In 1993 I made my first trip to New York. My wife Jane and I were living in London and had bought a Hoover vacuum cleaner. As part of the infamously disastrous (for Hoover) promotion of the time we got two free tickets to New York. I had, as an artist from Malaysia practicing in the London art scene, been working with found objects and performative interventions as a means of making a Janus faced engagement with the Modernist canon. I had already identified the ceramic bedpan as the the key readymade in my growing collection of objects – a pastiche and/or parody of the primordial Duchampian readymade. I sourced a plastic version that would be more suitable for travel and planned the performative action. Jane and I left for our holiday with an exciting itinerary that included a visit to the Twin Towers, a Cecil Taylor concert, a William Dafoe one-man theatre performance, a personal tour of the Electronic Arts Intermix archive, a social visit with pioneering avant-garde pianist Margret Leng Tan and an intervention planned in the space of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art…. The photograph featured in the The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! was taken by Jane as documentation of this intervention.
In 1995 Jane and I moved to Kuching so that I could take up a teaching position at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) which had been established in 1992 as the newest University in Malaysia. Its founding coincided with Malaysia’s sophisticated Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) strategy of the 1990s and we had a cutting edge Internet infrastructure and a commensurate technology centered academic programme. I had been practicing my art in the space between material objects, text, image, performance and the physical placement of the work in space. I had found myself developing a critical practice wherein context became part of the work. As I stated in an Interview with Roopesh Sitharan, it was when I joined UNIMAS that “I was introduced to the WWW, and most significantly, I met Hasnul who was already teaching there and in the early stages of developing an art and technology agenda initially envisioned by the visionary artist and theorist Ismail Zain. Hasnul encouraged me to consider the new media and I quickly realized that the new user friendly, ubiquitous, hypertextual, multimedia Internet was a medium that I had been waiting for – more and more my installation works had been yearning for a transcendence of materiality, geography, narrative hegemony and context – and this transcendence is what the WWW appeared to offer, even embody in its very ontology. I made ‘Failure of Marcel Duchamp’ in 1996”.
When this web work was presented at Explorasi, the inaugural Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts exhibition at the Petronas Gallery in 1997, I also presented a set of four framed 8.3 x 11.7 inch computer prints (in a single edition). Each print represents one key stage in the interaction of the website. The last print was framed with a frosted section in the glass to veil the pornographic element in the print. This website went offline after some years and was reconstructed and temporarily revived for the Relocations exhibition curated by Roopesh Sitharan for ISEA 2008 in Singapore. It was hosted on the 12 Gallery website during the period of the event. What remains of the work today is just the bare bones as archived without images on the Wayback Machine website. In this light the framed set of prints is the only tangible residue of what is slowly but surely being acknowledged as the first online artwork in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. In considering the print version of my work, I am obliged and honoured to acknowledge Ismail Zain’s Digital Collage series. If Digital Collage applied Robert Rauschenberg’s flatbed aesthetic to the computer mediated remix, my The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! composited its remixed image in a live download from servers at disparate geographical locations. This print set was exhibited again as part of Rupa Malaysia curated by Reza Piyadasa in 2001.
The following is extracted and translated from a post titled AL-KESAH KOBOI BALIK KAMPUNG (28th MArch 2018) on Kebun JiwasHalus’ Blog –Yesterday we went to Merlimau, Melaka. Our guide was Azizan Paiman. The mission was a photo-shoot for the latest Koboi Balik Kampung series by Niranjan Rajah. Niranjan’s Koboi series plays on the problematics of a cosmopolitan identity in the context of contemporary trans-national mobility. Niranjan has taken the photo-conceptual Koboi Project everywhere, the Singapore Biennale, the Burning Man Festival and the KL Biennale. For the photo-shoot in Merlimau, Niranjan continued his discourse, this time with ‘me’ and ‘Melaka traditional house’ as ‘texts’ in his image. The traditional Melaka house refers to my teacher Ismail Zain’s digital collage dot matrix print entitled ‘Al-Kesah’ (1988). This work remains one of Ismail Zain’s most enduring intellectual legacies. “Al-Kesah” features a traditional Malay house as the backdrop for JR Ewing’s family photo (from the popular TV series of the early 80’s, Dallas). Pak Mail touches on the ‘modernization’ of the village landscape – in the context of globalization (or globa-lu-kasi, globalisasau, also gooblelibasi) connecting the impact of mass media and internationalist architecture in a semiotic and inter-textual play.
Hasnul asked me – Whats the term you use for my role in your photo bro? Am reflecting on koboi for my blog now.
I sent hasnul a hasty answer that is included in his post, and now take the opportunity to correct and elaborate on my reply – The Image (which is yet to be finalized and is not the one above) is being developed around the Tamil term valayan katti, which means pengikat dawai or person who ties wire. This is a term which, according to the ostentatiously named author Sheikh Moinudeen Chisti Syed Abdul Kadir (is this a pen name for some other person of mischievous intent?), was “invented by Tamil estate workers but which became widely used by most Tamils including Indian Muslims to describe Malays”. In his rather informative , if controversial, posting about Malaysian Mamak or Indian Muslim identity the suspiciously illusive Sheikh Moinudeen explains, “…’valayan‘ means wire. ‘Katti‘ means to tie something. So ‘valayan katti means ‘a person who ties a wire’”. He continues, “In the early days of the rubber industry, the British tried to get the Malays to tap the rubber trees. However the native Malays had problems tapping the rubber tree in the proper manner and ended up injuring the tree, reducing the output of rubber. The British had better luck getting the trees properly tapped with the Tamils from India. Malays were then delegated the simpler job of using wire (valayan) to tie (katti) the little latex cups to the rubber tree. Hence the name valayan katti“. While this etymology is corroborated in various other online sources this term and its origins needs further confirmation.
Regardless of my doubts about the veracity of this reading of the term … it allows me to continue the approach I developed in my Telinga Keling (2000) in which I attempt to deconstruct and even to reconstruct a derogatory term that speaks to the depths of our national psyche. You (Hasnul) as a Malay are nominally the valayan-katti in my image. Then again, in electronic art days at UNIMAS, we were both Valayan Katti – your wire carried the electronic video signal and mine, the new internet data. This brings me to the Ismail Zain reference of this image. You are his student and in a sense his heir … and me too … indirectly … Indeed, I think I can claim to be the valayan katti of Malaysian Internet art. Bringing this allegorical play into the present … despite a decade and a half of separation, given your Gemabelas and my Anugraham, we are somehow still connected or WIRED … working independently yet synchronously with tradition, compassion, physics and metaphysics. Indeed, now our network is metaphysical.