Thursday, June 24, 2010

Catalogue essay for "Choice", C3 Gallery, Melbourne


I remember first coming to New Zealand from Malaysia and wondering why a friend said “Choice” when I lent her my pen, also after I worked out that it wasn’t a pin she wanted. It dawned on me, of course, that Kiwis are fond of abbreviated phrases, so “Choice” is an adjective and not a noun, as in “the choicest of vegetables”. The whale is simply “beached as”. Doubt is expressed with a “Not even!”
In this new exhibition at Gallery 2, Pippa Makgill, an expat New Zealander currently based in Melbourne, has invited twenty artists from New Zealand, some who now live in Melbourne, to exhibit with her in Choice!. The exhibition's title is synonymous with "Awesome!", its tone celebratory and affirmative. Art of varying shapes and sizes was mailed to Pippa over a two-week period, resembling bulky postcards from home.
Pippa does not identify herself as a curator in this exhibition, since she has given the artists free reign to send her art that they feel comfortable entrusting into her hands, so this selection of art is limited to who she invited and what they were willing to send in the mail. She is more of a facilitator, creating a cross-tasman art channel. Her approach is that of inviting different friends to a dinner party and seeing who hits it off.
When I moved to New Zealand, my strategy for feeling less homesick for Malaysia was to learn more about the culture of my adopted country. I tried learning Maori because that was the language spoken here for hundreds of years. I put down roots – literally – and began a vegetable garden to feel as if I were being nourished by the land. I also turned to its literature because that taught me more about the nation’s psyche better than any history book could.
I learned, for instance, about the pakeha literary nationalists in the 1950s who struggled to find a uniquely New Zealand voice in their writing instead of looking back to England for an identity. This act of looking back interests me greatly, for I often 'look back' to whence I came - the distance provides a tension that is useful in my creative life. Hence I completely identify with CK Stead's sentiment that "remoteness is not something our writers should deny or regret, but something to be acknowledged, and exploited as an analogue for the immovable tensions which are universal in human experience" (from his essay For the Hulk of the World's Between, 1961).
These writers wearied of apologizing for New Zealand’s remoteness from the rest of the world. It seemed as though New Zealand were a question mark interrupting the ocean; a thin strip at the mercy of maritime weather, its face continually sculpted by the sea. Oh, to break free from its precarious identity!
Now isn’t that the same cry of the immigrant? I often wonder about things like whether my spiritual connection to my Malaysian ancestors goes from broadband to dial-up whenever I’m in New Zealand. Is my Malaysianness eroding the more time I spend away from home? It’s no wonder then that I identified strongly with the nationalist poets like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch. They wanted to store up their own literary reserves to draw from, to be independent of geography in a way.
Since Brasch wrote the lines, “divided and perplexed the sea is waiting” (The Islands) in 1948, New Zealand has matured into a country comfortable in its own skin. As the contemporary New Zealand poet Bill Manhire puts it, “I live at the edge of the universe,/ like everybody else” (Milky Way Bar, 1991). With these lines, Manhire confidently (or indignantly) proclaims that he has learnt the trick of standing upright here, asserting his identity and ties with the land.
As a new migrant, however, it was my turn to form a question mark against the sea as I began to navigate this socio-political landscape that was foreign to me. I am still learning how to belong, as perhaps expat New Zealanders sometimes feel. This exhibition then is as much about the creative tension created by distance as it is about the choices we make in our creative practices.

Lydia Chai, Auckland

Choice! An exhibition of New Zealand artists: 
Opening Wednesday 23rd June 6 - 8pm
Runs 23rd June - 11th July
Gallery Hours: Wed - Sunday 10am -5pm

1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford Convent Foundation

Monday, June 14, 2010

Notes on seeing Taika Waititi's "Boy"

This is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Boy (James Rolleston) is a kid growing up in a rural town. When his grandmother sets off to attend a tangi for a few days, Boy is entrusted with the task of looking after his siblings (and cousins, I think). Quite unexpectedly, his father Alamein (played very effectively by Waititi himself), who has just spent some time in jail for robbery, shows up at their house with the rest of his goofy three-man gang, the Crazy Horses. Boy is elated at having a parent again, since his mother died years ago, but we already know by now that Alamein can’t be up to much good. Boy spends much of the movie trying to act like the sort of man he thinks Alamein would approve of, basically apeing his wayward father… and it all comes to a head one night...

