Selected Ambient Work #3

In which I can’t figure out whether I’m a conformist or a contrarian.

2 months into Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are (allegedly) closed except for essential services. 

I turn 25 this year. Since the announcement of this third iteration of a full MCO, I have, for some reason, just conformed and followed all of the government-issued directives not to leave my house except for essential matters. I’m so busy with work – it would be more accurate to call them “tasks” – that I’ve just lost the will. Most days, I feel bewildered and confused and tired. 

I’ve not really been in physical contact with anyone for months now. I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I’m so willingly conformist, maybe it has something to do with my childhood. I think that I’m still a child, and I’m scared that with this lockdown in place I’ll never grow up. Something about the atmosphere is weighing me down, telling me it’s not the time. Something about the world outside seems bizarre, freakish, and out-of-bounds; it seems stranger than what I thought I knew. 

I’m not used to rebelling, and I don’t know how to do what’s right or how to act in a crisis. I’m scared of Twitter and scared of the news. Each new piece of information does not seem to make sense with the existing pieces; I have no idea what’s going on. These days it feels wholly possible for people to just drop dead. There’s a sense that time has run out. Somehow, I’m still alive. 


Am I the only one who feels embarrassed to be working during this time? Whenever people ask me whether I’ve been busy I say yes in a vague way, I tell them I’ve been “getting jobs”, but that could mean anything. My approximate schedule these days, for anyone who’s been trying to reach me: 

  • Wake at 12pm 
  • Get out of bed by 2pm 
  • Fix lunch by 2.30–3pm 
  • Idle from 3–6pm 
  • Have dinner at 6pm
  • Idle at 7pm
  • Work from 8pm to 3am–4am 
  • And then I sleep. 

I don’t like people knowing when I’m working or what I’m working on because I’m embarrassed by all of it. I’d rather they think I don’t work than know what I’m working on. What is it that I do? Well, most days I struggle with myself, I berate myself, I push things too close and I miss deadlines, miserably, pathetically, childishly. On Instagram, I only post about movies I’ve been watching. I’d rather let people think I’m caught in some state of suspended childhood, whiling away my time watching movies, listening to music, and reading books, than for them to know that I’m actually trying to be an adult and trying to work. So, I tell people that I’m OK, just chilling at home. Why would I want to advertise how much I am struggling to grow up. 


One thing that never fails to surprise me is how willing and polite most artists are when you ask them for an interview. The ones who are willing are always polite, and the ones who are unwilling just don’t reply to my email; nobody is ever mean or contemptuous. I have one of those temperaments that flinches in the face of friendliness, that always lives in anticipation of being shouted at and cussed out despite never, in fact, having been shouted at or cussed out in my life. Knock on wood. Most artists are so kind and gentle, they never want to do anything wrong by you, they treat each interview like it’s some big opportunity. Yeah, an opportunity for me to make some money. I always felt that interviewees should be paid, especially for pieces that are almost entirely dependent on them. But the people in art are so good-natured. They congratulate me, tell me that people like me are “necessary” in the art world. I flinch. “Necessary” is not a word I’d ever use to describe any piece of culture writing. What I do is an elaborate and subtle form of – more or less – lying. 


Do I ever dare hope that they need me as much as I need them? Highly unlikely, but their compliments give me brief moments of gratification.

Art has taken a serious L this time round. I’m not sure whether it’ll recover. Everyone is just off doing separate things. Anyone writing about art during this time is just telling bold-faced lies. 

The premier art institution in our country, ILHAM Gallery, launched an open call for their inaugural ILHAM Art Show 2022, a triennial open-call exhibition programme.  

During the application period, I helped four different artists to prepare their artist statements. This made me feel like a sort of contributor for once, rather than a talentless leech on the art world. Of course, artist statements are mostly also a form of lying, but at least I’m servicing artists this time, and not using them to service a pay check for myself by writing some article that maybe 12 people read. Throughout this lockdown, I’ve been both anxious and relieved about the state of the art world – nobody has asked me to write any art-related reviews or articles for over a month now. Anxiety: Nobody in the art world wants to hire me anymore. Relief: Considering the (non-)state of art these days, I don’t want to write about art-related matters anyway. These four artist statements allowed me to feel some kind of relevance. Either the art scene is ending, or I am. Worse, both.

I find out through secondhand sources that a local artist who seems to be going thru it has started a new series of works in which he makes wojak memes out of local art world gossip. Coincidentally, I had just a few days ago noticed that this artist had unfollowed and removed me as a follower on Instagram. At the time I thought it was weird and I felt a stab of guilt at having potentially committed some unknown wrong against him, but in the end I figured that, whatever his reasons were, at least he had the decency to remove me as a follower too. It is surprisingly rare for people to display this kind of courtesy. After this new piece of information though, I’m thinking that maybe he’s going to make a meme about me, or about people close to me. This is somewhat titillating to think about, but I can’t know, since his profile is private. The plot thickens. I guess this is what idle people in lockdown occupy themselves with, him and me both. Then again, one of my favourite celebrities is Azealia Banks. It could be interesting to watch this play out. 


