Pak Tai Foto （2015）
Two Channel Videos . 19 minutes . Light Boxes of Hand-drawn Maps
Pak Tai Foto is a photo studio located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur during the 1950s. Established during the age of British colonization, it is a photo studio older than the country “Malaysia” itself. Pak Tai Foto is also near the Merdeka Square (Independent Square), a place where the Malayan flag hoisted for the first time on 00:00 31st August 1957 (that is when Malaya declared its’ independence). There is only roughly a ten minutes walk from Pak Tai Foto to the Merdeka Square. It is also currently a site where many foreign labours passing by. Pak Tai Foto interviewed foreign labors connected to daily lives in or near their workspace. These foreign labors came from Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. In the interview, they shared their respective reasons, processes and experiences of leaving their home country to work in other parts of the world. In addition, they also tell an ideal place (be it a place of imaginary or reality) and share their favourite song when they were a child or teenagers.
Producer: Au Sow Peng, Alison Khor
Cinematographer: Lim Chee Yong
Production Assistant: Alphonse Chern
Participants: Amur Hossain、Hedayat Hossain、Yen-yen、Lin Khine、Aung Myat Thu
Excerpts from The Mengkerang Project
《百代照相館》 雙頻道錄像 . 19分鐘 . 手繪地圖燈箱
參與者：Amur Hossain、Hedayat Hossain、燕燕、Lin Khine、Aung Myat Thu
Remarks: This work is commissioned by “Habitation and Elsewhere: Image as Instrument / Au Sow-Yee’s Solo Exhibition” curated by Guo Jau-Lan.
Reconstructing Image: Mengkerang as Method
An unstoppable torrent of images has been generated from the contemporary real-life situation, in which almost everyone has a smartphone and everyone’s eyes become an automatic camera and a montage maker. A crisis of excess and fatigue over the momentum that images desperately long for erupts as a result from the rapidly modularized vocabulary of camera lenses, the competition over image spectacles, and even imaginations. Situated in completely different historical, social and political contexts, how should Asians reflect on the Western image machines and reverse the Western discourse and view upon the history of mechanical images? In other words, why and how do we restructure images? Treating Mengkerang as the method, I reflect on the history and political context of Malaysia (my birthplace) as well as various frameworks and propositions such as nation and nation state that are seemingly abstract but in fact matters of my vital interests. In the meantime, I seek to restructure a kind of image that transcends the confines of traditional images and possesses the momentum of “liberation (the predestined representation of illusions and images) – destruction – summons” by re-evaluating the relationship among the politics of images (rather than political images), illusion, community, history, and geography.
The politics of images here does not refer to the production of political images, but the resistance against “representation” as a “political practice.” In the early twenty-first century, the riotous profusion of opinions on “the death of cinema” is in favor of treating films as a creative material and concerned with the transformation of the cinema industry. However, the possible death of images has something to do with the fate of “representation” that lies in store for images. The issue of “representing” the “reality” has become illusory and vague in the present era of image explosion. Images’ fate of representing the “reality” in turn converges with the imagination and construction of the “reality” as well as the historical circumstances in our bio-politics. Such kind of convergence is more a mutual dialectical inquiry than inter-contextual and inter-formative relationships. It not only rejuvenates the politics of culture that has been oversimplified as series of issues, but also stretches our imagination to a greater extent.
The “moving illusions” (illusions as moving agents) of images is probably one of the kernel notions that have never been nullified in the long history of image. Nevertheless, is it possible for us to restructure images by tackling an alternative momentum of illusions (“Mengkerang ” as a method)? The quintessence of such reconstruction lies more in the invisible images restructured by the viewers’ consciousness than in the visible ones.
What kind of possibility would it create if images have been restructured in our consciousness long before the invention of image machines
or the emergence of cave paintings, shadow plays, optical toys in the history of moving images? Perhaps we may re-boost the resistant momentum of images with the after-image in our consciousness.
The underlying themes of the “Mengkerang” project include invisible images, the consciously restructured images, and the greater momentum built up by the “invisibility.” For an independent individual in Malaysia, a nation state established after the Second World War when Western imperialism gradually withdrew from Southeast Asia, the best approach to restructuring images may be working in concert with the restructured images’ reaction against illusions, reality, and the represented reality through bio-politics.
The first step of this project is to construct an imaginary “place”—“Mengkerang.” It is an “ideal place” located somewhere in the “Nanyang” region, namely the Malay Archipelago. The term “Nanyang” is actually reminiscent of the exoticism exuded by the Southeast Asian countries.
