Objectifs hosted a panel discussion on Myth-making / Art-making in March 2019, as part of Stories That Matter: Myths. Read on for a recap of the panel which featured artists Zarina Muhammad, Nurul Huda Rashid, Daniel Hui and Loo Zihan, who also moderated the discussion.
What sorts of myths do you engage with in your respective art practices? How do these myths sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, intersect or intertwine, and what happens when they do? Under what circumstances do they do so?
Zarina: We’re all looking as myths as a social construct, as a cultural artefact. We’re also trying to destabilise certain ideas of knowledge and ways in which we understand things around us.
Nurul: For me it has a lot to do with myths that come with production, consumption, dissemination of images.
Zarina: I’m also interested in breaking certain binaries, that myths are an antithesis to modernity.
Nurul: I see the word “myth” as problematic because it’s assigned by an outsider looking at someone’s stories and practices and deeming it an antithesis to, for example, religion.
Daniel: I describe myself an agnostic questioning all the systems I was raised in, Chinese, middle-class, English-speaking, I was plugged into that one form of cultural narrative and at the same time I was raised Christian. When I was confirming my gay identity as a teenager, that immediately threw me out of these belief systems. It put me in a position where at one point I was in these systems and then I was suddenly thrown out so I can see both sides. I was at war with myself, full of skepticism, about creating yet another belief system or narrative in my film Snakeskin, even as I sought to subvert, which is a form of myth-making in itself.
Nurul: Art as a medium is itself problematic.
Zarina: Yes, how do you avoid using narrative as a prop for your art?
Zihan: I think in the face of the national myth-making machine, with its power and influence as propaganda, producing our own projects that probably reach only a limited group of people, It’s okay if we do produce certain myths too in our practice because it just adds another voice to the table, and adds multiplicity of perspectives. I don’t think the kinds of myths we produce are the kind of national propaganda films.
Daniel: Yes, though I’m also aware of my position as a Chinese, English-speaking male, which is also a position of power. The original idea for Snakeskin for me to just rhapsodize about Singapore over landscape images of Singapore but I felt uncomfortable that I was putting myself in a position of authority so I decided to include many other people of many different backgrounds. They are part of me and I am part of them as well.
Audience Member: How do you differentiate between myths and tall tales?
Daniel: I don’t actually differentiate between myths and tall tales. For example I first interviewed a political dissident who didn’t want to be in the film for fear of reprisal and because he was tired of telling his story. I sought his permission to fictionalise his character, wrote a script and then asked the actor to embellish according to his own details. So the final script became a combination of the historical figure, me and the actor. I felt it was important to give a space where people were free to express who they were, who they actually are or who they want to be.
Audience Member: I spoke with someone in Colombia who said “you all talk about magical realism, but for us it’s reality”. Do you find you can appropriate myths to an extent to tell a different story?
Nurul: I think appropriation has become both a good and bad word. Reclaiming as a position of power is important to me. My work looks at images of women in war. I want to dispel the notion that the visual image is enough, like with “Afghan Girl” by Steve McCurry. We still see her as that but we do not even know her name. When they recently found a few women one of whom could have been her, they had to do an iris examination to check. I found that sadly ironic, the first time she was photographed it was by someone looking into the camera. The second time was through the iris recognition. Sometimes the photograph helps to inoculate us from the reality of what actually was. We do not really care where something was happening, we always go “hashtag something”. Such images also become interchangeable, e.g. a photo from Palestine in the early 2000s is used to depict Syria in the current years.
Zihan: My project Queer Objects: an archive for the future (2016) involved from the public collecting objects that are indicative of the lived experiences of queer people in Singapore. I had items from around 60 contributors and there were fictional speculative descriptions accompanying it. Certain objects were construed as obscene and censored, so I had to find alternative ways to present them.
I was dealing with institutional bureaucracies and wondering how to deal with absences in a way or objects that are made invisible deliberately. I replaced them with vinyl shadows of their outlines. Another casualty of the installation was that it was initially conceived as a fluid archive that would be replaced with objects contributed by gallery visitors, and so the entire archive would be renewed over the period of the three months. That was changed in the final presentation. A lot of what I’ve been doing over the past few years is unpacking how I negotiated this incident and finding alternative ways to talk about it or around it. It ended up in a performance called Catamite (2019), which included reenacting a trial.
