbid curiosity, rather than a sense of injustice”.
She relied heavily on J.M. Coetzee’s Giving Offence – a collection of essays about censorship in apartheid South Africa – as a starting point. The book, she says, painted a picture of censorship as an insidious game between the public, the author and the government.
“From that point onwards there was no question about this show merely wanting to angkat bendera for (promote the cause of) anti-censorship; from start to finish it has sought to expose and explore the rules of this game in which all of us are implicated,” Chin says.
“I have stopped thinking about censorship as something that happens to us, but more as something that reflects our society,” she adds. “What does censorship say about how Malaysians get offended?”
She cites the Negarakuku rap by Namawee which offended lots of people who said: “Freedom of expression has a limit!”
This, she says, demonstrates how all of us have a kind of “sensor” which gets set off by the most personal, subjective things. Hence, her use of the buzz wire game to reflect the arbitrariness of our individual sensitivities.
Still, Chin’s research yields interesting quantitative data about censorship in Malaysia.
Relying on information available on the Internal Security Ministry’s website, Chin entered the complete list of 1,446 banned books from 1971 to June this year into a database.
Then, she took a random sample of 827 titles and sorted these into five categories: religion, sex, counter culture, politics and race.
Chin admits that the sorting was done “quite arbitrarily” by identifying certain key words in the book titles that seemed to have connotations with the category.
“In this way, I myself indulged in the kind of power that censors have when they make up categories and rules,” she admits. “It felt quite heady, but really was just kerja kosong (meaningless work), you know? Not creating anything progressive for society, but more repressive and regressive.”
Chin then sent the collated data to an engineer friend, E.H. Koh, who created histograms and graphs and reported the findings.
Among others, they found that Bahasa Malaysia books were the most banned (544 out of the 1,446) during the period under study, followed by English books (494), then Chinese books (375). Books in other languages such as Tamil, Arab and Thai suffered little banning.
Historically, the most number of books were banned in 1994 (153 out of 1,446) and 1992 (128) while no books were banned in 1972 at all, although one other explanation could be that the statistics for that year were not available.
“On average over the past 30 years, we censor about 39 books a year but in the recent five years, we’ve gotten a bit zealous censoring about 56 books a year, or 43% more!” Chin observes.
“Supposedly we are living in a more open environment under (the) Pak Lah (administration). What gives? Who knows,” she says.
Chin’s sample size for her exercise in categorisations was 827.
Out of these, she found that more books are banned on sex (353) than religion (297). The number of books about politics (45) and race (26) which were banned were “pretty low in comparison”.
“Most Bahasa Malaysia banned books are about religion, while most Chinese books are about sexuality! English books (that were banned) tend to be quite balanced between sexuality and religion,” she notes.
“People who came to the show were surprised that there were far fewer books banned on race and politics than sex and religion,” she says.
Chin says the numbers are correct and reliable statistically, but need to be taken in the context of artistic practice.
“Also, take into account that my methodology was trying as much as possible to be as arbitrary and ‘objectively subjective’ as the censors seem to be when banning books.
“I was trying to call attention to the process and infrastructure of book banning, not to find conclusive numbers that can be quoted with impunity,” she explains.
Paradoxical and Complex
Chin opines that censorship is paradoxical in that the act of censoring draws attention to something that is forbidden, and this creates curiosity and endless discussions around it.
“In a way, censorship gives something (books, films, etc) power that really, it may not possess intrinsically as an artistic product,” she says, adding that it is this curiosity towards the forbidden that underlies the installation in the darkened room.
At the same time, Chin says censorship is complex because the censor must appear to be objective in an essentially subjective situation.
“Ultimately, it comes down to human judgment of what is deemed memudaratkan keselamatan awam (a threat to national security) or whatever guidelines have been put in place.
“The office of the censor is a complex construction that must ensure its own continued survival by maintaining the moral or civil status quo it is ostensibly working so hard to improve!”
But the censor is not the only one who is responsible for censorship.
As a writer on art for various publications, Chin has to contend with self-censorship as well. “It is a long-running personal disease that I have to consistently and actively resist,” she says, citing times when she “diluted” her opinions in her writing.
Chin doesn’t pretend to offer any answers.
Rather, she asks, “Am I anti-censorship or am I just for a censorship that’s not so extreme? We all have to ask ourselves this question because I think it’s the way forward. Or else censorship will create victims of us all.”
Who amongst us, she wonders, would do away with the office of censorship altogether and who would merely want it replaced with one that is more liberal, more enlightened, in short, their own?