In Malay cosmology, the 1. Dunia of Man, animals, plants, objects, spirits is connected to 6. Dasar Laut, the domain of Raja Lebis, via the 2. Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi which is inhabited by Nagas, Jins, and Garudas (Modified from a diagram after Md. Salleh Yaspar in Malaysian World View edited by Mohd Taib Osman.). This Malay motif of the pusat tasik pauh janggi appears to exemplify a more general Southeast Asian ontological structure –
The navel of the sea drains the waters of the world
A submarine tree or world pillar at the navel links the human realm to both the underworld and the skyworld
There are mythic creatures dwelling at the navel of the seas at the base of the tree or pillar
The ebb and flow of tides are due to the movements of the creature blocking the drain at the navel
The ocean currents are due to water flowing in and out of the drain at the navel
Earthquakes are caused by creature at navel of the sea shaking the world pillar
There are relationship between these flows to the movement of the Sun and Moon and events like eclipses
Rising sea levels and flooding are associated with the navel of the sea.
In 1999 Hasnul Jamal Saidon and I founded the pioneering Eart ASEAN Online portal which, as the text on the homepage used to say, was an “interactive resource for electronic art in Southeast Asia. This site consists of a comprehensive Database of new media art including profiles of artists and samples of artworks, a Journal dealing with the historical development of electronic art in South East Asia, theoretical and critical issues related to the use of electronic media in the visual arts as well as reviews and analysis of electronic artworks, a Forum for online discussion as well as Links to related websites worldwide and a space for developing and hosting Webart by Southeast Asian Artists.”
The Webart section of Eart ASEAN set out a criteria for web art and a theory of how online art works might be integrated within the physical infrastructure of offline world. Integrating Peter Anders notion of cybrid space, which involves the complete coalescence of the virtual and the real, and Jochaim Blank’s problematization of the presentation of net projects in physical space, I outlined a curatorial agenda for our own ‘Cybrid Spaces.’ The call for submissions read – “CYBRID SPACES aims to promote the assimilation of the Internet into Southeast Asian art practice. More specifically CYBRID SPACES will facilitate Internet art works and projects that engage with the various institutional and physical spaces of mainstream Southeast Asian art. CYBRID SPACES will work with artists (offline and online) in the region bridging communication gaps in the arts infrastructure of the region. CYBRID SPACES invites projects proposals (send to firstname.lastname@example.org) from artist practicing in the region”.
This first presentation under this rubric was a set of web works that explored this new ontology. These were all works, that featured in the Virtual Curation exhibition at the Ipoh Arts Festival and they were linked via the curatorial essay I wrote for that event. This was the inaugural presentation of CYBRID SPACES and many of the works, particularly Ting Ting Hook’s Tortoise Zone, exemplified the proposed agenda. Sadly, there were no further presentations in this section as, having given it our all for a couple of years, both Hasnul and I moved on to other things.
It must be said, in this regard, that the Eart ASEAN Online portal was clearly ‘ahead of its time.’ This was both, the measure of its success and the cause of its ultimate failure. The project may have arrived at a time when the Malaysian electronic art scene was too well rooted in the analog realm to envisage the benefits of virtual community (this was well before the advent of social media) and dissemination. Also, it seems that the majority of those becoming involved in the new media were more in tune with industry and, although we had incorporated the the applied dimension of the arts into our programme and welcomed them, we could not induce much participation. Most significantly we had set out the geopolitical framework of ASEAN for the project and most of the states involved – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Viet Nam, Lao PDR and Myanmar and Cambodia would take some years before gaining the Internet infrastructure and capacity to participate. Nevertheless, Eart ASEAN laid out the theoretical framework and exemplified the social networking and platform development any such endeavor would have to involve, even today.
In 1996 I made a web work titled The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! which is the first Internet art work in Malaysia and, as far as I know, also in Southeast Asia. This work was both an admiring tribute and a harsh parody of Marcel Duchamp’s Étantdonnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) which is installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this meticulously realized work, Duchamp cleaves from logos, an abyss of eros. I suggest that it represents the culmination of the humanist trajectory in the philosophy of being, as in its presentation, the visual perspective of the ‘eye’ is fused, or confused, with the ‘I’ of the anthropocentric worldview. In this hypostatization of the ontology underpinning photography, sculptural form and visual image are rendered indifferent, arguably heralding the end of the retinal orientation in the art of the West and the birth of conceptual art. Étantdonnés is a paragon of visibility, a par ergon of reality, a hyperreality even!