There’s movement in the streets. For a long time now, discontent has been brewing. People are losing their jobs, small businesses are closing; there are maybe more fundraisers than operational businesses now. I can’t fathom how anyone is still alive and, of those alive, still working. 

A young woman got put in police lock-up. For 5 hours. She posted a testimony about its traumatising effect on her. She was advocating for a mass gathering during a pandemic when new cases are nearing 20,000 per day and the Delta variant is rampant. The youth vanguard up and down the nation is making TikToks to recruit new cadres and explain why protesting now is good, actually. The young activist leader who got put in lock-up for inciting an illegal activity during a pandemic said that she was traumatised from spending 5 hours in lock-up. Said that the police made her strip down to her underwear…to change into their lock-up clothes. 

Forget Netflix and chill, it’s time for TikTok and trauma. It’s not fair to compare, maybe. I can sympathise with her; the concept of the police just generally scares the shit out of me (look, artists already scare the shit out of me, and they’ve never even done anything). But I’m not a leader and I’m not telling anyone it’s their civic duty to do anything. I think I’m going to die alone and I’m trying very hard to live with the fact that I may never be more than a depressive, weak, lying loser. In some other parts of the world, in a different era, people trained their cadres to go on hunger strike, to take beatings to the face, and to withstand torture. In a different era, pity was not equivalent to respect; in fact, it was the complete antithesis of respect.

I’m sorry for her, sorry that she was launched into something she wasn’t prepared for. Sorry that everyone around her kept making her out to be something that she perhaps wasn’t able to be. Sorry that she wasn’t able to handle 5 hours, because she was raised and surrounded by people who operate on emotions like pity and anger, rather than cold nerve and respect. 

It can be just as useful to assess what the police don’t do as it is to notice and pick apart everything they do. The fact that all this was allowed to proceed, the fact that the police stood silently by and followed basic procedures, the fact that they did not implicate themselves in any way at all is probably significant. The dialectical relationship between the police and civil disobedience – between the activists who need the police to ‘take the bait’ and react in order to justify their cause, and the police who need activists to wild out so they can depict them as troublemakers or snowflakes – is probably significant. For better or for worse; till death do us part. 

If you want to silence a movement: let them do what they want, and ignore them. This is a proven parenting method that has led many children to grow up into troubled individuals. 


The other day, in a casual Zoom call, I got carried away. Got heated up about something and felt this burning need to keep defending my position to the four other people there, who all could not find any sympathy with my position. I got carried away, I could feel my adrenaline pumping. Threw off the Zoom call’s entire vibe. 

The problem with me is that I’m obsessed with words. I can’t go along with things if I don’t understand what someone is saying. And I can’t swallow contradictions, I can’t ‘go with the flow’, because I cannot feel the flow for all my brain is trying to process the words. Some people would say that some things don’t have to make sense, that regardless of all its internal issues, some things are absolutely good. That you should just support the movement anyway, because it is more conscionable than doing nothing. 

In a time like this in Malaysia, where despair is rampant and cabin fever has reached itchy levels, people have started saying that it’s our civic duty to protest, and to donate money, and to get vaccinated, and to etc. etc. etc. Every act is charged with a political and moral weight. Among my friends, the people who signed up earliest for the Astra-Zeneca voluntary vaccination programme are the same ones who say the world is overpopulated and that they’d rather kill themselves than get old. Many of my younger friends cannot wait for the loosely-defined “boomer” demographic to die off. 

There’s a difference, I think, between free thought and being a contrarian, but I’m unable to see it. For some reason, I enjoy pushing back against everything. When I’m the only one in a conversation persisting with an unpopular position, I feel my adrenaline rising. I have to keep pushing it until it makes sense to me. Maybe, when I was younger, my father entertained me for too long when I played the “But why?” game. Maybe that is Why. 

They are thanking them for protesting, they are calling the protestors brave for taking on the risk of contracting Covid-19 in order to fight on behalf of the country. In a news reel I watched, the protestors mostly seemed lost. They peacefully sat in socially-distanced rows on the road by the Masjid Jamek train station, since the police had closed off Dataran Merdeka, where they were initially supposed to gather. People were turning their heads, looking around everywhere, photographing things. They had their funny placards. Cars passing through the road were made way for, and the protestors shouted at these cars as they passed. It seemed like everyone left when they said they would. 

