Culture Diary

Some long thoughts on Air Con and some brief thoughts on the announcement of selected artists for the Ilham Art Show 2022. 

I really don’t know what to call this thing where I just comment on aspects of art and culture. The last time I did it was in the form of Capsule Reviews for a few things. But sometimes I really just have thoughts for a bunch of stuff that I just stir fry together in the same pan (read: post). “Culture Diary” will be the way I categorise them for now.  

Air Con 

Last Sunday, I watched a fantastic theatre production — Shanon Shah’s Air Con, directed by Instant Cafe Theatre co-founders Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi. It premiered in 2008. Instant Cafe Theatre revived the recording of the 2008 performance for a single weekend, streaming it online via this new Malaysian-founded pandemic-baby site called CloudTheatre. The play made me laugh. The last time a piece of Malaysian art got me laughing with it rather than at it was I don’t even know when. At times, it surprised me with the twists it took; it was a real ride, I barely registered its 2.5 hour runtime. 

The play centres on an all-boys boarding school in the Malaysian state of Kedah. Behind the boarding school is a railroad track which is also, at night, a spot where transgender prostitutes meet their clients. The play opens with the news that a “Mak Nyah” (local slang for transwoman) has just been found dead in the sewers by the railroad tracks, her skull bashed in. Rumours have long abound that boys from the boarding school get their rocks off with those prostitutes, who offer a service known as “air con”: in which they suck on a cough drop before delivering a blowjob. The spectre of the murdered prostitute haunts the boys’ school as its students are suspected of being clients, murderers, and fellow transgenders alike… 

On the surface, you could distill it as a pedestrian story of bullying and acceptance. But Shanon Shah’s ambitions were greater than this. Air Con is more than a moral tale that simply “sends a message” or “raises awareness” — the play deals with daring, thorny Dostoyevskian questions of spiritual redemption. And it dares to consider that most perpetrators suffer a greater torment than their victims, even if their victims are dead. This is a something I’ve suspected of being true myself. The play resists the neat and simplified social narrative of perpetrators being irredeemably bad and evil, a narrative that has become the modus operandi of 21st-century cancel culture which seeks to deplatform grown adults for opinions they had and actions they committed in fits of folly or even in their youth. But Air Con’s not about posting the n-word on Facebook when you were 13 — it’s about big boy stuff, it’s about murder! Under the mandate of the law, a murder is a murder and must be punished, but what of the Mandate of Heaven? And can any corporeal punishment ever be enough to effect spiritual redemption and transformation? How to reach that hard nub of consciousness from which springs love, evil, and all manner of things we can never understand? 

Air Con begins with a wound, and it progresses by digging and digging at it until it starts festering with a phantasmagoria of awfulness. It burns slow, offering many entertaining vignettes of life in this school and nurturing its characters’ development. Dramatic back stories, rumours, minor confrontations, but also momentary respites where you see the joyfulness and foolhardiness of male youth. The turbulence of young men growing up in such close proximity to each other, without any mediating female presence, is treated with sensitivity and tenderness. The play had an easy sense of humour and didn’t let itself get bogged down by the weight of its themes. (Some Malaysian artists can’t pull this off — they go straight into serious buttoned-up mode and eschew any attempts at humour under the guise of taking their topics “seriously”, in the hope that audiences won’t realise that they don’t have a sense of humour or personality to start with. OK, rant over. In short, this play’s got jokes.) 

Boys will be boys — unfortunately for them. The play treats maleness like a prison, something itchy and claustrophobic. Some of them go out to the railroad tracks to escape. There are two parallel friendship arcs in Air Con, one slightly healthier than the other, and there’s an implicit insinuation that the less healthy one is undermined by the boys’ own “toxic masculinity” and the need to project an appearance of toughness. Both sets of friendships require immense feats of self-introspection to maintain them, and a certain incident in a science lab gives you a sudden wrenching insight into the volatility of life in an all-boys’ school. The friendship between Burn and Chep is the less entertaining one, but the most fascinating: it makes a great demand of the audience to care about the fate of their friendship. But we do, or at least I do. It demands us to think about the most difficult thing of all: death. Death and death and death and the dissolution of all things and whether any salvation is possible beyond the beyond. 

The online stream only offered like 30 seconds of intermission, so by the final half hour I was dying for a pee. So I’m not sure whether this physical urgency within me exaggerated the way I perceived what I was watching, but the final half hour of the production seemed to spiral into this surreal, claustrophobic thing. We’re talking Shakespearean levels of tragedy and hysteria. The acts were shorter and the supernatural had crept in. Flashing lights. Only thing is, it seemed to me that Hamlet’s madness came a little too late here. The play’s ending had a slightly tacked-on feeling, a skinny tragedy. Maybe Shah should have tossed one of his characters a monologue? 

The actors were a revelation. I felt like I was watching Malaysians for the first time rather than actors. Every boy seemed tailor-made for their roles; you get the impression that they are exactly like their characters in real life; they inject so much life and tenderness into the story. All close-ups of Burn’s face are hypnotic, “someone handsome but lonely”. I suspect that I will not be forgetting this kampung boy for a long time. And all interactions between William, Asif, Mona, and Mimi have a natural ease that makes you envious—makes you wish you could be, for a brief moment, a persecuted gay in an all-boys’ boarding school, if only so you could have camaraderie and jokes like these. 

