Selected Ambient Work #6: Soft

I’ve always been stuck in reveries. Often my actual life and my dreams meld together in one ambient landscape. I’ve always been a daydreamer, living as if every experience was a scene in a movie – not necessarily with me as the main character but, still, as if it were all a stage and I could take on roles at will. I’ve lately come to realise that dreams form the core of who I am. 


A few nights ago I was walking in the street alone at night. Not anywhere too far or for too long – just down the road to the 7-Eleven to buy cigarettes. I had this light, bouncy feeling as my paces picked up speed and the wind blew my hair back, like Shu Qi in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Millennium Mambo. There was something in the air, something light and thrilling, I felt like nothing mattered since i was here, taking big strides down a black street in the middle of an anonymous city, in full awareness that I will never be this young again. This was around 9pm and I knew there was a party going on somewhere. I thought about you, I hoped that you would come, just pop up out of the night and turn it all into magic. I never thought of myself as an optimistic person but I realised lately that I am; I’m always hoping, always dreaming, always anticipating delirious surprises just around the corner. I’m always sniffing out the night, waiting for magic to happen, waiting for romance to bloom, waiting and dreaming, walking down dark windy streets to the little 7-Eleven at the end hoping it’s a dim closet into Narnia, then having my bubble burst by the drowsy-looking, bad-tempered night cashier, but it doesn’t take much for me to get back in the mood again, and no it’s not drugs, it’s never drugs, I’m just simply high off my own youth fantasy… It’s dangerous, all my friends would be shocked if I told them, but don’t worry, I’m always aware of my surroundings at the back of my mind, but I’m a writer, so all of the elements of this scene just blur together into the story. The story and its telling always come first. 


Someone else, looking in on my life, might say that it’s extravagant and indulgent. Don’t worry Mr Hypothetical Third Person, because whatever you’re thinking about me is something I’ve thought about myself many, many, many times already. I always sink back in, because I’m a person of dreams, and alcohol is a way of bringing dreamtime down into real-time. When I’m sober, I feel awkward, guarded, sluggish, and everyone around me seems boring. When I’m three beers deep, the night starts to feel like a funny little strategy game, and I weave through people while sparring with my tongue, making pirouettes and backflips and other cool tricks with our shared banter. I feel like a magician, I feel so cool and funny and correct. The other night at a big art opening, I was talking with S and Z about the awkwardness of the entire affair — caterers kept butting into our conversations to tell us not to smoke — and they have a phrase for this social discomfort, they call it “not being in their bodies”. Z wonders at how I can do all this schmoozing and art-ing as my day job and then for my free time to consist of the same. When, he wondered, do I ever get time to be “in my body”? And I told them, I feel the most like myself when I can make people laugh. The answer surprised them so much that they just laughed in response and went, “Wow, huh, okay!” And I laughed too. It’s a corny answer, it’s the type of thing that you expect a stock character in a Disney or Marvel movie to say. But it’s true, and that’s really the thing about me, I love to make people laugh, I love to say things that surprise people, I love to dream and hope, and make everything as fantastical as possible.

At the right amount of alcohol, the world starts to feel like a dream where anything can happen. But of course this is not a practical state to be in all the time. The world still needs to be managed in the daytime, so that the nighttime’s alcohol reveries can be light and dreamy, rather than tormented and addictive. The Mr Hypothetical-Third-Person looking in might say that this is already the addiction talking but I think, like another famous alcoholic writer once said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Too much of sobriety and control is also an addiction, a denial of the breadth of human experience. 

When I return back to reality (i.e., when I wake up the next day with my head throbbing), I begin the task of parsing through and analysing all the memories that gradually start to return with the day. The task is to sort out which part was a dream and which not. The days after the weekend are spent looking inward and catching up on emails from my internal administrator. My internal admin asks, was it him that told me he went to the same school as X, or was it the other guy that I met at the venue after that? And I search my memories for the answer. Wondering if I really did blow kisses at that person, or did I just think I did. Wondering, did I really ask someone to his face what his name was, even though I knew already? And what was that all about, what was I trying to say or prove with that? It’s like Freudian dream analysis, but on the plane of the real. I invite the memories back, I let them in while telling myself not to dwell on them too much. So this is my life, bouncing between dreams and reality, and trying to draw out meaning from the gaps between the two. Some people have much more normal hobbies I guess, they go hiking or furniture-shopping or they walk their dogs or cook dinner for people they love. Me, I pick apart my memories for everything beneath them, I play with memory’s shadow figures and direct them in the stage of my mind. I dream and create stories. In order to live. 


I feel like I know you now. I feel like the fantasy we had momentarily shared has been shattered (by my own hand, by a desire to take control over the shared fantasy). You’re not as free as I thought you were, you still hold strong to certain principles and responsibilities, and I respect you for that, for not getting distracted. I’m just a distraction, a wisp of cloud. I don’t think we can ever overcome this chasm that has opened up between us, but perhaps we can help and understand each other from a distance. it always hurts to be reminded of the distance between people, the awful fact of each person’s individuality, when you had thought there was none. People perceive me as someone who gets along with everyone, who always seems to be having a great time, who seems so chill and easy-going, who is always surrounded by friends who call out my name everywhere I go, I’m the girl who says she just wants to make people laugh, but i do have a core, a still centre, just like anyone else – I have a B-side, a verso, a locked door, a “place that you dare not look” (I just finished reading Dune), just like anyone else. This doesn’t mean that I have depth per se, or secrets, or anything corny like that! This means that the lightness and the fun are my personality, that it doesn’t get deeper than that, nor is my personality as shallow as that. The hurt arises when people think i do this unseriously. As if I would forget so easily, as if making people laugh is just something that comes out of nowhere, rather than something that gives me deep, philosophical pleasure. As if the drunken revelry is all forgotten by the morning after — I tell you now, it is not. The dreams, the alcohol-poison: as it is in Dune, the spice-melange is a way of heightening vision and consciousness. I do not forget. When I wake up with the melange-headache, I plunder and I plunder, for material, analysis, and understanding. For foresight. 

