INXO International Residency Program
Produced by INXO Arts & Culture Foundation
Supported by YB Madam Wong Shu Qi, Pejabat Ahli
Parlimen Kluang and Komuniti Harapan Malaysia Kluang 2.0
Gunung Lambak, Kluang, Johor
30 August – 1 September 2019
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
Small towns are where it’s at. In the capital city, the roar of commerce drowns everything out. Perhaps in quieter regional centres where there’s less distraction, artists can plant their flag and make a name for themselves. Nobody had ever heard of Avignon before its art festival. Will more of the cultural cognoscenti now think approvingly of Kluang?
Last weekend, INXO Arts & Culture Foundation presented the culmination of a month-long residency by six local and international artists in the town of Kluang. A regional hub in central Johor, Kluang is known for its coffee, ceramic tiles, army base, train station – and little else. But the INXO residency makes Kluang part of a larger artistic migration – like the Pangkor Festival, the Other Festival in Ipoh, the travelling Dance Caravan (also once sited in Kluang), and Kuching’s Rainforest Fringe Festival – away from the metropolis of Kuala Lumpur towards regional centres.
The residency’s three-day showcase took place on the slopes of Gunung Lambak, a forested peak beside the town. When I visited on Merdeka weekend, the public pool at the foot of the mountain overflowed with shrieking Malay children, and the mountain trails with industrious Chinese aunties and uncles, arms pumping, radios blaring, and little towels slung around their necks. A small stage with big speakers, set up for the occasion on the slope of the hill, attracted a constant stream of local talent, from child ballerinas to Hotel California karaoke. Pet bees swarmed around the food bazaar while EDM blasted from the carpark. When the boisterous MC hollered, “Are you ready for more music, Gunung Lambak?” I couldn’t help thinking that Gunung Lambak probably could do with less.
A wonder that in all this cacophony the works by the resident artists could make any impression. But with the help of local volunteers I discovered them in quiet corners. In a glade that was once a picnic area I found Lee Mok Yee’s installation of timber offcuts from a local pallet factory. Set upright in a clump like a ruined forest, they made obvious points about mankind’s transformation of the environment. I appreciated the irony that the jagged splintery ends of the wood were more natural than the smoothly planed marks of the industrial saw machines. Nearby Mok Yee had assembled a xylophone of samples from local tile factories, which he drummed upon periodically with metal chopsticks. The setup succeeded as a nod towards local industry which invited some undemanding audience participation, but offered limited scope for the imagination.
Japanese dancer Yuhei Ara struck a better balance between entertaining the crowd and pleasing a more cultivated aesthetic. Volunteers gathered the crowd to a crossroads where he noodled about on the steep slope, drawing oohs from the onlookers as a handstand toppled into a forward roll. From the side of the road he raised a long bamboo pole into the air. Dangling from its end was a puppet made of cardboard tubes, the height and shape of a man but as elegantly rudimentary as a Chinese character. Yuhei made his way solemnly up the hill, carrying the puppet looming above him like an offering in a sacred procession. The chattering crowd followed as excited as children following the Pied Piper out of town.
Some magical moments in Yuhei’s dance delighted the crowd, while his disclosure of the physical effort required spoke to the current fashion for authenticity in contemporary dance. With the base of the bamboo pole braced deep in the pit of his stomach, Yuhei gently levered the other end of the pole towards the ground, so that the puppet gambolled upon the earth and children could shake its hand. There was a powerful contrast between the sustained effort of the man struggling to control the weight of the bamboo, and the unhinged flightiness of the puppet: a creature of ease created by a man of burden. Later he swung the pole horizontally in a vast circle around him, miraculously avoiding the heads of numerous little children.
The final magic moment came when Yuhei fastened the puppet to a shorter length of bamboo, and balanced the bamboo lengthwise upon his head, so that the puppet dangled an arm’s length away in front of him. Yuhei moved as if waltzing with his shadow, the puppet mirroring his momentum and angles. He sang as he moved, a deep “ha-ha” issuing from his diaphragm. But the puppet – which, unlike a real human, had no breath – could only be silent.
Some of the art works in the showcase failed to gel. Sound artist Ng Sze Min from Singapore sat at a picnic table offering MP3 players in which she chattered briefly about the charms of quiet and peaceful Kluang, and included a rather sentimental song. The lyrics had been sourced from a local volunteer, and had this been a sketch for a larger project – perhaps each MP3 player offering a different local perspective – it might have worked, but as it was it seemed an insubstantial and shallow culmination for a month’s worth of work.
The work of Korean theatre director Yujin Kim also failed to impress. She – or rather, the INXO team, translating her words into Mandarin – invited the public to accompany her in a range of simple physical tasks. It was a big ask for a group of Malaysians to exert themselves on a paved plaza under the midday sun, but the locals were surprisingly patient and obliging.
The tasks themselves – walk about in the space, close your eyes and listen, feel connected to others by imagining a string from the middle of your chest – seemed like elementary theatre warmup exercises. Their get-in-harmony-with-nature aspiration also ignored the reality of Gunung Lambak that day, when the dominant impression was not the twitter of birds and the caress of mountain breezes, but the deep thump of EDM and the whirr of a photographer’s drone.
My attention drifted to a middle-aged Chinese man doing slow meditative movements by himself in the shade of a nearby pavilion. I felt the Korean director could have learned a thing or two from this man’s example, and from the locals who gather regularly here to practice their tai chi.
