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Undercurrents of History in Towards Mysterious Realities: On the Symposium “Reality in its Double Bind” in Kuala Lumpur
March 4th, 2018Type: Opinion
Author: Show Ying Xin , 妻育瑄 (翻譯) Editor: Yizai Seah
Quote From: 本文原載於《典藏今藝術》305期,2018年2月號
Note: The symposium "Reality in its Double Bind: Emotional Signifiers in the Undercurrents of History," held from 8 to 10, December 2017, in Kuala Lumpur, was developed as the second phase of "Towards Mysterious Realities" by TheCube Project Space. The exhibition, curated by Amy Cheng in 2016 in Taipei, centered around the Cold War in Asia and presented artworks by 13 artists to contemplate on the shared historical experiences among the Asian countries. On the other hand, in the symposium in Kuala Lumpur planned by Hsu Fang-Tze, the perspectives were extended from Taiwan to Southeast Asia with the history of Singapore/Malaysia as the central pivot to discuss on understanding geopolitics through personal narratives and sentiments in the context of Cold War as "present continuous tense."
Reality in its Double Bind: Emotional Signifiers in the Undercurrents of History; photo courtesy of ​TheCube Project Space

The symposium “Reality in its Double Bind: Emotional Signifiers in the Undercurrents of History” held in Kuala Lumpur from December 8th to 10th in 2017 was an extension of the curatorial project of The Cube Project Space titled Towards Mysterious Realities. “Towards Mysterious Realities” curated by Amy CHENG in 2016 focused on the Cold War history in Asia, exhibiting the artworks of thirteen artists to provoke the viewers to think about the shared experience in Asia. The symposium in Kuala Lumpur planned by Hsu Fang-Tze, viewing Southeast Asia, especially the nexus of Singaporean and Malaysian history, from Taiwan to discuss how to understand Geopolitics through personal narratives and emotions in the context of Cold war in the present progressive tense.

With the artists, curators, historians, cultural studies scholars, etc., the symposium, from the path of artistic practice and historical thinking, understand the Cold War in Asia and the construction of nation-states again. “Mysterious Realities,” in fact, also echoes the experimental exhibition titled “Towards a Mystical Reality,” which was held in Kuala Lumpur in 1974. At that time, Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, the curators of the exhibition as well as Malaysian artists, made a declaration to criticise the local artistic practice in the 1960s, which followed the western Abstract Expressionism obediently, and requested Asian artists to focus on spirit, instead of formality. Their declaration is as follow:

The key issue of modern art is not how to see things (visually) but how to conceive the reality (conceptually).

They advocated that artists should not produce the artworks. Instead, they should become thinkers and theorists. Thus, the two put their advocates into practice, setting things in daily life in their exhibition room, such as an empty cage, hair, a coke bottle, and so on. They also named these objects to produce meanings, for example, ‘Empty Bird Cage after the Release of Bird at 2.46 p.m. on Monday 10th June, 1974,’ ‘Randomly Collected sample of Human Hair Collected from a Barber Shop in Petaling Jaya,’ and so forth. Expectedly, this exhibition aroused plenty of criticisms. For instance, Salleh Ben Joned, the poet, had taken off his pants, pissing at a corner in the exhibition hall and writing an article titled “The Art of Pissing” to protect the real value of art and wisdom(註1); Siti Zainon Ismail, the writer, also wrote polemics to debate with the curators on the literary magazines.

The opening speech of Simon Soon, an art history scholar, was precisely about how to write the modern art history in decolonised perspective. He used to have a chance to participate in the exhibition titled “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs,(註2) which was a representation of “Towards a Mystical Reality.” By doing so, he asked what kind of historical meaning the exhibition in 1974 had opened and how it could be understood in the contemporary context. Soon started from Giorgio Agamben’s potentiality, suggesting that “potentiality to-not-be” was not a failure or incompetence but the potentiality kept in reality had not been brought to the reality. The moment when we think the meaning of the exhibition or even represent it is the time for the “potentiality to-not-be” becoming the undercurrents mentioned in the subtitle of “Reality in its Double Bind,” waiting to be delved and stirred again.


Delve Historical Undercurrents

NGOI Guat-Peng, the speaker of another topic, started with “Revisiting Malaya,” the international conference which had been organized twice by the Singapore and Malaysia office of Inter-Asia School S’pore and M’sia office to inquire how to “enter the moment of history” in search of the momentum of thinking as well as the historical undercurrents. Using the archaeology of knowledge as a method, Ngoi outlined the contemporary meanings of “Malaya,” emphasising the historical explanation of thinking. “Revisiting Malaya” respectively took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2014 and 2016. The conference invited researchers and scholars all over Asia to revisit the long muted and profound discourses of the Malaysian leftists with the hope to break the long restrained relationship between peoples and national borders and to build up the connection and understanding among Singapore, Malaysia as well as Indonesia, even the whole Asia.

