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Traveler, Route and Place(s): An Interview with Malaysian Artist Phuan Thai Meng
旅人、路徑與地方:專訪《雙生群島》駐站藝術家潘台明
November 8th, 2021Type: Interview, Residency
Author: 林怡君 (訪談), 董綾 (trans) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Note: When first encountered with Thai-meng’s works, our impression was that he tries to gather people together through games. Exploring serious topics with a sense of black humor through relationships. In 2011, he exhibited “Blue’s Game” at the Valentine Willie Fine Art in Singapore, an art cluster at the Tanjong Pagar container terminal. “Blue’s Game” is an unfair soccer match where friends get to fool around with each other. He changes the rules of soccer by designing asymmetric goals, sealing one of the goals with acrylic, and allowing players to hand out red cards to referees. The soccer players on site were the art gallery’s staff and collectors, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the process. This interview with Malaysian artist Phuan Thai Meng is conducted by Esther Lin for Twinning Archipelago: 2021 Nusantara Archive A-I-R Program as an introduction to his proposal “Traveler, Route and Place(s)”.
Phuan Thai Meng, Blue’s Game (2011); photo courtesy of artist

When I first saw Phuan Thai-meng’s works, my impression was that he always tries to gather people together through games. Exploring serious topics with a sense of black humor through easy relationships. In 2011, he exhibited “Blue’s Game” at the Valentine Willie Fine Art in Singapore, an art cluster at the Tanjong Pagar container terminal.(註1) Phuan Thai-meng mentioned that he was a former soccer player and was inspired to create “Blue’s Game” while playing soccer with a friend. (Also implying to be teasing the spatial characteristics.) “Blue’s Game” is an unfair soccer match where friends get to fool around with each other. Thai-meng changes the rules of soccer by designing asymmetric goals, sealing one of the goals with acrylic, and allowing players to hand out red cards to referees. The soccer players on site were the art gallery’s staff and collectors, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the process.

 

Esther Lin: Your previous works seem to feature public figures pointing at a certain location or squatting down. But it seems like you’ve intentionally removed their faces by painting it black. For example, in We Project, the silhouette of the figures are posted on various exhibition walls where they sometimes point to other works and sometimes point to an empty void, as if a wallpaper that continues to expand its boundaries. It also reminds the audience of ad stickers randomly located in public spaces. Can you share a bit about your inspiration? How will that persist in future works?

Phuan Thai-Meng: This motif first appeared in the “Pose” collection and can also be found in the following “One – We are Different but Same”(註2) and “Action”(註3) collection. In the 2020 The We Project solo exhibit, “they” were created into stickers and pasted onto the walls of the exhibition space. The figures in the stickers are all Malaysian politicians that I found on newspapers. In Malaysia, political parties have to cultivate an image where they “serve the people.” As such, politicians are eager to resolve any minor complaints by the public (e.g. leaking roofs, poor road conditions, etc.) and will bring a large media entourage to capture their “services” for newspaper reports praising their dedication. I personally find it the cheapest way to get exposure and so I collected all these newspapers that I’ve found and then removed any identifiable features (e.g. facial features, expressions, political party logos, etc.) with a computer to remove symbols of their status in the hopes that we can recognize these figures without status or political affiliation identifiers.

 

Phuan Thai Meng, The WE Project (2010) – Installation View; photo courtesy of artist

Lin: In another one of your projects,“I SEE(C)”, in 2017, you created various atypical IDs. Some of the ID photos had headshots with people’s backs, some of the IDs used emojis, and some had YouTube links. Is this project also about identity, national borders, and creating a space for people to reimagine their identities?

Phuan: The Malaysian Identity Card contains photo identification, an identity card number, date of birth, birthplace, and religious affiliation.(註4) This project was inspired my relationship with my friends and family. I didn’t want to just create an artwork; I wanted to create bonds. I moved from Johor to Kuala Lumpur when I was 18 and I’ve been living in Kuala Lumpur for 20 years since. I realized that I’ve completely forgotten about my hometown.(註5) It made me think about Malaysians that grew up in Malaysia but then moved abroad. How do they envision their relationship with their home country? I was wondering if we could start by asking how people from the outside views Malaysia first.

The Malaysian Identity Card was difficult to obtain in the past, but during the elections, the government will relax related regulations and issue Identity Cards en masse to boost their votes (you can vote if you have an Identity Card). In “I SEE,” I served the role of the government. Participants had to fill out the information listed on the Identity Card such as their nationality, names, photo identification, birthday, sex, and birthplace. The twist was that they could put down whatever they wanted. (註6) I also added two more mandatory items: “Present Place of Residence” and “Future Place of Residence.” I wanted to create an Identity Card that allowed for free control. An Identity Card is inextricably tied to country and land. With this project, I wanted participants to realize that the connection between Identity Card and “identity” is never certain; we have the power to give our Identity Cards a new identity.

