Alone in Bangkok: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part I)
Review by Ellen Lee

For his inaugural solo “project” (note: not exhibition) in his native Malaysia, Ise has packed Bangkok into a small white cube in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Upon the high white walls of A+ Works of Art, the eye travels from one colourful, crazy drawing to the next, trundling along from Thieves’ Market (where one can buy guns on the sly), to JJ/Chatuchak Market (where fighting fish are pitted against each other), to the abandoned New World Mall (overrun by fishes), to a boat noodle joint, and so on.

We’re taking the wrong and long way round to Bangkok, though. First, we get stopped in Jakarta by the police after a tense football match between Indonesia and Malaysia, then profiled at an airport in Christchurch, and then held at knife-point by muggers in Barcelona. A pretty long way to go before we finally arrive at a country with which we share a border!

This roundabout journey was planned by the Kelantanese-born Ise before his death at the young age of 46 in July 2019. As such, it was executed in the manner that he imagined it, which is a combination of his Bangkok drawings – made with marker pen and paint on cheap-looking, black-and-white photocopies of an English-language Bangkok guide map – and light-boxes displaying comics by fellow artist Ibrahim Hamid (a.k.a. Pak Him) depicting some of Ise’s mishaps abroad.

Ise’s Bangkok drawings each cover a certain “aspect” of Bangkok, some of which may not be covered in typical tourist guides to the city. These include “hidden gems” such as the “ice cream hot-pot” found in Yotse and the Boat Noodles at the Victory Monument (with a small piece of advice from Ise: “free soft drink if eat more”), but also criminal or controversial aspects of Bangkok, such as the 2014 anti-government protests (referred to in the works “Shutdown” and “Popcorn Army”) or the notorious Sino-Thai serial killer and alleged cannibal, Si Quey. In the work “Siquey”, he is drawn as a blackened figure with an evil scowl, trapped in what looks like a telephone box: this is because his embalmed body at the time was installed in a glass box for public display in Siriraj Medical Museum. What a complex city, so long as you’re open to experiencing it in all its vicissitudes! Ise’s drawings overwhelm the mass-produced map, and one gets a sense of how exciting his impressions of the city must have been; how the city was, in his eyes, so much larger than its paper map life allowed.

His drawings spill over the map’s imagined borders and some of his words, drawn in bubble letters too long and too large to fit into the perimeters of the map, slant sideways cartoonishly so as not to slip off the real border of the paper. There are also post-it tabs stuck onto the paintings like pieces of confetti, or comic-style neoflects emphasising a novel wow!-ness in his impressions. His drawings are too coarse to be put in a white cube gallery – which was perhaps Ise’s intention, king as he was of bringing popular and populist forms into galleries – and the drawings all have their own unstoppable inner volition that explodes them beyond the boundaries of the maps and the gallery. You can practically hear the crowd, smell the foods, and feel the steamy, humid air of Bangkok’s streets through his drawings.

Pak Him’s comics

Pak Him’s light-box comics add a sense of loneliness that shimmers at the edges of the project. This loneliness can be traced back to Ise’s previous project at A+, a duo show that featured his “Till Kingdom Come” series from 2011. The series consists of endless sketchbook pages that depict a blank-faced protagonist, in a style reminiscent of Antoine de-Saint Exupéry’s illustrations for The Little Prince, in various confrontations with monsters and villains, alone except for his trusty backpack. They may be cartoonish, like a schoolboy’s notebook doodles, but they, like The Little Prince, conveyed a mature level of loneliness and, perhaps, persecution.

In Pak Him’s comics of Ise being harassed in Christchurch and Barcelona, we see the aggressive speech of the natives being expressed in English (“Shut up! Give all your money!”) while Ise’s own thought bubbles are in Kelantanese dialect, as if he’s reasserting his own identity to himself like a protective talisman against his foreign aggressors. It seems that no matter how far you go, you can never escape yourself, because other people won’t let you. As also explored in a previous review, these encounters with the foreign can have the unwitting effect of making a person retreat even further into their native national identity, thus complicating the idea of patriotism.

Travelling requires a willingness and bravery to step beyond the boundaries of approved guide maps and seek out a country’s underbelly in order to get a fuller sense of its character. And in return, as Pak Him’s comics show, the other must also be willing to invite you in.

This is the first in a two-part review of Ise’s solo project, Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan, which ran at A+ Works of Art from Dec 17, 2020 to Jan 9, 2021. Look out for Part 2 next week. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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