Title. Double click me.
There is the suggestion of—not a faded but—a fading quality to Mohd Azlan’s color photographs, as though his subjects have been neutralized, vitiated of intention, captured in their utmost essence; at the same time, his colors are so evocatively rich and intense as to be indelible. This ethereal quality remains both poignant and 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 one’s own impulses. If one could set these images to music, that is, if one could determine an appropriately suitable mood or tone, would these images, imprinted on our retinas, correspond to a fugue, or a dirge? Suspended between the edges of his 120mm-format viewfinder, their selection and culling from time is as consequential as it is deniable. Repose and dislocation precede whatever language or emotion, sound or reverberation, 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 glimmers that might seduce his senses, and draw him further.
Title. Double click me.
All images © 2016-2021 Mohd Azlan Mohd Latib Click on images to expand
Title. Double click me.
The images bristle with an ironic wistfulness that is sometimes attached to colorful trinkets in a gift shop and, yet, are also drenched in the gravitas of looming monuments or even monoliths. Both of these aspects could be easily sensed by any curious child capable of projecting 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 forgotten but, ultimately, rediscovered reality, with fresh eyes—perhaps with the wide-eyed blankness of an uncomprehending beast lumbering through an abandoned wasteland beyond a 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 reveals an intention for an era. Though it was the American poet, Adrienne Rich, writing from a time and place of deep and expanding social awareness within the empire’s borders, during the tumultuous 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 myth of human progress. We might forsake our original intention 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?"
Rich was just as adventurous in the pursuit of her vision, though neither aggressively like a geographer or conquistador, nor despairingly (like Lévi-Strauss), and, therefore, was as optimistic as was filmmaker Agnes Varda nearly thirty years later when she made her revelatory documentary, The Gleaners and I. "Gleaners" not only deepened Varga's 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 inevitably to rot), but, 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 transitory persons, figures, presences, memories, landscapes, cast-off ideas, relics, myths, experiences, as well as unresolved questions of history and culture, by way of "cinécriture." Ironically, the 2000 film about retrieval ushered in a new, and fraught, millennium.
But while wading through the cultural flotsam and jetsam—the stuff that amasses at the geographical and cultural "choke-hold" points of borders, tribes, castes, and classes—Azlan has already persisted against, and pushed through, the memory of those blinding, lingering acts of inhumanity that 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 misread, misdirecting, or missed-altogether signs, perhaps not always knowing why he continues (in the face of so much resistance), but feeling, knowing, that he must, regardless.
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, tribal regions, 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 full of the trepidation innate to, though inversely reminiscent of, those first 19th-century photographic plates with their suggestion of the occult, the shadow world, and the afterlife, which were fixed not only within their framed edges, but also as if standing murkily before us like darkened mirrors. However, instead of those early photographic "blacks" serving as the source of so much mystery and potency, it is Azlan's images' glaring and intense light that serves as the source of forthright disclosure, revelation.
In these images' inability to fully subdue their abundance of light, whether glaring, garish or muted—though always intense—they are not unlike our attempts to coax the genies of our errors back into our private bottles, or our futile attempts to demarcate the shifting sands of our ever-repositioning memories; nor are they unlike the inadequately-recorded measurements of our collective experiences that forever elude a quantifiable reckoning.
They are, nevertheless, always willing to appear again and, once summoned, again after that, if patiently waited for long enough without expectation. Alternatively, like crystals in a cave or coral reefs in an atoll, the sharply-edged geometric structures in Azlan's images are there to take samples of, be counted, measured, to serve as specimens, with their easily-measured material weights, densities, constructions, patterns, aspects, dimensions, and configurations, all of which tells us nothing, or at least very little.
"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 a "god-like" way of formulating something from nothing?