 

Lin: The two works use humor to reevaluate the current landscape of the government, politicians, and people. They can even open the audience’s eyes to recognizing a framework where the people is the voter, the locale is a governed land, and the Identity Card is a vote, allowing a purer and more universal perspective when considering the relationship between people and their spaces as well their identities.

Phuan: If we were to talk about people and locales, we’d have to talk about race. I also have to discuss the matter of race in my works. Honestly, a lot of places have a mixed population. People that live here could have migrated here. And words and culture are especially mixed. Especially when you’re talking about Malaysian culture, and of course our language is a combination of constantly borrowed words. Even to this day, many Malaysian vocabs are borrowed from English.(註7)

 

Phuan Thai Meng, Traveler, Route and Place(s) (2021); image courtesy of artist

Lin: Your current residency project -“Traveler, Route and Place(s)” – was created in Taiwan. How has creating in Taiwan as opposed to in Malaysia affected or transformed your creative focus or methodology?

Phuan: When I think about my relationship with land and places, I’d want any participants or viewers to be able to recall their love and concern for the land they currently reside on. The question that I wanted to throw out there was, “how do we consider and interpret the interaction, sharing, and mutual learning between places; how do relearn about this place that we always though we always though we knew so well about?” As such,”Traveler, Route and Place(s)” was first inspired by a consideration for the internality of places. I wanted the people living here to really see “Taiwan.” I’ve just decided to approach the topic in reverse: I didn’t want to tell people what “Taiwan” was as an artist having done thorough research. I wanted the people living in Taiwan to say it themselves, and of course that would include the different perspectives and interpretations from people that moved to Taiwan. For this project, I asked my friends to help me find five participants that work and live in either Taipei or New Taipei City. I would then ask the participants to introduce places that they frequent as a tour guide would. I wasn’t asking them to take me to any attractions or famous restaurants that could be found in travel guides but places that contained personal memories. The participants weren’t solely Taiwanese. I also interviewed Malaysians, Taiwanese people with a Malaysian parent, and Taiwanese people that have returned to Taiwan after working abroad for a while.

The first year I came to Taiwan, I realized from conservations and interactions with my colleagues that the Taiwanese society is rather open. But I always felt like there was this force that was trying to keep everything in and that we had to dig deeper into the locale. Digging deeper into the locale isn’t the problem. The problem is closed hearts and a small space for discourse. When I’m creating, I think the “discourse” element is critical because I could communicate and interact directly with local audiences (either when I’m creating or exhibiting). Only then can we create a new landscape drafted by Taiwanese people about Taiwan.

 

Lin: What kind of journeys can we find in “Traveler, Route and Place(s)”? What are the expected and unexpected processes?

Phuan: So I originally wanted for the five participants to travel together for more bilateral and even multilateral interactions. But when I was talking to the participants, I only got itineraries from two of the participants. I think, for the most part, they didn’t really know what places they wanted to talk about but the conversation went pretty well. One of the participants only gave me one location, which was a hair salon. But then, throughout the conversation, she offered me two more locations that she thought of randomly. I learned that she builds this network of her daily life, a sense of security, and this feeling of belonging through her requirements for clean environments and her connections with others. These places and routes are highly relevant in that sense. For example, Wei-Lun offered the site of a previous project: under the bridge. By invading the presets of a space, you challenge the space while giving it an opportunity to be interpreted completely differently. Yi-Hsuan’s places are all related to food, whether it’s Malaysian or Taiwanese food. I realized that she compartmentalizes with memories of taste, but she identifies with both foods and both places. Xiu-Hao gave me a site where gays and lesbians look for people to hook up. When he first arrived in Taipei, this place became his imagination about desires in a big city and the desire for power from the individual to the public. What sets him apart is that all the places he offered were related to the nighttime. Jason only gave me a bicycle path because the simple contrast and being able to take his time while observing a place was what attracted him most.(註8)

 

Phuan Thai Meng, Traveler, Route and Place(s) (2021); image courtesy of artist

Lin: It seems like we can really build a structural framework for everyone’s sensory experiences in life.

Phuan: Definitely, memory reveals many things that the memory holder may not even realize. We also got to see that the way people live their lives is so different.

