Abducted Traditions

A grey cold April evening had descended on Exeter, England, along with the news of Krishen Jit’s untimely demise. I had arrived with an air of sadness and expectation. Before me, stood the grand old building, Crossmead Conference Centre, where over the next few days I shall meet with academicians and artists from Australia, Hawaii, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam. The Association of South East Asian Studies (UK) was holding its latest conference, 2005 ASEASUK, here. The event is important (this is its 22nd meet and significant numbers of documentations were to be presented, inspired from the success of previous conferences).

I could not help but wonder about the seriousness of this conference.  Particularly with regards to how seriously the Malaysian government takes it. Do we indeed belong to the South East Asian cultural circle? Because time and time again we had proven our inability to rise to the occasion {how many international conferences talk mostly about the Malays, their art, literature and psyche?). Malaysians who participated in these conferences are clearly independent of the state’s endorsement or knowledge. As armies of supporters from other respected countries made efforts to attend the opening night, ours have gone AWOL. Here at the conference, the scholars strut, the artists mingle and the public prods inquisitively at the balloon of ASEASUK. Malaysians voices and spirit quiver to the dominance of other great cultures and arts. Yes, most of the international delegates spoke Malay but it was quintessentially Bahasa Indonesia. I realised how small our impact was in the overall Southeast Asian field of studies. I began to wonder whether this occurrence is from choice or history. If the latter, then it confirms our insignificant part in the role of Southeast Asian studies. I hope it isn’t so.

The conference theme was “Turbulence and Continuity in Southeast Asia”. It highlighted five different categories:

  1. Indonesian-Malay Manuscript
  2. South East Asia Politics
  3. Art & Material Culture
  4. Sexuality in South East Asia
  5. Contemporary South East Asian Tradition Based Performance.

Being a newcomer to the biennial conference where my paper presentation and performance falls within the fifth group, my enthusiasm and expectation was at a record high.

The opening night (they called it a concert), witnessed poetry recitals in memory of the Tsunami tragedy. The poems were recited by Ikranegara, poet and theatre artist from Indonesia. There were also some contemporary interpretations of traditional dance, which sadly did not fit into my frame of reference, but probably served its purpose to others; a mask dance, not much different from any mask dance you had ever experienced; and an ironic yet interesting performance from Zulkifli of his Jjjadi Jawo Jawi routine; along with my own live art performance, Simulacra.

Instead of blowing my own trumpet, let me quote someone else doing it for me. Keith Mills, architect, designer and art critic, who attended the concert for the first time, said this about my group’s performance:  “I was expecting some contemporary artistic performances which pushed back the boundaries of Asian theatre, but the piece presented by Doolali Group was the only truly different art form I have seen in recent years. The group’s six minutes live art depicted a scene from the stylized ‘Simulacra’ poetry written by Rozmanshah Abdullah, charged with stylistic and innovative manipulation of ‘inanimate object’, by self taught ‘dalang’ Patrizia Adami and directed by Aris A Ya’acob, guru of the group. The term ‘inanimate object’ replaces the traditional puppet associated with Wayang Kulit and in this scene, a variety of wire sculptures, plastic sheeting and illuminated objects were used in an unusual interpretation of an age old fable. A remarkable, arresting and fascinating experience.”

Prior to the concert, the performers had been given some guidance regarding content and format. Matthew Cohen, the convener for the Southeast Asian tradition-based contemporary performances (the concert), had written something about the issues pertaining to it, during which he suggested the following areas for performers to consider:

  1. Questions of ownership arising when contemporary practitioners (foreign or local) repackage tradition for contemporary audiences
  2. Contrasts and similarities between European and Southeast Asian modernist appropriations of Southeast Asian tradition with contemporary tradition-based work
  3. Standards for judging and criticising tradition-based contemporary performance
  4. Differences between tradition-based new music, theatre and dance created in ‘diasporic’ contexts and in the ‘homelands’
  5. The politics, economics and legal issues in the production of tradition-based contemporary performance
  6. Traditional and non-traditional aesthetics and criticism of tradition-based contemporary performance
  7. Tradition-based contemporary performance in television and film
  8. Tradition-based contemporary performance and artistic exchange in national, ASEAN and global contexts
  9. Forms of ambivalence, resistance and antipathy to tradition-based artistic work; the reception of tradition­ based contemporary work by Southeast Asian audiences outside cosmopolitan, urbane scenes