True 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 claim that they assume the role of vessel, messenger, bringer...entrusted with those forsaken or forbidden objects or signs, strands, or shards of evidence, which were lost along the paths of their journeys. This is why semblances and delineations of myth or narrative are often hinted at for the receivers', that is our, benefit. As with Rich's poem, Azlan's images suggest that linear stories and myths are not essential to experience. In freakish submission, we have passed through fire and entered a realm where contradictions are inherent to the voyage as we live it, and that are at odds, but also in sync, 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 double-role of diagnostician and metaphysician. But to do so is really a different undertaking altogether. Not that there is nothing to prove, or that an argument might not serve as a lure toward an attempt at achieving some worthy ambition by way of the crafting of an ideology. (Philosopher-historian-novelists like Tolstoy come to mind.) Neither to argue nor describe but, merely, to show and, hopefully, reveal, can perhaps serve as the best path that might allow the recipient of the experience—the beholder—to see...by way of his or her own personal interaction with the "evidence," and, along with the evidence, to discern the experiential and perhaps the epiphanic that accompany or even infuse the evidence, rather than merely making a case for a rational interpretation.
Buñuel, the surrealist filmmaker, who knew too well that a cruelly assembled and forbidding 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 some semblance of psychological foundation from which we can depart again and again.
We are at a critical juncture. Because of the monumental crisis which now engulfs the planet, both locally and globally, by way of a devolving dialectical materialism and wholesale disregard for the elemental world, haven't we intractably looped ourselves into a revolving cul-de-sac of hopeless irretrievability, a half-crazed carnival sideshow? And this leaves us, as well as 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 deeply into our own experiences, history, and memories—the belly of the beast, if you will—more than the technological juggernaut ever could with its strenuous velocities of projection, structure, and assertions of ego.
Locked down as we have allowed ourselves to become by way of the tendency to submit to the reductive logic of linear progress, as well as our need to control, anticipate, and preempt, that is, alleviate all anxieties and threats, imaginary or real, is there any antidote to these bottomless trivializations of our nature? Will we ever free ourselves from these dehumanizing bonds?
Is it the artist alone who can release us and allow us to transcend the inhibiting boundaries of our desiccated landscape-as-carapace, or our self-imposed commodity-defined enslavement? Can we cut ourselves loose again in order to gain at least a token "part-time" freedom—as do the unassuming objects and subjects that Azlan captures on film? And if we could, would we dare, that is, if a nation or world can still be reconfigured into a culture beyond monoculture? Azlan has walked away from the city center, where centralized power and commerce define a broader reality.
As the twin deities of technology and the scientific method advance unstoppably, the centrifugal/centripetal forces of the death instinct, pull us ever more deeply toward an unspecified void. Even as we reach upward through the ideological depths for blighted, lingering traces of ourselves, though hindered by skyscrapers, like monoliths of interminable accumulation that blot out the sun as would a sky-sized zoetrope, should we give this force of endless reaching a name or, as soon as we did, would its new definition and identity kill it, or at least kill off the part of itself that remains from when it was still nameless?
Thankfully, in our periphery, there is a clinamen aligned with our trajectory, 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 and the relentless juggernaut we cling to. (As Pascal pointed out, it seems we cannot bear to be still and reflect. Is that why we continue to labor pointlessly?) As in a dystopian movie scene the compass needle might begin to spin wildly of its own accord, like an enraged village idiot, raging at an 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 art—and, therefore, the artist—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 that delineate our ineffable tale which yearns for a more inclusive form. These relics help to give shape to our attendent memories, as well as form to 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."
Is it that these quotidian relics—some might even call them "the banal," these local specimens—these rooves, these shelters and forms above our heads and below our feet, have become significant? Do these humble "mementos" laden with a profundity of light splayed across their surfaces and which have taken on new meaning (not only by way of recovery of a lost nostalgia but borne from an honest longing) now serve as the source of our return as desirable objects in globalism's violent wake?
Will our epiphanies and experiences save us if we allow them to?
The ephemeral documentation of these fading objects and structures fills a book of imaginary 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.