My friend who had been idling around the protest area texted me at the time, “I’m getting food and going back. Peaceful protest is for pussies. I’m going back to eat and nap and will wake up if I smell burning cars” 

Maybe I am not alone? Will God grant my misery company?  


A vow of silence doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, as far as ways to honour the moment go. 


I’m a cruel person and I will die alone. Last year, after a very brutal takedown on my part, the same friend had told me, “It has been taking a toll on me to tell you how I feel since yesterday, and your message successfully killed any possibility for me to be able to look you in the face again. Thank you ellen.” 

I feel very cold and detached sometimes. The videos and photos of the protest make me want to cry, in fact, for some inexplicable reason. I feel like things will never get better. I feel that I will never understand what people really want. I feel like I grow further and further each day from the people who could save me, and once this distance reaches a certain limit, they will simply stop caring. I always have the feeling that I’ve misplaced something, like I’m going through life forgetting to do something very important and urgent, but I can’t remember what it is. 

It’s too late for anything, it’s always been too late. 

Header image: Lynn Davis, Iceberg #23, Disko Bay, Greenland, 2000, gold-toned gelatin silver print

on money and art

A recent visit to Bank Negara Museum and Gallery led me to think about the relationship between money and art within our national art institutions.

Recently, I was working on a project at Bank Negara Museum & Gallery. While literally waiting for paint to dry (my humble task that day), I decided to walk around the museum, which I’d never visited before. As I made my way through its halls that day and as I began to get deeper into the project that week, I started becoming more cynical about the purpose of art and its institutions. 

When I first arrived at BNMAG, I was duly amazed by how stunning it looks from the outside, all well-kept lawns and black tiered fountains and glass facades. In the middle of the museum is a spiral staircase, much like the one at Balai, which is supposed to be like the one at the Guggenheim?, and so from the third floor where I worked, I could lean over the banister and survey portions of the floors below. The first and second floors are the dedicated “museum” sections of the place:  there is a section on the history of islamic finance, a section on the history of money, and a section on the history of the bank. The third floor is the space dedicated to temporary art exhibitions.

I skipped the first floor because I’m not interested. On the second floor, there was an exhibition showing the collection of Tun Ismail Mohamed Ali, the first governor of Bank Negara. The exhibition space dedicated to Tun Ismail is split into half: half the space showed his collection, and the other half showed a tiny museum of his life. 

One of the first works displayed was a reproduction of a mural by Syed Ahmad Jamal, commissioned for the Bank Negara headquarters. It was a beautiful piece of design that utilised a nice black-silver-gold colour scheme. And though it was a reproduction, the print didn’t turn out half bad. I was reminded of another set of murals commissioned for a bank: the four murals on the exterior of the OCBC bank next to Masjid Jamek LRT station. Like those, the piece by S.A.J shows clearly the conditions of its commission. It’s beautiful, but it’s boring. It’s beautiful, but it’s commissioned by a bank. Like those, the metaphoric and expressionistic possibilities of art are hijacked by the shallowness of profit. I was struck by how poor art becomes when called to the impossible task of beautifying the circulation of capital. 

I continued through the gallery. The collection of works is fine. The show had no curation, and no point for curation. He bought art. Here is the art that he bought. It’s not that I am opposed to the practice of art collection—if this man had been my friend, and I’d met him at his home, and he’d walked me through his art collection, I wouldn’t have minded. What I minded, here, is how clearly the whole exhibition served to flaunt a single individual’s wealth, subsequently making the bank look good by association. What I minded was that a building calling itself an art institution would put the art of various talented artists in the base service of glamorising the collector who bought their work.

The art collection moved into a small museum of his life. On one of the walls was a big questionnaire-style poster detailing the specificities of his life. His skin colour: “sun-browned.” Another wall was dedicated to a yearly timeline of his life and achievements. There was a vitrine of his possessions and a replica of his study. Above the vitrine, there was a mosaic of lightboxes with bite-sized facts about the man himself. He liked dark colours and enjoyed western classical music. 

The various fun facts I learned about Tun Ismail Ali

I’m irritated at the shallowness of what art has become, especially on an institutional level, but the practice, while uniquely shallow on BNMAG’s part, is not exactly uncommon in the art world, nor is it a uniquely “Malaysian” failure. All over the world, the money that is financing art institutions is coming from big petroleum companies (such as Petronas), banks, or otherwise exploitative organisations. I brought this up with a friend, who argued that art being financed by banks and corporations have nothing to do with the quality of a gallery, since this practice is a given in the art world. The Tate was financed by BP; the Whitney Museum is chaired by the CEO of an arms company; the Met, Guggenheim, and the National Portrait Gallery in London were sponsored by the pharmaceutical Sackler family, accused of creating the opioid crisis in America; and what about Saadiyat Island being built out in Abu Dhabi, a city infamous for its brutal labour practices? These big boys are considered exciting and dynamic art destinations that set a standard followed by many other, smaller art institutions and galleries the world over. So the only conclusion left to be made seems to be that Malaysians are just shit at giving a shit, but (call me naive), it’s a conclusion I’m still holding out on making.