One of the myths I’m really interested in countering is the myth of 377A: the origins of when and how it was introduced to the Singapore legal system. It’s a little known fact that clause “A”, which specifically criminalises consensual sex between two males in a private area is something unique to Singapore: India, Hong Kong don’t have it. It was introduced in 1938 about four years before the Japanese Occupation. Part of my research has been finding artifacts and articles pertaining to a case where a British officer was found committing an “act of gross indecency” with a Malay prostitute. What were the anxieties and what was the political climate back then for them to introduce this?
Nurul: I like what you said about community. One of the things about myths is identifying who resonates with a particular myth, the community that was undermined. Especially if you look at structural things like religion, which controls a lot from sexuality to spaces to practices, you also see smaller communities of people who are separated. But the use of a myth can often bring them back together as well. Zihan, I really love your work because it’s a platform upon which people are able to recognise and identify what they actually believe in, their culture.
The act of repetition as well is important because it’s central to ensuring myths are passed on but at the same time it can also be blasphemous, like with images of women in war, it reproduces a harmful archetype. We keep seeing women all bloodied, crying.
On the occasion of Singapore’s bicentennial year and its commemoration: How does it affect your practice and positioning it in relation to the bicentennial?
Zihan: Something that really frustrated me were the statues standing besides Stamford Raffles. The refusal to talk about it is also not acknowledging the violence. But acknowledging the violence is also falling into a certain kind of trap laid out for us. How do we negotiate and counter at the same time not implicitly give it even more power than it should have on our everyday presence? When I shared a post on Facebook, I was asked, why are you giving this your energy and attention? There are better things in life you should be posting about.
Nurul: I think anger is so important, I’m all for anger because whenever we see an issue, we sweep it under the rug. But being angry about something means you’re acknowledging the violence and nuances that have happened. Many times, it’s not just about creating counter views or erasing something. We can’t just erase colonialism from our history, to erase that is also perpetuating violence. So it’s about navigating rage in relation to giving space or offering a voice to someone else. It requires a community. There needs to be a group of people who says yes this resonates with us, and how do we activate?
Zihan: Personally, how do you navigate with institutions? Particularly state institutions that have very little investment in such conversations, such as the censorship boards and educational institutions. How do you work within and present work at the museums, for example, while at the same time trying to counter or call them out on certain practices?
Zarina: One practice that I did try [Zarina recently exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum as part of President’s Young Talents 2018] was to open it up for certain responses and interventions. Whether it works or not, it tries to open up that space.
Nurul: I am an educator, and I always try to push students to talk about their communities and to talk about things in terms of their language. Often, when you look at students at art schools, they’re given this institutionalised idea of how to create art as well, which means that their work is going to be produced to be able to exist in museum spaces, means that it is “institution speak”. I know it’s kind of negligible, but it’s about how you then introduce to students the ways in which they think about negotiation, ideas of how to translate. The classroom for me often becomes my “decolonial playground”.
Daniel: I think maybe I’m lucky in that I don’t have to deal with institutions when I make my films. I make my films quite independently, and I try not to think about the state at all because I don’t really want to fall into the state and anti-state binary. I make the film that I want, and the film is submitted to the censorship board. In a way it’s a privileged position because I’m pushing this to the organisations that show my films, for example.
Nurul: I guess for me it’s a little of the opposite. Every time I take a cab I have Chinese uncles asking me, are you Singaporean? On the one hand, do I need to be aware of the structure? On the other hand there are people reminding me of the structure like hey, these are your identity markers. So that’s why for me anger is often a constant because everyday is a constant struggle to explain.
Daniel: From what I’ve seen of your work you’ve really been asserting your individuality, it cannot just be reduced to aggression or anger. That’s something I admire.
Nurul: I was watching X-Men and Magneto said “True focus is between rage and serenity”. I found that so beautiful and poignant because serenity is also needed in order to balance anger out.
For me, doing my research on women in war and constantly looking at such images was quite exhausting and psychologically it was really hard. I started this project in 2014 but always had the luxury of switching off. But when I did my studio residency at Objectifs last year, I had to face it all day. I had people come in and shared with them, it was also a way to share that anger or sadness, it was an act of solidarity as well. Through the process of translating, annotating, I could create spaces that go beyond just the image itself. It was a bit of self-care.
What are your own myths as an artist or of how others perceive you as an artist?
Zarina: It seems inevitable. We can’t help it because it’s very visual, based on markers that create assumptions, and we can play with it. Hopefully their image of the work is not cursory and superficial.
Nurul: It’s also about being visible, the art world is not just about a particular group of people who create work but who are the other bodies who inhabit the space?
