These are a collection of notes about Au Sow Yee’s exhibition Habitation and Elsewhere at Lost Generation Space in KL, from 1 – 23 Aug 2015.

Video Art

I was dreading the show a little, and saw it on the last day. I don’t… like video art. 1) I find it boring and 2) I face screens for hours upon hours every day, and my retinas get tired easily. Lately my eyesight has worsened dramatically. At night, I drive like an old lady – the light of oncoming traffic hits my eyes and diffuses into a blinding glare.



The show was indeed slightly boring. There were three works, all video installations.

A Day Without Sun in Mengkerang (Chapter One) was already playing halfway through when I walked in. I didn’t finish, but circled back to it two or three times. Pak Tai Foto had headphones for sound, and floor benches you could sit comfortably on. That one, I waited for the beginning and watched to the end.

Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others had the largest screen and loudest sound. The noise infiltrated the quiet moments of the other two pieces – insistent, distracting.

These works were meant to be tuned in and out, not followed in any kind of linear way. And in the resulting boredom (calculated, I believe, to be just the right amount), the mind could wander to the edges, to the places in between the footage, audio snippets, subtitles and voiceovers.

When was the last time you were bored? If you own a smartphone, there’s no real reason to be, unless by conscious act of will. Boredom has become important to me. Some evenings I sit on my doorstep and stare out into space, watching the sky turn to night. My mind – and with it, the whole world – expands; I remember I have a body.

Soon though, I have to go back to my laptop.


Stills from Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others, courtesy of Au Sow Yee


‘Mengkerang as Method’ I: Games

Douglas Rushkoff, one of my favorite thinkers about media culture, argues that a defining feature of our digital networked reality is the collapse of traditional narrative with beginning, middle and end.

Instead, stories that make more sense in our world today follow the narrative structures you find in games like Dungeons & Dragons or Minecraft, in which there’s a set of rules that describes an imagined world, and you enact your own story as you move through it – exploring, interacting and participating.

In A Day Without Sun, voiced over footage that she took on a road trip around Peninsula Malaysia, Sow Yee has three performers enact just such a story game: tell us a tale of three characters set in the land of Mengkerang.


Stills from A Day Without Sun in Mengkerang (Chapter One), courtesy of Au Sow Yee


‘Mengkerang As Method’ II: Names and Navigation

In 2012, I did a similar road trip: down south from Kuala Lumpur on the west coast to Singapore, up north on the east coast to Kota Bahru, then across and back down again on the west. Like Sow Yee, I took footage – many gigs worth of data in video and iphone photos.

That trip, and the digital trace of it, exists to myself like a story I enacted as I moved through the same land Sow Yee did. She gave this land a name: Mengkerang.

Since I don’t have one for that – our – land, I might start using it too.

What if names were not used as definitions, but as coordinates to help orient and navigate in a sea of shifting narrative?

In A Day Without Sun, the name Mengkerang is like an anchor point around which the make-believe of storytelling, the subjectivity of history and the supposed reality of captured footage spin and pulse – they overlap, then separate and repel each other, like forces in a constant dance. This work clarifies: it dissects its own components and analyses how they relate to each other.

If Mengkerang is the method, then Pak Tai Foto attempts to put it into practice, by demonstrating how stories can help navigation. Placed against the wall opposite the video were strange diagrams that I couldn’t understand. Only after listening to the narrators in the video did I realize they were travel routes plotted on blank maps. In other words, I needed the stories to read these maps where the ground had been erased.

Maps in Pak Tai Foto, personal photo


‘Mengkerang As Method’ III: Power and Time

A story-game is fine and all, but let’s talk real here. Important stuff. Real stuff. History!

I have an English translation of Sejarah Melayu – The Malay Annals – a text that tells the history of the Melaka sultanate in the 15th Century – the greatest and earliest Malay empire. One of the historical documents presented with the video in A Day Without Sun is an excerpt attributed to that source. Reading it, I was taken aback to find that the quote was a lyrical description of a place called Mengkerang.

I haven’t gone past the first chapter of The Malay Annals, but I’m quite sure Mengkerang isn’t in that book. Mengkerang is Sow Yee’s art project invention. Or is it?