Do the Tate, Whitney, the Met, the plutocrats of Abu Dhabi, etc., etc., genuinely care about art more than we do, or are they just more experienced in beautifying their money trail? The failure of Malaysia to live up to its own delusions of grandeur has always been an area of interest in my writing. Under the influence of corporations and capital, art is reduced to a “high-brow” medium for either flaunting or obscuring one’s wealth.The Tun Ismail Ali “exhibition” has made me think our art institutions suffer from the former, but the latter is equally sinister. Malaysians are more crass, but in being so, the rift created by art and the money that finances it becomes clearer to see.

Advantages of Owning Your Own Art Museum, Guerrilla Girls, 2016 

Malaysian money is uncultured and new and Asian and therefore excited to show off. We’re not like our European colonisers who have a history of art. Because of this, galleries such as Bank Negara’s are not properly curated or project managed, because the point of art, for us, is still a way to show off wealth. We haven’t reached the point of development yet where we’ve manipulated ourselves to believe that the point of art is to change people’s minds, or broaden horizons, or whatever. A museum and gallery is simply what is done when one is a bank or corporation: everyone in the West seems to have them. So the gallery staff are either not properly trained to care, or have been conditioned into indifference. The artworks suffer under bad lighting and uneven walls unfit for a gallery. Artists are outsourced to line the walls in the same way that a contractor might be outsourced to paint them. The spaces end up having only the semblance of a gallery while being soulless and creatively, intellectually malnourished, like any child of wealth.

But it makes me upset, also, to buy into the ready tirade against the government and our national art institutions. Is the inefficiency and callousness of BNMAG a result of Malaysianness, or is it because it’s literally a gallery operated by a bank? Or put it another way, can you really expect anything more from galleries that are either constructed or majorly subsidised by banks and corporations, even if they hire “proper” staff who have a “background in arts”? Or put it another way: can the combination of art with exploitative capital power ever produce anything meaningful?

In Malaysia, donating an artwork to a national art institution is considered significant enough to warrant a tax deduction

Collectors can get a tax deduction by donating art to national art institutions, but the public fails to gain anything from their contribution when minimal effort is put into setting up the exhibitions or into enlightening the public on art. With the Tun Ismail Ali collection, we do not contemplate anything except for the fact of this single person’s career and his taste in art. When collectors donate their art collections, the public is afforded the chance to look at a work that would have otherwise remained in private view, but the possibilities of art are still limited to what one can gain by only looking at it. In Malaysia, these possibilities are hijacked by poor arts management, which is where my grief as a Project Manager arises, but I also don’t think art becomes better by producing better exhibitions. Producing sleek, interesting, and internationally-renown exhibitions is not the only way that an entity with a lot of fucking money can show its concern for the arts, if indeed they are truly invested.

Right now, I’m thinking about the Federal Art Project, a project under the Works Progress Administration that was created in Depression-era America. You would think that, given the current climate where the National Endowment for the Arts is facing termination under Trump’s America, surely a desperate, Depression-era America would have been even more likely to cut funding to the arts. And yet the Federal Art Project received 7% of funding from the WPA and continued to provide employment to artists, because it considered art production a legitimate field of work like any other. Under the Federal Art Project, artists were hired to create murals, paintings, and sculptures for public spaces and government buildings, along with being incentivised to painstakingly document an Index of American Design. From 1935 to 1943, over a hundred community art centres were set up to train young artists; the only costs these centres had to bear were material fees. Some of the artists supported by the Federal Art Project were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

Poster for the Harlem Community Art Center, New York City, 1938 

Going back to the question of whether banks and corporations can ever work meaningfully with art and artists, I think we need to look beyond the success of exhibitions if we want to gauge amount of care. Sure, BP sponsors the Tate and they still put on stunning, globally-anticipated exhibitions, so why can’t Petronas Gallery or BNMAG be better? But to dilute care for the arts to the sleekness of an exhibition neglects to realise that this superficiality is the same factor that probably drove Bank Negara and Petronas to set up evidently pointless galleries in the first place.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts looks good. It allows corporations to have their names associated with something highbrow and cultured; it is an attraction that mystifies and distracts from the essentially base, exploitative, and frankly boring activities of capitalism at work. The difference between our Malaysian art institutions and Euro-American art institutions is that Malaysian art institutions don’t try hard enough to look good. The new money slipped out and revealed its coarse hometown accent.

