Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam: An Overdue Review of The Exhibit That Changed My Life
Review by Lim Jack Kin

CW: This article contains descriptions of, and allusions to violence.

To be honest, I should have written this six months ago. That’s when I was first assigned to travel to ILHAM Gallery and view Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam in person, where my insights and observations would determine if I got a place in an exciting, fancy arts writing program. (Spoiler alert: I got in, which is why you’re reading this). Curated by K. Azril Ismail, Hoo Fan Chon, and Simon Soon, the exhibit attempts to form a “survey of the cultures that developed around photography and its relationship to Malaysia.” Though the exhibit ended last year, it was recently turned into a virtual tour, which you can navigate like you’re on Google Street View, and remains free for the time being. During its original run, it gave me one of the most intense, punch-in-the-gut, heart-crawling-up-my-throat experiences I’ve ever had at an art gallery, and revisiting this exhibit in its online form might give you that feeling too, if you’re willing to stick with it long enough.

Accessed through ILHAM’s website, Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam features over 1,400 photographs and artefacts which cover an 80-year period from the 1900s-1980s. The breadth and scale of the work here is dizzying—from photos of indigenous people taken by old colonial overlords, to glamour shots of sex workers, to family photographs, postcards, biographical pieces, and magazines—but it’s difficult to navigate. Collections aren’t arranged by time period, but seemingly by specific concepts or practices. Framed family photos might line one wall to illustrate Malaysian ideals of family and leisure, while commissions from old photography studios might fill a nearby table. There’s so much material to get through that it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Though it’s not a “history of photography”, as its curators are clear to specify, the accompanying plaques are factual, academic, and museum-like, commenting on the subjects of its work from an anthropological distance that dampens the experience.

If it seems like these are a lot of complaints for an exhibit that I’m still recommending, well… yeah. There are flaws in the curation and presentation of these photographs, from the glut of material to the level of editorial silence in analysing what that material implies, but that didn’t stop me from having a very profound personal moment.

I was with my girlfriend in the exhibit’s dark movie-viewing room, sitting on a hard wooden bench, where a documentary played. It was Mahen Bala’s The Lost Photographs of Sultan Ismail, a short film about our fourth King and his photography hobby. One minute of the film was devoted to his experience in the aftermath of the May 13 riots, when His Royal Highness had ordered a curfew. For a few agonizing seconds, the photographs he had taken of an empty Jalan Batu, with shuttered shophouses and abandoned vehicles, played onscreen. I gasped and reached across the SOP-mandated bench gap for my girlfriend’s hand, because all my life I had grown up with stories from my mother about the things she went through that day, in 1969, as a 7-year-old girl. I knew that about one kilometre behind His Royal Highness, my mother was hiding in the dark from the horror that was breaking out all around her.

HRH Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah took these photos. Somewhere behind him, my mother was hiding in an empty theatre building. Image taken from documentary.

My grandmother ran a candy store in the old Capitol Theatre building, just down the road. When the violence erupted, she grabbed her daughter and took refuge with a number of strangers in an unused side room. Afraid to leave the premises, they stayed overnight, and one of Mom’s relatives snuck downstairs to their store to get food. Stuck in that room, they ate chocolate bars in the dark for dinner. Mom remembers random, indiscriminate shootings at buildings whose lights were on and being walked down the street by Grandma with her eyes covered. She caught glimpses of something red littering the road; as a child, she convinced herself they were just mangled chicken parts.

After that, I spent an hour revisiting all the photographs and began to understand the stories trapped inside them. I saw a trans woman taking charge of her own representation, colonial subjects being commanded to pose, the political economy of sex work, the conspicuous absence of Malaysian-Indian people as photographic subjects or camera-owners or studio operators. I saw who had power, the power to take photographs, the power to buy equipment and go on vacations, the power to walk the streets without fear. Wallace Shawn, in his one-person-play “The Fever”, writes about the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism like this:

“A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph contains its history [...]”

At first, these photographs seemed to be stale, lifeless relics, but slowly, they began to speak their histories to me, and I understood how deeply entwined my destiny was with theirs. Almost five decades after May 13, my mother asked all her children to stay home the night of Malaysia’s 14th General Election. Not to go out, not to celebrate, and especially not to provoke anybody. The traumas of the past reach out to touch us today; certainly for my mother and grandmother, who are still alive and well, but also for me, even if all I feel from that touch is a shiver down my back and an uneasy pit in the stomach. It forever changed the way I saw art.

You know what happened when I tried to revisit that documentary in the virtual exhibit? Nothing. I couldn’t get “inside” the viewing room or access the video.

All that’s left of the movie viewing room is a teasing photograph and a bunch of plaques. Image taken from virtual tour.

These aren’t the only problems with viewing the exhibit online. The distorted, fish-eye-ish panorama photographs and step-by-step viewing coupled with a white balance issue that bathes the gallery in a sickly greenish-yellow light makes for a strange and confusing visit. I got lost more than once, and had to rely on my in-person memory of ILHAM’s layout to find out where I was going. A guided tour would have been helpful, if only to give one a sense of narrative flow, and to help visitors get through all of the material without missing any of it.

"Navigating the exhibit virtually is a painstaking, step-by-step process. Image taken from virtual tour."

I can’t tell you if you’re going to have a great time at Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam. So much has been lost and muddied through its upload to ILHAM’s website, to say the least about the flaws that were already there. But it’s possible you might feel what I felt, maybe from another photograph. Heck, maybe at another exhibit, one that has its own flaws and failures but manages to strike you with a permanent, white-hot intensity all the same.

It’s a beautiful, terrifying feeling to behold, and it’s what makes art so important. It’s like wearing glasses for the first time. I hope you find it soon.

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.

Lim Jack Kin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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