Yes, you’re alone! Now what?
Review by Ellen Lee

Screenshot of “This Is _____”, ANJU

To the question, “Am I Alone?” that makes up the title of a recent virtual exhibition jointly curated by artist Ranerrim and Ipoh-based art collective Project Rabak, my answer is: Yes, you are! But so is everyone else, and the alleviation of loneliness relies on an awareness of this.

The coronavirus and global lockdown only exacerbated an existing malaise of loneliness and alienation amongst younger people, which this exhibition could have gone a bit further in recognising. Yes, we are all obviously alone, now more than ever, but the bigger and more pressing question is: what will you do with the realisation of your own loneliness? Will you turn to nihilistic hatred or indolent solipsism, or is there another path, one in which individual loneliness is taken as an empathy gateway into the suffering of others? Or further yet: as a premise for collective solidarity against the alienation of capitalism and Silicon Valley techno-dominance?

There was a curatorial focus on self-portraiture, which seemed strange – one would think that, in order to answer the titular question, the artists should look outwards, not further inwards. This focus was inspired by Ranerrim’s fascination with the story behind Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self-portrait without beard” (1889), a painting the renown Dutch post-impressionist artist sent to his mother shortly before committing suicide.

Screenshot of “Bayangan Ahli Silap Nujum”, Adam Ummar

But the exhibition also had an internationalist approach, featuring works by young, emerging artists from Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan, thus resulting in a border-defying diversity of definitions for the concepts of the self and loneliness. Adam Ummar’s “Bayangan Ahli Silap Nujum” and Liflatul Muhtaroom’s “Kembali ke dalam” drew on themes from psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes and the mystical. Kentaro Yokouchi’s “Indigo Phase” series presented four shades of blue, which ironically reminded me that Pantone’s colour of the year for 2020 had been “Classic Blue”, a colour “instilling calm, confidence, and connection”. They hadn’t anticipated the chaos that would ensue. Jun Kitazawa’s “DUAL WINDOW” series turned the window into the soul outwards onto the world, but retained the artist’s subjective viewpoint as a Japanese citizen living in Indonesia and absorbing cultural influences from both countries.

While they took a looser, more abstract route for interpreting the “self-portrait” prompt, it is interesting that most of the women artists in the show interpreted it more or less literally. In these artworks, the experience of loneliness takes on an aesthetic, performative quality, and the artists have a dissociative sense of selfhood where identity is closely linked to appearances. “I Sculpt Myself,” an animation by CC Kua, shows the artist spending such a long time creating and modifying a sculpture of herself that the sculpture seems to take over her identity in the end, which I read as a lighthearted Dorian Gray-esque parable for the effects that excessive self-contemplation can have on a person – gradually all that’s left is a scrambled mess. Is there any personhood beyond persona, or is all life a stage?

Screenshot of “杨, In The Shadow of Character”, Kara Yong

Am I Alone? opens up on Kara Yong’s “Identity, An Optical Delusion” series, in which Yong artistically interprets her Chinese name using imagery inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper, a link that felt rather tenuous. The latter is about sexist domestic abuse, while the oppressive force in Yong’s work is not a specific person, but rather the abstract weight of “social conformity” that everyone has to deal with, whether man, woman, or other. ANJU’s “This Is ___” and “I Am Not Really Sure Who I Am Anymore” also deals with societal norms for women and the artist’s own experiences navigating these norms, expressed with looping GIFs (like the looping time of lockdown) and psychedelic-Cubist renditions of parts of her body. In Yong’s painting, “杨, In The Shadow of Character”, she signals madness or repression with a depiction of herself making silly faces; ANJU does the same, with the GIFs showing her pulling her hair, or flicking her eyes left and right. The mistake here is to confuse millennial boredom and lockdown idleness for systemic oppression or “madness”. Although they might be forgiven, considering how female melodrama has been celebrated in wider culture: Tracey Emin, a leading contemporary artist, recently displayed an “Insomnia Room” in her 2019 solo at The White Cube gallery in London that was essentially just a room of blown-up selfies.

Andita Purnama Sari Putri’s “Clouds Number 11” was another melodramatic spectacle, but one where the melodrama felt more deliberate. In this short video, the artist sits in a sepulchral fridge, dressed in white with dramatic hair and make-up, fridge-mist blowing about as she sings a sort of bossa-nova rendition of Heart’s Alone while massaging a dragonfruit that symbolically represents a lover’s heart, which she eats at the end. One of the most famous female archetypes is the diva, whose entire life is her art, as captured by the American singer-songwriter-poet Lana Del Rey in her poem, “Salamander”: “I love you / but you don’t understand me / I’m a real poet / my life is my poetry.” Divas thrive off melodrama, and so they will always be alone, because that is the condition that fuels their art.

Screenshot of “Clouds Number 11”, Andita Purnama Sari Putri

Divas aside, it seems evident that the more one thinks about one’s self, the lonelier one will feel. Returning back to Adam Ummar’s work, we might consider how the millennial hype over tarot cards and astrology (all of which are referenced in Adam’s painting) can be contributing to this vanity. We are not like the medieval astrologers, using cards and astrology to divine predictions about the future or messages from God. Instead, we use these tools as prompts to talk about ourselves and listen to ourselves being described with different words for the same thing. Self-awareness is always good, but we must be careful that it doesn’t slide into self-absorption.

CC Kua’s animation touched on a certain truth. In the digital age, excessive self-contemplation can get boring, to both viewers and the artist’s own self. Do we really need young people spending more time thinking about themselves and how lonely they are? Everyone knows everyone else is lonely; everyone, except the most credulous, knows that selfies are deceptive, so either artists and curators need to push each other beyond isolation and self-absorption into something less lonely, or artists need to paradoxically push the medium of self-portraiture beyond the “self” part. I would have thought, and hoped, that the entire point of art is to be able to transcend one’s self, and if good enough, to live on in people’s minds even once the physical, temporal body has inevitably passed its time.

Screenshot of “I Sculpt Myself”, CC Kua

Am I Alone?, a group exhibition curated by Ranerrim and Projek Rabak, ran from Jan 3 to Feb 3, 2021, on the 3D virtual gallery platform ArtSteps.

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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