Reflection on an Art Writing Journey
Review by Farah Dianputri

I went back to look at the first piece I submitted to qualify for my arts writing mentorship and I was pleasantly surprised. It was a reflection on the Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam exhibition.

I wrote then: On entering the Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam exhibition you’re confronted with a timeline documenting the origins of photography. Bombarded with dense clusters of ‘key facts’ swarming the wall, where you go from here is anyone’s guess.

On a first walk-about, the exhibition feels like you’re rummaging through a family album. We’re in a box you found in a relative’s basement that hasn’t been opened in a couple of decades. You might even be thumbing through that eccentric uncle’s RTM records, or at a flea market stall with iconic postcards of the natural world and the turn-of-the-century towns. Nostalgia for old Malaya and early Malaysia. But let’s take off those tinted lenses and look closer.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. There’s the ever-present threat that succumbing to it can foster a collective disremembering of the real experiences and lives mainstream history kept on the margins. The section of the exhibition on ‘Complicating a View of Primitive Life’ did very little to complicate it. The postcards of naked ‘oriental’ women and a patronising open book display on the ‘archetypal Iban woman’ featured in the exhibition are stark reminders of the reality of that past. The wall-text, which is supposed to be our crutch to guide us to some understanding, falters and we’re left to process the shock of falling face flat.

The distance between the artefacts and their explanation seems like an irreconcilable rift. Which it shouldn’t be. We’re writing our own history here, not someone else’s. Are we embarrassed of our personal attachment or culpability? Did our education condition us that this was the only way you could talk about it: by being calm, cold and detached?

What does your feed and a museum have in common? Fractions of people’s lives and stories handpicked and summarised. Haphazardly assembled into hashtag categories. I can only hope more would be said about the treatment of our visual history.

It took me a while to realise that the feeling that sat uneasily with me was a sense of wanting. It wasn’t a vitriol hatred, but a criticism as an act of care. The idea that we could do so much better than the pitfalls of traditional curating.

My critical writing has evolved a lot since I first wrote about Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam. I’ve noticed the themes in criticism I gravitate to and how that has changed. I began my art writing mentorship thinking I was going to produce works similar to this, solely on exhibitions and fine artists. Yet the further I got into it (and the more precarious the COVID situation became), I found myself veering into far-flung peripheries of what is rarely considered art, especially in the digital space.

Some advice I’d want to give to myself six months ago: don’t take yourself so seriously. Understand that criticism is, above all, a conversation to explore the ways we can do better. Be playful, you’re not writing university essays anymore. Find ways to grow beyond that. Be persistently curious and reach out to people, because ultimately what makes art art is connectivity. A net that strings together the art, the artists, the critics, the casual viewer and the zeitgeist. If your writing can help bridge these nodes, that’s what matters the most.

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.

Farah Dianputri is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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