One day it’ll start to make more sense to me why I did what I did. Nevertheless, what has transpired between us has helped me clarify something, about you and about me. 


(Side B) 

In your head everything seems so complicated and you balance so many indulgences of vanity, thinking that you’re hiding it all very well, and you secretly (so secret it’s even a secret from yourself) manipulate other people to match your idea of the world. The Prufrock dilemma… is it better to force a situation to a head or to let things be? I used to think the former but now, perhaps, the latter. The emptiness, the lack of anything, can also be a lesson, a sign from God. 

I’ve been running my mind in circles, trying to discipline myself into letting fate and time run their course, while also tempering my utter impatience and itching suspicion that all I need to do is just to Will things into existence. I take every failure and disappointment so personally as failures of will on my part. If I had just tried harder, if I was nicer (always this), if I was prettier (this too), if I had more initiative, if I worked harder, then it wouldn’t have turned out this way. But then, when I think of all my regrets (and as a plunderer of memory, my life is nothing if not a laundry list of regrets), I find that I don’t have as many regrets for the things I don’t do as much as for the things I have done. 

Something I have to learn to do is how to live outside of my mind, and how to follow the thin thread of all my actions to their diminishing consequences. 


In Whit Stilman’s The Last Days of Disco, everyone is always falling in love with each other at the wrong time. Nobody is ever falling for someone at the same time as that person is falling for them – nobody is ever able to keep up with each other in the valleys of love. Sometimes one person is at the peak, while the other is still taking the view from the plateau below, and once the other has reached where the first person was before, the first person has already started descending.  Always missing love by about an inch. You have to get so lucky. 

Hilarity ensues: An interview with artist CC Kua

The following text is the full (abridged) interview that I initially submitted to ILHAM Gallery for publication in their ILHAM Art Show catalogue. Due to word count constraints, I had to cut off a chunk of it at the end, but I still think it’s funny enough to republish in full somewhere!

The show opened last Tuesday, and it’s very wow — my thoughts on that soon. The rest of my essays (aside from CC, I also wrote on the works of Azzaha Ibrahim, Hasanul Isyraf Idris, Sharon Chin, and Yeoh Choo Kuan) can be found at the ILHAM website here, and in their soon-to-be-published exhibition catalogue.

CC Kua’s studio at 3 A.M.

The work CC’s presented here is perhaps the simplest and the most opaque one of the show. It began with a set of new colour pencils. The more she used them, the shorter they get, though not all at the same rates. As she watched them “grow up” (or rather, grow down) at increasingly uneven lengths, she started to feel bad for the less-used ones. In contemporary parlance, you might call her an empath.

With Everybody Has A Chance, CC wanted to create a work that minimised her role as an artist as much as possible. After all, it was her own artistic vision that prevented some of the colour pencils from fulfilling their teleological purpose as a colour pencil. The work’s premise is simple: to use up all the colour pencils in her set until they reach the same length as the shortest and most-used one, which is the black colour pencil. By this logic, the colour she least enjoys using will receive the most prominence by taking up the most space. However, as you’ll discover, this apparently well-intentioned gesture can also be taken the wrong way.

The following conversation has been edited for publication.

Ellen Lee

CC Kua

Me: So, Faber Castell?

CC: I bought these colour pencils during my college years — just randomly la, I didn’t even think about the brand. I just needed colour pencils. And I’ve been using them ever since. I’ve been wanting to do this work for a very long time, like since three years ago. I was looking at this box of colour pencils and thinking, how come I used the black one so much? Black always remained the shortest. I felt bad for all the other colours.

So you won’t be using black in the final work then. The black pencil is the benchmark and you have to get all the other colour pencils to that length.

Yes, yes, correct. I thought the work and the concept are so simple, but I find it quite hard to explain it to people. I talked to my mom about this work and she was like Hmmmmmm. Hmm.

How come you chose to propose this for the ILHAM Art Show? It has a very simple outcome, pure colours, when normally you do quite detailed works.

Yes, normally I do drawings with forms, shapes, characters, stories. The more I practice art, the more inspired I am by artists like Martin Creed, David Shrigley, and Andy Warhol. I also enjoy looking at pictures from Marc Chagall and David Hockney. My studies in Taiwan helped push my thinking further on whether art should only be about form, expression, and content. You can see a lot of my character in my previous drawings, but maybe not so much in this work. Maybe in a more indirect way.

If people just saw the work displayed as is, without your name or an artist statement, they might not even know it’s by you.

Yes, I think that’s quite good. Artists sometimes try to own a visual style too much. But I try not to be so protective over my style. Because sometimes I also get bored of it la. Artists have to take one step back. You don’t always have to tell people that it’s your artwork, you don’t need to have a particular style. With this work, I tried to minimise artistic intervention; I’m just a medium to help the colour pencils show themselves.

