A little background: I was rather excited by the polemics and arguments that emerged from Simon Soon’s review of Marion D’Cruz’s performance lecture. While I might not agree with many of the things said, they nevertheless were invigorating and challenging, especially when polemics in the discussion on art and culture are rare and few. Anyway, the discussions provoked or inspired me to write this, and the editors thought we should post this as a new article to trigger perhaps another discussion, hopefully by a more varied group of people. But the below might not make much sense unless the reader refers back to the earlier discussion.
Since the discussion here began with the discomfort of the phrase in the review: “It is a moment of marriage that many of us, coming out of ill-considerate medley so common in po-mo art, are wary of”; I will also begin here.
What is this “ill-considerate medly so common in po-mo art”? Is it a mistake, and the phrase ought to be “ill-considered”, or is it something else altogether? If the phrase was meant to be “ill-considered”, then does it mean that “po-mo art”, a phrase many will shudder to use now, is an ill-considered project?
The discussion then enters into perhaps unnecessarily dichotomies: art emerging out of Malaysian or national/historical narratives, and art emerging out of rejections of these purportedly hegemonic narratives; art that does away social-cultural issues as being more politically effective. Then the discussion thread continues with more polarities – the old/young, inside/outside, past/present, etc.
First, a little digression. I think it is simplistic to propose that postmodernism does away with politics, history, cultural/social issues. Consider what Edward Said, one of the early progenitors of postmodernist theory, better known as post-structuralism then, proposed. He argued against monocentrism, or a monocentric manner of thinking. He saw a need to avoid seeking “profit where there is waste”, “concentricity” where there is “eccentricity”, and “continuity” where there is “discontinuity”. This waste, eccentricity and discontinuity are gaps, perhaps ruptures in narratives that one needs to examine; so the role of critical inquiry is to look for these disjuncture and gaps. Postmodernism calls for the examining of these disjunctures, not to do away with narratives, historical or otherwise altogether.
Jacques Derrida proposes a slightly different way of looking at these gaps which he calls “absence”. The notions of “presence” of being – historically seen as closer to truth – are highly suspect and this hierarchy needs to be challenged. In his postmodernist deconstruction if you will, when one talks of presence, we need to look deeply at its absence or “erasure”. Just as we write, we also erase. And in all erasures, there will be traces, but these traces do not exist as marks, but rather, in the absence of marks. Despite this, examining these traces is crucial to the dismantling of “presence”.
Post-modernism, as far as I know, has continually sought for an examining of dominant narratives, to look for inter-relationships and retrievals of signs and signifiers through deconstruction and critical inquiry – it has never proposed looking at art, literature, performance, film, etc. through an erasure (which ultimately still contain “traces”) and annihilation of past/history.
Moreover, if one chooses to be even more hip and trendy, “po-mo” is rather dated now, especially since post September 11. Writers of this century, critical/cultural theorists like Jacques Ranciere, Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt, are arguing that in this day of neo-liberalism and imperialism, art and culture must find ways to confront these frighteningly new imperializing enterprises. The recent Perak fiasco seems to aptly fit Agamben’s notion of the “State of Exemption”: where citizens are rendered naked and their lives bared, and the State exempt from laws that bind them together. And Negri’s & Hardt’s notion of the “Multitude” as an emergence of unrelated groups of people from disparate ideologies, ages, across cultures and religions spreading across laterally and rhizomically, each taking on the New World Order independently. In fact, they argue and end their book with a recalling of “love” – unspeakable in the heydays of postmodernism – a social and political love that reaches beyond the sexual and religious.
Contemporary art and culture, in much of discourse in these trying times, seem not about being “po-mo” or not. It is about speaking, articulating the unspeakable; whether it is Malaysian, global/internationalist, culturally/historically specific or not do not matter.
To concretize my meanderings a little: did not Andy Warhol, have a deep knowledge of American culture of that tumultuous 60s/70s, and thus was able to challenge what constituted iconic or speakable at that point, and dissecting them? Even Abstract Expressionism, often derided by young artists, grew out of both personal and historical events/circumstances? Pollack, Gorky and Rothko emerged from the heydays of left idealism, and its aftermath in the complete collapse of idealism post WW2. That shattered idealism and lost of faith in the human body (or human condition) became the underlying power of abstractions of that period – it became a speech/voice/text to visually articulate the unspeakable. But precisely because of that lost of faith in the human condition, this venture, for the latter 2 artists, became ultimately untenable. Suicide, the complete annihilation of the human body and thought, was the only way out.
Fast forward fifty years to the hot-shots of the global art scene: Takashi Murakami’s kawaai, Matthew Barney’s revels in the surreal and grotesque, Marilyn Manson’s androgyniety and appropriation of fascism, the Chapman Brothers intense dialogue with philosophy and history, Tino Seghal’s ephemeral performative interventions, Gregory Schneider’s explosive unrealized Qa’aba proposal for Venice – all these challenging ventures grew from specific environments, cultural/historical developments and contexts. And much of it is about articulating the unspeakable. Even Olafur Eliasson’s hypnotic light installations grew out of historical, scientific, material and place-specific understandings of light and temperature. He made speakable these often-intangible sensations to everyone.
History (and memory) is really larger and more encompassing than national history and narratives.
To deny context (or history) is not to believe in anything. Art and culture, like it or not, are affirmations of existence: the existence of people, of places, of time. It is not about amnesia. Nothing can grow in a vacuum. Nothing emerges from personal or national amnesia. Even a disavowal of history, politics, socio-cultural issues presuppose an acknowledgment of their existence. To suggest that this negation of history is new, young and liberating – as opposed to the old, staid and hegemonic – is to say the least, “ill-considered”, if not inaccurate and intellectually reactionary.
And sure hell, by legitimising something that sounds superficially cool, hip and “revolutionary”, are we not turning the clock back? To erase thought, language and dialogue? If so, what then are those seemingly nihilistic alternatives? Is there a point to even consider making art then, and share it with a public? I find these terrifying prospects in this failing State called Malaysia.
Wong Hoy Cheong is a visual artist who occasionally writes and curates. He believes in the multiplicity of the arts, with a partisan interest in aesthetic and sociocultural contestations.
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