How to leave town in a diseased world: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part II)
Review by Ellen Lee

Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan is a joyfully disordered tuk-tuk of a show that weaves us through the streets of Bangkok, but… Wait, why are we in Bangkok again?

Under-appreciated and overlooked within his own country, the Kelantanese-born Ise sought out more opportunities for residencies and showcases abroad, and it feels like a great ironic twist that his first solo showcase in Malaysia (which he was part of planning before his death in July 2019) is essentially a travel guide to another country. Amidst Ise’s many drawings of the sights and sounds of Bangkok, the only mentions of Malaysia are in the comics by Ibrahim Hamid (Pak Him), commissioned by Ise, of the discrimination that Ise faced abroad for being Malaysian. It’s not enough that the walls of the exhibition are already dedicated to another country – no, he needed the comics as well to show how unfortunate it is to be Malaysian on the international stage!

Adding to the mystery is the exhibition’s title, Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan, meaning “Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, Equals” in Malay, which has no discernible relation to the theme of travelling.

A+ Works of Art’s exhibition text explains that the title was an analogy for Ise’s artistic practice, one of tinkering with different methods to produce similar results to certain canonical genres in art history. In this light, the project can be interpreted as a contemporary Ise-style take on exotic, colonial landscape paintings of the past, of the sort that England’s Tate Britain is now under fire for displaying.

Alternatively, the title could be interpreted as an analogy for the mental arithmetics of national identity, especially when abroad. Those who have travelled to cultures very foreign to one’s own will relate to this compulsion to translate one’s self into another culture in order to be better understood or accepted. This translation usually takes the form of subtracting or dividing bits of one’s self that stand out too much, but it can also manifest in a reactive doubling down and multiplication of one’s native national or ethnic identity in compensation or challenge, as we see in certain diaspora art. (And the sum of all this equals…?)

On a larger scale, it is also a question of where particulars of national identity can fit within the devouring maw of the global art market, with its international mega-events like biennales and art fairs. Whether Ise succeeded in being regarded as an artist in his own right on the global stage, or if he, like so many “third-world” artists, was similarly treated by the border agents of the art world as a racialised token to fulfil diversity quotas, is for someone with much more direct experience with Ise to say. What can be said for him is that, everywhere he went, he attempted to break out of imaginary frameworks and create environments that fostered intimacy and vulnerability through cross-cultural exchange. In this light, it then makes sense why Ise might use his first solo project in Malaysia to deflect attention onto another country instead.

One of the takeaways from the project, and Ise’s practice in general, is that the experience of travelling is worth the money and the risks, because stagnancy would have an even worse impact on one’s art. Other artists reference foreign cultures in their works too, but with an aura of worldly refinement, often keeping a certain subtle distance to avoid appearing as too much of a “tourist”. But Ise is the opposite – evidently obsessed with travelling and poking his nose into other people’s fridges. Based on Pak Him’s comics, it seems he was the sort of tourist that stuck out like a sore thumb, being rather large in stature, and with futuristic goggle-glasses that made him look bug-eyed. Which is to say: he was a sincere tourist, not looking to abandon his own identity for another, nor to confirm a bias by travelling to “see how the other side lives” either. He was searching for the magical portals into the worlds of other people. His Bangkok drawings overwhelm the cheap, photocopied maps they’re printed on, which contain the tourist traps that marketers and developers might want to steer him towards, and instead attempt to uncover a more genuine and direct experience of Bangkok.

Of course, the project came at a rather poignant point in time when not just artists but the entire global population is facing a pandemic that bars them from travelling, with no clear deadline in sight for when borders might open again.

In 2021, the world seems full of unknown terrors, such as a novel coronavirus that could just be passing through a wet-market unnoticed, and suddenly the very thing that makes a culture unique – the prevalence of wet-markets, for example – becomes a target of abuse from others. This, on top of extant violence, corruption, racism, and miscellaneous other evils, makes us feel like we need to protect ourselves from the world, with measures like a physical or metaphorical mask. Ise knew that art thrives in unsanitary and unpredictable spaces, the wet-markets of the world and of the mind, hence why he never let his bad experiences abroad deter him from stacking up stamps in his passport. For now, we have to keep safe and avoid each other, but only so that we can rush right back into the dirt and muck of the foreign and unknown as soon as possible – to add, subtract, multiply, and divide into new sums. Life is short.

This is the second 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. For Part 1, see here.

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.

Share this article
Copyright © 2021 Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) | Terms of Service 
Generic Popup