Right now, all over the world but especially in Malaysia, accepting corporate funding for the arts is one of the best forms of funding available, if you’re lucky enough to get it. Many artists rely on corporate commissions and patronage. In Malaysia, the consequences of this seems to be that art suffers from a lack of care from being reduced to a vehicle for flaunting wealth. We suffer from commissions that produce boring art and do not exhaust the full capacities of artists. Gallery exhibitions and public programmes that are executed as formalities rather than out of any real interest. On a wider scale, the consequence is that we are always stuck in a contradiction where art fails to reflect the world we live in. The domain of art is relegated to the domain of looking, but not necessarily impacting: the domain of art fairs, biennales, galleries, ever glossier and exciting “shows”.

In an article for The Guardian, Michelle Wright puts forward a fear that if one becomes too involved with tracing and subsequently protesting the money that funds the arts, then our art institutions will start to die out. Corporate funding is already on the wane, as corporations turn to funding services they consider more obviously beneficial to the public, like charities, education, or health services, where its members aren’t encouraged so much to ~express themselves~. I understand. I obviously understand, and I obviously want all the people passionate in the arts—artists, curators, and the other people like me who work for them—to continue having the funding to do what they love. But I’m not sure how long art can live within the contradiction before artists and the general public just become tired and cynical of what art can achieve. The argument against not making things “political” is the argument that art for art’s sake is possible—is the only art possible—and I’m just not sure how tenable this argument is. If you can’t stop people from trying to express themselves, then there are two options for deadening the noise: you can censor them, or you can disempower the institutions in which they express themselves, make these places irrelevant to the general public’s daily lives, so that the force of their art stops short at the eyes and does no further damage. This is art for art’s sake, incapable of meaning.

I think the Federal Art Project was getting at something, even if it had to be forcefully born out of desperation. It’s possible for art to be transformed into something a bit more democratic and meaningful, especially if we have the faith to believe in its capacity to be so. I just want to think a bit more complexly about art, and money, and exploitation. Of what art can do beyond just looking good and enabling a screen for money to disappear. 

In writing this piece, I aimed to consider the ways that corporate galleries fail art in Malaysia, but I also wanted to go a bit deeper and question the involvement of exploitative and oppressive industries within the arts on a wider scale. To blame the failures of Bank Negara Museum and Gallery on Malaysianness and the government doesn’t go far enough, for me, in interrogating the role of banks and corporations in the arts. It doesn’t do enough to answer to the gap between what art relies on, and what art purports to achieve.

✨🍆 In convo w/visual artist LITH NG on her show @ Urbanscapes 2018 🍆✨

[Disclosure of potential bias: Lith is my friend.]

When I sit down to talk to Lith Ng, we’re in a small, dimly-lit back room and she’s intently stabbing a dick with a hand drill. The dick is made of resin and was moulded into its shape by pouring the resin into a condom (which she bought in bulk off Lazada) and leaving it to harden. Inside the dick is a strip of paper containing an anonymous confession that she got by crowdsourcing on the Internet. On her worktable are numerous other dicks, all in various stages of being completed and in the middle of hardening.

On the day we’re meeting, it’s still a week left until the first day of her show as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition currently being held at Ruang on 2 Hang Kasturi. She’s drilling with a look of intense concentration, alternately stopping abruptly to answer my questions thoughtfully and then just as suddenly returning to drilling the holes again. The holes are for her to screw hooks into, for the dicks to be hung up on the ceiling of Ruang.

The dicks come in various sizes; some are hung up while others rest flaccidly on pedestals. As a project, it lends itself to humour and double entendres in their interpretation. Even as I watch Lith drill the dicks it’s hard not to laugh about it. Speaking about the hook, she says angrily, “it won’t fit!” The “flaccid” dicks on the pedestals are literally rendered useless, failing to perform, as they are made from resin. The dicks are castrated and contain their sins (in the form of the confessions), never to be relieved. The dicks are on exhibition like a street flasher, but now the power dynamics are changed as a young female artist is the one in control. It’s objectification without a victim. It’s dicks on the ceiling, hanging low enough to brush your face when you walk through. It’s funny or disgusting, depending on your temperament, and it’s both light-hearted and serious at the same time.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 1.25.38 AM
image via artist’s Instagram

Lith’s goal in making these dicks is to encourage young women to talk about their sexuality. Having been raised in a tight Chinese community, she tells me about the various forms of bullying and sexual shame that young girls were subject to, and about the boys who were allowed to freely joke and talk about sex, while any girl who did was ostracized for it. Girls even had sexual rumours started about them as a form of bullying. (She tells me about a rumour started about a classmate of hers who went to a bathroom with a pen.)

