yang ‘tu yang ‘ni: Ways of Seeing and Reading Ismail Hashim’s Photographs (Part II)
This is Part II of an essay written for a monograph (Penang State Museum & Art Gallery: Penang, 2010) published in conjunction with the Ismail Hisham Retrospective exhibition at Penang State Art Gallery, 2 – 30 Nov 2010. Please read Part I here.
IV. Repetition and Essence
Repetition of a single subject matter is yet another approach Ismail Hashim uses in his photographs. He has repeatedly taken photographs of bicycle-seats, trishaws, ski-masked grass-cutters, cockerels, etc. Between 1991-1992, he photographed over eighty postboxes along rural roads linking two towns in Perak, Bagan Serai and Taiping. From all these shots of single postboxes, he composed them into four photographs, each presented as a grid of postboxes. In the largest of the four photographs, Post Boxes Along Bagan Serai – Taiping Road, 1991-1992, there are forty-five images of different kinds of postboxes he found along this journey.
The first question that emerges is: why take so many photographs of postboxes, a seemingly mundane subject? Perhaps, through repetition, Ismail Hashim believes he can convey something more about this subject: its variety, its overlooked abundance and ordinariness. Or it could be a subject that is again slowly vanishing and he wants to reiterate its unique beauty and significance. I propose we can see beyond this.
A postbox as object-subject is impregnated with meaning. It is a temporary repository for information: letters, brochures, bills, notices, etc., – all sitting in transit. Sent at different times and from different locations, they are left there by the postman to be retrieved by the addressee often within hours. However, the repetition of postboxes in this photograph in their various forms – readymade; homemade out of biscuit tins, motorbike helmets, plastic containers, etc. – serve not to reinforce how each particular one appears but of what a postbox constitutes. It is no longer about noticing the uniqueness or quaintness of each of the forty-five different types – the effect of repetition and reiteration in fact functions to negate and transcend all particularities. In other words, it is not about perceiving a particular postbox made of a biscuit tin or drinking bottle or a helmet, but about a postbox having a transcendent meaning of being a capsule where time, existence and memory intersect – the very attributes which make up its essence. Just as, when we see Van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers, it is not about those particular blooms in a vase on a table, but of the golden-ness and sunflower-ness that shine forth.
Ismail Hashim’s choice to capture mostly empty and decaying postboxes is also especially poignant and telling. A hollow postbox gaping for mail is a melancholic object because without any mail, these markers of time, human relations and memory are denied. Time is suspended; existence is forgotten; memory is erased, and the expectant wait collapses to nothingness. Such an ambivalent relationship to the postbox is not uncommon and most people would have had such an expectant experience at some point or other in their lives with regular mail or digital email. The postbox is a conduit to the world and an acknowledgment of existence and a basic human need for communication.
Our perception and understanding of a postbox is not a solitary and random experience but it is shaped by our bound-upness with other human experiences and the material world in which we live. Without this shared knowledge and memory, Ismail Hashim’s photograph of postboxes would have no resonance because as objects they are emptied of meaning and essence.
V. Time and Narrative
Ants Can, Malaysians sure Boleh! (L – R: Images 1 – 2, 9 – 10, 17 – 18), 2007
Even though it took a long period of time from 1991 to 1992 to shoot the photographs of postboxes, Post Boxes Along Bagan Serai – Taiping Road is not a work about time or the sequential unfolding of actions. It was about conveying the meaning and nature of postboxes which transcended their particularities. In some of his other photographs, which use a repetition of multiple images, time becomes a dominant element: the changes of a kampung house, the regrowth of a dead plant, the accumulation of rubbish, etc. In Ants Can, Malaysians sure Boleh!, 2007, through eighteen photographs, a story is told, an event unfolded. A dead cockroach is carried by ants up a wall, alongside a calendar, and over a graduation photograph – an incredulous narrative by all accounts.
This series of photographs is one of Ismail Hashim’s least aestheticized works, but in terms of imagery and narrative, they necessitate elliptical meditations. The first image reveals a cockroach perched at a protruding corner of a wall. On the top right corner we see a red rectangle. It is unclear that the cockroach is dead until we examine the photograph closely; what seems like little hairs on the legs on the cockroach are in fact tiny ants supporting and lifting the dead cockroach upwards on the wall. In the journey of the ants and dead cockroach, the red rectangle eventually reveals itself to be a poster with the following text: “Ketaqwaan dan Keindahan SeniBina Islam” (Piety and Beauty in Islamic Architecture). Further on, midway in the narrative, we realize that this poster is actually a 2007 calendar. A shift takes place, and by the thirteenth image, the ants and dead cockroach pass by a framed photograph of someone receiving a college diploma at her graduation. Finally, in the last image, all the passing images and text are gone. We see the ants and cockroach in a distance at the top of the image.