You used the black colour pencil to make proper drawings, which is why it’s so short. But now you’re using the rest to simply colour. Don’t you think you’re treating them unequally?

When I thought, oh, how do I make them shorter? Maybe do something like my usual drawings? Mm, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do either. I wanted to show them just as themselves. So I thought that by using them up in a single block of colour each until they reached the height of the black colour pencil, this would be a more powerful way to show off their colours. When you look at one big block of colour as opposed to a detailed drawing, it’s the block that allows you to focus on the colours. If the final visual had a form or story to it, you wouldn’t focus on the colours. You’d be trying to understand what I’m trying to say, as the artist. 

Normally the colours would be in service of you, but now you’re in service of them.

Yes, yes, that’s right! Wow, now it sounds very fancy. Say that again. Write that down. Very good. 

First, the colour pencils are in service of your vision —

Yes, they’re like my maid. 

But now, you are in service of them.

Now, I am their maid.

I think this work is pretty badass la. I mean it’s badass ’cause it’s very… low effort?

[CC laughs]

Like, it’s straightforward.

The execution is quite easy, but the thought process is there. I actually consider a lot of things while making it, like whether I want to colour methodically or in a more free, impulsive way.

It’s difficult to remove yourself as an artist.

Yes, to me it’s easier to make my usual drawings and paintings. Those come more naturally. Because I don’t like to make decisions, but with this work, I feel like I have to make a lot of decisions. I’m not trying to be a badass. I’m like a sweet little girl. But I like badass stuff. 

I think you don’t need to justify your work by saying, like, “I deserve to be selected for the ILHAM Art Show because I’m a skilled artist, it’s a detailed work, it’s a long process, I worked very hard.” The confidence required to propose such an idea is also part of the work. It’s part of the feeling of the work.

Thank you. Please do something fun for the essay! Do whatever you want. But we get to check right?! 

Er… OK, I’ll send it to you before I send it to ILHAM…

So nice of you. 

I was thinking that I could just reprint this conversation. Because you have a strong personality; your personality is very embedded into your works. When I was reading your proposal, I thought that ILHAM should just reprint it exactly as you wrote it. A lot of artists make great works but maybe they’re not very good at talking, or their personality is buried deep inside them. So writers have to draw it out of them when they write their essays. But for your text…

Yeah, you can make it very surface but very deep like that. 

Er… What? Anyway, I want to use your words. I don’t want to write too much. I’ll compile it, but I like the way you express yourself.

Thank you. So is this interview over yet?

I have one last thing I wanted to ask you. You say you want to let these unused colour pencils shine —

Oh, this is a very good phrase! 


To let the unused colour pencils shine

So I wanted to ask you a stupid question. What about the other artists who didn’t get selected for the ILHAM Art Show?


Why don’t you let them shine?

[Laughter] That’s so epic… Like hang them up on the walls?!

Or frame all the artworks that didn’t get selected in the same way you’re planning to frame your colour pencil works.

Wow, that’s so wrong! But so cool… You should have applied for the show. “Why don’t I let them shine?” My God.

In your artist statement for the show, you wrote: ‘I would like to frame all the coloured papers and the equally short colour pencils. One frame for each of them. You can already hear them saying, “Today is my day!”’ But have you ever thought about the other artists for whom today is not their day??? Have you ever thought about them?

No!! Oh my God, this is so epic. Why are you so clever? So politically incorrect! What about others, let them shine, hang them there on the wall… You know this guy, Maurizio Cattellan?

The toilet guy? Banana guy?

Yeah, he hung someone before… 

He duct-taped them—

Yeah, he duct-taped them. [Referring to Cattelan’s work A Perfect Day (1999) in which he taped his gallerist, Massimo De Carlo, to the gallery’s walls in Milan.] Anyway, my God, Ellen you’re so evil. I love this. My God, yes you’re right, I let my colour pencils shine but not real humans! [More laughter, wiping tears from her eyes.] Oh my God, so funny. What a night.

So you like really funny artists.

The badass kind. But I feel like I’m not a badass. A little bit la, but cannot too much. Oh my God, can you include that question in the essay? Write down, “Why don’t you let the other artists shine?” and then write my answer as just, like, “Omg, lololol, hahaha.” You had such a serious face when you asked it, I was laughing so much.

Don’t you ever think about the other artists whose opportunities you took? You’re like the black colour pencil, you know. They’re all still waiting in the box. It’s so dark in there. Three hundred and sixty artists applied.

And how many got accepted? 


So that’s like ten percent right? 

I don’t know, I can’t do maths.

Selected Ambient Work #5: Brittle

Kuala Lumpur is a dirty city, an ugly city, full of shoddily maintained malls, plain women, and immigrant waiters who talk to you in a hazy druggy mumble and avoid your eyes in a manner dripping with both insecurity and contempt. When did it become so difficult to buy something at a 7-11? I ask for a MAL-BO-RO RED, a MAL-BO-RO ME-RAH, I point at it behind the cashier’s shoulder, and he turns around, pats the Chesterfields, the LMs, pulls out a Marlboro Gold. Why do none of the people who work there know what to do anymore, and why don’t they look like me? I’m not inclined or motivated to improve myself in Kuala Lumpur. The roti canai I just ate at the mall’s franchise mamak makes me want to shit instantly. In the female toilet, I’m crouched forward and pushing out little turdlings, and some fellow woman is shitting in one of the other stalls, gasping out diarrhoeac spurts. She’s blasting some Tamil programme on her phone, no earphones, just blasting it out to the whole toilet.

