This image features a stock image vintage illustration of a slit worm snail.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


I don’t know what I want.

I want many things big and small. But I don’t know if I really want them.

My most frequent answer to most things is “I don’t know”. Or at least it used to be. It frustrated friends and loved ones. They wanted certainty. Certainty is decisive. And decisiveness is sexy. Or at least something that people trusted. Saying “I don’t know” is not very helpful. Not useful.

And yet I believe it’s more accurate. Because I really don’t know. And I think most people don’t anyway.

It seems like I’m writing a letter to my uncertainty. Or is it a letter to ‘uncertainty’?

I know what I don’t want. This list grows with every passing year, and inadvertently defines the gradually receding boundaries of What-I-Want-Land.

This land has recently experienced an invasion that has forced the inhabitants of this awful and clumsy metaphor to sort out their priorities – uncertainty was no longer a choice.

//

I want you to be strong, wise and have a good heart.

I want to learn about you, and learn from you.

I want to be your friend.

I want to be your teacher.

I want you to laugh and have fun.

I want to earn your respect.

I want you to remember me fondly.

I want, but can only hope, that you can forgive me.

I want to be able to say that I did my best for you.

I know what I want.

– Danny Lim


Image of Country Musik: Movements #8, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock image vintage illustrations of two pots.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


Dearest S,

Thank you for your letter. I would dearly love to handwrite and illustrate my reply but post offices seem so far away by foot here.

What do I want?

I want sex. Sex is integral to being a Being and not feeling like a cup or a plastic clock or something with eyes and two legs.

I desperately want a tabula rasa on the government here and a magical government based on a Scandinavian/Dutch system with depth of cultural appreciation the Thais, Indonesians and Japanese have (perhaps a mix of the best systems worldwide. This list is about what I really want and things we REALLY WANT are often fantastical). I want to wake up on February 29 2021 and find that a whole new bunch of mystery people have landed and taken over governing this country based on meritocracy devoid of Religion, Race and Gender based policies. That public libraries mushroom at every 2sq miles of every city, town and village, and parks flourish like rainforest flowers do.

I really want to be able to survive decently on making art alone.

I want Najib and Rosmah and the rest of that gang in prison and serve maximum sentences. (Actually I want that yesterday).

I want to miraculously know how to use a computer in all its artistic offers, without the grind of learning how to.

I want Religion to never be in public domain and that individuals keep their faith in private.

I want ageing to be an easier process and not as bewildering and intrusive as it is.

I want a cure for cancer to be found tomorrow and that the 6 people I know who have it get “cured” permanently .

I want a dedicated work space where everything is hyper organised and needs no clearing up after each day’s work. This includes a sky light and outdoor area that’s extremely green smack in the middle of a bustling city surrounded by a cool community I really REALLY like, where the dog population is high and they are allowed everywhere. This would be of course part of a housing association where rent is affordable and controlled and with a high focus on independent living.

I want all the clothes I own to disappear and be replaced by a modest but substantial fare of only Comme des Garçons. Reminded by You who only wants a CDG mesh vest, i would like a cupboard full of them.

I want to be able to afford 2doz raw oysters per sitting without flinching at the cost.

I want (even though I don’t cycle) bicycle lanes and almost no cars. I WANT REAL PUBLIC TRANSPORT THAT FUNCTIONS without needing 60 mins to get from Point A to Point B with long walks and parking cars and horrific feeder buses.

I want my mother to be happy.

I want walkability in this country. That means we can walk anywhere for pleasure or practicality without danger and threats of snatch-thieves, or ugliness or hurdles.

I really really want for all women to unveil and reveal themselves with might and strength of character that I might see us better.

I need migrants to be treated equally and orang asli/asal to be compensated for all ills conducted on them over decades. I want us to be kinder as a nation for it seems to me that we are actually “not very nice people in fact”.

I want rats to go extinct. The only animal upon which I wish extinction….

I want local fruits to be available in abundance, and cheaper than apples and oranges.

I want to feel at ease with this country and to trust it.

I want choice comics and graphic novels to be essential reading in primary schools.

I want things online to be produced from all OTHER countries and not only from CHINA. (There should be a moratorium on how much China is allowed to export)

I want to have less pain and get physically stronger to sustain my work and how I want to work. As for the work itself, I want to continue being unshackled by the “Art world” that’s rather befuddling.

I would like my ability to be a bonobo to deepen and arrive at the next level where the-moment is always held in my paws, that being and breathing become one in perfect harmony.

I want clarity as to how to live this life here.

And if all that I want cannot happen, I want acceptance.

