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ISSUE 47 : Legible Singapore / Nusantara in Future Tense
Creaturely Conjectures
November 20th, 2020Type: Art Production
Author: Tan Zi Hao, 鍾宜庭 (中譯) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Note: This article is the comprehensive writing on the subject of "composite creature" by Malaysian researcher Tan Zi Hao. In preparing the exercise for the Nusantara in Future Tense Workshop and Pulau Something project (initiated by soft/WALL/studs), the author has initiated the "creaturely ideas and ideologies" exercise, which was intended to be a speculative reflection of our past online engagement. The response was collected using Google Form, with survey questions aiming at arresting the animal that pulses beneath our consciousness, hence the realisation of the potential transnational Archipelago image as the idea of the composite creature with materials collected from all survey answers.
Bedawang Nala, entwined with two Naga serpents, Basuki and Anantaboga (by I Ketut Gedé), Bali, 19th century; Van der Tuuk Collection/KITLV (shelfmark: Or. 3390: 217), CC-BY-4.0

The Creaturely

No aspect of everyday life in Southeast Asia is untouched by creaturely allegories and metaphors. In Bali, the world is said to be borne by the cosmic turtle Bedawang Nala;(註1) in Sumba, men are described as bulls while women crabs;(註2) in parts of Thailand and among the Chinese diaspora, nicknaming children with disgraceful animal names assures them auspicious days ahead.(註3) From larger-than-life concerns to the most mundane insignificance, creaturely thinking is firmly embedded and encoded in the structures of cultures and mores. And yet, despite the indelible footprint of the animal, creaturely thinking presents a lacuna in existing scholarship and is seldom taken as an independent focus.(註4)

By invoking the notion of the “creaturely”, I allude to a particular stratum of subjectivity that is always “more and less than human”.(註5) It hovers between the ontology of animality and humanity and beyond, all the while acknowledging the absurdity of this anthropocentric distinction in sotto voce. The virtual exercise prepared for this workshop involves describing oneself in creaturely terms, therein, envisioning one’s engagement in this collective as occupying an appendage to a composite creature still to be realised. As a thinking collective, we are legion, we are a composite creature. How does this composite creature look like? Taking place towards the end of the workshop, this specific exercise was intended to be a speculative reflection of our past engagement conducted through a series of Zoom meetings, Discord channels, and shared Google documents and spreadsheets. The response was collected using Google Form, with survey questions aiming at arresting the animal that pulses beneath our consciousness. The form contains a total of five questions and it ends with an open-ended question that enables respondents to elaborate further if necessary:

  1. What animal are you?
  2. Which part of the animal best represents you?
  3. How many of the part do you possess (if countable)?
  4. What are the abilities and characteristics of the part (and why)?
  5. Where would you locate yourself in this composite?
  6. Additional comments (optional)

The answers were then used to generate a probable textual description of a composite creature. Graphic representation is deliberately avoided to permit some latitude in interpretation.


Composite Creatures, Composing Ideologies

To fully grapple with this speculative exercise of conceiving a composite creature of the future, I want to pay more attention to the periodic bouts of historical and cultural revivalism that have swept Indonesia, the country where my fieldwork is based.(註6) In pursuit of cultural authenticity, the postcolonial nation is often obsessed with selectively extracting the past from traditional sources culled from the royal courts.(註7) A visible result of such a neo-traditionalist and neo-royalist feat is the monumentalisation of mythical creatures.

Lembuswana monument, Kumala Fantasy Island, Tenggarong; photo: Tan Zi Hao

In Bali, one finds the recently completed Garuda Wisnu Kencana monument dwarfing other sacred edifices in its vicinity; in Cileungsi, the now-demolished Graha Garuda Tiara was once constructed in the shape of the Garuda Pancasila, the national emblem of Indonesia; this creaturely ambition extends to the vast Great Garuda project designed to save a sinking Jakarta;(註8) in Tenggarong, a lavish Lembuswana statue stands strong on the Kumala Fantasy Island; in Cirebon, a proposal to build a Singa Barong fountain akin to Singapore’s Merlion has been contemplated.(註9) Raised on podiums or monumentalised, the manner in which these creatures are represented and concretised is usually a contentious political affair, inviting activist resistance and scandals revolving around misgovernance and financial embezzlement.(註10) As a by-product of conspicuous consumption, these monstrous monuments were often forged within the tenets of cultural tourism and heritage, reflective of a traditionalistic and capitalistic brand of nationalism.