 

Lin: “Traveler, Route and Place(s)” constructs an understanding or even definition of a place through “movement” and paths offered by various individuals (participants). What is your role in this project? What do you hope to create?

Phuan: When we’re trying to see the things closest to us clearly, we need to put some distance between us. It allows us to immediately recognize that maybe we’re not that familiar with it. Along the same veins, when we’re rediscussing “places,” we also need to put some distance between us. I think my role in this project is the “distance.” I am where their journey from awareness to memory begins.

When I first imagined “moving,” I was imagining the relationship of a Malaysian with their countries. For example, I wanted to explore how the perspectives of a Malaysian that has migrated to another city or country differs from that of a local Malaysian toward local issues. I wanted to also take this opportunity to reflect on my stance. As I continued exploring this question, I started to recognize that the question itself may include blind spots or parallaxes. When I came to Taiwan, I was mainly thinking about “movement” in and of itself because “movement” seems to be an element that impacts everything about you. It’s not just a movement of physical objects, but it could also describe a shift, change, or flexibility in thoughts or mentalities. My thought process was that the universally recognized characteristic or interpretation of a “locale or place” is that it’s a fixed, solid state and the concept of fluidity is in direct contrast of this belief. Of course, we know that a single place is susceptible to many different interpretations, but I believe the state that I can be sure about actually goes against the universally recognized characteristic of a fixed, solid state. “What would happen if we removed all national borders?

I’m not talking about removing the borders here exactly, but introducing the fluid state of a migrating border, which is also what I refer to as liminality, a transfer station that can carry or even drive this state of chaos. Only given this state will objects/ perceptions/ thought processes of the individual and collective/ social ideology have the space for restructuring because we’ve developed a more flexible approach to the way we think about places and spaces. I throw myself into a game where the rules are all messed up so I can try to reorganize, reimagine, and reassemble it. In 2020, I had a solo exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei called Liminality – Route of Return. The exhibition was my way of imagining and raising questions about the future. You could also consider it to be an invitation for us to imagine and construct the framework of this unknown place. When we input “movement” as a factor, it messes everything up but sometimes we need to break it up a little bit to create wiggle room that allows us to reorganize things.

 

Lin: In your opinion, how has the internet changed our feelings for and imaginations of “places?” In the online world, we can go anywhere we want and browse through our hometown anytime we want. We can even recreate certain characteristics of our hometown in a new space. In that case, where are we “returning” to?

2020 MOCA Studio 潘台明個展,《生根?移動的邊界》,台北當代藝術館

Phuan: Given the pandemic, a lot of how I think about “movement,” “places,” and “people” have a lot to do with the internet. The internet has changed how we perceive space and distance. Indeed, with technology becoming more and more advanced, we can change the way we understand perceive places. At least for people working outside their hometowns, being able to keep in contact through video calls will reduce the number of times they want to go home. When everything is halted in real life, we’re left with only the online world. For Traveler, Route and Place(s), I’ve designed a tour on Google Earth to present Taipei and New Taipei City as the five participants see it. If Google Earth can introduce a shared editing function, we could expand the imagination of a stranger; of course, this is nothing intimate, but we would be able to have a large scope of discussion.

 

Lin: In “Traveler, Route and Place(s)”, the act of filtering participants or places is an act of editing. When you develop/ learn about a place, how do you treat the editing act or the “scale” of participants?

Phuan: It depends mainly on the objective. If we’re looking to obtain a majority perspective from Taipei residence, we need a larger sample size, but that’s not what I’m trying to do because we already live in an information landscape of the “majority,” i.e., information by Google and the government represents the majority’s opinion. Now, if I’m trying to portray diversity, I don’t necessarily need the majority, just different voices, allowing them to create connections with their spaces. In this case, differences are more valuable than singularity. To be more direct, we often have instinctive reflexes when we think about a place, and so we need a “large” sample size to be accurate. But that’s not the case when we’re actually implementing things. A “large” sample size is the average and the result that aligns most with the public’s perception, but that’s not what I’m looking for.

 

Lin: What is the methodology behind “Traveler, Route and Place(s)”? To me, it seems like you’re trying to close the distance between us and different ethnicities and immigrants through “migration.” In other words, you seem to be discussing the philosophical question of where people reside. What kind of stories do you want it to produce?