I hope you’re well and the oil refinery next door disappears out of sight. That all you want will happen for you. I want you to wear that mesh vest in front of me one day soon.

Much love,
Betik Lelo Tan

Ps: oh, and of course, world peace, for those on the balcony.


Image of Country Musik: Movements #12, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

Image features an early alchemical ouroboros illustration from the work of Cleopatra the Alchemist (10th Century). Source: Wikimedia Commons


Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.



Images of Country Musik: Movements #20, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features a stock image vintage illustration of a twinned work basket weave.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


I keep an altar in the home I’ve been living in for 3 years now. I had set it up with my dear friend Liy, who lived in this home too, for a time. We would come together during new moons, full moons, shifts in astrological phases and “reset” the altar with new items, old items, textures and elements that felt right for whatever we perceived our present to be, for whatever we hoped for the future.

I knew I wanted to set my altar with manifestations of my intentions as we left 2020 and moved into 2021. I wanted to do something that wasn’t writing words. And I knew that I wanted to build a house with a broken heart in it. That was my 2020 after all — this house, everyone in it that left, me still here, my heart determinedly beating through what has felt unbearable.

So I built walls and a roof, to symbolise the new home I wanted to make, to signify shelter and greenhouse for my wild, unrelenting hope. I thought about what I want to keep doing as we move forward, what has saved me this year, and I wrote those words on the walls: Make. Connect. Heal. To make, I made a bevy of tools to write with, to cook with, to garden with, to sew with. To connect, I thought about intimacy, about all the different types of love and touch and connection I desire in my life. I gathered works from three artists (Roza Nozari, Guanyin Ma @ SLUT, and Manimanjari Sengupta) and weaved them into a pillar. To heal, I made a 3D heart out of paper, imagining the final kintsugi effect of covering it in glitter cracks but it was in the process of cutting and gluing it together and closing up the seams that felt like the real repair. On the outside of the walls I stuck paper coins of seeds for better worlds and just futures by Chiara Frances LAc.

As 2020 comes to a close, I pray and dream with my body and hands. Whenever I have the opportunity, I try and bring whatever I can from the chambers of my heart into being. Every cut of paper, every dab of glue, every wash of colour, every slide of graphite: a seed. May everything you plant for 2021 grow. May we all get to savor the fruit.

– Syar S Alia


Image of Country Musik: Movements #9, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock image vintage illustrations of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874), and a knot.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


18 Dec 2020

Letter to a friend

If undelivered, return to:  

Anonymous
24, Kuala Lumpur, Writer

————–

Dear Mermaid Emoji,

If I want anything at all, I want you to be able to see your family again. If it’s not too much for me to ask, I also want for everything to turn out alright for you in the end.

Perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever met, being friends with you has taught me what it’s like to live out on the very edges. Most of the people I know have places they can come back to—even if it causes them a lot of psychic pain and even if it means giving up their last shred of dignity. Most of them have somewhere to return to, whether it’s blood family or chosen family or you-don’t-get-to-choose-your-family family. You scare me more than anyone I know, because you’re so very alone. You’re like the last neon light blinking on a dark empty street, just asking for trouble.

The truth is, if I think about you too much, I get sad. There is so much about the world that is hopeless—you and I became friends by commiserating over this fact. We believe that the light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train. But it’s one thing to say, abstractly, that the future of humanity is hopeless; yet another to say that a single person’s future is hopeless, even though that’s the logical conclusion of what we talk about. The only way it is possible to keep living within so much suffering and chaos without succumbing to despair is by deliberately dampening our consciousness of other people’s suffering.

In general, people are lost causes. Most of us become stuck as we progress through life, and after a certain point, it’s either take it or leave it, there’s no changing anyone. The same with our fates: take it (i.e. suffer through it), or leave this world. But I tell myself that the fact of us being lost causes is the humbling thing about being human, and also the thing that makes our mere survival seem incredible, even if it is tampered with a little self-induced ignorance (and alcohol, and cigarettes, and etc., etc.) to make it more bearable. The fact of us being lost causes is ultimately where love springs from. If we were all perfect beings higher than our nature, then we wouldn’t need nor be worthy of love, which is voluntary blindness.

When I was younger, I very naively thought that I would never grow up to do anything illegal. Like, just don’t do it, right? As I grow up, I start to realise how easy it is to fall through the cracks, especially in a world splintered over. 