THUM Ping-Tjin, another speaker, literally revisited Malaya in his speech. Tracing back to the three thinking projects influencing the construction of the idea of Malaysia before and after the building of the nation: decolonisation, nationalism and socialism, Thum emphasised that the anticolonial socialism at the time of British Malaya was the real way to solve the strategy of “Divide and Rule” proposed by British colonizers. However, to stay the legality and authority of the regime, the state power cooperating with the sovereign state in postcolonial time named the radical socialists and communists “antinationalist,” equaling them to terrorists and lesser human being.

Au Sow Yee at Reality in its Double Bind: Emotional Signifiers in the Undercurrents of History; photo courtesy of ​TheCube Project Space

Hsu Chia-Wei, Au Sow-Yee and Li Shih-Chieh (Ilya), the three artists at the venue, respectively shared their works and the concepts of the creation. All three cared about geopolitics and Cold War history, presenting multifaceted historical texts in the form of art. The artists became the ones excavating and stirring history, to some extent doing the job of historians. However, they didn’t represent history or the reality which had not happened but sketched the routes differing to the mainstream, right and open path in order to create the possibility of getting to know and narrating Cold War history once again. Artists at this stage often focused on personal memories and daily life, collecting the fragments of human mentality at different corners.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, said:

For, ex hypothesi, a historical fact is what really took place, but where did anything take place? Each episode in a revolution or a war resolves itself into a multitude of individual psychic movements…. Consequently, historical facts are no more given than any other. It is the historian, or the agent of history, who constitutes them by abstraction and as though under the threat of an infinite regress. What is true of the constitution of historical facts is no less so of their selection. From this point of view, the historian and the agent of history choose, sever and carve them up, for a truly total history would confront them with chaos. Every corner of space conceals a multitude of individuals each of whom totalizes the trend of history in a manner which cannot be compared to the others; for any one of these individuals, each moment of time is inexhaustibly rich in physical and psychical incidents which all play their part in his tantalization.(註3)


Hsu Chia-wei at Reality in its Double Bind: Emotional Signifiers in the Undercurrents of History; photo courtesy of ​TheCube Project Space

Post-loyalists, Migrants

Take Hsu Chia-Wei for example. His work “Huai Mo Village” (2016) narrates the stories of the Kuomintang army in Burma who retreated to the borderline between Thailand and Burma during the Cold War and how these forgotten people lived in an area crossing nations without the ruling function of national borders. It indeed tells a story of a group of post-loyalists. Left, lost, abandoned, or remaining outside China, these Mandarin speaking people situated in a diasporic land with the disposition of time and space trace, find or invent their identity as a loyalist and become post-loyalists. Their situation echoes the idea of “post-loyalist”(註4) suggested by Wang Der-wei, the scholar of Harvard University. The “post-” theory of Wang refers to the end of a generation, which is ending in the end. The dialectic process producing the anxiety and desire of various identification, cultures and beliefs through re-disposition writes personal historical stories, cultural imagination, and daily life, reconstructing or acting against “grand narrative” or “grand history.” The priest in the Huai Mo Village speaks Mandarin with the accent of Yunnan area, which turns into the imprint of witnessing the bitter national history and of becoming an unnecessary person abandoned on the borderland. Their very presence, however, is how citizens / loyalists of Sinophone continue an unfinished national narrative outside China. Viewed from the perspective of Sinophone theories,(註5) “Huai Mo Village” can be a case which makes it possible to put Taiwan, Thailand, Burma and Malay(si)a in the same continued historical context through the concern of geopolitics of Sinophone to review the particular part of history in the Cold War. Then, China Proper is no more a centre, and the Southeast is not the remote overseas area anymore but becomes the centre, the subject of history.

What’s interesting is that in the geopolitics of the Cold War in Asia, “the third party” becomes an important mediator but in the meantime is turned into another battlefield. Thailand is one good example. The anti-communist Kuomintang in Burma settled on the border between Thailand and Burma, waiting for the chance to launch “a counter-attack against Mainland China.” In exchange of the right of abode, they served Thailand as mercenaries to fight against the Thai communist party in the remote areas, staying in the north part of Thailand afterwards. At almost the same period, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Malayan Communist Party retreated to the border between Malaysia and Thailand, the south part of Thailand. They had been active there afterwards. Ultimately, they signed Peace Agreement of Hat Yai with Malaysian government in 1989, laying down arms and settling in a few “peace villages” in Southern Thailand. Two armed troops with totally different ideologies “were defeated” eventually, becoming the “post-royalists” in Northern and Southern Thailand and staying on the land which used to be foreign to them. Receiving Thai nationality and residing in Thailand, these “royalist” turned into “migrants” bit by bit. The stories of their offspring then are more about how they left their migrant identities and became citizens. In “Huai Mo Village,” Hsu arranges children in the orphanage listening to the stories told by the priest to present the issue of inheriting memories: the descendants of the Kuomintang army in Burma sitting on the earth look up to the priest who represents the history of his generation. However, what do Kuomintang, Communist Party and China mean to them? What kind of relationship could it be? How can the reality in the present time be linked to the history these children haven’t undergone?


