Culture Diary (Dec ’21)

My 2021 in Review for Penang Art District

Recently, I was kindly asked to write a Year in Review of Malaysian Art for Penang Art District, for the third year in a row. I’m not sure why they keep asking me – after 3 years, I still consider myself a pretty marginal figure with little to no knowledge of what’s really going on. I think my reviews get more and more cynical as the years go by, but I’m not sure whether this might just be because I have less of an idea of what’s going on.

Anyway, you can find my 2021 year in review here.

I’m not too proud of it. It reads as too cynical, and it doesn’t convey accurately the sense of “dislocation” I feel. (It will become clearer later why I’m using air quotes.) The post comes to the conclusion that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” but lumps together so many examples of “decentralisation” — from NFTs to site-specific exhibitions outside the art centre of Kuala Lumpur — without distinguishing between them. Overall it comes off unnuanced; and in hindsight I feel like I was just striving to arrive at a conclusion — striving, really, to actually conclude the year rather than just repeat disparate events that happened during it; to put a narrative spin on slippery, fragmented time, but losing nuance and generosity in the process. I really have no idea what’s going on most of the time. Most of the time, I’m just overwhelmed. I think the review conveyed that, at least.

I feel like I should clarify that I don’t think Sharon and I-Lann and Mok Yee’s exhibitions were part of this trend of using decentralisation as merely a fashionable buzzword. I think these people sincerely love the places they work in and their exhibitions strive to reflect this love. No, I think their works are sincere but, put in a wider context, I think they are examples of a growing self-sufficiency that is the result of the pandemic.

As the pandemic deepens, so too these overtures toward decentralisation. I’m not all sure how I feel about this concept, because maybe I mourn the “centralisation” of the art world. To me, KL is just a dream that never materialised, and I don’t see why people are rebelling against a concept of the city or art centre that isn’t even that powerful anyway. That all art events and their subsequent press coverage are centred in KL, to the exclusion of stuff happening elsewhere is true, but so what? What are these art events anyway, and who even wants to be part of them? Why would anyone on the fringes invest any libidinous energy in being jealous of what’s taking place in Kuala Lumpur anyway? Why even any overtures toward decentralisation, as if the city is so powerful to be deserving of an overt disavowal? When what’s going on in the centre is often just so exhausting, draining, and unnatural? When what’s going on in the centre is often just so superficial and transient and egoistic?

My thoughts on NFTs however are the same if not worse. They’re a firecracker spectacle meant to induce a sense of panic that the world is rapidly changing when in fact it’s very much the same. They’re a promise of technology’s revolutionary virile power, when in fact whatever virility it has has failed to elevate people out of their general depression and anxiety, which unique specimens of depression and anxiety are also new phenomena arising from new technologies. TLDR: FOMO. Making people feel like they’re not making enough money. Making people feel like they’re missing out on this huge movement that’s “disrupting” conventions. When it’s really just failed artists capitalising on the hype to spin their failure and downright tastelessness and lack of artistic skill into a narrative of victimhood in the traditional art world. When there’s no traditional art world anyway. When, like, when’s the last time the so-called “traditional” so-called “art world” has enjoyed any relevance in the wider scheme of things?

It’s impossible to “review” a year or even condense such a thing into a narrative to form the basis of future predictions. As Covid-19 has shown, things can easily change on a whim. What I would like to see in the future is more artists embracing and leaning into this sense of wild unpredictability and just being free.

Kok Yew Puah: Millennium Mambo

I also recently appeared on BFM’s Everyone’s a Critic platform alongside show host Sharmilla Ganesan to review the Kok Yew Puah retrospective at ILHAM. You can listen to it here, I haven’t and I likely never will… (Sorry Sharmilla.) I’m such a coward when it comes to listening to recordings of my voice; I just know it won’t be good, but Sharmilla just keeps giving me chances to blow hot air on air.

Many things I wanted to say regarding the exhibition I didn’t manage to. One of those things is my impression of how this exhibition fits into the current 90s / Y2K revival in culture and fashion. I felt this keenly when looking at the works on the centre wall, featuring cityscapes at night, cityscapes in an uncanny light. Those are 90s colours: green and black (a la The Matrix), purple and ultramarine — colours that are shorthand for technology and transactions. You can practically hear the sound of routers whirring and the cash register sound of money moving, of cars and motorbikes zipping down highways in the night to the end of the world. These paintings contain a sense of anticipation towards the then-oncoming millennium, and I can’t tell whether the anticipation is foreboding or optimistic, or something in the middle.

Akira vibes in a painting by Kok Yew Puah.