My own work remixed an image appropriated from a Japanese bondage site, an erotic or pornographic element, within the photographic documentation of an intervention I made at the site of the Duchamp installation in 1993. The erotic element would have been unacceptable on Malaysian servers and so was isolated from the rest of the image and located, with the help of media artist Paul Sermon, on a server at the The Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Academy of Fine Arts) in Leipzig. Part of the aim of the work was to address territoriality and cultural difference in the Internet. The work underscored the fact that information that was then becoming globally accessible is not universally acceptable. Another aim of the work was to reify, in the context of what was in the mid 1990’s, the ‘slow download’ of the Internet, Fredric Jameson proposition that the visual Image is, in Itself, essentially pornographic. With the advent of the mass access to computer mediated communications brought about by the World Wide Web, Duchamp’s delayed image was no longer an esoteric encounter. It was becoming democratically accessible (Given:) as the slow download (The Waterfall?) on a personal illuminated screen (The Illuminating Gas!).
With the coffin shaped sculpture, May 13, 1969 by Redza Piyadasa as a blurry backdrop, this image, titled 8 My Country, from the Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016, raises the question of nation in contemporary Southeast Asian art. It marks the irony that one of the few art works that contemporaneously addressed our national tragedy, does not stand proudly and self-reflectively in the light of the Balai Seni Lukis Negara, Malaysia, but instead, presents itself nakedly to the gaze of others at the National Gallery of Singapore.
For those who are not familiar with South East Asian Art and Malaysian history -Essentially May 13th 1969 is an infamous day of racial rioting for Malaysia. Many people died. Reza Piyadasa is one of the few artists of that time who made contemporaneous artworks that have ‘survived’, which in the art world, means collected and written about, and in this particular case, commissioned and remade. This piece memorializes the tragedy and explores its meaning for the nation.
My photo above, which is a simple art gallery selfie type shot, carries within it the possibility of a critique of both Malaysian and Singaporean institutional attitudes – 1. Why has the Malaysian institution of record not bothered to collect this important work of national self-reflection and, in not doing so, missed the opportunity to interrogate and explore its meanings? May 13, 1969 is a work that should stand proudly in the National Gallery in Malaysia. 2. While National Gallery of Singapore is entitled to collect any work it finds interesting and should be commended for recognizing and preserving this important work, I can’t help but ask – what happens to the reading of May 13, 1969, when this this racially and politically provocative work is presented to the gaze of global others, outside of its meaningful context, far from its original function of affording self-reflection?
May 13, 1969 was remade in 2006, the original having been destroyed by the artist in a performative act.
The Koboi Project exhibition and performance titled Dari Pusat Tasek will open at the Percha Art Space in Lumut on 25th Dec 2019. There will be an impromptu street performance, carried out as part of this exhibition, based on the malay myth of the ‘navel of the seas’ or the pusat tasik pauh janggi. The combined downward spiral of the Pusat Tasek and the upward thrust of the enormous Pokok Pauh Janggi combine to create an axis of the world, one that analogous with the Tiang Seri of the traditional Malay House. In the Malay Ontology or cosmos – 1. Dunia is inhabited by Man, animals, plants, objects, spirits; 2. Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi is inhabited by Nagas, Jins, Garudas; 3. Padang Jauh dan Puncak Gunung is inhabited by Giants, jins; 4. Pulau Buah is inhabited by Ancestral spirits; 5. Kayangan is inhabited by Dewa, Perman; 6. Dasar Laut is inhabited by Raja Lebis.
The Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi appears to exemplify more general Southeast Asian structural and relational principles in which – 1. The Navel of the Seas drains the waters of the world; 2. A submarine tree or world pillar at the navel links the human realm to both the underworld and the skyworld; 3. There are mythic creatures dwelling at the navel of the seas at the base of the tree or pillar; 4. The ebb and flow of tides are due to the movements of the creature blocking the drain at the navel; 5; The ocean currents are due to water flowing in and out of the drain at the navel; 6. Earthquakes are caused by creature at navel of the sea shaking the world pillar; 7. There are relationship between these flows to the movement of the Sun and Moon and events like eclipses; 8. Rising sea levels and flooding are associated with the navel of the sea.
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