Title. Double click me.
There is the suggestion of—not a faded, but—a fading quality to Mohd Azlan's colour photographs, as though his subjects have been vitiated of intention, neutralized, captured in their utmost essence; at the same time, his colours are so evocatively rich and intense as to be indelible. This diaphanous quality remains both poignant and deeply palpable.
"For the spell is older than the tale. For the tale is older than the record."
— Marina Tsvetaeva
The images beckon we return home after we have strayed too far on a pale afternoon. It's almost a question of having been abandoned, forsaken, by our own impulses.
If one could set these images to music, that is if one could determine an appropriately suitable mood or tone, would the images which are imprinted on our retinas correspond to a fugue or a dirge? Suspended between the edges of his 120-format viewfinder, their selection, and culling from time, is as consequential as it is deniable; repose and dislocation precede whatever languages or emotions, sounds or reverberations, they might evoke organically.
The East Has Begun to Resemble the West
The series opens with a tattered Malaysian flag (no, it's not an American flag) that has feebly wrapped itself around a vine-laden tree. Or is it the tree that is forcing its way upward and through the banner's already fraying edges, as if in rebellion? What is the inverse of a fairytale?
Azlan searches—hunts, one could even say—for signs, whenever he wades into those mysterious zones of light, somewhat apprehensively at first perhaps, yet breathlessly aware of those glimmers that might seduce his senses, and draw him further.
Title. Double click me.
All images © 2016-2019 Mohd Azlan Mohd Latib Click on images to expand
Title. Double click me.
The images bristle with the ironic wistfulness that is sometimes attached to colourful trinkets in a gift shop and, yet, are also drenched in the gravitas of looming monoliths, both of these qualities easily sensed by any curious child, one who can project such scenes onto an imagined future.
And while this perception is mostly conjecture, and wholly subjective, there is at least something to it in that the waif has begun to discard a fairytale-like interpretation of childhood in exchange for a harsher, wilder assessment of a once-forgotten but, ultimately, re-discovered reality, with fresh eyes—with the wide-eyed blankness of an uncomprehending beast lumbering pointlessly through what at first appears to be an abandoned wasteland just beyond the city's limits. Though, perhaps, the place is not as bad as we fear.
The Future is Female
The trope has become a common enough meme, one that holds more than a specific relevance for the era.
It was the American poet, Adrienne Rich, writing from a time and place of deep and expanding social awareness, within the empire's borders, and during the tumultuous period of the Vietnam-Civil Rights era, who intimated the artist's "sense of purpose" most clearly and accurately in her famous poem, 'Diving Into The Wreck.'
"First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife blade,
I put on
the body armour of black rubber
the absurd flippers,
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone
"I go down
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light,
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
Rich showed that we will always lose our way—and, indeed, need to—forever caught as we are in the maelstrom and myths of human progress. We will forsake our original intentions and intuitions in order to simply behold our experience and, in the beholding, discover not only some lost tangential purpose or meaning, but rediscover our innate capacity to simply be, in replete surrender to, but also in sync with, our surroundings—just as sages, shamans, prophets, prognosticators and oracles of indigenous (and even contemporary) cultures have always said would be there awaiting us, if we dare allow ourselves to be encircled by the mystery of it.
The anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, wrote regretfully about the nearby Pacific islands (not far from the Southeast Asian mainland) in Tristes Tropiques:
"Now that the Polynesian islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers solidly anchored in the southern seas, when the whole of Asia is beginning to look like a dingy suburb, when shanty-towns are spreading across Africa, when civil and military aircraft blight the primeval innocence of the American and Melanesian forests even before destroying their virginity, what else can the so-called escapism of traveling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history?"
Like Lévi-Strauss, Rich was just as adventurous in the pursuit of her vision, but was neither aggressive nor despairing and, therefore, as optimistic as was filmmaker Agnes Varda nearly thirty years later when she made her revelatory documentary from 2000, ‘The Gleaners and I,’ which not only deepened her own understanding of what it means to glean, that is, to salvage lost or forsaken objects (like sifting through a pile of discarded potatoes leftover from the season’s harvest to rot) or, in a broader sense, reclaim those lost aspects of ourselves and others or, for that matter, discover her own active role as an unwitting (when not happily complicit) modern-day gleaner of persons, presences, memories, landscapes, cast-off relics, ideas, myths, experiences, as well as unresolved questions about history and culture, by way of “cinécriture.” Ironically, the film about retrieval ushered in a new millennium.
But while wading through the cultural flotsam and jetsom—the stuff of evidence that amasses at the geographical and cultural "choke-hold" points of borders, tribes, castes, and classes, intensified by the global surveillance and security states, Azlan has already persisted against the burdensome memory of those glaring, lingering acts of inhumanity that have so frequently distinguished the 20th century—and which continue to rear their Gorgon heads in brazen defiance of the artist's constancy, his fidelity to the "hunt" for traces of cast-off, displaced, missed and misread signs and indicators, perhaps not always knowing why he continues (in the face of so much resistance), but feeling, knowing, that he must, regardless.
"the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters..."
Azlan's images are reminiscent and full of the trepidation innate to those first photographic plates of the 19th century with their suggestion of the occult, the shadow world, and the afterlife, which stood, not only within their framed edges but also as if actually standing before us. However, instead of those photographic "blacks" serving as the source of so much visual potency, it is the glaringly intense light in these photographs that seems to serve as the source of so much forthright disclosure and revelation.