Boy has very funny moments from beginning to end but what lingers is sadness. Having said that, it’s not a downer of a movie at all – in fact, it ends on a very joyous note with the much-talked-about Poi E/Thriller mashup that is reminiscent of the dance numbers at the end of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.

The director as actor

Waititi is a fine director and he’s equally competent as an actor. Playing a role in his own film must not only be cost effective, but according to Waititi, it gave him more control over the project:

Waititi ended up casting himself as Boy’s wayward father Alamein, a flighty yet charming parental figure with more than a few schemes up his sleeve. “I auditioned lots and lots of people for the role, and it wasn’t quite what I wanted,” Waititi remembers. “The character’s based on a couple of relations of mine, and there were specific things that I really wanted, little character things. I wasn’t getting it, so I thought it just made sense for me to do it.”

And ultimately, that helped Waititi to better direct Rolleston and his fellow young thespians. “It helped to be acting opposite them and engaging with them while we were doing stuff,” says Waititi. “We’d just change lines or change the meanings of lines, which would change the performance. I could sort of micromanage that way.”

-       In With The NEW by Sarah Kuhn, Backstage, Feb 4-10 2010

Besides the logistical convenience of it, I think that a director who assumes key roles in his own films is bound to encourage more conceptual readings of his work, too. What follows then is my take on the significance of Waititi’s dual role as director-actor.

Absence and presence in Taika Waititi’s films

Interestingly, Waititi plays absent characters in both his feature films.  For a director to do this creates a couple of paradoxes. In Eagle Vs Shark, he plays the more successful older brother Gordon who inexplicably commits suicide (no, that was not a spoiler). In Boy, he plays the prodigal father Alamein who returns to his family after a stint in jail.  Although Alamein comes back into the family fold, he had missed his sons’ formative years and remains emotionally incompetent and distant, and therefore still absent in a way.

First of all, absence only creates another kind of presence, if not a more pronounced one.  Gordon and Alamein, by detaching themselves from their families in their respective ways, become emblems of loss; they are the void that the other characters circle around. Similarly, a director is somebody around whom everyone on set revolves. He is not an emblem of loss but an object of desire in that everybody working on the film, presumably, strives to serve his vision. Even without acting in his own film, the director is the very definition of presence because his unique sensibility is stamped all over the product.

Secondly, for the director to be playing a largely absent character is hugely ironic because we can’t help but recognize him as director of the film; it interrupts the viewer’s suspension of disbelief that the character truly is ‘lost’ to us. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I just think it’s interesting that this director places himself smack in the middle of that void.

Loss upon loss

In both of Waititi’s feature films, there is also –dare I call it a theme? – a narrative about loss upon loss. The loser younger brother in Eagle Vs Shark had already lost his parents’ favour even before his elder brother killed himself. Boy had already lost his mother when she died giving birth to his brother Rocky (again, not a spoiler) only to endure the loss of a father to prison life.

Enough with the Wes Anderson comparisons, already!

Waititi has more emotional depth. And he’s funnier. A common Anderson theme is the selfish parent who wreaks emotional havoc on their offspring. By contrast, how does Waititi handle this material? Where Anderson uses deadpan ‘humour’ to mask deep-seated emotional pain, Waititi has Boy displaying real disillusionment and loss. Anderson’s characters are stuck in a juvenile state of mind. Waititi’s characters experience true catharsis. It’s true, I dislike Wes Anderson films.

I didn’t want to mention the obvious, but

I think much has been said about New Zealand films moving away from its ‘cinema of unease’ aka ‘antipodean gothic’. At the recent Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, publisher Fergus Barrowman (who is married to writer Elizabeth Knox) picked out a scene from Boy to illustrate this point. SPOILER (roll over white text to read): When Alamein angrily grabs his jacket off Boy in public, notice how Boy’s friends crowd around him to comfort him. If this film had been given a darker treatment, the camera would have zoomed away from the boy standing alone on the road, betrayed by his father. Instead, Waititi has his Boy supported by his community, and then marching forward determinedly. This might be indicative of a sense that New Zealanders are shifting away from a ‘man alone’ mindset and into a more social mindset.

