THE ILHAM CONTEMPORARY FORUM, KUALA LUMPUR
May 2017 - Oct 2018
The ILHAM Contemporary Forum is an experimental programme that aims to explore the contemporaenous in Malaysian arts and culture by inviting a range of professionals from various fields and positions, all younger than 39, to collaboratively curate an exhibition of recent artworks and cultural projects. ILHAM selected seven Project Curators, who in turn were tasked to each select five Malaysian visual artworks or cultural projects, all created within the last eight years. I chose to focus on 'cultural projects' that challenge current ideas of modern art in the video essay below.
I explore the pervasive trend of anonymous, Malaysian 'personalities' that operate false, exagerrated personas that inadvertently critique several pillars of Malaysia's power structures and cast questions on the nascent medium of performance art adapted to Southeast Asia. The essay represents a kernel of an idea I wish to expand further in the future.
THE POLITICS OF PERFORMANCE
1 January 2018
Since the ILHAM Contemporary Forum, most of the personalities featured in the video essay continue to be prolific, with the Malaysian mainstream media consistently indulging their every desire for attention. The most memorable of these antics include leader of the fascistic Red Shirts Jamal Yunos, conducting a ‘public walkabout’ with a cut-out image of opposition leader Wan Azizah, shaman Raja Bomoh offering to protect Malaysia from a North Korean nuclear attack and celebrity Right-winger Rani Kulup proposing marriage to cosmetics mogul Datuk Seri Hasmiza Osman (Datuk Vida). The proposal was a casual one, offering Datuk Vida the choice to join an already polygamous family. Otherwise, he suggests they perform a duet together. Each new development asserts my suspicion that there is strategic intent to sustain public attention for specific narratives, though the complexities of these gestures’ motivations are yet to be unpacked.
My video intimates that these gestures are expressions of masculine anxiety, as each individual represents a pillar of the Malay imagination’s sense of male esteem. Symbolically, Raja Bomoh serves as an uneasy reminder of the syncretic and ambiguous nature of Malay spirituality now under pressure from the resurgence of Islamic conservatism (a relatively modern resurgence if we trace it from the 1980s). Jamal Yunos’ audacity insists on the right to political incorrectness amidst growing calls for revision in the country’s affirmative action policies. Rani Kulup is similar in his passive-aggressive loyalties to the government, though he offers it with a heavy suggestion of male prowess. Kulup’s constant reminder to interviewers of his magnetism, his choosing to wear vaguely military regalia and clumsily practicing martial arts are assertions of confidence as Malaysia enters the fourth decade of its gender inequality crisis in higher education: female students continue to outperform their male counterparts, the seeds of which have begun to flower in the workforce and ultimately weed into the power dynamics of individual families. Finally, there is the surreal Sultan Melaka, who symbolizes the obvious and whose greatest transgression to the authorities, I suspect, is in the success of his impersonations of pomp than any weak claim to a false throne.
Spiritual Power. Political Power. Sexual Power. Sovereign Power. The key tenets are given tribute, though executed so inelegantly they subvert their own message with humor. There is an act of self-sabotage littered in their performances that subconsciously point to an acknowledgment of tides that cannot be turned. “There is no question that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge,” Freud once famously proclaimed in his introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Each performance is a type of question, framed in an eccentric, emotional outbreak to the fate and frailty of the idea of the Malay male.
The inclusion of Datuk Vida and the use of Wan Azizah as imagery, however, is a reminder of the female dimension of Malay anxiety that I would include if I were to rewrite the video. Perhaps some extremes are necessary for the Malay woman to straddle the impossible standards of her complex Malay roots and the materialistic heights capitalism promises and demands. Datuk Vida is interesting in how she pushes the continuous Malay struggle for ‘balance’ by unapologetically ‘wanting it all’. It is uncertain if she is a popular figure in entertainment, bus she is intently observed, which offers interesting clues to the individual viewer’s own internal struggle to reconcile these very different worlds of materialism and spirituality. A great deal was left unexplained in the video. For brevity, the video essay’s main purpose was not to strictly analyze but to raise several questions. When these personalities ape the conventions of fine art and hold some monopoly over the visual economy do they threaten to redefine art, or at least performance art, in some way? There is also the question of how the shape of the video asserts its epistemic place in the exhibition. Is the video an act of curation or is it art? Since the video’s installation I have taken pleasure in receiving different interpretations of the video, finding the tendency for artists to read it as art and curators to see it as an act of curation, suggestive of the sort of heuristic biases at work in the art world. Those less initiated in the arts ignore the status of the medium completely, addressing the larger anthropological question. The video is as indeterminate at the individual performers I speak of, and I believe this uncertainty allows for the external world to gaze back at art’s conventions. It is no longer the case that art casts judgment on the world. A dialectic is slowly emerging as the lines between art and the larger lived spectacle of life begin to blur.
The conceit of a ‘contemporary’ exhibit is that it challenges the curator in two planes of vulnerability. The curator is tested on how astutely she reads the past, present and future now that she is unable to hide behind verdicts from history. This is especially difficult for a country as young as Malaysia, where much of its national psyche is modern. Its few decades have largely been focused on (albeit diverse) ideas of progress and its cultural norms are a few decades old. How does one rethink and relook at the contemporary in Malaysia when there is no history to disembark from?
Anxieties remain the most viable thread in which to weave narratives hidden beneath the veneer of the modern. The anxieties in particular take on a particularly Derridian spectrality, serving as ghosts that endlessly knock on the door of the present, demanding attention and occasionally reclaiming it when their strange acts do gain attention. As ghosts from the past, they are both revenant (invoking what was) and arrivant (announcing what will come). When we see what they assert, we see what is under threat and the uncertain fates of their invested identities.
I write these final sentences while overhearing recent news that UMNO has recruited Azwan Ali, television host and entertainer, as its latest threat to opposition leader and paternal sibling Azmin Ali. The stage has collapsed. Reality, entertainment, individual experience and the experiential have blurred. Only our anxieties’ ghosts persist as proof of what has led us to where we are today.