Hello dear readers, I spent the weekend trying to write this blog so it could go up yesterday.
You see, I had A PLAN.
Mondays I would post updates from the frontlines of Making Art Happen – all the stuff that goes on in my head and heart. I would call it Makenarten Mondays.
Wednesdays I would post geeky How Tos – practical, technical, mildly tutorial type things, which would also veer into strange territory like the last post.
Fridays I have a surprise brewing, which is not ready yet. I promise it is cool, and importantly, contains things other than ME.
But, as you cannot fail to notice, it is already Tuesday. I am late. Fuck. Beautiful plan is no longer pretty and perfect. So maybe instead of doing what I always do, which is makenplannen, I’m going to try to makenhappen this first and see where it goes.
Warning: this is going to be long and messy.
It’s been months since the momentous day of the street rally. I finally feel like I can talk about it. There were a lot of voices and opinions in the lead up to 28 April – how people felt, how they didn’t feel, analyses, reflection, criticism, resistance. It just went on and on, like a bursting river of pent-up emotion. It was fucking elemental.
I’ll be honest, part of me wanted to hide and drop out. Not because I was above it all, but because I couldn’t fucking hear myself think or feel. I can’t have been the only one. (Introverts of Malaysia, you feelin’ me?)
This is where art saves me. It gives me something to do. It can be (I emphasize CAN be) an expression of the self that doesn’t try to win over or control others.
There were calls for creative people to ‘use our art for a good cause.’
I didn’t know how to deal with that. Here’s the thing. I’m not neutral politically. I’m comfortable with politics – it’s part of living as a citizen in the world. I’ve also been on the far end of this ‘using art’ spectrum, having spent a brief stint making actual political propaganda. It was a good experience. I got paid for it. I might do it again, if the spirit moves me.
But something about the idea of ‘using’ art fills me with dread. I think it’s because if you believe there’s ‘useful’ art, then you also believe there’s ‘useless’ art. I can’t buy into that. I don’t accept that art of higher moral standing is more valuable, and I’m wary of anyone who says it is.
Back in 2011, I designed some posters supporting Bersih2.0. I felt like I was serving a greater cause. But deep down I knew I had done it for myself (as with, ultimately, all my art making) – maybe for attention, to feel righteous, to be somehow visible during this historical moment. That doesn’t mean I’m not proud and glad that these posters exist in the world.
There is a line. And it’s NOT about not crossing it, because to understand anything, you need to go everywhere. It’s about keeping track, making sure it’s there. What is this line? I don’t know. But I think – and this is a theory – it lies in this question and how honestly you can answer: why are you doing this?
For Bersih3.0, I knew I wanted to make a costume of some kind.
When I was in Spain last year, I saw someone dressed up as a Mystic from The Dark Crystal in the Puerta del Sol. I dropped a coin into his/her tin and the Mystic did a little dance for me. I kissed it on the nose and went on my way. It was a beautiful moment that made me indescribably happy. My mom took a video. If I find it, I’ll post it up.
I decided to make a yellow dress covered in bunga (flowers) to give away.
On the eve of the rally, a few of us stayed over at Shahril Nizam’s place in the heart of KL. (Shahril is one of my favorite people, and an amazing artist) We spent the day sewing and pinning hundreds of ribbon flowers to the dress.
Shahril’s kitchen table on 27 April. The hot glue flowed and so did the bubble tea:
28 April came. I watched the dawn from Shahril’s window:
Bersih3.0 was one the best days of my life – for a few hours, all the invisible walls between art, audience, and power dissolved. People loved the dress, it seemed to make them happy and that made me happy. So much love, no explanations needed. I remember thinking: how do I make art be like this, always?
I kept putting off the moment of giving out the flowers because I wanted to ride the high… and then, suddenly, the tear gas hit. It was chaos. When rumours of violence started trickling in via twitter, we left the scene. The flowers stayed on the dress. I took it home and hung it on my studio wall to remind me of that incredible day.
Now, enter part two. (Sorry, I told you this was going to be long. Stay with me, ok?)
A few months later, the editor at Esquire Malaysia emailed asking if I’d be part of their Media Art Project: interview, photo shoot, exhibitions in three different venues, and feature in their Artsy Fartsy August issue.
I turned them down. I even drew a little chart weighing the pros and cons (I am a total dork. I really am) and concluded that I needed to be getting on with the epic art project I have planned for 2013.
But in a fit of perversity, I said I’d do it if they featured the yellow Bersih dress. To my surprise, it was a yes. They’re a game old bunch, over at Esquire. See, they even let me hold a bag of salt (salt neutralizes tear gas) in the photo shoot:
I made A LOT more flowers for the dress, and numbered each one by hand. All 345 of them. I decided to be absent for the exhibitions. Partly because I didn’t want to leave Port Dickson, partly as an experiment in making art happen remotely, from a distance. I prepared an information board that told people to ‘liberate’ a flower, and to email/tweet me which number they got, using the tag #bungaBERSIH.
I was looking forward to the same rush of interacting with strangers that I got at Bersih3.0, only this time, virtually.
A few good friends (bless their souls) emailed and tweeted me their flowers. The wonderful Esquire intern (@ShawalRas) sent me sweet messages about how everyone loved the dress. No one outside my familiar circle got back to me.
By the night of the second exhibition, the silence from my inbox was deafening. I think what made it worse was that I wasn’t there in person to see how people were engaging with the dress. On my end, it felt like a total failure. I was crushed.
The next day, I got an email from someone I didn’t know. It was a single line:
‘Hey, nice show. I got flower #_____.’
That one email made me cry. I realized that when people take your art, it’s actually a gift. And if they ever let you know how it made them feel, that stuff is priceless beyond anything. That lone email was as important as to me as the reactions of the huge crowd at Bersih.
One person. That’s all we’ll ever be.
P.S. If you’d like to liberate a flower, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me your address and I’ll send you one (yes, through the post office, in the real world), wherever you are.
P.P.S. Check out the #bungaBERSIH Liberators List here.