Down within the cracks, you meet people that it’s impossible not to become friends with, and in the underground there’s freedom in the air, freedom sometimes confused with nihilism, and for a while we have fun, but only one of us can emerge back into the surface-world, while another one of us cannot. You tell me all the stupid things you’ve been up to, and I pull your ear and slap your wrist; in this way, I try to restore morality and a sense of justice into this tiny world, so we don’t fall so far down the hole. For me, I can go home and afford not to think too much about you, but for you, there is no exit, you cannot be anyone other than yourself. Maybe in a few days, when we meet again, we’ll share some laughs, we’ll part again, you’ll continue going to places I don’t follow. What I want for you is more than the freedom of nihilism. I would rather that you have real material freedom in this material world, which you still exist in, even if it feels like you don’t. You will say that this is just a false idea of freedom, and that anyway there is no one who is really free on this earth that has been forsaken by god, but still.


Image of Country Musik: Movements #1, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock images of a group of stars in the Centaurus constellation, from Universe and Humanity (1910), and of a lump of coal.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


Dec 12, 2020

Dear Grey Diamond
(Hexagonal, 0.44 carat, set in a Gold Ring with Two Smaller Diamonds)

Katie Carder Juniper Ring with Grey Hexagon Diamond, meekajewelry.com

All of the last eight months I have been thinking of you, since the day you announced yourself in my dreams by way of this jewellery shop I saw on the Instagram Explore Tab. 

While employed, I calculated how much I would have to set aside each month. Unemployed, I have pulled up your image to try and work myself up to open LinkedIn again. Impending hunger was not enough motivation.

Your brilliance, fire and heft, forged by both earth’s magic and jeweler’s flame, is everything I didn’t know I wanted before. But I need to tell you that it’s been too much, and I don’t think I can do this anymore.

I’ve always thought gemstones were among the best things to wear. Precious, so universally beautiful and so, like, exposing of human absurdity. Like, all we needed was to survive. But somewhere along the way, and early, we realized what we really wanted was to be adorned. And when stones entered the picture. Oh man, the lengths we went just to be P R E T T Y. We went to murder lengths!

The thing is, I know that exchanging money for you is beyond useless– it’s nothing but wasteful. Scarcity has been created and is as real as you and I, despite the best efforts of abundance mindset horseshit from the wells of Self Help Youtube. 

It just feels awkward, in a time when labs can replicate your chemistry, colour and iridescence in any size, to continue to pine for something just because it was squeezed into being in some cave for a billion years, then yanked out to maybe fund a repressive regime. I’m sorry, I’m being rude. It’s not your fault. You are perfect.

I was watching all of the fourth season of The Crown recently, and was freshly struck by how much jewellery these guys have. It’s their actual birthright, heaps of stones set in hulking wearable sculptures for elevating their squishy selves above everyone else. THE CROWN. D’UH. Is that what I want from you– to be better? To be worthy of the sparkle? To maybe camouflage my lowly social class at events? It’s either this or something else, right? No such thing as beauty for its own sake.

Is it because I need yet another arbitrary item to peg meaning to? Something to remind myself that… I am breakable? Ya, of course, sure. Every desire is a Death Thing. I’m not alone in feeling death around every corner right now. Incidentally, the old aunty next door died yesterday, the one who used to yell at the stray animals. She also used to wear pretty pastel floral tailored shirt suits, which she hung to dry on our shared fence. 

Anyway, I think right, I don’t even need a Death Thing. I won’t have children to pass you to. At best, some young person I care about in the future will have an accessory they never got to choose, but can’t sell off because they’ll feel bad. At worst, you’re just going to be a reminder of how awful I’ve always been with money. Imagine, “Wah, she really only left her laptop and phone with their dying batteries. And this ring.” 

All this is to say I will love you forever, but maybe not in real life. Please don’t get too upset by the plastic seed beads I wear. I love them too, cause I strung them together myself. Still, you know that I know they are not the same.

Yours Faithfully,

Grace


Image of Country Musik: Movements #18, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

Image features screenshots from “HAUSU” (1977, dir. Ōbayashi Nobuhiko)

Slowmix is an online multimedia mixtape series, consisting of things I like or find interesting. It’s performative, but not in the way I associate with social media, more like when you want to impress someone you care about. It’s partly ‘do you see how cool I am?’, but equally, trying to get closer by sharing something small and personally significant. Each mix has a name, which doesn’t indicate a theme, just a vibe.

At the end of 2020 I made you a slowmix called WOLVES with: an amulet, folktales, horror zines, a Russian painting, binturongs and animal guts.


Amulet

This strange, dark, poem is included in The Puffin Book of Twentieth-Century Children’s Verse. I bought this book as a teenager, more interested in the idea of being someone who read poetry, than actual poetry.