More than image, more than the spoken word, it’s the written text that has the power to set a thing in stone.

How many misattributed, made-up quotes of made-up places and people do you think exist in the documents that form the seemingly unshakeable foundations of how we know Malaysia? Repeated enough times by the right people, spoken and written and sung about, fermented into fable by the passing centuries – couldn’t Malaysia have come from Mengkerang?

Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others consists mainly of found footage from the 1950s and 60s – some of it historical, some of it snippets from classic Malay cinema. There’s no narrative in the mashup. What emerges is a slippery-smooth skin of nostalgia, a ‘feel’ that encapsulates the era. This ‘feel’ is created by a great deal of visual and audio material, but it has no true texture. Texture comes from flaws, from gaps and bumps made of absence, and labour and human detail.

The question I have is whether it is time or power that flattens the texture out of history.


Installation view of A Day Without Sun in Mengkerang (Chapter One). Photo by Lin Yu-Quan, courtesy of Au Sow Yee


‘Image As Instrument’ I: Magic

What makes today different from all the ages before is that unprecedented numbers of people have access to the storytelling tools that make history. If you have a networked computer or phone, you have a magic machine capable of capturing, producing, and disseminating images, sound and text on an almost limitless scale.


‘Image As Instrument’ II: Power

Learning to use this power also means learning how it can have power over others – power to define, misrepresent, and manipulate.

In many ways, I see Pak Tai Foto as the beating heart of the show. It’s no accident that it’s placed in the middle of the gallery. Over split-screen footage of an old photo studio in the heart of KL, migrant workers who populate the same area tell their stories of how they came to Malaysia, and where they hope to go next.

Pak Tai photo studio dates back to pre-Merdeka days, and its dilapidated state is shown unsparingly. There is no fetishized nostalgia, yet it is filmed with obvious love and care. Because of this honesty, there is texture – gaps that other stories can move into, and inhabit.

Thus, there is no need to ‘give voice’ to the workers in service of a well-intentioned message. Instead, their narratives are folded into the one of Mengkerang-Malaysia as gently as one might fold ingredients to make a cake.

Installation view of Pak Tai Foto, personal photo


Can there be non-coercive images?

I saw ‘Habitation and Elsewhere’ one week before the Bersih 4 protest was scheduled to happen in the streets of KL.

Having made propaganda in service of past Bersih protests, human rights causes, as well as political parties, I know first-hand how manipulative images can be.

Can there be non-coercive images? I have despaired over this question. Those propaganda-making stints were born from a deeply compromised position, almost a crisis of faith: if all images are coercive, then I should at least employ them for the ‘greater good’.

But what is good?

Placards at Bersih 4, personal photo


I think there was a degree of image and narrative control by Bersih 4 that was not present in the past protests, and it was likely fueled by social media.

Curiously, participation seemed to count less than the performance of participation, e.g. updating about buying a yellow t-shirt, tweeting about lining up to buy a yellow t-shirt and how long the line was, selfies wearing a yellow t-shirt, look at this sea of yellow on the streets of KL, etc.

There was top-down, as well as peer-to-peer policing of discussion. Expressions of doubt about Bersih 4 were not seen as a form of engagement or participation, but instead, criticism that needed to be shut down in the face of the urgent need to ‘save Malaysia’.

A cursory examination of the red-shirt rally that followed Bersih 4 is instructive – when one wields images as weapons, it invites counter attack. The agendas may be opposed, but the means are similar. In this game, only the strongest, the most coercive, can win.

‘Even the best weapon is an unhappy tool’ says the Tao Te Ching. ‘Habitation and Elsewhere’ suggests other uses for images as instruments – the making of meaning, the building of solidarity, the inclusion of narratives. Today, as screens proliferate and increasing numbers of people wield networked image machines, Sow Yee’s examination of the politics of images is critical and urgent.

Port Dickson, Oct 2015


The following photo and notes where posted to my Facebook profile on 4 Aug 2015, after I attended Sow Yee’s artist talk. At the time I hadn’t seen the show.