Thinking about it now, Lith understands the psychology of children, in that when one bullies another about something, it would usually be a subject that the bully was insecure about and felt shame for. Her goal in making the dicks then, is to offer a platform for women to speak about their sexual experiences (good or bad), with the anonymity allowing them to say anything they want without fear of stigmatization or shame. It’s a medium for young women to say everything they want to say deep down but can’t, and for any (straight) male viewers to reflect on and possibly use as a catalyst for change in the way they think about sex and female pleasure.

“I’m afraid of high school friends following me, but I also kind of want them to follow me [on Instagram, where she posts her work]. I hope that when they see my stuff, it’ll be an eye-opener for them,” Lith says, making it clear that the toxic environment she grew up in continues to inform her adult creative life. It’s a testament to how long-lasting of an impression childhood can leave on a person, especially a childhood of shame, guilt and repression. She laughs. “There’s only like three people from high school following me. I don’t know what they think, maybe they think it’s fucking gross. But who knows, who cares.”

Maybe it’s because of the closeness of our friendship, but she talks in a warmly offhand manner, clearly as someone who’s confident and fully comfortable in her self. Her experiences growing up may inform her work, but the shame and self-consciousness no longer imprisons her. She doesn’t care about offending people with her art. The only thing she seems self-conscious about now is being original.

“I just don’t want to make cliche shit la. […] I’m just really stuck in the whole ‘I don’t want to make cliche art, but I don’t have any inspiration of my own’ loop.”

From here, I ask her about her inspiration and influences. This whole time, as she alternately starts and stops drilling at the dicks, she’s also been alternately sitting and squatting on her chair, in her own Thinker’s pose. She pulls her legs up now so that her whole body is on the chair’s seat, and with her knees reaching her chin, she scrolls her phone looking for the names of her influences. Louise Bourgeois is a big one, along with Annicka Yi, Tracey Emin and “Sarah… Sarah what-the-fuck-is-her-last-name… Oh, Sarah Lucas.” In describing each artist’s work, she keeps coming back to a central point: rawness. Rawness either in their messages (Bourgeois, Lucas), or in the materials they choose to use (Yi), and/or both (Emin).  She admires unboundedness, unself-consciousness, not giving a fuck.

To wrap up our interview, I ask her what, if given a limitless budget, she would want to do and experiment with. She answers immediately, “I want to make a fucking huge-ass large-scale installation, man.” But her ideas haven’t gone further beyond that, because she believes she’d never really have the funding to carry out anything on such a large scale. It may involve ice. She has a fascination with unpredictable materials, such as ice and resin, and earlier in the interview she’d shown me a few dicks that didn’t turn out as she’d liked them to—air bubbles caught in the resin, condoms that couldn’t be pulled off properly and reacted badly with the resin, etc. When asked to think limitlessly, she’s only certain about two things: it has to be massive and it has to be unpredictable. She doesn’t believe it will ever happen, but I hope it will.

In Defence of Pleasure is on view at Ruang, 2 Hang Kasturi as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition from 3 to 18 November 2018. The dicks are for sale at prices between RM150-170, Lith can be contacted at yeeleng.n@gmail.com.

Art notes: “Lopung is Dead!” @ A+ Works of Art, Sentul

The foundational ethos of punk rock is speaking truth to power. If you look at the work of Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap (“pangrok” being a localization of “punk rock”, “sulap” being a Dusun word for a kampung hut), you can see their punk rock heart shining through and true. Several days ago, on the 4th of October, they launched the opening night for their first ever solo exhibition in A+ Works of Art, located at d6 Sentul. The exhibition is titled “Lopung is Dead!”, with “lopung” being another Dusun word for pythons, and which in Sabahan slang is also used to refer to lazy and irresponsible workers.

As their choice of names hints, the work that the art collective does is highly localized. Their work is influenced by current events and everyday life in Malaysia; their prints criticize political corruption, environmental disregard and governmental propagandizing, while also celebrating the strength, beauty and unity of the people, especially the orang kampung.  

When I entered the space, there was a huge semicircle of people crowded around two massive floor-to-ceiling canvasses, both of which make up the work “Sabah Tanah Airku”. This is perhaps their most famous artwork, since it was hit with censorship last year when the organizers of the Escape from the SEA exhibition at APW were forced to pull it down due to pressure from anonymous public complaints.

“Sabah Tanah Airku” presents two “Versions” of Sabah: on the left side, there is the postcard-perfect Sabah–a harmonious Sabah, a picture that rings somewhat true, a picture still worth making, but also a superficial one. In Version #2 on the right, we see the facade discarded. Farmers who are toiling happily in the former are depicted with angry, weary faces in the latter. The “prosperity” and modernization of the former shows its consequences with the privatization and environmental destruction portrayed in the latter. While the former is composed in a bottom-top arrangement, with the people depicted in the foreground receding into the back, the latter has a top-down arrangement that portrays the people aggressively dominating the picture and the land.