It’s by Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998), an English poet I don’t know anything about, except that there is good reason to think being married to him is what led Sylvia Plath to kill herself by putting her head in a gas oven. A lesser known fact is that his partner after Plath, Assia Wevill, a holocaust survivor, also killed herself, and their four-year old daughter… with a gas oven. Regardless, history seems to agree that he was a great poet.

An amulet is supposed to protect you, but to my ear, the poem sounds like a cursing chant used to trap someone or something. Maybe it has to be both. For traveling unknown roads in the dark alone, maybe what’s needed is a fearsome song you can sing on loop.




Ivan and the Grey Wolf

Asked to provide a myth to understand these times, the mythologist Dr Martin Shaw offers ‘not the whole story, but an image’. He tells us about young Prince Ivan who sets out on a quest to find the firebird. As night falls, the prince comes to a crossroads. If he goes right, his horse will die but he will live, and if he goes left, he will die but his horse will live. He chooses the right road. Out of the gloom springs a fierce grey wolf, knocking the prince off his beloved horse before tearing it apart and gobbling it down. With bloody jaws, the wolf turns to Ivan and growls: ‘Get on my back. Where you’re going, a horse is useless.’

‘We’re in wolf time now’.




Buaya dengan Serigala

I couldn’t sleep and started looking for cures. One of them was this old book, published in 1977 by Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka. It’s a collection of folktales from Asia, translated into Malay.

‘Buaya dengan Serigala’ is a story from Bangladesh. Wolf is very smart, so Crocodile wants her to educate his seven children. Wolf tricks Crocodile mercilessly, eating all his babies, lying again and again to escape his wrath. The story ends with Crocodile dragging Wolf down into the river. There’s a curious moral ambiguity that’s quite rare in these kinds of tales, or at least in the more modern re-tellings. Wolf satisfied her appetite for young crocodile, and Crocodile sated his thirst for revenge.

The end page of each story lists the author and the illustrator (both from the tale’s country of origin), as well as the English translator and Malay translator. Something about this polyphony – a tale passing through many hands and tongues – is soothing, and perhaps instructive.




The Panthers

It is a painting of a dream. Day opens like a portal in the night. Orange lights flare in the dark and silent town, reflecting eyes from deep shadows in the trees. The scent of animal was strange in the streets where it walked out from, not heading in the direction towards dawn. It would stay there, just outside the walls.

The Panthers, 1907
Matiros Saryan (1880 – 1972)
Tempera and oil on canvas. 35.5 x 51cm
The Picture Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan

This is a painting from another book I had as a young girl, Fantastic and Imaginative Works by Russian Artists. It was published by Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad, in 1989; and printed in USSR, thus, before the fall of the Soviet Union.




Rumah Hantu Comix (Malaysia) & Subp A Roht (Thailand)

Rumah Hantu Comix was one of the coolest discoveries in a year when I could hardly finish reading a book. They publish horror comix from South East Asia. The first issue of Kesumat Maut is pure pulp joy. Corpse humour doesn’t get fresher than this.

It reminded me of Subp A Roht (sadly, R.I.P.) from Thailand, a graphic broadsheet published in 2011. My friend Shahril Nizam contributed artwork to the Monster issue and gave me a few copies, which I treasure.




Binturong cam

Here is Arctictis binturong (family VIVERRIDAE) caught on night cam. Apparently, this creature smells of buttered popcorn, which, not knowing, if I were to encounter an odour so distinctly associated with civilization in the deep Borneo jungles where binturongs are usually found, would scare the shit out of me.

Images from eMammal.




Guts



Happy New Year!

Slowmix is an online multimedia mixtape series, consisting of things I like or find interesting. It’s performative, but not in the way I associate with social media, more like when you want to impress someone you care about. It’s partly ‘do you see how cool I am?’, but equally, trying to get closer by sharing something small and personally significant. Each mix has a name, which doesn’t indicate a theme, just a vibe.

This week I made you a slowmix called SPARRING with: Susan Sontag, John Berger, Ole Kiatoneway, Boonlai Sor Thanikul, Common Malayan Wildflowers, Miharu Koshi album covers and podcasts about masculinity.


To Tell A Story

This electric conversation between Susan Sontag and John Berger took place in 1983. Both were renowned writers of fiction and essays. They had quite alot to say about visual culture, which makes them interesting to artists. Sontag wrote On Photography, and Berger is most famous for the TV mini-series Ways of Seeing.

Here, they face-off about storytelling, the moral responsibilities of the author, and the effects of new technologies on art. It’s the exact opposite of a hot take – a timeless conversation. As in, useful and energizing no matter what decade you tune in. Yes, there will be decades after this one, and in some small way, this video reinstates that crucial reality.