In the images' inability to fully subdue their own abundance of light, whether glaring, garish or muted, but always intense, they are not unlike our attempts to coax a genie back into the proverbial bottle or our futile attempts to demarcate shifting tides and sands like the intangible measurements of our collective experiences that forever elude a quantifiable summation—though they will always appear again, and again after that, once summoned, or if patiently waited for long enough; like crystals in a cave or coral reefs in an atoll, these sharp-edged geometric micro-structures are there to be counted, measured, or to take samples of, and to serve as specimens, with their easily-measured material weights, densities, constructions, patterns, aspects, dimensions, and configurations, all of which tell us nothing.
"I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed..."
Nexus of Ambiguity and Form
An artist is more than a manipulator of shapes, content, and concepts into some purposeful organic whole. Though to manipulate is admittedly part of any creative act and certainly every time a choice is made. But as for the act of "creation" itself, does—can—one ever really create in that god-like way of formulating something from nothing?
Artists deny the possibility and, by way of some strenuous maturation of their own formerly lost, but reclaimed, or reconstituted fragmentary selves, offer a different explanation: they more frequently assume the role of messenger, vessel, bringer... entrusted with those forsaken or forbidden objects or signs—strands or shards of evidence—which were lost along the paths of our journeys. This is why semblances of myth or narrative are often manifested for the receivers' —our—benefit. As with Rich's poem, Azlan's images suggest, that linear stories and myths are not essential to the experience. In freakish submission, we have passed through fire and entered a realm where contradictions are inherent to the experience, as we live them, that are in sync, but also at odds, with reality.
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where
we started and know the place for the first time."
The artist may also play the role of diagnostician or metaphysician, but to do so is really a completely different undertaking altogether. Most artists resist this pursuit. Not that there is nothing to prove, or that no argument might serve as a lure toward some attempt at achieving a conquest by way of the crafting of a working ideology. (Philosopher-novelists like Tolstoy come to mind.) But neither to argue nor describe; but merely to show, reveal, in such a way as to allow the recipient of the experience, the beholder, by way of his or her own personal interaction with the "evidence," is to offer the experiential and epiphanic, rather than merely the rationally presented.
Luis Bunuel, the surrealist filmmaker, who perceived too well that a cruelly assembled altar of fascism was being erected above and around him, once stated it all too clearly: memory is all. It is from memory alone that we are able to build the semblance of a psychological foundation from which we might depart again, and again.
We are at a critical juncture. Because of the monumental crisis which now engulfs us, locally and globally, by way of history's framework of a devolving dialectical materialism and wholesale disregard for the elemental world, we have looped ourselves intractably into a revolving cul-de-sac of hopeless irretrievability, a half-crazed carnival sideshow which leaves us (and the artist) where?
Kuala Lumpur is now an alpha city, the economic mecca of Malaysia. But just outside of the capital lies a forgotten world that perhaps takes us more deeply into our experience of memory and history than the vanguard of the juggernaut ever could or, for that matter, the belly of the beast, with all of their strenuous velocities of structure and assertions of ego.
Locked down as we can become with a tendency to submit to the perversely reductive logic of linear progress, and the need to control, anticipate, preempt, and alleviate all of our anxieties and imaginary threats, is there any antidote to these bottomless trivializations of our nature? Can we free ourselves from these dehumanizing bonds?
Is it the artist alone who can release us and allow us to transcend the boundaries of the desiccated landscape-as-carapace or our self-imposed commodity-defined enslavement? Can we ever cut ourselves loose again in order to gain even a token part-time freedom—as do the unassuming objects and subjects that Azlan captures on film? And if we could, would we dare? He has walked away from the city centre, where power and commerce define culture, that is if it really can be defined as having a culture.
The twin deities of science and technology advance unstoppably. The centrifugal/centripetal forces of the death instinct, pull us ever more deeply into an unspecified void, even as we reach upward through the sun-scarred depths for lingering traces of ourselves, hindered only by alternating skyscrapers that blot out the sun as would a sky-sized zoetrope. Should we give this force a name or, as soon as we do, will its new identity kill it, or at least kill what it was when it was still unnamed?
Thankfully, and yet, painfully there is a clinamen aligned with our trajectory, in our periphery, a countervailing deviance or subversion as innate to our hunger for freedom and true release as any fidelity to a method.
What is left but to abandon ship or surrender (to) our devices, cut loose the burden of our cargo along with its battered sails and the unrelenting juggernaut to which we cling? As Pascal pointed out, it seems we cannot bear to be still and reflect. (Is that why we continue to labour pointlessly?) Even the compass needle spins wildly of its own accord, like an enraged village idiot, raging at an imagined or indifferent godhead.
"All of humanity's difficulties stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."
— Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Is it true now that only the artist—and, therefore, one would assume, art—can redeem us? Azlan's search might also lead us to a deeper understanding of our plight. He has pulled—perhaps rescued?—those archetypal relics which delineate the ineffable tales which yearn for a more inclusive form, and which give shape to our attendant memories, as well as the forms of our journey, thereby invoking Tsvataeva's spell, the one which can never be truly recorded—for it has no beginning and no end—but can only be beheld in a well-managed light.
"We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear."
Will our emotions, epiphanies, and experiences save us if we allow them to? Or is it simply that the quotidian—some might even call it the banal—have become significant again, like Azlan's collection of local specimens, these outposts far from the belly of the urban beast, these rooves and doors, these shutters and perimeters, these shelters, their forms and shadows which enclose their inhabitants beneath and inside? These human-scale mementoes laden with a preponderance of light splayed across their surfaces have taken on new utility and proportion of significance and meaning by way of a re-emergence of nostalgia and historical memory. They now serve as the debarkation point of our necessary return—or are they desirable solely as the result of their desperately needed reanimation, as they respond to, while shuddering in, globalism's violent wake?
Their ghostlike documentation fills a book of secret real estate listings that can never be sold or occupied by any other than those who are meant to discover an imagined life beneath their eaves.