Phuan: I’m trying to put people on “the same platform” because the existence of different ethnicities is not something to be broken. The important thing is to put our differences on the same platform and to further recognize our similarities and differences. If we apply the current concept of a “country,” “migrants” are the aliens, and so how do we connect “people” with “places” and how do we organize the “places” through different approaches. Different answers will produce different results. I believe that we need to start from the very beginning and to commence our exploration from our own relationships with different “places” and then consider how we can construct our relationship with different “places.” Simply put, I think it’s a “sense of belonging.” People have a natural “sense of belonging” in their hometowns. It is the memories and stories that we share with that place that makes it our hometown and where we belong. What I’m thinking about is whether we can have a “second place?” Is there another place that can serve as our second hometown? The answer is definitely but not in a short span of time. We need to be in that place for a long time to fulfill the conditions of making a “place” our hometown.

The so-called “story” is whatever remains after you’ve left the place for ten years? What remains is your memory of the place, not a life there, but memories only. New stories, memories, and even people are all created in new places. I think I want to remove the limits imposed by the existing concepts of nations and reconsider how people and places build a connection, at least how an individual would do it. In Taiwan, the biggest problem is perhaps the relationship between new immigrants and this land. Other countries have problems related to immigration as well and these are problems that other Asian countries will have to deal with as well.

Footnote
[1] Many of the Valentine Willie Fine Art Singapore art spaces are leased from Helutrans, an art storage and logistics company. On its official website, Helutrans boldly states that “In addition, our Singapore facilities are under bonded status, where tax is suspended as long as artworks are stored within the premises approved by Singapore Customs… We can assist with logistical and technical arrangements for setting up private views according to clients’ needs.
[2] One - We are Different but Same is a project comprised of four paintings that Phuan took care to try and make as similar as possible.
[3] The five paintings in the Action collection is comprised of: Action 1 – Stand, Action 2 – Stoop, Action 3 – Squat, Action 4 - Pinch the Nose, and Action 5 - Spread Out the Hand.
[4] The Malaysian Identity Card specifies religion and sex on the left and right sides, respectively, below the photo identification. It doesn't specify ethnicity directly, but ethnicity can be identified from the cardholder's name and religion, e.g., Melayu are Muslims while Chinese are Buddhists. People aren't generally asked to verify their religion. The first six digits of the identity card number are the cardholder's date of birth, while the subsequent two digits represent the birthplace. The last digit of the last four digits indicates sex: odd numbers for men and even numbers for women. For the personal information section on other government documents, there are options for Melayu, Chinese, Indian, and Other. Indigenous peoples or immigrants can only select "Others."
[5] A state in the south of the Malay Peninsula, Johor is separated from Singapore by the Johor Strait, but the two countries have now been connected with the Johor-Singapore Causeway. Travelers can cross the causeway by driving, busing, walking, and train. Thai-Meng was born and raised in the Batu Pahat District in Johor.
[6] Participants to the I SEE project are either randomly selected or Phuan's acquaintances, which also include Malays working overseas.
[7] The writing system of the Malay (Bahasa Melayu) is influenced by Sanskrit. New vocabs constantly emerge from interactions with other language families such as Mandarin, Hokkien, etc. The Malay language has introduced many new vocabs based on English words from the colonial era to recent times. Compared to when I was still in middle school, there are now more Malay vocabs borrowed from English, but of course, this phenomenon has always existed between various Malay languages. For example, Mandarin in Malaysia also borrows from Cantonese or Hokkien. Shifts in Mandarin occur most commonly in the spoken language, but the writing system for Mandarin largely remains the same (other than internet slang and unique regional parlance that have been made prevalent by entertainment programs).
[8] The five participants' routes were as follows: Lin Yi-Hsuan: Chia-Xiang Breakfast Store (Jingmei), Kitchen 66 (NTU Store), Juicy Bun Burger (NCCU Store), and Gold Sushi Japanese Cuisine (NCCU Store). Hsu Xiu-Hao: Taipei Main Station K Underground Mall, 228 Peace Memorial Park, Lions' Plaza Commercial Building staircase, the public bathroom at the Taipei Water Park, the NTNU Main Campus parking lot, and Fuhe Sports Park. Li Chia-Sheng: Guandu Bridge Observatory, sheet metal house karaoke, Shizitou Aikou, Shizitou Fishing Platform, Luti Baseball Field, and Shuhong Ecological Park. Chou Pei-Ying: Leader Salon, The Sherwood Taipei (bathroom), Brother Hotel (afternoon tea), Madison Taipei Hotel (massage), and Yin-Dao-Zu Macao Hotpot. Chen Wei-Lun: No. 40, Section 2, Daguan Rd, slide under the Yongfu Bridge, Fuhe Riverside Park, and below Dazhi Bridge.