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.

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