On Sunday [2 Aug 2015] I went to Sow-Yee’s talk about her show ‘Habitation and Elsewhere’ at Lost Gens. There were two curators from Taiwan, and Sau Bin moderated.

These are thoughts that were sparked from that 4-hour event. They are not fully developed. I’m posting them because I think they’re useful for the moment we find ourselves in. Particularly, they may shed light on how artists can find their place and continue to work through what is happening now.*

1. “Image as Instrument”

This is the subtitle of Sow-Yee’s show, which consists of videos that break down narrative – combining found footage, reconstruction and documentary forms. She said she’s interested in the “politics of images, instead of political images”. This is an important distinction, worth thinking deeply about. Sau Bin framed it in an extremely penetrating question: “If there are no artists, can there still be critique of images?”

2. Coding

Events at Lost Gens are coded, just like an event at Publika, HOM, CAG (shoutout to friends in Sabah) or Valentine Willie’s new Ilham Gallery are coded – even before we go to the event, we’ve made up our minds about what it might be. This happens everywhere in the world, I believe they’re called ‘cliques’ or ‘scenes’. But in Malaysia, because of the makeup of our society, along with a history of race, religion and culture being systematically used to manipulate (I prefer the word manage) EACH OTHER socially and politically, this condition is more than an inconvenience. It’s the fabric, the very climate artists work in.

Events that consciously attempt to be ‘muhibbah’ or ‘inclusive’, perpetuate this condition. It’s a double trap, because the language used is ‘inclusive’, but process and outcomes of the event are exclusive. Language is used here as a seal, a putty to plaster over the cracks. Putty is a mess of gummy substance – it is language turned to mash, to smother instead of uncover.

Coming back to Point 1 “Image as Instrument” – how are images used in the same way to close the cracks, to smother instead of uncover?

3. Translation

I speculate that 98% of the standing room-only crowd at Sow-Yee’s talk was fluent in Chinese. I’m in the 2%. Despite this, there was earnest attempt to translate everything that was said into English and Chinese. Curiously, it was not one-way translation, but consistently two-way: ideas would be presented in English, then translated to Chinese, or presented in Chinese, then translated to English. I hope you see what I’m describing here: THINKING was being done in English or Chinese, and then translated into either language accordingly. This is not easy, especially when talking about art and cultural theory.

On a scale of 1 – 10, my Chinese fluency is maybe 4. This means I can understand about 20 – 30% literally of a complicated talk presented in Chinese. But context is harder to measure. Context is what lies behind language, written or spoken. Context is what great translators capture when they produce a translation of poetry that is almost as much a work of art as the original. Consider Adibah Amin’s incredible translation of Salleh Ben Joned’s poem:

“What does it matter if your skies are silent
For your forests are articulate
In the constant clime of your essence
I taste a new freedom”

This is the original:

“Kebisuan langitmu tidak mengapa
Kerana rimbamu penuh dengan kata-kata
Dalam kesentiasaan cuaca hakikatmu
Ku rasa suatu kebebasan yang baru”

Sitting there, I realized that translation is a way to understand something twice. There are gaps in translation – inaccuracies, omissions. It’s like overlaying the same image on top of another, and they don’t quite match. And it is work, hard work. It takes a long time. We can’t say all that we have to say, because we have to wait for the translation.

But in that translation is depth, context and understanding beyond language.

Translation is an act of humility and dedication. It’s making meaning. It’s an attempt to understand something twice.

In a world where anyone with a smartphone is an artist who can produce images and statements, translation is the labour of producing and amplifying understanding.

4. Translation II

Back to Point 1 again, “Image as Instrument”. Translation is not limited to language.

Images can be translated. And this is what I believe Sow-Yee’s work is doing.

Translating images is a way to understand them again and again.

These notes are an attempt to translate the talk on Sunday.

My recent sketches of the #TangkapNajib protest on Saturday are an attempt to translate those events into drawings. It’s a necessarily incomplete, partial and imperfect account.

5. Protest and image

Yoong Chia, artist and friend in the audience, brought up the protests planned next week and at the end of the month. He asked (I paraphrase and am possibly misinterpreting here) how critiquing images is related to those protests. That question stayed in my mind.