I’ve been thinking so much about the 90s — but the symbolic 90s, the 90s of ideas and fixations, not the actual time because of course I never lived in the actual time. (This Fisherian notion is also something I wanted to explore in the Wawasan 2020 Directory exhibition organised by Cloud Projects, this sense of growing up in the shadow of something … the ways its distant light scatters into the present like temporal glitter.) When I think of KL in the 90s, I invariably think back to Amir Muhammad’s film Lips to Lips (which I only watched ONCE, three years ago!), and how everyone in it looked so 2000, obviously because of the interiors and the sets and the clothes and the quality of the film, but everyone really LOOKED so millennium, like it was etched into the lines on their faces. And I don’t know what looking like the second millennium means aside from wearing baggy T-shirts, but they looked exactly like the people in Kok Yew Puah’s paintings. An example: the theatre-maker Mark Teh has a minor role in Lips to Lips, and I’ve met him in person a few times, and in person he looks like a completely normal guy living in the 21st-century, but in Lips to Lips he looked exactly like Kok Yew Puah’s riff-raff teens, who hardly anybody really looks like anymore. And the Zoomers now try to copy that look, but it’s simply not the millennium, they do not have that Y2K post-Asian Financial Crisis-Petronas Twin Towers je ne sais quoi, and it’s just not the same.

James Lee in Amir Muhammad’s Lips to Lips (2000). Kids these days may try to dress Y2K, but they simply do not get it. They think it means wearing slouchy jeans, chokers, dark lipstick, and platform shoes. But it’s certain details like that WWF panda shirt that really transport you.

It’s the sense of promise in the air, the carelessness, the lack of awareness of what the future holds. The innocence and heedlessness towards Internet technologies, which must have seemed as foreign to KYP as cryptocurrency seems to me now. The way a phone is really just used to call people. The way Kok Yew Puah paints viewfinder frames onto his paintings but the angle is still a painting’s angle, and not the proper angle for a photograph. The way cameras and their viewfinders are presented as fascinating new ways for observing and contextualising the world before you, rather than, as they are now, THE primary way of viewing the world, where experiences and surroundings are registered through our brain’s viewfinder-cum-filter as candidates for Instagram posts. I’m trying to see what he saw, or perhaps trying to find his same energy for the world — the energy to be fascinated and observant with what’s going on around me and the changes taking place in people, instead of feeling what I mostly feel, which is tired and insecure.

Matrix greens in KYP.

Seeing the world through his eyes, people take on the proportions of myth, of tableaux. The paintings mentioned above, the 90s cityscapes, feature foreground characters obscured by ethnic tribal masks. (The paintings take up the centre wall in ILHAM and the team have chosen to paint this wall a dark blue-black, which was an interesting choice. Since it’s the first wall you see after the grass green and sky blue of the introductory walls, it’s rather a visual leap). These characters all seem to be different manifestations of the artist himself, either naked or in a business suit. In the two paintings where there is a suit, he stands menacingly out of place with the rest of the picture. On the one hand, you could read this as a statement on the monstrousness and alienation of 90s and Y2K personalities, the same way such tribal masks and what they represented (what they obscured) are so foreign to us now. The paintings convey a sense of dislocation, an anxiety that he’s not able to keep up with the changing times, and everyone with their newfangled clothes and professions just seems like a bogeyman in a strange mask, like Patrick Bateman peeling off his own face to reveal nothing. This anxiety of being out of touch, of people seeming like sudden demons, is something I can deeply sympathise with, hence why I kept dumbly repeating the words “dislocation” and “bewilderment” in the BFM segment.

The interesting thing, as a 21st-century viewer, is that of course the businessmen and suits of KYP’s portraits are no longer the bogeymen of today, which is why his paintings have this dated and nostalgic aura. In KYP’s paintings, there was still a certain familiarity to people, and an identity to a place that grounded you. Things certainly seem slightly more unmoored now, and superficial, but perhaps it’s the attitude you have towards it that makes all the difference.

Really BIG.

And regarding the recent non-drama where the National Art Gallery and ILHAM both used the same KYP artwork for a Thaipusam greeting? I just don’t think it’s such a big deal. I don’t think festive greetings in Malaysia should be taken so literally, I think it’s a blessing to live in such a genuinely multicultural environment where people actually make the effort to remember and wish kind blessings for festive seasons outside their own cultural upbringing. I’ve lived in the UK, a nominally multicultural city with a significant Muslim population, but hardly any non-Muslim acknowledges Ramadan, for instance. (Chinese New Year? Diwali? Thaipusam? Non-existent. St Patrick’s Day—maybe.) Anyway, my point was that Kok Yew Puah seems to have had such a genuine interest in the generation after him, and his paintings reflect such a wide eyed fascination with the visuals and aesthetics of this new world emerging all around him. The kids at the Hindu temple are all there to hang out and take pictures, and they’re all garbed in wild branded clothing announcing bizarre slogans, and all this seems to have been as marvellous and mythical to him as Hindu-Buddhist idols seem to us. The world is marvellous, the world is so weird, people are changing all the time.