1 April to 14 May 2017
Lumenvisum, JCCAC, Hong Kong
Photography in Southeast Asia (I)
走進風景 / P for Place (2007/2017)
Minstrel Kuik (Kajang, Malaysia)
I used to believe that a window and a beautiful view were indispensable to a room. After my return from France to Malaysia, not only has the landscape from my window changed significantly, my place-based practice in photography suffered due to limited opportunities. Unlike what the proverb claims, ten years have not passed in a blink. Since it is impossible to see through most things in a glance, it is also difficult to forget them in a blink. In the end, I have to spend more time reviewing and pondering over the things that happened. This tedious endeavour has gradually helped me look into the logic of my lived environment; whether the view is beautiful or not appears to be a rather indulgent question.
At the end of 2006, I returned to my hometown, a fishing village in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia, only to find my childhood home no longer there anymore. My parents were not satisfied with the new living environment, even though they still lived in the same town where they were born. For work, I relocated to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur (KL) in mid-2007, experiencing, first time, life in a urban-city apartment. My brother, my sister-in-law from China and my three-year-old niece lived at Kuchai Lama, a lively, crowded and predominantly Chinese area. At that time, the green space across the street was already encroached by a massive construction project. From the window of our ninth-storey apartment, we could see foreign workers toiling day and night at the site.
In 2007, KL started looking back at its own history. As a young nation, Malaysia was preoccupied with its golden jubilee in August, commemorating its independence in 1957 from British colonisation. The “Visit Malaysia 2007” tourism tagline read: Celebrating 50 Years of Nationhood. Everywhere in the city, flags and billboards abounded, forming the everyday representation of banal nationalism, to use the term invoked by social scientist Michael Billig. It was a means to assert the national identity while exporting a harmonious image of a modern, multicultural country to the world.
Ironically, as the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia, the Chinese are constantly being labelled by the state as foreigners, displacing and disconnecting them from the national history. Shuttering between my hometown and KL, when the highway scenery recurs and becomes a blur, it becomes a matter of survival to find one’s sense of belonging in a nation under the spell of extreme modernism. A place-based writing of memories becomes extremely urgent. According to humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, a place has history and meaning, and should be understood from the perspectives of people who have given it meaning. Hence, how should the offspring of migrants view their place of birth and growth?
Reviewing my artistic practice over the last ten years, the place as an ensemble (which includes the female body, home, environment and the public space) has always been an idea that I cannot let go in a blink—both in life and in my art making. A photographer is first of all a beholder of space. The act of seeing does not separate the beholder from the object being viewed. Instead, it raises the awareness of distance, prompting the viewer to readjust the relationship with that which is being viewed. When the discourse on images becomes increasingly centred on the visual, perhaps we should shift the focus back onto the entanglement between the photographer and the place in which s/he is based, in order to understand the politics and meaning of seeing.
Apart from photographs printed on fabric and collected materials relating to the issues addressed in this work, P for Place unfolds in three handmade photobooks: (1) National Baby, (2) Guest Room and (3) Today in Memory. They unravel different itineraries across different places: the Petronas Twin Towers, the living room where my niece played with her toys, the foreign workers and the construction site at Kuchai Lama, the skyline from our balcony, the now demolished Pudu Jail built by the British in 1895, the highway and its landscape, the oil palm and rubber tree plantation, the dilapidated KL Chinatown, and its flea market of used objects.
— By Minstrel Kuik
Photography in Southeast Asia (I): Minstrel Kuik (Kajang, Malaysia)
走進風景 / P for Place (2007/2017)
Despite the pervasiveness of photography across Southeast Asia, its place within the visual arts remains uncertain. Discussions and events aimed at valorising the art in photography frequently originate from minjian (which translates roughly as “the people’s or commoners’ space”) initiatives, beyond the sustained interest of art institutions. My collaboration with Lumenvisum, Hong Kong (HK), started in a similar way. In the next three years, I will present three solo exhibitions annually, featuring artists from Southeast Asia who work predominantly in photography.
Historically, HK was always a crucial node in the Nanyang (literally, “South Seas”) imaginary. However, in the past decades, HK and Southeast Asia appear to have evolved along diverging paths. The recent re-emergence of discussions over the notion of Hong Kong-ness offers an entry point to these exhibitions. I have suggested two trajectories of enquiry for the participating artists: to use their art-making as a personal means to interrogate the idea of Chinese-ness, or to unpack the complex relationship between their place-of-origin (or residence) and China. Through the subjectivities of Southeast Asia, we hope to begin a dialogue with our HK audience.
The first practitioner whom I wish to introduce is Malaysian Chinese artist Minstrel Kuik. Upon graduating from high school, Kuik left home — a fishing village in Perak — for tertiary studies in Taiwan and France. She returned home at the end of 2006, after spending 12 years away, and became a loyalist of time. Typically slow-paced, Kuik took a long time to re-engage this strange and familiar place. Photography (taking, selecting and organising her photographs) accompanied this experiential journey. It is part of her routine, a way to view her environment and a means to attain pleasure. In this solo exhibition, she revisits, edits and sequences the photographs that she took in 2007, imbuing them with a poetic structure. The work visualises an individual’s negotiation with migration and colonial histories, nationalism, ethnicity and cultural identity. When globally circulating (usually English speaking) artists routinely evoke the tag of “multiculturalism” as a sign of their “liberal” inclinations, Kuik’s images and writings in multiple tongues suggest that each of us is bound to have a different pace and itinerary. As a trigger to further dialogue, Kuik’s P For Place (2007/17) moves beyond reified documentary, revealing her desire to deconstruct and release herself from the burden of reality.
— By Zhuang Wubin / 莊吳斌
Watch a short video of the exhibition here: https://youtu.be/9mzBVcXkiBQ.
View and download the exhibition brochure here.