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! 

Shine?

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?

LOL WTF! 

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? 

Thirty.

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.