It’s impossible not to be conscious of the temporal distance between now and when the play premiered. Something about the writing feels so very much of its time, and impossible or at least rare now. Here was a thing aware of its own intelligence, which had no qualms nodding to Shakespeare and other facets of the Western canon, but which also breezed through a dialect-inflected bilingual script. This is something with a great respect for plot — for the classic form of the thing, and for the audience. What I perceive as the art of today sees the audience mostly as a mass to be “enlightened” or messaged to or raised awareness at. People these days don’t have compelling narratives, they have things they want to Say to audiences who likely already agree with them anyway. They have pithy statements, they have takedowns of the government. But they don’t have the personality, the tenderness, the quality of being compelling, if not “real”. What makes Air Con great for me is that it is not a morality play but rather a classic tragedy. Plain and simple in its complexity. Teach it to boys in schools not for the message of acceptance, but for the craft. Many people fail to understand that so long as the craftsmanship is good, you don’t need to worry about getting the message across. 

The Ilham Art Show 2022

A couple weeks ago, Ilham Gallery—which is, I dare say, the leading art institution of Malaysia—announced their selections for their inaugural Ilham Art Show triennial. The Ilham Art Show will be an open call exhibition programme (like the Royal Academy summer exhibition) and its first iteration will take place sometime next year. 

The gallery received 360 applications for the show. It’s unmistakable for me now that Ilham is the highest form of validation that artists can receive in Malaysia. Some of the names on the list were surprising to me: a couple of artists who had previously expressed in private conversation their distaste of being asked to “apply” for stuff (as opposed to directly invited), another artist who has had his works sold for five figure sums. One of my artist friends told me, “I submitted because I wanted to see if I’m good enough to get selected.” This isn’t meant as an indictment, but rather a remark on the awesome reputation that Ilham has. For many Malaysian artists, I think, it’s a ticket outta these dumps.

Nobody cares about Balai anymore because they’ve stained their own name through one too many misdemeanours and non-apologies throughout the years. Once a mighty institution with regular themed competitions, now it seems that they’re left with only Bakat Muda Sezaman which… did anyone even apply for this year? After the fiasco that was 2019’s influencer storm and after going into total closure for all of 2020, Balai has erased themselves out of the moment’s cultural relevance. Which is a shame… 

Everything in the pandemic is about giving out opportunities, about applying for things. Cendana has also been churning out grant after grant, some of which are undoubtedly useful and beneficial. With some good insight, they finally opened a grant just for art production. But nevertheless, I’m starting to wonder whether all this applications, funds, and grants might not be a little damaging. Everyone is just applying for stuff, but why? I think many of our better contemporary artists are a little bit of school swots — if you dangle a prize in front of their faces, they’ll apply not for the prize itself but just to see whether they’re brilliant enough to win. The winning is what matters; the prize could be fuck all (and usually it really is just fuck all). Did anybody apply for the UOB Painting Award this year? Did anybody apply for CENDANA’s multiple grants for visual artists, which have a huge total value? Did anybody apply for Bakat Muda Sezaman? But 360 artists applied for the Ilham Art Show. Kudos to UOB, Cendana, and Balai for trying, but they quite simply do not have the regional (if not international) recognition, the intellectual credibility, the temperature-controlled frigidity, or the sheer sleek appearance of Ilham Gallery. Everything just looks and feels more serious there. That’s just how it is. 

Of course, it works both ways. Applications make artists feel productive and, when one is successful, flatter their ego, but applications also flatter an institution’s perception of itself. I think this was the impasse faced by the shortlisted contestants of the Turner Prize in 2019, when they decided to split the prize amongst themselves. Grants and funds are a way for both artists and institutions to reinforce each other’s prestige. When the Ilham Art Show results were published, I perceived a lot of disappointment from non-selected artists.

Where am I going with this? I don’t know, nowhere in particular, I just find the whole thing interesting. I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective on something. Everyone seems to be shitting money out of all possible holes and yet. Last year, this is exactly what everyone thought they wanted. Give artists money. The arts are essential too. And yet. The money keeps gushing out, there’s not enough artists to receive such a deluge of money. And yet, was it ever really about money? The hunger feels deeper, much deeper than the superficial wound of money: it’s about institutional recognition. And deeper than that, it’s probably about recognition more generally and the audience factor in the making of an artwork. Even if people mostly make art “for themselves”, there is still an implicit and persistent awareness of “the audience” — there is a need to touch the lives of others, or to influence the way they think, or to have one’s own personal struggles seen and validated, or some such thing along those lines. As one of the panellists on the selection committee, Zoe Butt, said in a press statement on the announcement of the selection, “artists are the true jesters in our 21st century”… Jesters need an audience and Ilham offers the widest variety of audiences (including the potential for regional recognition) and the best-looking stage. 

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