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  • Writer's picturekimberlyshen

Endnotes: A Conversation Between Geraldine Kang and Kimberly Shen

Published in Oblique, 2020

ISBN 978-981-14-4369-5

Paperback, 226 pages

Kimberly Shen: A New Order, the most recent NAFA Fine Art staff exhibition in 2018, considered new ways of thinking, contemplating and making, as a rejection of the past (or using the past to explore the unfamiliar). In considering the curatorial framework for this publication, it felt as if we were driven by a similar sense of idealism—an open-ended enquiry which attempts to harbour the diverse ways of encapsulating plurality of form and language. Shall we start with a simple question, why Oblique? What does it mean to us—personally, linguistically, ideologically?

Geraldine Kang: While we were searching for something appropriate for contributors to respond to, I was very attracted to the oblique (as it is used in the English language). I admire its fluidity as a piece of punctuation, the fact that it can divide and connect, the fact that it can accommodate analogous and antonymous ideas. The responsibility that this unassuming diagonal line shoulders seems to be highly understated. I also like to think that we can liken the use of the oblique with constructing a proverbial fence: it becomes an indication of personal and/or political in/decision and non/alignment.

KS: Absolutely, the analogy of a proverbial fence is especially important in a world as divided as today. Even symbolically with the oblique, do we adopt the front (/) or back slash (\), how do we accommodate thoughts that are neither and situated in an in-betweenness? Yet, it is highly adaptable as a verb and adjective: for example, an ‘innuendo’ is defined as an oblique illusion, or to ‘be oblique’ is to be indirect or obscure, suggesting an otherness or an alterity. In creating a singular (semi/quasi-institutionalised) object, such as this publication, how do we reconcile differences in thinking about authenticity and legitimation of narrative? 

GK: I remember us briefly exchanging some personal key takeaways from NAFA’s inaugural Southeast Asian Arts forum on art and pedagogy in July 2019. I think it was incredibly refreshing for questions surrounding the transmission of historical and artistic legitimacy to be discussed in the context of an educational institution. During her presentation of the inaugural Overseas Immersion Programme to ISI Yogyakarta, Oniatta Effendi (NAFA theatre faculty at the time) observed that educators (or ‘masters’) of a craft allow for the students (or ‘apprentices’) to playfully interpret tradition and usher it along newer currents. Such a description seems to point towards an ideal ecology where plurality stems from strong roots and exists with minimal antagonism. At risk of sounding romantic, it makes me think of a system where those who validate history and legitimacy know when and how to release control. On that note, I find it unsurprising that a large number of entries in Oblique embody a vantage point, a visual glue, from which multiple perspectives and positions converge in an impossible space.

KS: Oblique is certainly derived from a romantic and idealistic space; of learning how to negotiate around existing historical, cultural and material tensions; to resist dominant narratives and ideas, to imagine and create new meanings. During the symposium, I remember thinking about the relationship between art practice and pedagogy—how do we, as educators, enable our students to interrogate concerns, employ visual strategies and realise their ideas beyond simply being image makers? It is so important that Oblique serves as a neutral platform for the diverse voices of staff and students to coexist, to breakdown hierarchies and allow the works to be in dialogue with each other.

GK: It is also worthy to note that educators should seek to in turn be challenged and inspired by their students to walk together into the unknown. Out of the many thematic threads among the entries, the projects about female identity particularly tug at me. In Xin Xiao Chang’s Flitting Happiness, she reflects on the expectations and identity of the modern Peranakan woman through a playful twist on iconic cultural symbols within batik fabrics. These newly ‘updated’ motifs appear anachronistic when materialised with traditional hand embroidery and I appreciate how they push my relationship with these fabrics and quotidian objects, especially as a female reader, into uncomfortable territory. Apprehension also arises when I read Shuchita Kapur’s Respond to Equality, a piece which comments emphatically on the deeply embedded systemic and cultural biases against women in India where she is from. Her work presents an interesting tension between facilitating solidarity amongst the women she interviewed and airing their experiences within a different culture. Signing off as “imaginary” women positions her collaborators’ accounts as semi or even wholly fictitious, especially across great geographical distance. Despite this, I also acknowledge the struggle and poignancy of legitimising experiences of discrimination, especially within close proximities in the cultures that they are from.

KS: We can also draw upon this tension between national identities, cultures and embedded memories with Mintio’s poignant Arus Berlabuh Kita. A collaboration with her partner Kabul, the work adopts a participatory approach and involves third-culture children playing sea voyagers, travelling the rough waters into the unknown. One is confronted by the issues of modern-day migratory experiences—whose culture is embraced or reclaimed, what ties do we maintain or sever, how do we reconcile the past and present? Noor Iskandar’s Exit/Exist embodies a similar tone. In the work, he performs a deep dive into the self and grapples with both tangible and intangible markers of identity. One really senses the struggle of the artist to position himself in relation to conventions of community and religion, but also sees how he carves out a liminal and liberating space for these ‘complications’ to thoroughly exist. 

GK: On the flip side, other works that I enjoyed employ humour and wit as a means of nudging our unquestioned habits and assumptions. Atelier HOKO’s another mad afternoon at home poses whimsical yet provocative postcard instructions to the reader to rethink their relationship with domestic architecture, objects and spaces. #31, for instance, invites the reader to wipe the postcard on the entire surface area of a door. I am tickled by the straight-forwardness of the invitation, the gesture which also doubles up as an awkward act of cleaning, and the resulting grime that gets registered on the postcard. Who thinks about what exists on the surface of a door? Who thinks about wiping a hard surface with a stiff postcard? 

KS: I share your sentiments when observing all the 36 entries; I really appreciated how some of the works playfully unpack oblique symbolically and alluded to it metaphorically. Yeo Chee Kiong’s A Beauty Centre is a cheeky take on the parallel themes of art-making versus meaning-making. In creating ‘sculptural objects’ of imbued significance situated in a banal setting (a beauty centre within a gallery), he has rendered their meanings irrelevant. The audience is tasked to engage with their primary senses, to do away with preconceived notions and to simply experience the work. Sharon Choo’s The Line Between is probably the most direct interpretation of the oblique symbol. A documentation of 27 blue-filtered images of people standing in their most natural state, the work asks, in this fundamental gesture of standing, if we consciously remain neutral, lean or gravitate towards the side. As the artist observes, “perhaps the easiest way is to remain oblique”.

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