You think you’re better than this, you think your shit stinks less and like your shit comes out cleaner, like it comes out on the same silver spoon you were served with, but you’re not, you’re all stuck bent over in the same toilet, and the odour of your shit wafts up to meld with the odour of her shit and everyone else’s shit, indistinguishable. We’re all in the same shit soup that is Kuala Lumpur.

When you’re bent over and pushing waste out of your body, there’s no difference between you and the person doing the same exact thing one stall over. I smell this woman’s shit and I wonder why I’m here, how much of my recent life has just been pure escapism, and how when you step out of the gallery, out of your little bourgeoisie bubble for even one second, you find yourself back in the world again. Back with ordinary people again. Back in the same shit soup that is Kuala Lumpur. You’re not above this just because of who your parents are or where you went to school.


April is over, we’re past the first third of the year, we’re past the time of hope and brightness and descending in a downward spiral into the months of stagnant sticky debauchery. It’s too late to pull yourself up. Despite April having been the holy month of fasting, and despite my many scoldings to myself during the month that “this needs to change”, I have broken all the resolutions and i am left worse off than when I began.

At a friend’s birthday, I consume: three beers, two negroni’s, a shot of something, and someone pours Bombay Sapphire down my throat for three seconds. The next day, I wake up without a headache, but feeling like a caveman, or some wild predator: brain dead, but murderous. I’m bone dumb, but my body feels tense, like I could pounce on anything and rip it apart for its innards. I put a stop to this by going to eat some extremely meaty noodles later that night, with slices of raw beef, pork, and duck, and as I masticate the extremely beefy beef, I feel like I’ve made peace with my inner Neanderthal.

And everything else about the rest of April has been like this – not so wild and chaotic as to be reckless, but enough to be worrying. I slide ever more into what Camille Paglia called a chthonic, Dionysian swamp. Every decision is made in haste, made in and for a specific moment, and entirely for myself. I’m not thinking properly, and the brain fog of all my body’s demands colliding in my head makes it difficult to create or produce anything. My period this month feels as if it’s come back with a vengeance. Anyone who claims that there isn’t any innate difference between men and women is entirely, manipulatively wrong: there is a difference, and when we are on our periods, us women are animals, or worse. We’re muck, we’re dirty rain, we’re something deeper and grimier than silt, we’re worms, we’re the unnamable things living under rocks and in crevices.

In April, I’ve worked on four separate exhibitions/projects, and had weeks where I was out of the house every single day straight, only coming home to crash into my bed before I’m off again the next morning. This intense and insane period of activity makes me feel young and alive, and all of my body’s nerves feel alight, and I’m speeding through life blind and dumb with the feeling like I can do anything. I’ve finally unlocked something that I never understood when I was young, which is the question of why so many of my classmates were obsessed with sports and athletics. Now that my body has been activated, I understand that sports is a supreme way of working off raw energy and bloodlust.

But alas, when the body is activated and stirring, the mind is idle and frozen. The physical activity and fatigue make me feel alive, more alive than I’ve ever felt for a very long time, but I’m sluggish in creating or producing anything. And that seems to be the catch: you’re either active and awake, but stupid, or you’re cerebral and considerate, but constantly tired. And it’s also making me rude, which I understand now must be the reason why jocks are so competitive and combative. Lately I’ve been speaking out of pocket; words just fly out of my mouth and smack people across their faces. Lately there’s this feeling of, if I can do it, then why can’t other people? Who’s better than me?

Look, if there’s anything that my adult years of life have taught me, if there’s anything that I never want to forget, it’s that actions always have consequences, and every decision has a price. Sometimes the bill comes later rather than sooner, but it always comes in the end.

So I’ve been thinking about balance and control. In particular, how to allow energies to flow naturally and for charm to work its way and bring forth new opportunities, but also how to recognise limits and how to reign in bad weather before it turns into a tempest.


I watched The Batman (2022), a long winding movie with many things happening and also nothing happening at the same time. Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is a very brooding fellow, though I’m not quite convinced that all his perceived troubles are serious enough to justify such a deep, brittle voiceover. Suspenseful music played, as the camera panned over to reveal… a question mark in latte art? Like, what? The relevance of The Batman’s situation to mine: he considers how to do good for his city and finds himself in conflict between the forces of slow corruptible equanimity and unhinged, equally corruptible aggression — is the answer to be found in the electoral process and NGO-industrial-complex black lady mayor or through vigilante action played out immediately on the streets? Should I be the bigger person, kind and fair, or should I lean into enmity and say exactly what I’m thinking?

Jenny Holzer, always.

Sometimes I feel like a bat in a cave, awake in the dark, moving and brooding amid the things that skitter and scrabble, full of mystery. Other times, I feel like The Riddler or The Joker, ironic and smirking because everything and everyone is one big joke that’s not even funny. And yet some other times, I feel like a life of vengeance and punishment (action and reaction) is not what humans have evolved for; surely, the developments of human consciousness and the lessons of history should be enough for us to be able to choose to follow due process and inquiry; in these other other times, I feel like Inspector Gordon or Alfred. I want to live in grace amidst the maelstrom.