The way they talk to each other is thrilling, almost erotic. The quality of their eye contact! It’s like an instructional video on how to listen, pay attention, respond and disagree – remedial class for those of us with internet- induced communication damage. Outside the reactive spaces of social media, differences and disagreements are not bullets, but seeds that burst forth, scattering the ground with possibilities.


The Black Pearl vs The Iron Twin

This is a match between Ole Kiatoneway “The Black Pearl from Andaman Sea” (blue corner) and Boonlai Sor Thanikul “The Iron Twin” (red corner), narrated in English by Phet-tho of Sitjaopho Muaythai. [Update: unfortunately the narrated video was removed, but I’ve replaced it with the original fight video with commentary in Thai]. Both were master technicians of Golden Age era muay thai during the 80s to mid-90s.

In my mind, this Ole-Boonlai fight will always be paired with the Sontag-Berger conversation. Their poise, grace and skill, embodied as total presence in the face of each other, makes my heart race. They help me name a thing I aim for, and search for in fighting when I don’t encounter enough of it in art: not virality, but virility.


Names, or how do we know what we know?

Here is what Common Malayan Wildflowers has to say about its use of names:

The scientific or Latin name of each plant is given immediately after the common English name, because the Latin names do not vary from place to place as the common names tend to do. For this reason it is recommneded that the Latin names should be used in preference to English or Malay names even though they may be more difficult to memorize. Many Malayan plants do not have well known or long established English names. Malay names are often very well known but they are usually given only to plants which are locally of some economic importance, such as food or medicinal plants, or to plants with some magical significance. 

The book was published by Longmans in 1961 (i.e. four years after Malaya’s independence from British rule, 2 years before the formation of Malaysia and 6 years before Singapore separated from Malaysia) under their Malayan Nature Handbooks series. It’s written by M.R. Henderson and illustrated by Juraimi Samsuri. There’s no additional information about the author or artist.

How do we know what we know?

A scientist friend recently told me about a species of shellfish that’s been consumed locally since the late 1800s, but has yet to be described by science, i.e. yet to receive a Latin name. I can’t say more at this point, because the ‘discovery’ of any ‘new’ species is a major scientific event and I don’t want to scoop my friend.

I know many of the plants in Common Malayan Wildflowers by sight, and I love the book most for its beautiful, homely botanical colour paintings. The names, however, disturb the order of my world. For example, it lists ketumbar jawa as ‘Stinking Shareweed (Eryngium foetidum)’ whose ‘leaves when bruised give off a strong smell like that associated with stink-bugs’, whereas I know it to be a delicious and fragrant edible similar in taste to coriander. Another example: I noticed a plant with fleshy leaves and pink flowers growing in the garden this year, and identified it on Google as Surinam spinach. The book calls it ‘Sea Purslane (Sesuvium portulucastrum)’ and gelang laut, because it’s ‘found always near the sea, both on sand and in tidal mud’.

There are many ways to know a thing, to order and organize the world.


Haircuts

I want to know who else Youtube recommended Miharu Koshi’s Swing Slow (1996) album to. It’s a great downtempo album.

Parallelisme (1984) I didn’t enjoy so much. The *look* on this album cover, however… I sent it to Boon, who’s been cutting my hair for over a decade. He got excited, and that became my first post-lockdown haircut.

Maybe I will try out all her album cover looks.


The man in me is killin’ me

I had a dream about hunting down an enemy. I was in a room, searching for them. There was a large oval mirror in front of me. I looked into it and as the view panned left in my dream, I saw reflected in it a man sitting to one side, at the back of the room. He was tall and heavyset, wearing a white shirt and long pants, and glasses. He had slightly wavy grey hair. I had never seen this face before but I can remember it even now. I realized with a shock that I was the hunted, not the hunter. He stood up. The urge to run was overwhelming, but I knew I had to face him. I turned around. He held a large knife, and stabbed me in the chest with it.

These podcasts are about men and I found them illuminating. Good medicine if you need it.

The Mythic Masculine #12 – Courting the Undefended Heart – Boe Huntress (Thirteen Queens)

The Mythic Masculine #7 – Thriving Life & A Prayer for All Men – Pat McCabe (Woman Stands Shining)

The Mansal Denton Podcast #031: Tyson Yunkaporta (Pt 1) – Aboriginal Teachings: Rites of Passage for Men, Community, and Personal Agency

The Mansal Denton Podcast #032: Tyson Yunkaporta (Pt 2) – Becoming One With Nature and Listening to Her Wisdom