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Trash & The City

  • April 15, 2004

By Tan Sei Hon

“This should be listed in the Malaysian book of records!” exclaimed the headwaiter of a fancy bistro located just beside Lot 10 shopping mall. He was referring to the performance art late last year by young visual artist Nuriman Amri bin Abdul Manap, a participant of Sonneratia, a youth art camp sponsored by the National Art Gallery. Art student Ngiam Tiang Sze was assisting Nuriman in rolling a ball of rubbish through KL city. Both began their journey from Sentul at about nine that morning. As the day got hotter and hotter, they pushed the rubbish through Chow Kit, to Dataran Merdeka, to Central Market, to Sungai Wang and through Bintang Walk. At about six in the evening, they reached the designated last stop at KLCC, all sweaty and smelly. The bundle of well-travelled rubbish was meant subsequently to be part of an exhibition at the National Art Gallery. But the exhibition never happened, and the rubbish has since been properly discarded of.

Visual artist Chang Yoong Chia has a slightly more low-key approach. He puts up a chair at various public spaces (Pudu Raya, KLCC, Central Market, Kelana Jaya LRT station), sits down and proceeds to stitch portraits of the dead from obituaries in the dailies. He calls it ‘Quilt of the Dead’. He does this every now and then, usually weekends. Nobody has stopped him so far, but many curious onlookers have spoken to him. When they try to buy the quilts off him, he says they are not for sale.

Nearby on the walls of various buildings as well as pillars of LRT tracks around the city, stenciled artworks compete for attention with the many advertising images saturating our public spaces. Unlike most slick ‘screamers’ with far-fetched promises, these crude unsigned works offer instead questions touching on the social and political. It asks us to protect our Hak Asasi, question the National Service and protest Police Brutality.

Though they don’t know it, buskers too are in their own way engaging in a kind of performance art to take back the public space. More innocuous than political stencils but more ubiquitous than visual artists, these street musicians perform to both locals and tourist. Some croon covers along with original material, while others allow their instruments to do the singing instead. Not exactly the path to fame, fortune and access to legions of cock hungry groupies. But these endless streets are theirs.

I also suspect these street performances aren’t exactly potential recipients for next year’s Cameronian Awards for ‘Best Solo Performance’ (More likely to go under the Special Branch’s black list of ‘Best New Detainees’!).

What motivates these people? What grand objectives could be achieved by such trivial gestures? Isn’t it clear that everything’s in its rightful place? Art in galleries, music in concert halls and theater in auditoriums. Perhaps that’s precisely the problem. We are so accustomed to living and working in boxes and enclosed spaces even our Weltanschauung is squared.

Day by day, wave after wave of faceless worker ants sweep across the dirty streets of K.L City’s labyrinth, rabid­eyed, hurried steps, wearing their homogenised fashion statements, hopping from one pigeon hole masquerading as architecture to another. For some, the imaginary cheese dangling in front of their faces taunts their desire to succeed, for others, a piece of dried carrot goads them (you’re either a rat or an ass). This is the routine of your average Joe and Jane K.L, a life of commitment to the daily grind. If endless mortal toil is one of God’s many punishment for disobedience, then kudos to the devil for making it bearable, pleasurable and ultimately meaningful.

Bring on the billboards, staring at us like Big Brother. Give us fashion, liquor and nicotine. These are our country’s semiology of modernisation without the sensibilities of modernity. Form follows fancy – this is the modus operandi of our 3rd world vision with their 1st world aspiration.

A few of our artists refuse to rest easy. Their intentions vary. But the thread that binds them together is their courage to express and share their personal worldviews in public spaces. Their acts signal a need to reclaim public spaces for diverse as well as shared sentiments. You see, in Bolehland, an open space is an outlet where paying politicians and corporations create spectacles to yield our collective consent. Licenses have to be applied. Every undertaking is treated as commercial venture. Political and business interests take precedence over the personal and particular. Spontaneous expression and fun have no place in a controlled democracy. When our surrounding environment is legally made to be uncongenial to creative freedom and expression (especially ones that are critical and unprofitable), when the powers that be continues in interpreting, producing, constructing, preserving and enforcing their own and their corporate buddies’ version of Malaysian social realities past and present, something’s definitely not right.

The signs are clear for all to see. A culture and education system that teaches conformity, to Bangsa, Agama, Negara, shopping malls, Hollywood and MTV has produced a generation knee deep in creative and imaginative bankruptcy. Monkeys see monkeys do monkeys ape to be cool.

That’s why our young Miggers, Chiggers, and ……. (fill in postmodern term for the black wannabes) are prancing around on the ‘ruff neighborhoods of MTV where ‘street’ credentials are earned through break dancing, graffiti making, extreme sports and drinking Sprite/Ribena. While their ‘rivals’, the brown-skinned white supremacists paints Nazi swastikas celebrating ‘Brown’ power.

Middle class kids headbang to all that imported angst expressed by our local bastardised versions of Eddie Vedder but we never bang our heads against this oppressive wall of ignorance that’s being constructed around us.

So where is the black sheep among the thousands of Dollys churned out by our factory-like institutions that will extend a middle finger against the ‘Shit-stem’ (to borrow the word from Pete Tosh)?

Where are our dreamers more awake than most of us sleepwalkers in this shoppers’ paradise screaming: “Wake up! The more you have, the less you are?”

Think about it every time you come across our artists in the streets.

First Published: 15.04.2004 on Kakiseni