I watched Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) and found it extremely well-crafted, but unbelievable — and no, I’m not trying to be a retard by saying I found a science fiction multiverse movie “unbelievable”. It wasn’t the sci-fi aspect, it was the kindness aspect. It was the catch at the end, it was Waymond (played by Ke Huy Quan) pleading with his wife to be kind. At the end of the day, kindness is the final things that truly matters, but how sustainable is that when you feel so much burning energy within you? It’s not good enough just to be kind, kindness doesn’t provide enough ventilation for all the trapped hot air.

Watching the movie, you can’t deny the difference between men and women. Waymond, being a loving but hopeless and emasculated man, can’t do anything except blubber, make jokes, and help out whenever his wife will allow him to. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is a control freak multi-tasker (working women love to multitask) who lives too much in her own head, has the appearance of being busy all the time, yet never seems to get anything done. In the Wong Kar-Wai dimension where Evelyn is a glamorous movie star, Evelyn and Waymond sit in a rainy alleyway, contemplating the life they might have had together—all the ways they might have fulfilled each other, all the things they could have been—but in another time, another place… The most potent part of the film, the one that nearly set me off sobbing, was Waymond’s line [spoilers]: “In another universe, I would have loved to be doing laundry and taxes with you.” Once the main Evelyn understands that this universe is all that she has, this revelation leads to her choosing to repair her relationship with Waymond and to start improving her family life and their haphazard laundromat business. But in rainy-alleyway-Evelyn’s timeline, this was not meant to be — they part ways, as Evelyn pursues her film career and life goes on. Tears in the rain.

What I feel now is raw, conflicting forces compounding together to create a surging maelstrom within me — sometimes I’m brooding and moody, untouchable and tense, often I am happy, but the happiness makes me sloppy and insolent, sometimes I am confident that I have God on my side, sometimes I am angry and I say so. But the anger, the happiness, the irritation, the fatigue, the calculation: sometimes, all of it just makes me sad. While it is good and better to be kind, kindness is not something that I can turn into my entire modus operandi. Kindness is not an adequate enough theory to explain everything that I feel inside of myself. At least for now, kindness feels to me more of a prescription for unknown scenarios rather than a guiding principle. When in doubt, it’s certainly better to be kind, but kindness doesn’t explain all of myself, doesn’t explain the cravings I feel in my teeth and in my red organs. Kindness does’t explain why I feel sometimes the desire to rip into things or to put people down; it doesn’t explain or satiate the mental imagery I have of myself as a leopard leaping on and tearing into prey, or as a powerful drill penetrating a hard wall, defeating all resistances in my path.

A meme.

What I am seeking out is the control and the sense that will unite everything and bring it all into balance. What I am seeking is The Batman’s cold backward glance in the rain as he parts from Selina Kyle for the last time. At the end of the day, the stack of charisma Jenga, the pyramid of shot glasses, they all come tumbling down, and you have to find the courage and the will to say No, not again. You have to drag yourself up off the ground, clean up, and say, today I am going to create, I am going to produce. I am going to do all the things that I know I should do. Today, I won’t be needlessly kind, nor will I be needlessly mean. I will be at peace with certain directed acts of cruelty, because it may be what I need to do in order to push onwards. Even though it is impossible to rise above the shit soup, even if everyone finds themselves being flushed away in the downward spiral in the end, you must still try. You — I — must still try to leave behind something worthwhile, something more than just shit.

Selected Ambient Work #4: Out of office

Trying to be a good sport in Penang and dutifully check out all the things that people tell me i should check out, but failing, because i am just such an incorrigible city girl that if there isn’t a 7-11 or Starbucks within arm’s reach i start to feel a little unmoored.

Whenever you tell your friends you’re going to Penang, they start telling you all the things you should do (most of those things not being things that you can’t do in KL anyway, in some variation or another), they gush over how charming it is and ask you to pass their regards to x and y and z. After two years of being KL-locked, I had forgotten how much pressure there is in travelling. On a two-night solo trip out to Penang, I rediscovered the unique pains of being an out-of-towner and “away from keyboard” all over again. It’s as if work is so important that people want to know that, if you’re taking time off it, then you’re really living your life to the max–that being the only viable excuse for taking leave.

When you’re in George Town, it’s frowned upon (among my hipster friends, at least) to book the five-star hotel, so I dutifully book the boutique hotel. May god forgive me, but I felt a pang of regret the instant the booking went through – why did I listen to my hipster friends? Deep down, what my soul really ever longs for is the carpeted hallways, the air cons going at full blast, the white towels, white bathrobes, white sheets, the heavy glass bathroom doors, and the concierge in uniform. It’s as if by going for the boutique experience I was already giving in to the pressures of ‘making the most of my time’ by discovering ‘hidden gems’ in Penang. Perhaps in rebellion to this initial failure, I then declined to book a flight into Penang, against my friends’ advice, choosing instead to travel by bus. My friends think I’m ridiculous (and poor), they say that by flying you can reach the island in an hour, whereas a bus ride wastes 5 hours of a day. But what they don’t understand is that a holiday, for me, is the luxury of wasting time. Luxury comes, sometimes, in the form of physical extravagance — the five-star chain hotels — and sometimes it comes in the form of the low-class and meandering, such as by taking a bus instead of flying. Once, I was in an artist crit session where the artist kept talking about how he tries to “optimise” his working process as much as possible, and I felt so revulsed.

