The use and abuse of nostalgia

by Lee Wen & Chand Chandra Mohan

RITES #7, Saturday 14 August 2010, 7.30 pm
Venue: The Substation Theatre

Like everyone else in this busy country I am always complaining about insufficient time and would really like to form a movement to change the 24 hour day to that of 48 hours to ease our stressfulness over not enough time but I don’t have the time for that. But the real issue is how everything boils down to that of making a judgment and decision as to what we find is most important in terms of priorities. No I am not referring to the people who should be in the audience but not there to help us celebrate our one year anniversary of R.I.T.E.S. but I think this is one big question for all performance artists, that of time. There are different approaches of course and this evening’s program somehow made me nostalgic and although the artists may not be had intended they actually gave me some things to think about concerning nostalgia in relationship to time. But nostalgia is not just about time but how our emotions are moved in certain directions when thinking back about the past.

“Hermes Action Writing”

Jozef Czeres walked in with a suitcase containing a typewriter, among other things. Who uses a typewriter in the age of computers? This aroused my first nostalgic impression. While setting up Ceres seemed to be speaking to himself in a low almost inaudible tone. His mumbling at first sounded like a retelling of the Greek mythology of Hermes and his reverence for the founder of music and art and then ending with jaded rants about how most of contemporary art is crap? Or maybe I was just imagining it but it gave me a second nostalgic impression as although dressed casually he gave the an aura of a world weary philosopher who had seen better days when art and culture was really gracious manifestation of humanity in our daily life. We then hear a voice calling out random alphabets, were they spoken live or prerecorded and played through a speaker? I wished artists who speak did make sure they could be heard unless they intend it that way. But the alphabet and typewriter were making a sleepy drone as if hypnotizing me into; you guessed it, a nostalgic mood. As Jozef typed on it looked like he was typing the letters that were being spoken through the speakers. This continued for some time and later asked to the audience for help to read from books laid on the chairs that were already placed in front. They read them out loud, in various languages the books were in as Czeres carried on typing on different pieces of paper. It became a choir of rather monotonous, rhythmic drone that now seemed to be tone of the whole presentation. The readers stop reading, and Jozef goes on to end the performance by laying out the typed papers, with a lighted tea light placed beside each paper. He went to the back wall and using some chalk wrote, “Terrorists destroy buildings. Tourists destroy places. Artists destroy both”. He then ended by using a rubber stamp to put some red words on the paper he laid out which says “THE LAZY ANARCHISTS”. Another nostalgic moment for me as not many young artists care, discusses or even refer to anarchy in their slick art world although performance and conceptual art has been seemingly accepted, most are comfortably strutting out with pride and confidence sans the original motivations of being a critical response to the status quo.


This installment of R.I.T.E.S. coincides with the exhibition “Touch” held in the Substation gallery, organized with the help of Jeremy Hiah together with Nopawan Sirivejku and Monkol Plienbanchang both active organizer artists base in Bangkok. Nopawan Sirivejku, or more popularly known Aor, blew into a child’s whistle before going on with various actions. Her piece was also entitled “Touch” and could be seen in relation to the exhibition that called our attention to the often neglected and taken for granted need of sensory gratification in human nature. Although attitudes are changing, within various Asian traditions touching each other especially between the different genders is not commonly seen in public. Coming from her background of an active organizer artist with concerns for social work her actions also led beyond the interpersonal act of physical touching to sharing life experiences seeking community. After blowing the whistle, she worked on a ball of red thread, unwinding and spreading it as she walked through the audience, tying or entangling some of them up in the process. The red thread appears as a vehicle for the artist to touch and relate to our separate independent individual bodies of senses attempting to unify everyone. The red thread touched the audience as she walks through them.