In this work, time exists in a complex matrix. First, there is cosmic time as represented by the calendar: both Gregorian/Western and Muslim/Islamic. These two calendar times exist and unfold in succession independent of human experience, passing hours and days, from year to year. This river of time waits for no one. There is also lived or phenomenological time: Ismail Hashim at the location intrigued enough to record this incredulous phenomenon of the journey of ants and cockroach. What has happened, what is happening, what will be happening constitute that lived or human time encountered by Ismail Hashim. Human time also appears as a heightened moment – an experience of receiving a college diploma during graduation – special enough to be photographed and framed as memory for time immemorial. Human time is not linear – an instance plods forever, and interminability, a wink.  As a viewer of this work, the experience of time is two fold; the eighteen photographs are perceived in totality as a single instance of time and also as separate and sequentially stilled moments of time to be examined one by one. The multiplicity of time is linked in tensive relationships.
A narrative is a story propelled forward by characters and actions. In this work, the narrative is not accidental; it must have latched on irresistibly to Ismail Hashim to have made him articulate the spatio-temporality of this event as photographs, lending it veracity as visual record and fictitiousness as story telling. In this narrative, the characters are: the carcass of the cockroach, the tiny soldier ants, the calendar and the graduation photograph. The actions are the lifting of the carcass, and the procession on and up the wall. Lastly, there is the author’s voice in the form of the title – Ants Can, Malaysians sure Boleh! – prodding the audience to perceive the work in an ironical direction. Because these characters and actions can only be mediated through thought and language, they acquire signification. The title is the clearest; the ants have become a metaphor of something larger. If these ants can accomplish the journey despite their size and insignificance, surely we as humans, as a people and nation, can do better – Malaysians sure boleh!. The funeral-like procession of a large carcass supported by tiny ants, crawling vertically up the wall against gravity with single-minded determination also arouses metaphysical and spiritual significance beyond that of irony and social conscience. Almost as if to reinforce this metaphysicality and spirituality, the journey of insignificant, lived time (the ants and cockroach) passes by grand, cosmological time (the calendar). In the final image of this narrative, the procession has traveled up high on the rough white wall; a memory (of college graduation) sits at the base, and a crack appears on the edge. Is this the end of the narrative? Does the journey continue? And to where? Does memory merely sit in the disappearing horizon while the future beckons a deepening crack?
VI. yang ‘tu yang ‘ni again
Back of flyer for Ismail Hashim Retrospective at Penang State Art Gallery, 2 – 30 Nov 2010 (source)
This essay returns to yang ‘tu yang ‘ni as it precipitated the trajectory of this essay. The proposed rethinking of this headless clause as referent to consciousness and existence – “being-this, being-that” – provided me with an entry-point to probe deeper into the strands and facets of Ismail Hashim’s work. In this essay, I suggested four ways of seeing and reading his works that straddle both the phenomenological and the materialist but they are by no means definitive. In effect, these readings are attempts to look for concentricities as well as eccentricities, and they emphasize the necessity of more analytical writings on both Ismail Hashim and photography.
Writing on photography (and film/video) requires quite different tools than writing on the other forms of visual arts. Photography relies on the external world of object-subject matter only made possible by lens, light and the human eye. In a sculpture or installation, that world is made and realized through the artist’s hands. A photographer’s choice is laid bare for the world to see, a painter’s choice is concealed through layers of paint. A photograph (and more so video/film) speaks of the indeterminate spaces of past, present and future while a sculpture always speaks of the displacement of space in the present. Such are some of the basic differences.  yang ‘tu yang ‘ni; this ‘n that; being-this, being-that; is about recognizing these differences, teasing them apart and trawling up possible discourses and horizons. 
 Paul Ricouer argues that there are various manifestations of time: historical time which is a result of both the dialectic and harmonization of cosmic and lived time. Comparing cosmic time and lived time, he says: “On a cosmic scale, our life is insignificant, yet this brief period [of lived time] when we appear in the world is the time in which all meaningful questions arise.” “Narrated Time,” Philosophy Today, Vol. 29, no.4, 1985, p.263. He also compares these manifestations of time to physical space: “To the dialectic of lived space, geometrical space, and inhabited space corresponds a similar dialectic of lived time, cosmic time, and historical time.” (Trans. Kathleen Blamey & David Pallauer), Memory, History, Forgetting, (University of Chicago: Chicago, 2006), p.153
 One of the best introductory writings on how photography is different from traditional modes of creative production is Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In analyzing the age of mass reproduction and new technologies, he said the notion of the “aura” of an original artwork has been rendered meaningless. In one of these new technologies, photography “[f]or the first time in the process of pictorial production,… freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth developed only upon the eye looking into a lens”. (p.245) Photography was also able to still or arrest real time: “Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” (pp.248-249) William McNiell & Karen S. Feldman, (Eds.), Continental Philosphy: An Anthology (Blackwell:Oxford,1998).
 I use the word “horizon” here as a vantage point of seeing, understanding and interpreting drawn from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion that historicity is never static: “The historical movement of human life consists in fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving…is always in motion.” (p 303) “Hence the horizon of the present cannot be formed without the past. There is no more an isolated horizon of the present in itself than there are historical horizons which have to be acquired. “Rather, understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves” (p 305). Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (Continuum: London, 2004)
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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