Gunung Lambak must be peaceful on its off days, and even in the midst of that human hullabaloo I witnessed a rare white-handed gibbon giving vent to its morning song from the top of a tree. But the most famed natural denizen of Kluang is significant in its absence. ‘Keluang’ in Malay means bat. Not the little bats which flit after insects under streetlights, but big fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, that live in vast squabbling colonies at the tops of trees, and cast ominous shapes against the sky when they stream from their roosts at sunset. They are considered a pest to fruit orchards, persecuted accordingly – and now are nowhere to be found.
And yet Kluang is full of depictions of bats, from massive bat-shaped sculptures at roundabouts, to video games with bats, and bat insignia on t-shirts. Even the contours of Gunung Lambak are said to resemble the outlines of a bat. A vague memory of bats persists in the collective imagination, increasingly divorced from reality. In pictures, the sharp foxy fruit bat face become round and cartoonish; they sprout wide grins and Dracula fangs. People seem to miss the bats, without really knowing what they are missing.
This niggling sense of loss, hovering on the edge of consciousness, is reflected in local photographer Mahen Bala’s project for the INXO residency. The work is displayed in two books placed ceremonially upon a table in a pavilion, like a memorial over which we must bow as we read. In a gentle chatty tone, they tell a (fictional) story of how Kluang was once an island, before a mysterious disaster in 1945 blew away the sea and most of the town. Photos of inconsequential local sights are reinterpreted as vestiges of this apocalypse, strongly reminiscent of the Japanese nuclear holocaust. A tower is missing its clock because it was blown away by the great wind. A photo of the shadow of a person doing a handstand is the atomic-bomblike flash imprint of a friend while picking vegetables in his garden. A random pile of railway parts cemented together are a makeshift memorial to the event.
On one level, the idea that landlocked Kluang could have ever been an island is ridiculous, laughable even. But on another level, it hints at a reality we are unable to face. The surrounding ocean, according to the narrative, has been replaced by an ocean of palm oil plantations. That much is real. And the wind in the story blew everything away, leaving only Gunung Lambak standing. If you look out from under the eaves of the mountain’s tree cover and see the encroaching development, you get a real sense that you are standing on a shrinking island of green. Only the apocalypse didn’t happen seventy years ago – it is happening now.
Mahen’s work coloured everything I saw afterwards. I started to see echos of a disaster that never occurred. Vandalised picnic tables around Mok Yee’s sculpture reminded me of the devastation of Stalingrad around the sculpture of dancing children. In a way, it was a relief to turn to Teo Wey Herng’s poetry installation. It was also located in a ruin, of a hillside hall once used for team activities: a pile of mattresses mouldered in one corner, and drifts of dried leaves clogged the long unused latrines. Here I found the most vital evidence of bats: their shit trails splattered on the floor, emanating from a hole in the ceiling.
In the warm dusty light, Wey Herng had suspended swaying paper hammocks of gentle watercolours, evoking the flowers and rocks of classical Chinese painting in a deliberately naive style. The papers were frayed and missing bits; torn scraps were lovingly saved and displayed, like archeological artefacts. Visitors were encouraged to pick up the scraps of poetry that littered the floor and to suspend them from the paper hammocks, creating rows of found verse, like fridge-magnet poems.
The original poems posted in a circular stream of consciousness around the room spoke of movement, departure, arrival: conversations of strangers overheard while sitting on a train or waiting for a bus. They depicted Kluang as a visitor might experience it, as a place of transit, not of abode. But, as I was reminded in that ruined hall surrounded by the art works speeding through their brief existence, everything is transitory. Future generations will take our scraps and recombine them to make whatever suits them best – or perhaps we will just decay quietly in a corner. The evidence of our lives may only be in the vacancies we leave: the hole in the glass of the shattered window.
What is the value of art in the midst of the decline of the human empire? What is the point of arts residencies? In one of the panels of his work, Mahen Bala paid a rather backhanded tribute to the fly-in fly-out artist of the residency model:
A famous artist is usually commissioned to create a work of art that would help the locals engage with their painful experiences. After a night of eating and drinking, the work is abandoned. The locals are usually left with more questions than answers.
And so it is, in some ways, with the INXO Residency. There is certainly a lot of celebratory eating (but what else would you expect of Malaysia?) And after a month of work and three days of exhibition, the work is scattered to the four winds, to persist only in memory. Before this project, some of the artists had never heard of Kluang, and many of them will never return. But some had a glimpse of the real life of the town: the routines of its factories, coffee shops and mountain resort. And the locals who experienced their work, even those who only vaguely heard of the arts residency, must feel at least that their town is worthy of being scrutinized and reinterpreted through the lens of art.
Some members of the public may have experienced in the artworks things they did not understand. But perhaps the next time they walk up Gunung Lambak, heading to the peak with their towels and their radios, they will remember the sinewy dancer who transformed their path into a pilgrimage. Or they will laugh at the memory of an alternative history proposed by a stranger. And in this time of overweening human certainty which is leading us to self-destruction, perhaps it is no small thing if artists leave people with more questions than answers.
All photos courtesy of Kluang 2.0.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.
Full disclosure from the author: INXO Arts & Culture Foundation provided accommodation and meals during my visit to Kluang, and two of the project producers are among my best friends.