“We Are What We Have Lost”

Ezzam Rahman’s piece is the second part, dedicated to his father’s passing away, the day before his 40th day of departure. The first part was presented during the Sama-sama Guesthouse mini Alternative Festival 2010 just a week before in Malacca where his father was born. Ezzam told an emotion filled tale of his parent’s separation after which he chewed a whole bunch of “gulang melba”, a kind of rock sugar, tied onto a string he wore around his neck until he bled from his mouth. He also asked his younger brother, Fareed Rahman to come on board in the second part performed at R.I.T.E.S. While Fareed played on the sadatanah, or suarantanah, which literally translates to “voices of earth” Ezzam blew into a small translucent plastic bag, tied it to a length of string as he dropped the bag and held it like a pendulum. He carried to use larger plastic bags from mortuaries that are meant for corpses, explicitly referring to the notion of death. Unrolling one of the plastic bags to its length, he stepped with intent across it, as he laid it out in front of himself, creating a series of fleeting footprints that appeared and disappeared as he stretches over the translucent plastic surfaces. He then proceeded to open up other plastic bags fully and swung them around like flogging himself or covering and uncovering over his head and body. Stretching the bag over his tall stout body frame changing his form into amorphous shapes. At some point standing against the back wall, while still covered with the plastic, he continued to stretch them till they tore at various overstretched sections. As his leg was became visible through the torn plastic followed by his body emerging like a birthing scene. With the accelerating tempo and rhythm of Fareed’s playing, Ezzam furiously thrashed the plastic around himself blatantly letting fly his motions, himself culminating perhaps into catharsis. Fareed slowed down the tempo back to silence as Ezzam covered both himself and his brother with the bag, laying it all to rest. Ezzam later explained that he used various material like the “gulang melba” out of nostalgia for his growing up years, something that many of us could also identify with. In working with the nostalgic elements he had become what he had lost.

“It’s a hole”

Chua Chin Chin filled three glasses with water, constantly shuffling them on the table top, quite like gamblers with playing cards. Perhaps a gamble on life with the physical body in which we are all trapped inside. She occasionally takes mouthfuls of water, which later she reveals that her voice is always prone to being hoarse. She then tells the audience that one of her biggest fears is to be stuck in the cold, of hypothermia. She proceeds to fill a bucket up with ice, and plunges her feet into it. She strums strings entwined around some nails across some lengths of wooden planks boards laid on the table with some metal cutlery. She begins a narrative on how to get out of a house with no doors or windows, signifying our own entrapped within our physical body. She punched her own upper arms, in turn revealing that her feet, which had been soaking in ice perhaps in contrast had become numbed to the pain. At times strumming the strings with the cutlery. With pensive actions and self-inflicted pain, Chin translated intangible emotions and sensitivities into physical images attempting to reveal her personal struggles at evoking the yearning to fulfill oneself.

“War Therapy”

Monkol Plienbangchang also used some images that were exhibited in “Touch” showing in the Substation gallery. Holding up a toy elephant and military artillery tank he wrote the word “VIOLENCE” on his arm and on his shirt. He then added a “NON” suffix to the word. And then another, in turn shows the audience ‘non-non-violence’, a complete redundancy of the first paradox. He then wrapped his right foot with an army printed cloth, and his left with a photograph image of the blue sky, which he had used in the exhibit “Touch”. The image he used was actually part of a photograph, which showed Monkol tearing up the image and evoking man’s violence on nature, with the elephant and the army tank. He filled a glass bowl with cinnamon and some herbal powder adding and mixing them with water. He soaks his covered feet in the cinnamon water, and held the water into his gaping mouth and spitting the water out, dripping over himself, the toy army tank, and the toy elephant. He went to the back and writing the word VIOLENCE” with chalk on the black wall and added a number of the suffix “NON” as if to emphasize the urgency to negate violence.

With the prospect of a tense future we tend to nostalgically dream of recapturing an idealized past. Perhaps it was the air-conditioning, but I came out with a fever after the performances and hurried home trying to figure out how we may use and abuse our nostalgia.

(All photos by Jason Lee)

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