My first night here, I panic about what to eat. I’m wandering around, I walk out to the Esplanade and I see many Malay families loitering around and being lackadaisical near rubbish. I see a newly-wedded couple and their entourage traipsing around the Whiteaways Arcade and taking wedding photos. Teenagers zoom by me on beam electric scooters. I go out to the edge, where there’s a Malay food court overlooking the sea, and where P and I once had a nice afternoon sharing beer on the seawall. The part overlooking the sea is boarded up now. It was bad enough before when there was just trash everywhere, and young children playing around in it, but at least you had the redeeming view of the sea. Now children play in a playground against a backdrop of blue hoarding. I walk out, out, out, getting in a weird funk whenever I have to navigate the crossing of traffic.

I reach a little enclave down a dead-end road where there are motorcycles parked. It’s the continuation of the sea wall, a little part of it that hasn’t been boarded up yet. The ground has sparse patches of grass, like the spiky sweaty short hair of a Chinese boy. Young Malay and Indian families are sitting on the few metres of wall. I’ve been the only Chinese person I’ve seen for a few minutes now, walking from the Esplanade over to here. Down below are craggy rocks with rubbish all in their crevices. Some fishermen are out there, casting sad lines into the shallow waters. Crows hop from rock to rock. I lift myself up on the sea wall, feeling weird, and a lizard starts crawling towards me except it’s not like a typical lizard you’d find at home — its back has a dark petroleum sheen and it is totally, utterly smooth. It’s like a cross between a worm and a lizard. I smoke until I’m lightheaded and the rocks below look a bit too possible.

For dinner, I think, OK, fine, I’ll take up a recommendation so that I can honestly tell my friends that I did at least one thing they told me to do. A friend recommended a Nyonya restaurant, saying the food there is “bombbbbbbbb”. It’s clearly a restaurant meant for families only, and all the tables there seat a minimum of 4 people. I order fried rice and, feeling bad for only ordering a single dish, a petai omelette. The omelette is extremely fragrant and the fried rice very good, the petai is spicy and offensive, just the way I like it, but everything is entirely too much, and I have nowhere to plant my eyes while I eat. All I do is eat, eat, and keep eating. It’s like that Method Man song. (Yeah, torture, motherfucker, what? I’ll fuckin’, I’ll fuckin’, sew your asshole closed, and keep feedin’ you, and feedin’ you, and feedin’ you, and feedin’ you.) They have seated me next to the toilet. The family at the next table over is eyeing me and probably wondering about me, and one of the women there is missing an arm. Imagine how I must have looked, struggling to finish my family-sized dinner, for a woman with one arm to pity me.

The next morning, while having breakfast, two coloured-hair Zoomers (the only other guests I’ve seen in this boutique hotel) walk by the breakfast window and wave goodbye. I feel lost. The night before, I went out on a walk around the neighbourhood to shed some of the fullness from my stomach, but I kept spiralling and I couldn’t find my hotel. It was only after walking up and down the same street with an illegal bar and Indian men of all ages smoking and drinking on the sidewalk outside five times that I realised I had to turn a corner. For dinner that night, in order to avoid a repetition of the night before’s fiasco (of putting myself in an awkward situation where I eat too much, and of not being able to recognise the streets at night) I just bought some nasi kandar takeaway and ate it back in my hotel room, OG style with my hand — because they didn’t provide cutlery.

Passing through the streets in a Grab, I see things. The motorcycles swerve by a little too close. On two separate occasions, I pass by people performing prayers and burning offerings out on the street. I see heads in windows, bent over work. I see a lot of weathered people, people on bicycles and people wearing old polo t-shirts and threadbare cargo shorts. Despite all my initial reservations, there is most definitely a charm to this island life that can’t be found in Kuala Lumpur. There is sincerity and directness in the way people go about things here. It doesn’t seem like there’s much regret to be found around here; each day comes to an end and then the next one begins again. The streets are quiet after dark, but without the apparent threat of danger. I think it could be easy to find meaning and structure here, but it also seems just as easy to start spiralling.

I try to be a Zoomer. At a cafe within a warehouse, with gravel on the floor and plants growing to the ceiling, I’m getting the full Zoomer experience, I’m being served bright dishes by people who look younger than me. My French toast comes garnished with flower petals. I can’t help comparing my servers to my barista back home, who has a beard and thick dark glasses, and not the cheap wiry metal K-pop-inspired ones that these guys have, nor their soft brown highlights. Every single person working here (and some of the diners) is wearing Converse.

There are two guys sitting at different tables who look like twins. Both wear the wiry circular glasses, both have half their heads bleached silver. Both are wearing generic graphic t-shirts and pastel shorts. What I like about this place is that they give me water with the table service, but the glass they give me for the water is as small as (and perhaps is) a shot glass.

Selective rust, IKEA stools (pale pine and white), random plants that keep dying, and exposed ceilings. Cement. Don’t get me wrong: for all the disdain in my tone, I actually like this place. My elaborate french toast is good, and so is the coffee. Such cafes are invariably a part of the Zoomer experience, the Zoomer architecture. They are places where you can go, alone or with a friend, to have something in one hand that you can keep sipping on while you scroll your phone in the other. Such places invite you to take pictures and talk about mindless nonsense or to click away on your laptop feeling a little productive. At the family-style restaurant of two nights back, I wouldn’t have dared to bring out my laptop, even if I had had it on me. There, the son was waiting tables and his mother was doing accounts at an unoccupied table.

I feel very at home in places like this cafe. Their toilets are clean, but because of the current mood, I feel like I can only allow myself to enjoy these things at an ironic distance. But the truth is that I like this setting, I like all the tropes that are familiar to my age, I like the bleached highlights and the scuffed-up Chucks, I like my iced coffee and I like the caramel syrup on the french toast, I like that everyone is so busy on their own phones to pay any attention to me alone on mine. I like these places to disappear and zone out in public.