Images and Communities: A Day without Sun in Mengkerang (Chapter One)
In his book Imagined Communities , Benedict Anderson defined “nation” as a socially constructed community: “An imagined community is not a fiction or the illusions that politicians create to manipulate their people, but an ideal very much related to the changes in history and culture, rooted in the psychological construction at a deeper level of human consciousness.” Through an imaginary one- day trip in Mengkerang, A Day without Sun in Mengkerang (Chapter One) weaves together quotidian images gleaned from around the Malay Peninsula, documents containing specious arguments, and fables told in a “gotong-royong” style (i.e. continued by different storytellers) by the interviewees of different ages, races, and educational backgrounds, which constructs a strange narrative based on the reality and beyond. Besides, the transfer of ownership of copyright turns the narrative of images and documents into a possibility for action. The video takes the form of a pseudo-documentary, conjuring up a “utopian” vision with the assistance of the interviewed storytellers. What is paradoxical is that Mengkerang, the imagined “ideal place”, works in line with the image established by the state apparatus through its education system and travel propaganda in contradicting the sense of helplessness in real life. The paradox is perhaps what Jean-Luc Nancy argued in his book The Inoperative Community: “This is why political or collective enterprises dominated by a will to absolute immanence have as their truth the truth of death.”
Images and History: Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others
Malaysia’s complex cultural and belief systems have weaved rich and colorful tales and stories into folklore. Some of these tales and stories even contradict the belief system established by the contemporary political community, and are therefore belittled as heterogeneous others. Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others collects the folklore from the memories of Malaysians at different ages and deconstructs these collected materials. It then blends
the deconstructed materials with historical data, and thereby restructures the seemingly familiar but in fact strange “quasi-folklore” of Mengkerang . It transcends the dimensions of time and national boundaries to discover the trails left by the “phantom” (whether it refers to the migrant workers who become part of the phantom population during elections, the question of who the outsiders are, or the doubt over the existence of outsiders) along the boundary between reality and imagination by means of the film footages that narrate folklore in different times and the videos derived from the archive of British Pathe, a British news agency in the British colonial period. As the momentum amidst humanity and time, those “memories” reflect a historical view of time and a historical posture. Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others seeks to challenge the grandiose delusion of infinite “rigid finitude” by bringing imagination back to the history. This exactly echoes what Ashis Nandy argued in his article “Shamans, Savages and the Wilderness: On the Audibility of Dissent and the Future of Civilizations”:
“The shaman not as the heroic symbol of all non-cooptable dissent but the shaman as a more modest symbol of resistance to the dominant politics of knowledge, the shaman as one whose style of negation and whose categories do not make any sense center-stage but always seem to touch the disempowered in the wings. A shaman is not an expert and he or she cannot be produced through or coopted by institutional processes. Coming out of a transformative experience and, then, claiming to be a testimony to another way of looking at reality and intervening in it, the shaman is a combination of a mystic healer and an exorcist who identifies demons—popular or unpopular, traditional or modern. The shaman has one foot in the familiar, one foot outside; one foot in the present, one in the future or, as some would put it, in the timeless.”
Images and Geography: Pak Tai Foto
Pak Tai Foto, located at the site of Kuala Lumpur’s urban development
in the British colonial period, is an actual photo studio that has existed for over five decades, a history longer than that of the country “Malaysia”.
To meet the “need” for urban renewal and expansion, the dilapidated stores and houses in the region are gradually dismantled except Pak Tai Foto, leaving it in an unchanged time. This region has received a large influx of illegal migrant workers brought by the economic development and the great wave of migration. Pak Tai Foto is one of the studios designated by the Royal Malaysia Police to take the photo for police credentials, which is why it preserves a great number of those photos.
How should we assess the relationship between maps and images if maps serve as the reference to topographical features in geography? In the chapter “Subtopia” of his book The Atlas: Archeology of an Imaginary City , Hong Kong- based writer Dong Chi-Zhang wrote that: “At the moment when a map is produced, and even before it is printed out, the map has become obsolete, since no map can evolve with the course of time. A map represents the time that stops elapsing, the time that never changes and therefore fails to seize any precise moment. Different from photos taken with a camera, the production of a map cannot be accomplished in a split second, but requires a length of time allowing of changes in its external environment. Accordingly, the time captured in a map is fictional; to wit, it never exists. And the place depicted by the map is bound to be a subtopia.”
By way of comparison, the time that stops elapsing in Pak Tai Foto is in fact elusive and fictional amidst the changing external environment, which makes its interior space a map. The “subtopia” that the map depicts is no longer an imagined “place,” but an “external” space-time that constantly changes and an “immigrant” population that keeps fluctuating.
The work Pak Tai Foto represents the experiences and memories of immigrant workers. It highlights the “existence” of the studio (has ever existed or has transcended physical existence) that seemingly lacks the sign of “human” but in fact brings a subtle touch of life. In the absence of identifiable individuals, this work skillfully interweaves these experiences and memories into a stretchable imagination that allows us to challenge the rigid system. In the final analysis, does Mengkerang refer directly to Malaysia or a place beyond our imagination? Does it create the momentum of the illusion of immigrant labor within the framework of “globalization” or open up a greater number of possibilities for imagination?