Protests are also images. Someone, somewhere, together or apart (and in collaboration with the police and our corrupt dictators), we are collectively making these images.

As an artist I slip in and out of producing the image, and translating it. I go back and forth. It’s a great privilege to do so. I try to make it count.

6. Mengkerang

Sow-Yee’s Mengkerang project is made up of three short films, all shown in the exhibition.

Sau Bin dedicated the first half of his presentation to a seemingly irreverent exploration of what ‘Mengkerang’ could mean. Was it a fictional island in the South East Asian archipelago? A real place? The name for a rubber plant?

On the way home in the car I suddenly thought Mengkerang = 每个人 (pronounced in Chinese: mei ge ren, meaning: everybody, everyone)

This sudden image/thought/phrase was so jarring that I almost had to pull over and text it to Sau Bin, Sow-Yee and other friends I’d seen at the talk (I didn’t). The specific mystery of that ‘Mengkerang’ name, coupled with that phrase in a language I hardly understand and that literally means ‘everybody’ – it incapsulates our predicament, our condition and our work. Long is the labour, long may we continue to do it.

*Note 1: I don’t like using FB directly for posting writing, because the feed loses them – you look for what you’ve written a week ago and you can’t find it. But these thoughts are similar to how the feed works – impressions, hints, seeds.

**Note 2: I haven’t seen Sow-Yee’s work yet, so these are thoughts based only on what came up during the talk. I plan to see it in the coming week.


Subsequently, the show’s curator Guo Jao Lan translated the notes into Mandarin and sent them to me. I’m attaching them here. 

8/2「居所與他方」在lostgens樓上的龐克空間「無限發掘」(FINDARS)的展覽座談,來了很多以吉隆坡為基地的評論家、表演藝術工作者、藝術家。會後藝術家Sharon Chin 在臉書上以英文寫下他深入的觀察心得,中譯如下;文中多處觸及自身對馬來西亞在地現實(包括族裔的、語言的、影像的)的反思,與展覽試圖要處理的面向交相映射。(Sharon也是一位視覺藝術家,葉紹斌在台灣的短講‘匯聚、座落、編之一個想象的非地(或海)’中,也曾提到他的作品):

「星期天,前往 Lostgens’當代藝術空間 【居所與他方:影像測量計劃】 區秀詒個展開幕座談,座談會由葉紹繽主持,會上還包括兩位來自台灣的策展人(小編備註:展覽策展人郭昭蘭和台南藝術大學動畫藝術與影像美學研究所所長孫松榮老師)。

以下是這長達4小時的活動所激發的一些想法。 雖然最後一些想法未全然地發展,但我仍執意將現場的筆記分享出來,因為我覺得這些筆記可能對身處在如此的時刻的我們有幫助。尤其,為藝術家如何找到自身位置,並繼續努力穿越現在所發生的一切提供亮光。

1. 影像作為機具 (Image as Instrument,為展覽的副標,「影像測量計劃」的英文)
這是秀詒展覽的副標。展覽由打破敘事的錄像組成,結合撿拾資料影片、解構以及紀錄影片的形式。 區秀詒表示自己對於影像的政治(politics of images)感興趣,而非政治性影像(political images)。對於這樣的分別,值得我們深入的思考,葉紹斌更近一步將其放入一個尖銳的提問之下:「如果沒有藝術家,對影像的批判是否存在?」

2. 編碼
Lostgens的活動都被編碼,就如發生在 Publika,HOM,CAG (呼叫沙巴的朋友)和 Valentine Willie新的Ilham 畫廊的活動都會被編碼一樣。即便我們還沒出席該活動,我們已設想它會是甚麼樣子。這樣的狀態遍佈全世界,我相信它們被稱作「結黨」或「場域」。 但是馬來西亞社會的組成是沿著種族、宗教及文化的系統性歷史發展,並在社會及政治的層面上彼此操作(或我比較傾向使用「安排」)彼此,這樣的環境已經不足以用造成不便來形容。這是藝術家工作的結構,藝術家在如此的氣氛下工作。企圖有意識地以 “muhibbah“(和諧)和「具包容性的」的活動讓這個狀態延續下去。但,它是一個雙重陷阱。因為所使用的語言具「包容性」,但其過程和結果卻是排他性的。 最後的結果是語言有如一陀被塗抹在裂隙上一坨膠質般質地的物質:最終將其縫隙覆蓋,而非揭露。回到剛剛的第一點-「影像作為機具」,影像的語言究竟如何將裂隙填滿,而非將其揭露?