With young exciting filmmakers like Florian Habicht and Taika Waititi, we’re seeing some really joyous stuff on our big screens.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Laughing Skull

Arteri Malaysia has curated a series of writeups entitled Thoughts On Darkness. You can read my contribution here. I resisted the initial urge to write a brooding or thoughtful piece on the nature of darkness and went for a literary slant instead. The source of inspiration for this piece came from Laurence Sterne's bawdy tale, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Have you seen the movie, by the way? Great stuff. Some reviewer said it was, curiously, the most successful adaptation of a book but one that didn't resemble the book at all, if you can get your head around that.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ming Wong

My review of Ming Wong's exhibition at Gallery 4A, Sydney is up here. The show continues until April 18th, so do catch it while you can. If you are in Singapore, his work is currently showing at the Singapore Art Museum until June.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hokusai's Great Wave

The past two weeks have seen a cycle of worry and work as the deadline for my exhibition approaches. With little sleep, a cancelled social itinerary, and the end-of-month rush at my day job, I was spent. It was time to draw inspiration from the giants again. This time, I chose Hokusai.

Many people do not know who Hokusai is and yet they are probably acquainted with his most famous work, Kanagawa-oki nami-ura, more commonly known as The Great Wave (see below). It's on mugs, fans, postcards, calendars, mousepads and desktop wallpapers. It may even be more famous than Munch's The Scream.

Looking at Hokusai's prints, I am touched by their spirituality. They exhibit tremendous restraint and empathy for the human condition. Even though there is great attention to detail, the artist's ego is withdrawn.

The Great Wave is a masterpiece because it encapsulates all these sentiments; above all, the fragility of human life in the face of awesome Nature.

Nevertheless I was even more impressed by it when I saw its precursor, a print which Hokusai made more than ten years before The Great Wave. It is called Oshiokuri Hato Tsusen no Zu (Fast Cargo Boat Battling The Waves) (below).

The differences between the two prints are very illuminating.

The most obvious difference is that the ocean foam is drawn differently: in The Great Wave, they curl more and resemble claws to show a truly menacing wave.

In Fast Cargo Boat the large wave is at the beginning of its descent back into the sea, but this shape is still too 'solid' to show the great force of the wave. In fact, it looks more like a mountain than a wave. By contrast, in The Great Wave, Hokusai has let the wave curl forward more so that it is about to collapse onto the boats beneath, the terrifying wall of water spiralling to create a more dynamic form.

Observe also the silhouette of the Great Wave and how this is echoed in the area that is taken up by the sky. Does it not remind you of the yin and yang symbol? I think this is intended to contrast the furious dramas of Life against the Eternal, here represented by the vast nothingness of the sky and Mount Fuji in the background.

Speaking of Mount Fuji, The Great Wave is, of course, part of a series called The Thirty-Six Views Of Mount Fuji. To be honest, I did not even realize that this famous image had a mountain in it until today. This just goes to show Hokusai's great restraint in relegating the sacred mountain to the background, even disguising it as one of the ocean waves!

There is another detail that is terrifying when you think about it. Notice how in Fast Cargo Boat the mountains yonder still manage to peep through from behind the crest of the big wave? Look at the same area behind the crest in The Great Wave: there are no mountains here, only a tiny blue bit to show how high the sea has risen to engulf you!

Compare also the horizon lines – Hokusai has lowered it in The Great Wave so that Mount Fuji is in line with the storm, taking us right into the centre of the action rather than a bird's eye view.

Finally, it is interesting that there is a boat riding the crest of the wave in the earlier print. Hokusai eliminates this in The Great Wave. Other than interrupting the wave's dynamic curve, I suppose he felt it was verging on the triumphant? The human figures need to look overwhelmed, so they occupy only the lower half of the image in the final version.

When I look at The Great Wave, I ask myself, what if I knew that every soul on those boats didn't survive? Or that they did?

It would still be as affecting.