Tue, Apr 07, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Shared histories

Malaysian artist Au Sow-yee’s exhibition at Taipei’s Guling Street Avant-garde Theater examines the lingering legacies of colonialism and the Cold War in Asia

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

A view of Habitation and Elsewhere: Image as Instrument, an exhibition by Malaysia artist Au Sow-yee.

Photo courtesy of Au Sow-yee

A newsreel produced during the 1950s and 1960s by Patha News, a now defunct British news agency, shows images relating to Malaysia: Fijians volunteering to fight on the side of British and Commonwealth forces against the Malayan Communist Party. Another film depicts a Malaysian female field hockey team donning traditional attire on stage as a form of evening entertainment after a day of matches in Australia.

In Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others (鼠鹿、漢都亞、獠牙王、巫師、迷航的飛機與其他), a single-channel video, these images are juxtaposed with scenes from popular Malaysian movies made during the same period, which tell folktales of shamans, mythical creatures and witchcraft.

The installation forms part of Habitation and Elsewhere: Image as Instrument (居所與他方:影像測量計劃), the latest edition of Experimental Media Art Festival in Taiwan (EX!T, 台灣國際實驗媒體藝術展), which is designed as an artist platform focusing on experimental cinema, video and new media art, currently on display at Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre (牯嶺街小劇場).

Composed of three video installations by Au Sow-yee (區秀詒), as well as a series of forums and film screenings, the exhibition examines the history, myths and collective memories of Malaysia as a modern nation-state.

A Malaysian of Chinese descent, Au is an experimental filmmaker and contemporary artist educated in Taiwan and the US. Known for her live cinema performances using film projectors and homemade devices, Au began a new artistic direction in 2013, when the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition defeated the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia’s general election.

“It was the year when the opposition coalition was believed to be more likely to win. Yet the ruling political force has remained in power since [Malaysia’s] independence [in 1957]... I felt that I should do some work in relation to my birthplace,” says Au, who is based in Taipei.

Exhibition notes

What: Habitation and Elsewhere: Image as Instrument (居所與他方:影像測量計劃)

When: Until April 26

Where: Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre (牯嶺街小劇場), 2, Ln 5, Guling St, Taipei (台北市牯嶺街5巷2號)

Admission: Free


The artist soon launched Mengkerang, an ongoing project that centers on a fictitious place called Mengkerang, where people of different races peacefully coexist.

Scholar and art critic Guo Jau-lan (郭昭蘭), who curates the show, says that by studying the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War, Au’s work can serve as a point of reflection and reference for Taiwan and other modern states in Asia that have experienced a similar history.

“As a Taiwanese, I can recognize in Au’s work the same anxiety and insecurity that surround the issue of identity... Together, we can address those messy issues that were left untackled during the process of modernization,” Guo says.

“We [Taiwanese] ... often forget there are other Asian nations — like Indonesia and the Philippines. We always look to the West, and the world map we draw is very unbalanced,” she says.

In A Day Without Sun in Mengkerang, Au invited several participants from different ethnic groups to describe Mengkerang as a means of examining the theme of identity. Each participant narrates a story using as a framework three characters selected from Malaysian elementary school textbooks. The interviews are compiled into what looks like a documentary film, portraying the imaginary genesis of a nation.

By juxtaposing images from British newsreel and Malaysian fantasy movies, a genre that has largely disappeared because, Au says, it’s frowned upon in Islam, Sang Kancil, Hang Tuah, Raja Bersiong, Bomoh, the Missing Jet and Others sheds light on how official ideologies and national myths are constructed and manufactured.

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