3. 翻譯
我猜 98% 在座談現場的觀眾是熟習中文的,但我是其他的 2%。除了這個觀察,發現座談會現場有種企圖,企圖將每個想法同時翻譯成英文跟中文。不僅只是語言單方向上的翻譯,而是雙向,無論是英文翻譯成中文,或是中文翻譯成英文。思想從一種語言開始發展,無論是中文或是英文,皆被翻譯至另外一種語言。這是相當不容易的,尤其是在討論藝術以及文化理論。如果把中文理解能力分成十個等級,我大概可以落在等級四,這表示對座談現場中文內容的理解可能僅落在 20%-30% 左右。我們知道文本擁有不容易被掌握的特質,文本存在於(書寫的或言說的)語言之外。一件出色的翻譯文本就像是原創的藝術作品,即便事實上它是一首經翻譯後的詩。如 Adibah Amin 不可思議的翻譯了 Salleh Ben Joned 的詩:

“What does it matter if your skies are silent
For your forests are articulate
In the constant clime of your essence
I taste a new freedom”

“Kebisuan langitmu tidak mengapa
Kerana rimbamu penuh dengan kata-kata
Dalam kesentiasaan cuaca hakikatmu
Ku rasa suatu kebebasan yang baru”

坐在那裡,我也意識到翻譯可以讓我們理解某一件事情兩次,因為語言轉譯過程的不精準及省略讓翻譯中存在著一道縫隙(Gap)。它讓一個影像被另外一個意義覆蓋,彼此看似相似但又不完全契合。所以翻譯是件不容易的工作,需要時間去完成。 我們無法說出我們想說的所有,因為必須等待翻譯。同時被翻譯的是超越言語表象的深度、脈絡或理解。翻譯是個謙遜和奉獻式的行為。翻譯製造著意義,翻譯企圖讓我們理解某一件事情兩次。在這個人人都有攜帶式智慧手機,人人都可成為製造著影像和論述的藝術家的世界,翻譯像是一種創造性的和擴大意義的勞動。

4. 翻譯二
再次回到第一點-「影像作為機具」,翻譯不僅只存在於言語上的翻譯,影像也可以被翻譯,我相信區秀詒的作品要做的正是這個。翻譯影像是讓觀者一次又一次地理解影像的途徑。這些筆記企圖翻譯星期天的座談會。最近我正在進行的素描是希望將週六發生在 ‪#‎TangkapNajib‬ 的抗爭翻譯成繪畫,但是它們必然會是,也必須是不完整、局部及不完美的。

5. 抗議與圖像

6. 棉佳蘭
區秀詒的棉佳蘭計畫由三個錄像構成。這三件錄像都在展覽中呈現。葉紹斌在他報告的前半段對「棉佳蘭」進行看起來不稱職的探究,和「棉佳蘭」可能意味著甚麼。它是東南亞群島一座虛構的島嶼? 亦或是一個真實的地方?或是橡膠植物的名字?在回家的路上,我突然意識到「棉佳蘭」可能意味著「每個人」(讀音上的聯想)。這突然的影像/想法/詞彙是如此讓人振奮,以至於我差點想要立刻把車子停在一旁,把這想法傳訊息給在座談會上遇到的朋友們,包括區秀詒和葉紹斌(但最後我沒有)。棉佳蘭名稱上帶有的神祕色彩,和以我幾乎無法理解的語言構成的詞語攪合在一起,以及其字面上意味著「每個人」。這一切涵納了我們生活上的困境,狀態以及工作。勞動非常漫長,願我們持續勞動著。


備註2: 我還沒看區秀詒的作品。所以這些想法來自於開幕座談。我打算下週去看。」