The two works that make up “Sabah Tanah Airku”

Over in the next section is a collection of prints grouped under the title “Ma=Fil=Indo”, depicting an internationalist vision of a Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian union as proposed by Filipino hero Dr José Rizal many, many years ago. The Malaysia of today seems wholly dedicated to be something it’s not, by incessantly importing foreign goods and corporations from those who used to colonize our region (America, the United Kingdom, Japan…), and so the Ma=Fil=Indo series showing solidarity with our neighbours is refreshing to see.

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One of the works in the “Ma=Fil=Indo” series

Pangrok Sulap works with woodcut printing, a medium that’s perfect for the collective’s political message–a message that is clear, frank and literally stated in black and white. Their art has the ability of being both elaborate and simple at the same time. “Sabah Tanah Airku” are massive prints of elegant complexity that are completely filled to all four corners with various allusions and symbols, yet the message is unmistakable. The snake-and-ladder “Ular Lari Lurus” prints are a literal game of symbols, but it’s an easy game, one that any Malaysian will understand and relate to. Like the punk rock music that inspires their name, Pangrok Sulap’s works show that sometimes the most effective way of fighting injustice is to say things as they are. In black and white, on a large canvas and in public.

Towards the end of the night, a few stools were brought out for five of the collective’s members to give a closing performance. One of them pulled out a guitar with a bright yellow sticker on it that proclaimed “WE CONSUME WE DESTROY.” They performed a couple songs, ending with one called “Orang Kampung”. Though the audience didn’t know the lyrics before they began, the song had such an easy, infectious chorus that people were soon singing along.

Speaking the truth, challenging corruption, showing solidarity and politicizing your guitar. Works about farmers and the land, exhibited in an art gallery in a commercial building in the capital city. Pangrok Sulap’s exhibition is a reminder that fighting injustice really can be as easy as the chorus to their song, if only we have the courage to say things as they are and the mindfulness to remember, always, the shared land and history that we are all indebted to.

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Field notes #3: Family Mart (multiple locations)

Or, “I only have time to go to the convenience store.”

In our collective imaginations, the convenience store is an in-between place. It’s almost never a destination in itself, and visiting the convenience store is never an event. Even our homes, which we take for granted more than most other places, offer us feelings of relief or joy upon our return. But going to the convenience store doesn’t stir up any emotion, because it’s often a place we visit out of necessity, a place that’s accessible and decently-stocked and open 24/7.

The convenience store is the closest thing we treat to a home besides our own and our loved ones’ homes. In the convenience store, anything is allowed at any time of day, and no one bats an eyelash if you turn up with unbrushed teeth and hair. It’s a place where people bump into each other in between the tiny aisles and the cashier almost never even looks at you, let alone smiles; rudeness in the convenience store is accepted more readily than it would be anywhere else. You’re in a rush, you just woke up, you’re trying to find that one specific thing and can’t figure out where in all the haphazard organisation it’s been buried. The aisles have no names and the people aren’t really people. The convenience store is a place that doesn’t really exist; like a dream you forget the moment you wake up, the convenience store exists only when we need something, and then disappears again at the chime of the bell over our heads on our way out.

As such, with the convenience store being so much a place we take for granted, it offers a small slice of home, ease and relief at every corner. We need the convenience store like we need a home, because it provides for us, but also because we need these places where we’re allowed to just be, and this provision by the convenience store is perhaps one of its most overlooked services.

FamilyMart, however, changes the way we interact with convenience stores. Maybe the Japanese are used to FamilyMart, but Malaysians were not. The franchise first opened in Malaysia in 2016 and it took Malaysia by storm—everyone became enamoured with FamilyMart. It was treated as a true novelty when it entered Malaysian markets, because of how much it provides in the name of convenience. FamilyMart is a place where you can pay your bills, get cheap coffee hot or iced, buy a hot meal and enjoy it in-store, and the franchise is always innovating further for the future of convenience.

Above all, FamilyMart actually makes you think, unlike the mynews or 7-11 or gas stations that we’re used to, because it is so wholly foreign and untested to us. It offers the sense of escapism that any predominantly foreign brand store would offer. Next to the gardenia breads you can find a “green tea melon pan”, and next to the Lipton iced lemon tea you can find “clear” milk tea. Next to the normal cashier counter, there’s a special “oden counter” where you queue up if you want to buy fish cakes and udon noodles in hot soup. FamilyMart offers variety in an establishment that we frequent because of its lack of variety. FamilyMart becomes a destination in itself because it offers an alternative that we’re not used to. Why should I walk down the street to the FamilyMart when there’s a mynews next door? Because I want something specifically Japanese that only FamilyMart can provide.