Paksi Naga Liman carriage, Kraton Kanoman, Cirebon, 15th century; photo: Tan Zi Hao

Another incentive to flaunting mythical creatures lies in the cohesiveness of the composite imagery. Visually efficient and symbolically potent, composite creatures are an encapsulation of the multiple, they are hybrids upon which different creaturely appendages flow imperceptibly into one another.(註11) If what makes a symbol iconic depends chiefly on the plurality of meanings it could engender and envelop, composite creatures are symbolic containers par excellence, epitomising Indonesia’s motto “unity in diversity” (bhinneka tunggal ika) without compromise. Composites such as the Paksi Naga Liman in Cirebon and the Warak Ngendog in Semarang, for example, represent a rather clichéd multiculturalism as both are composed of three distinct animals indicative of three cultural or religious communities in the respective localities. From this depiction, a dull political vision of unity assumes a fancied, noble appearance. Moreover, the constellation of values can always be renewed while keeping the selfsame composition, endowing the creature with greater semantic and ideological flexibility. In this regard, composite creatures are rhetorical monuments of power populating an increasingly Disneyfied cultural landscape of Indonesia. They present to their intended audience an apocryphal past that oversimplifies and essentialises culture, while leaving power and ideology unquestioned.

It is with this background in mind that I was prompted to consider the possibility of a composite creature as an anti-power and anti-monument. It started out nothing less than an informal thought experiment where I play with the few accompanying me during my research. The exercise discussed is a result of this line of thinking.


Sympoiesis: Attempting Collective Thinking

Instead of relying on romanticised and nebulous traditions, could we appeal to each other’s experience of engagement during the workshop as we speculate a composite of our own? How do we configure and compose a creature? How could collective thinking create? Sympoietic creation as such, viewed as a praxis of “becoming-with” as Haraway elucidates, is always already creaturely in that it is transductive.(註12) Additionally, considering the problematic genealogy of “Southeast Asia” and “Nusantara”, which are important keywords in this project, sympoietic creation also allows for some degrees of mutability and contingency that decentres our presupposed geographical and cultural imaginings. The aim is not to debunk these historically functioning concepts, but to surrender to a contingent process of co-creation—or of sharing a creature—that could lead to alternative “contingent devices”, assert Heather Sutherland and Sanjay Subramanyam.(註13)

Introduction to “Speculating a Composite”; Google Form

The survey results immediately challenge the assumption of the composite creature as a compendious totality. Often, it is the memorable simplicity of the composite imagery that lures the human society, as a number of archaeologists and anthropologists have so claimed.(註14) Conducting a survey, inviting responses, attempting collective thinking, thus run absolutely contrary to the symbolic efficacy of the composite. The speculated figure refuses to conform to formats typically expected of a composite creature – a fearsome physiognomy with recombinant parts perfectly and symmetrically grafted on a creature’s athletic body. The following description, written based on the survey results, perhaps presents an awkward mutation, but as an exercise of speculation, one may consider the contingent mutability a poetic achievement. Nevertheless, this is where we meet:

Our composite creature is colossal. With a whale body, it supports a world of its own. Extremely shy, it lives underwater and attempts to camouflage itself with its brown and spotted giraffe fur, but often to no avail. For every time it wishes to adapt to the fluctuating salinity of the ocean, it will shed its skin, temporarily revealing its bright red serpent scales, which many have mistaken as the Red Sea or the sunset.

This creature was once a triphibian, capable of roaming over terrestrial, aquatic, and celestial spaces. But due to its expansive size, swift mobility is a luxury. It used to have wings for flying, but having lived in the ocean for a prolonged period, its wings mutate into fins. It travels only by drifting along with sea currents, manoeuvring its trajectory with the fins. In the fullness of time, the creature has come to enjoy stillness, and its legs, having fallen into disuse, mutate into vestigial organs. Some of the coral reefs we witness today are part of its erstwhile legs if not its toes.

A unique characteristic of this composite creature is its diverse modes of breathing. Like a whale that has a blowhole on its head through which it breathes air, this composite creature has four blowholes. But its penchant for stillness prevents it from rising frequently above the surface of the water. Underwater, it has to rely on three pairs of gills. Make no mistake, these gills are not hidden within the gill slits like that of a fish but are located externally, like the salamander whose gills protrude from its head, exposed to the aquatic environment.

On the creature’s posterior, rows of lizard-like spines function as a supplementary protective carapace. They extend until the scalp, from which an infinite amount of gecko tails with regenerative ability branch out. Whenever a gecko tail is amputated due to harsh oceanic conditions, the tail drifts away and possesses a life of its own, independent of the composite. Over time, amputated tails accumulate and evolve into more sophisticated, composite life forms; and as they mature, these petite composites return to its ancestral composite creature, inhabiting the vestigial organs as they graze on the nutrient-rich corals, thus completing the ouroboros circle. According to a legend in Nusantara, the ebb and flow of ocean tides are largely a consequence of these life cycles taking place in the orbit of the composite creature. That is how the ocean became populated with life forms, many of which are still unknown to humans.