Even though I am not staying at the chain hotel nor having coffee in the Starbucks, the spectres of these institutions are deeply felt within the contemporary architecture of George Town. The boutique hotel still has room cleaning service, hot water, and a rule against smoking indoors; the cafe still has its Instagrammable elements. They are the same things updated for the local context. A certain degree of old-world charm is good for the soul because it reminds you that things haven’t always been this way, that the possibility exists for the present moment to be radically different from what it is. But sometimes I just want to go somewhere and let the overwhelming and unstoppable (and therefore comforting) tide of globalisation (the IKEA-Instagram complex) consume me, unburden me of the pressures of discovery.

Blogging with two balls

White Pube-ism

I used to be an angry kid, I used to think I could take on the whole world, I used to think I wanted to. I used to feel so resentful. I used to get so upset when people glanced past me, people who didn’t bother to get to know me. I used to get so upset, I used to feel so uncomfortable. I used to want to show them all. I used to resent people who had money and flaunted it, I used to resent collectors, I used to resent money in itself, I used to feel so fragile and I used to be amped up with some weirdo adrenaline of juggling both a superiority and an inferiority complex at the same time. I used to angrily question the whole thing and it used to all feel so empty to me, so superficial, so confusing and alienating.

There is this particular kind of institutional critique popularised by art world-adjacent early Zoomers/late millennials like The White Pube in particular, and art world meme pages like Jerry Gogosian and Freeze Magazine. We can probably also throw Diet Prada’s vibe into the mix. The White Pube is Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, a pair of critics from Liverpool and London respectively, who began The White Pube website with the intention of posting reviews and criticism of exhibitions around the UK, but have since branched out to also cover movies, tv shows, video games, and more. They are also internationally renowned, having been invited to speak and conduct art criticism workshops at different institutions all around the world. Their art criticism (on both their website and their Instagram) tends to have this devil-may-care attitude to it that’s very infectious.

The White Pube are also known for name-tagging all the artists, galleries, curators, and spaces whose exhibitions or works they review. They take pride in having built up their platform and following through sheer verve, hard work, and directed name-tagging, without having ever resorted to spammy hashtags. There is something I can respect in that.

The flippant, jokey tone adopted by The White Pube and their imitators (the lingua franca of memes and onlineness) allows the critic to sidestep the responsibility that comes with being taken seriously, yet by mere virtue of critiquing (as opposed to just being silent or giving a false opinion), they are demanding to be taken seriously. This style of call-out critique follows a Marxist tendency to view society—in this case, the microcosm of a locale’s “art world”—as divided up and categorised into roles and jobs, which are extrapolated into “classes”. It makes assumptions of the bank accounts and spending power of random figures (how rich and powerful they are) based off first impressions and gossip. They confuse job positions for financial power, assuming that anyone in a high-ranking position necessarily has easy access to money or, conversely, that an intern or other low-ranking position is necessarily subordinate and therefore oppressed. They also don’t seem very inclined to see themselves as ACTIVE players capable of developing their own INFLUENCE within their particular group / microcosm. It’s difficult for them to conceive of manifesting power for their own self. In short, they are bitter.

The White Pube style of criticism is perhaps easily imitable, but difficult to do well. It’s easy to copy because anyone “in the scene” with an ounce of bitterness within them towards “the scene” can believe that their bitterness is justified, that simply feeling oppressed is proof enough of material oppression. Once you already believe this, all you need to do is make a post that’s as funny and simple-minded as a fart joke, tag the artist/gallery/curator you’re talking about, and wait back as (you hope) people applaud you for your ballsiness, for using your personal page to express ~what everyone is thinking but nobody is saying~

Now here’s the thing. The White Pube has been hugely influential on my own earliest “art writing” and the way I understand my own position within my local art scene. Both of them were and still are good critics and good writers generally. (Caveat: I haven’t been following their reviews for over a year now.) In many of my past writings, I still thought that, in order to really stand out, I had to go straight for the jugular and pull it all off in a funny, arrogant, Kanye at the VMAs manner. But this is not what The White Pube do, or perhaps it’s what they sometimes did but have matured from. Not everyone who attempts to make art world jokes are always able to pull it off with the same grace.  The White Pube writes even-minded, critical and thoughtful reviews. Some people, some imitators, like my earlier self, think that all it takes is the attitude, as if being ballsy and chaotic enough to say the first thought in your brain is a virtue in and of itself. 

Jasper Johns, Painting with Two Balls (1960).

The people who ride on the coattails of Instagram meme page White Pube-style criticism underestimate their own existence in the world; they minimise their own selves without anyone forcing them to. I used to be so bitter when I first started out, but what I think now is this: the things you say and do and put out into the world still exist, they still take place, no matter how small you think you are. No matter how much the writers of The White Pube may underestimate their own positions within the UK art world, they still wield massive influence. And even if they were smaller — even if they were, say, individuals simply posting rants and tedious self-made memes, for example, on their own Instagram stories, as a hypothetical1 — they’re still emitting energies and thoughts out into the world. They are engaging with society’s fabric.

And I find it preposterous that I even need to say the following because it’s so obvious, but here goes: the contexts of The White Pube (based in an art world capital of a first world country that up until the last century was a global empire) and some struggling art non-scene in a backwater third-world country like Malaysia are totally, totally, utterly different.