Au Sow-Yee, "Kris Project I: The Never Ending Tale of Maria, Tin Mine, Spices and the Harimau", 2016; photo courtesy of artist

The Making of Mythology, the Pastiche and Recreation of Multiple Narratives

Hsu tells the stories with myths, and so does Au Sow-Yee. Myths become the nexus connecting the tradition and the modern time, as well as the past and the present on account of the thousands-year spacetime they have participated in. They are also a sort of folklore, first in the oral form and then the written one. Some parts will be added or lost in the process. Myth, legend and history, as well as every piece of writing about them, are all on the border between the real and the fictional world. In recent years, the most controversial “history story” must be that of Hang Tuah. Hang is a “legendary” Malay warrior but whether he is a real person or a fictional character has been seriously debated. It is also said that he came to Malaysia with Hang Li Poh, the princess of Ming Dynasty married to the Malacca Sultan, so he was a Chinese. According to Hikayat Hang Tuah, as a loyal subject of Malacca Sultanate, Hang Tuah followed the direction of the Malay ruler, so he had fought against Hang Jebat, his best friend who disobeyed the Sultan, for seven days and nights, finally killing his beloved friend. Afterwards, the pair, Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, represents the dispute between the importance of loyalty over that of justice. Without a doubt, the contemporary politicians esteem Hang Tuah especially and in the exhibition gallery for history of the National Museum stands a bronze mural of Hang Tuah and what is engraved on it is the maxim of Hang Tuah, which is highly praised by Malay nationalists –

Never shall the Malay(s) vanish from the earth.

Interestingly besides touching upon the Malay folklore, Au also adds the elements of Hinduism and Indian myth which have reached Nusantara much earlier than Islam civilisation and western colonialism, especially the epic, Ramayana. Characters of the epic now are remained in this area in different forms like religious architecture, traditional performance, literature and art. Nevertheless, the raw materials hidden deeply in the historical undercurrents are undergone various transformation, performance, covering and burial like Borobudur near Yogyakarta, the 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple, which was buried under volcanic ash for a thousand years and wasn’t discovered until the 19th century. For example, because of the ban issued by the Islamic party in Kelantan, wayang kulit (shadow play) based on Ramayana, can only be performed with other stories replacing the Indian epic.(註7)

Hsu Chia-Wei, "Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau", produced by Le Fresnoy, 2015; photo courtesy of artist

Two works of Au’s, “The Mengkerang Project” (2015) and “Kris Project” (2016), are (in)complete stories with multiple narratives by employing pastiche. The found footage interrupts the time and space, displaying a kind of “borrowed” voice, asking how (national) history is imagined and written. Hsu’s “Huai Mo Village,” likewise, is the image’s return of the historical scenes, making the priest tell his own story through the interview. However, with the identity of an agent belonging to the intelligence agency, does the priest necessarily tell a real story about himself?

In “Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau,” Hsu overlaps the story of the priest with that of the mythical heroes. He even through the simultaneous stage performance breaks the border between the fiction and the reality, making the audience ask, “who is telling whose stories?” Both Hsu and Au present their works with meta-reference (the priest in“Huai Mo Village” and Ravi in “Kris Project”), so the audience is fully aware the fact that the artists are creating a story and they see / hear how the stories are created. They also will assume that the narrated stories “certainly have happened” and are historical facts (narrators in the videos are usually the voice with the authorities). The way of setting and deployment intends to displace the position of the viewer and viewee as well as that of the narrator and narratee. Ultimately, the video will watch the audience who are watching it. At the same time, creating the meta-text with consciousness is not only an action returning to the historical scenes but also artists’ declaration of creating history. Once Hsu has said, “Shooting a film is also a real action,” which demonstrates that creation itself is indeed a re-creation. Facing history and the reality of contemporary society, their artistic practice is situated in this double bind. How to get into the historical undercurrents requires the unintentional entering of the ocean of history. It needs us to dive into the bottom of the sea, and observe the moving fish and the living ecology, instead of angling on the surface of the sea.(註8)

[1] See Salleh Ben Joned’s 'The Art of Pissing’:
[2] The exhibition "Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs” was coordinated by ParaSite (Hong Kong), Kadist Art Foundation and MCAD(Manila), touring in many cities. See the information below: (2019/1/10)
[3] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind. Chapter 9, "History and Dialectic", Chicago: U of Chicago P,1968.
[4] David Der-wei, Wang, Post-loyalist Writing. Taipei: Rye Field Publishing, 2007.
[5] Shu-mei Shih, Chien-hsin Tsai, and Brian Bernards [eds], Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, NY: Columbia UP, 2013.
[6] See" and: (2019/1/10)
[7] Related report titled "Can Modernizati on Save a Beloved Malaysian Tradition?” see: (2019/1/10)
[8] Mizoguchi, Yuzo. “Wu Yi Tu Di Jin Ru Li Shi De Hai Yang[Entering the Ocean of History without Intention],” The impact of China. Beijing: San-Lian Press, 2011.