I would like to think of this collectively speculated composite creature(s) as a method of worlding and even of constituting a “post-digital assemblage”.(註15) Especially pertinent in an era of social-distancing, self-quarantine, and online meetings, what kind of “response-ability”, that is to say, what “absence and presence, killing and nurturing, living and dying”,(註16) we, as a thinking collective or a composite creature, are bound to each other and must acquire the skills to negotiate among ourselves to crawl, slither, slide, gallop, roll, or wriggle forward? This exercise is definitely not a platform where such commitments could be tested in a sustained manner, but it presents a creative opening—also taken to imply the creational and the creaturely opening—that gestures towards a future wrought in sympoiesis.

[1] Fred B. Eiseman, Bali, Sekala & Niskala: Essays on Religion, Ritual, and Art (Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1989), p6.
[2] Janet Hoskins, “In the Realm of the Indigo Queen: Dyeing, Exchange Magic, and the Elusive Tourist Dollar on Sumba”, in Jan Mrázek & Morgan Pitelka (eds.), What’s the Use of Art? Asian Visual and Material Culture on Context (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008), p110.
[3] Russell Jones, “Chinese Names: Notes on the Use of Surnames & Personal Names by the Chinese in Malaya”, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 32, No. 3 (1959): p47.
[4] The tiger is an exception to this silence. See Robert Wessing, The Soul of Ambiguity: The Tiger in Southeast Asia (DeKalb: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 1986); Peter Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600–1950 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2001). Anthropologist Gregory Forth has recently cast an anthropological eye on the zoological knowledge in Flores and beyond, see Gregory Forth, Why the Porcupine Is Not a Bird: Explorations in the Folk Zoology of an Eastern Indonesian People (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016); Gregory Forth, A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path: Animal Metaphors in an Eastern Indonesian Society (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s Press, 2019).
[5] Dominic Pettman, Creaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More and Less Than Human (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), pp1–8.
[6] I have addressed this concern in greater depth in my thesis. Tan Zi Hao, “History, Memory, and Islam Through the Animal: The Zoomorphic Imaginary in Cirebon”, PhD thesis, National University of Singapore, Singapore,
[7] Gerry van Klinken, “Return of the Sultans: The Communitarian Turn in Local Politics”, in James S. Davidson & David Henley (eds.), The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics (London: Routledge, 2007), pp149–169. For an earlier, colonial, but still relevant context, see Donna J. Amoroso, Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2014).
[8] Nashin Mahtani, “Torrential Urbanism and the Future Subjunctive”, e-flux, September 2020 (Accessed 28 October 2020).
[9] Windoro Adi. “Singapura Punya Merlion, Cirebon Bakal Punya Singa Barong”,, 9 October 2018 (Accessed 20 October 2018).
[10] “Rich But Poor Tenggarong”, Tempo, Vol. 7 (2007); Carol Warren, “The Garuda Wisnu Kencana Monument Debate: Environment, Culture and the Discourse of Nationalism in Late New Order Bali”, in Benno Werlen & Samuel Wälty (eds.), Kulturen und Raum: Theoretische Ansätze und empirische Kulturforschung in Indonesien (Zürich: Festschrift für Professor Albert Leemann, 1995), pp377-390; Bart Verheijen & I. Nyoman Darma Putra, “Balinese Cultural Identity and Global Tourism: The Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park”, Asian Ethnicity Vol. 21, No. 3 (2020): pp425–442.
[11] Dimitri Karadimas, “Animaux imaginaires et êtres composites”, in Philippe Descola (ed.), La fabrique des images: visions du monde et forms de la representation (Paris: Musée du Quai Branly, 2010), pp184–191; David Wengrow, The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp71–73. See also Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp43–74.
[12] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), pp58–98. Apart from Haraway, I was already thinking along this line of inquiry with art historian Barbara Maria Stafford, who invoked Margulis’s “symbiogenesis” in her writing about the cognitive effects of compressive and composite imagery. She considered Margulis’s model of symbiogenesis as a “process of ingesting, not digesting, the useful fragments of another—a sort of intuitive bodily intelligence—helps us reimagine something as fundamental as self-organization”, even as a technique for “connection-seeking and relation-making”. Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp63–65.
[13] Heather Sutherland, “Contingent Devices”, in Paul H. Kratoska, Remco Raben, & Henk Schulte Nordholt (eds.), Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005), pp20–59; Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 31, No. 3 (1997): p743.
[14] Philippe Descola, “Un monde enchevêtré”, in Philippe Descola (ed.), La fabrique des images: visions du monde et forms de la représentation (Paris: Musée du Quai Branly, 2010), pp165–184; David Wengrow, The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p110; Carlo Severi, The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination. Trans. Janet Lloyd (Chicago: Hau Books, 2015 [2007]), pp81–84.
[15] Catherine Price, “Covid-19: When Species and Data Meet”, Postdigital Science and Education Vol. 2 (2020): pp785–786.
[16] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), p28.
See Also
Composite Creature, Ideology, and Language: An Interview with Tan Zi Hao ,Au Sow Yee