(Bitch, what are you even talking about — elitism and wealth in the Malaysian art world?

Have you even seen any of our collectors lately? I say this with much affection but, they’re all just a bunch of old dudes who would rather be farmers or gardeners instead!

These are the people you’re so scared of???? These are the people whose condescension (most likely just a case of old age and blur-ness) has wounded you so deeply?????? Like… just leave the conversation then??? Like??)

I find that my perspective on things shifts the longer I work in the scene. Just like how this no-holds-barred supreme bitch attitude felt like it could propel me through anything when I was younger (I had no other spiritual brick to anchor me then), I’ve arrived at a rather consoling realisation that an attitude of confidence can also guide you through anything. The older I get, the more layers of not-giving-a-fuck I unlock, and it feels beatific, zen-like. 

I don’t resent money anymore because I started making more of it. It’s the typical story, but typical only because it happens to more people than you might think. And I may continue to be in subordinate positions, but I respect self-respect and self-starters. I no longer care how much an artwork is, and I no longer care who buys it except in a very superficial sense in how it relates to my job, I hardly care either about the particulars of which artist, gallery, or collector has started venturing into NFTs, and I no longer care about being looked down upon, because if someone ignores me then that’s just another tedious conversation avoided. 

I enjoy working. I like to labour. There is a meme widely shared on Verso-adjacent Marxist meme pages that goes, “I do not have a dream job. I do not dream of labour.” But actually, I do. Against the expectations of many of my generation and against my younger self, I do Dream of Labour. Service gives me a strong sense of purpose and the satisfaction of new, previously unknown levels of self-sacrifice. I still find getting older a little scary, but the fear is moderated by the exhilaration of shedding off so much more nervous angst and discovering newer ways that I can be useful and transcendent to other people. At the risk of sounding like a total retard, there’s a scene in the third episode of jeen-yuhs, the Kanye West documentary, where Kanye expresses his desire to make things ‘for the masses’. He says, and I rewound the documentary just to find this, 

“I’m definitely straight, I’m straighter than straight. I’m good, like I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes, you know? I wanna make sure that everybody is straight. I’m not gonna be completely happy and completely satisfied until the world is completely satisfied. […] How can we take this and give this to the masses? If everyone is focused on helping everyone, everybody’s gonna be in a better position.”

Celebrities and artists always make empty talk about doing things “for the people”, but when Ye says it I believe deeply and truly in the sentiment. I contain and am emissary for this new desire to serve others, in practical terms, but also in personal, symbolic ones. I want to be the best version of myself that I can be, for other people: collective transcendence through personal struggle with one’s self. I’m talking in tongues, but I believe in it. 

What I would like to ask people who are so angry at the art world — to whom, even, the concept of an “art world” appears to mean so much to the point of oppression — is this: have you ever tried not caring?

By quite simply not caring, you can make just about anything disappear. It sounds caustic but it’s true. I used to care so much, but when I realised that I could simply just not care about the things I used to get so worked up over, then many of these things simply ceased to exist in my universe. It’s an elite level of manifestation and personal world-building.

Finally, I believe that The White Pube model of critique doesn’t work in Malaysia because we barely have an art scene or art market to begin with. I’m sorry, but many of the things that happen in the local art world are just too insignificant to merit any comment, let alone criticism. Most of the time, the people who are angriest and most bitter over collectors and “scene politics” come from money themselves, and they resent the fact that their gilded education and bank accounts haven’t been able to get them anywhere they can be proud of. Based on the little they share about their personal lives, the writers of The White Pube both seem to be working-class people operating in a ruthless, impenetrable, high-level art industry of a world capital. I (sometimes) get why they might be angry, but I don’t get why anyone would be angry in Malaysia. I understand TWP when they express their desire to see more artists being taken seriously and not having to prostrate themselves to inane open calls and whack-ass behaviour from curators and gallerists. But when it comes to Malaysia, the cold hard fact is that there’s no money in the art world. Most people survive on grants, external funding, and The Bank of Mommy and Daddy. The coldness of this fact reduces money’s lustre in the art world; flaunting money fails to be impressive, and the people who do it are pitiable but not worthy of the effort of hatred. No matter how much wealth you have, it’s not enough to really get you out of these backwaters, because willpower is often as important a factor in that regard as money. Many of our local collectors are stuck in the cul-de-sac of buying the same things and the same artists over and over again, so you shouldn’t be mad at them for they know not what they do. There is only so far that you can go in the Malaysian art world, and only so much money, so it’s inane to apply White Pube models of critique to anything that happens in this sweaty little struggling scene.

I continue to work in the art world because the professional relationships are good and relaxed. I love artists with all of my all of my allllll of my heart. There are some good works being made, some wild dreams being dreamt, though I rest uneasily wondering if they’ll go anywhere — not through the fault of the artists, but the limits of our context. I also find many of the people I meet to be charming and charismatic, on top of being creative. The professional relationships I’ve developed over time have given me strong proof that such things as charm and charisma do exist, they do work, and they fill me with more joy than money. 

By fixing your attitude, you really, truly can get the recognition and respect that you’re making yourself so miserable with wanting.

And on that note, following on from charm and charisma, the final, final thing I want to say about the White Pube/Instagram meme model of critique is: it only works if you’re actually funny

You may think having the balls to call someone out by name on Instagram is funny in itself, but it’s not. With a little less than all the due respect, you are just not a funny person. I be cringing, bro. 

1you know who you are.