All of these conundrums from Matthew are nice to read and ponder upon, but what lay behind the reality of the concert performances on that night? The first disturbing issue for me is the word ‘contemporary’. It is apparent from Matthew’s guidelines as listed above that contemporary issues weigh heavier on the audience, and less so on the performances. After my group’s live art performance, as well as Ikranegara’s, Zul’s and others, it dawned on me that the tradition-based contemporary performance genre is very much in its infancy. I can risk saying this because the performances that night were merely safe and grounded works. What is so contemporary about dancers dancing traditionally in accord with their movement and music? What is so contemporary about performers who dress exactly or close to their forefather’s costumes?

The long and often overplayed debate on what is ‘contemporary’ will assuredly produce no end of questions on definitions. As for me, it is all about my personal point of view in relation to time and creation. If a tradition-based contemporary performance relies heavily on the tradition, say, from the inherited movement of hands and gestures right down to the traditional sound accompanying the performance, or even to the context of the whole performance, then sadly the performance is nothing but an empty shell – simply a recreation. Contemporary performances should, to my understanding, be allegorical, even slightly diabolical. According to Craig Owen, historian and art critic, “The pertinent issues dwelling in this kind of traditional based performance should encompass more on critical rather than historical interest.”

The second day followed more academic explanations of various artists’ raison d’etre for their works. They were, nonetheless, interesting for the sheer variety of opinions and presentations expressed by individual members. A highlight of the conference was the presence of Matthew Cohen, resident expert, cultural adviser and senior lecturer in South East Asian studies at University of Glasgow. He studied Wayang Kulit in Indonesia and travelled widely to Southeast Asia to pursue his passion in the genre. Matthew presented a highly condensed, illuminating and fascinating history and background to Wayang Kulit in South East Asia in relation to global context. It was clear from the presentation that this man’s knowledge and understanding of his subject are considerable and probably world class. He stated that:

“Southeast Asian performing art traditions have offered non-traditional artists and art promoters fodder for quotation, appropriation, abduction, and repackaging for more than a century. Southeast Asian traditions famously ‘influenced’ and ‘inspired’ a raft of late imperial European and American composers, directors and choreographers including Debussy, Artaud, Craig, Ruth St. Dennis, and La Meri. Tradition also less famously provided a basis for Southeast Asian modernists, such as choreographer and dancer Raden Mas Jodjana, who reworked Southeast Asian traditions for presentation on elite stages to Euro-American and Southeast Asian avant-garde audiences.”

His pronunciation of local artistic terminology, ‘Wayang Kulit’, ‘Wayang Wong’ etc, was delivered as if he were a local resident of these colourful, distant lands. (No wonder he settled down with an Indonesian lady!)

As convener for the event, though, Matthew had little or no influence over what was to be presented by the various artists. However, if the majority of the offerings fell short of most people’s expectations for a truly contemporary event, it is the ideology of the participants who are to blame and not the convener.

And as for us in Malaysia, our over sensitive powers are always waiting to pick up on our every unconscious thought. As a result, many of our contemporary art practitioners are moving out of the country to find freedom. For eg. – Aida Redza (Netherland), Mavin Khoo (London), Doo-Lali (London) and Huzir Sulaiman (Singapore). Malaysian artists who have based themselves in Malaysia are great and talented but they have to comply with the rules and regulations of the authorities as represented by DBKL, Jabatan Agama Islam, etc. Who then, dare to contemporarise (a terminology borrowed from Krishen Jit) the old for the new?

Anything when put into meaningful concentration and attention can produce results of outstanding stature. It is about channelling and repositioning parallel thoughts, assembling it through rigorous regime. It was never order that won. Chaos actually rules.


Aris Ahmad Yaacob, Malaysian born Scenographer, is the artistic director of Doo-Lali, London. He will be launching his solo ‘Live Art: Poetic Painting’ exhibition in London at Light Gallery Mayfair from 7-14 November 2005 – Supported by Bluequadrant Design and Jimmy Choo Couture.

Edited by KW Mills and Rozmanshah Abdullah (and Pang)

First Published: 21.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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