The convenience store is predictable, because we know what we can get there and more importantly what we can’t get there. We can’t often get fresh food, and we can’t get an experience, and while it fulfils our most pressing need at the moment, it perhaps doesn’t do it in a way that’s healthy or most desirable for us. But FamilyMart offers all the same things that we expect from a convenience store while packaging it in the dream that, more than just fulfilling our needs, it can also fulfil our desires.

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Recently, I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 movie Chungking Express for the first time. Something that struck me was his use of the convenience store, even though this location didn’t play a big role in the film as a whole. I was interested by the way the convenience store served to facilitate Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung’s desires, building a bridge between the personal & mystical with the banal everyday. In the convenience store, Takeshi can find his canned pineapples that will expire on a specific date, and Tony can dry a wet letter from Faye Wong on the grill, as if the convenience store was there to accommodate exactly these very specific needs.

Though Chungking Express was filmed in Hong Kong, not Japan, and though it was released years before the emergence of FamilyMart on the global scene, the way Takeshi and Tony use the convenience store in this movie made me think of the way we use FamilyMart these days—or rather, what FamilyMart provides for us in services that we didn’t even know we needed.

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Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character looking for his canned pineapples in a screencap from Chungking Express

The use of the convenience store in Chungking Express to facilitate desire made me think about FamilyMart as a place that provides for everything, and about what kind of significance convenience stores may hold for our future. The transformation of the convenience store into more than an in-between, but into a destination in itself: starting with a café (many FamilyMarts already have a small sitting area where people can enjoy their hot meals), and then what—a restaurant, supermarket, mall? Many other supermarkets, such as Giant and AEON, have already expanded into becoming full-fledged neighbourhood malls, while the upscale Ben’s grocery store has even commanded a whole street of Ben’s-owned restaurants and stores out on Jalan Batai*.

In-between places can’t really exist in a capitalist economy, because many businesses endeavour to expand outward, provide more services and thus become more profitable. FamilyMart isn’t an in-between place, because we’re allowed and given reasons to spend more time there than is expected for a convenience store. Convenience stores lay the foundations for our lives, because we need convenience more than we need variety: we need an all-in-one place where we can rest, nourish ourselves, pay our bills, withdraw money and settle everything that is extraneous to our working lives. (Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism is that food, drink and rest become as incidental to our lives as topping up our phone.) And as FamilyMart grows to fulfil extraneous practical needs, I wonder how much it will grow to fulfil other needs as well.

Needs such as Takeshi’s need to find canned pineapples that expire on a certain date so that he can move on from his ex, needs such as Tony’s need of a grill where he can dry a rain-sodden letter from Faye Wong. I’m wondering about how much the convenience store can really provide for us. I’m wondering if there will come a time when all of our lives can be settled at a FamilyMart.

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Because of how much the convenience store provides for us, I’ve personally always thought of it also as a site of desperation. Yes, you go to the convenience store when you’re in a rush or need a quick fix, but you also go there when you’re down on cash, or because something else is preventing you from doing something that’s good for you. I’ve visited the convenience store when I felt too useless to go to the grocery store, and I’ve visited the convenience store when I’ve been too anxious to go out to a normal place and eat a normal, cooked meal.

As I’ve said, the convenience store offers a safe haven where you can indulge in the same anonymity, ease and ugliness as you would in your own home. At the convenience store, you forget to leave all the emotional baggage at the door because you’re allowed to bring it in, a “service” you may not easily find anywhere else.

Underneath all of its plans for future services to expand into, perhaps what FamilyMart is truly striving to provide is the veneer of a home outside the home. On every corner, a convenience store that provides for the entire hierarchy of Maslow’s needs, including self-actualisation. And then, just as Japan’s innovations in improving standards of living are all ultimately in the service of increasing productivity, back to work and “the real world”.

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(I’m thinking, also, about that one evening we’d fought, and decided to make our separate ways back, and I’d stumbled upon you again smoking a cigarette and checking your phone outside a FamilyMart. Is this one of the services it offers as well? Everyone, at some point, will need to go to a convenience store, and they will need the convenience store more often than anywhere else. Maybe if one waits long enough at a FamilyMart, the loved one will eventually return, if just to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Chungking Express, Tony Leung re-discovers his stewardess ex-girlfriend again in the convenience store, pulling a drink out of the chilled section.)

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Tony Leung’s character waiting for his letter to dry in a screencap from Chungking Express.


*It is telling that an “upscale” grocery like Ben’s expanded into Jalan Batai. A mark of luxury is variety, because there is nothing more luxurious than having the time, energy and money to go out of your way to get what you want. However, even the relatively luxurious families seem to prefer convenience over variety, and so Jalan Batai…