You can take it to your advantage though. I like being one of the few women of colour in photography, though now I think there are more women, and women of colour as well. I’m glad to be there, to play that role of being visible enough.
How people interact with the work, that’s also up to the audience, it’s not just up to us to represent everything, the discourse has to come from the audience as well.
Daniel: I think I’m a bit selfish, when I say I’m at war with myself it’s quite true. Snakeskin went round the documentary circuit with some success but it also got some negative feedback from those who follow my work. I’m aware of the myth of the artist, and am in conflict with that.
Zarina: I’ve found art to be a way in which I could distance myself. When I’m doing research, maybe five people will read the paper. I’ve a kind of self imposed guilt about how I translate this, I was always fixated on this. In a way showing it via art was freeing in some way, I was able to employ polyphonic voices.
Are there dangers in conflating different kinds of myths?
Audience Member: I wonder if it’s helpful also to be more precise in how we’re talking about myths. Sometimes there’s a lot of false equivalence about the kinds of myths we’re talking about. Propaganda is a myth, artist’s myth, etc. and I think there’s something dangerous when all of these are too easily stitched into the same thing. We see how that kind of rhetoric becomes used against us. I found sometimes binaries can be quite helpful in orienting, for example, myth as opposed to religion, myth as opposed to image, myth as opposed to history. My sense is that each of you is also using the word “myth” in quite different ways.
Daniel: I view history as a kind of myth, narratives inevitably draw people together and are there to be transmitted whether intergenerationally or otherwise. A lot of our communities and societies are built around myths, narratives, to be exact propaganda. As a filmmaker, I’m always dealing very directly with narratives, even in documentaries and landscape films. For me, narratives and myths — narratives / myths — are very inherent in my work.
Zihan: To be more specific, my understanding of myth is a subset of what Daniel has said. Talking about myth as something that has taken on a mythic quality, where you don’t even question whether it’s true or false, take it as fact, something you take for granted. What we are doing here in our practices is bringing attention to the minute details and returning to different voices and refusing to take these narratives for granted, interrogating parts of them and deconstructing parts of that.
Nurul: To add on to that I see myth as a method as well, a kind of formal structure anyone can undertake no matter what medium, be it through translation, annotation, performance. Identifying it as a method is something important because based on whichever position someone takes, they can use it to respond, to articulate in a certain way. But at the same time it also means that when something is a method, hegemonic structures like powers of governance will be able to manipulate it, whatever kind of method you have.
Audience Member: Does a myth become a method when a group of people start to believe in it?
Audience Member: That’s my curiosity, my resistance to the word “myth” is when it becomes expanded to the point where it’s not generative, I could get a sense of how you were working around it in each of your practices.
Daniel: I’m going to propose what might be my even more provocative sense of what a narrative is. Every single time a narrative is iterated, it is already believed in. There is a reason why people reiterate something and there’s some amount of faith, even if it’s a fleeting kind of faith. We can see how this ties back to cinema. Every time someone says something on screen, you have to have some kind of faith in order to even be in the same room as this image.
Nurul: Like agreeing to the story.
Daniel: Even if you then reject the story.
Nurul: It goes back to community. Who are the people who are believing this, who are the people who are challenging it or trying to rebuild or reclaim it? For me I see it as impossible to talk about myth just as narrative. That in itself has to be contained in a particular group of people, that’s when it takes the form of a myth. Once again I find this word problematic because people might call it belief, religion…
Zarina: Myth as stories is perhaps similar to this topic. What is accepted, what people listen to becomes a story. When we talk about translatability we can also think about translatability in the region particularly between different languages. What gets handed down, regionally, generationally…?
What sort of strategies do you adopt for the practice of the self in order to negate these myths?
Zihan: There was something I was reading that was quite influential, this notion of “counter conduct”, as a form of letting yourself be the conduit to power, letting power flow through you without affecting your corpus and your psyche. It was introduced by Foucault perhaps around 1984 in one of his lectures and then completely abandoned. You perform in a certain way with this introspective almost monastic kind of introspection that you have.
Especially since we are operating within a state that specifically likes to pin you down as an individual, it doesn’t like for you to be able to even gather, insistently pins the responsibility to the individual artist, arts manager that applied for license. How do you negotiate with the power and circumstances where there are very few communities or collectives of artists operating today in Singapore? I think that is reflective of the funding structures, or the way the state controls the arts community and the market.
Nurul: I don’t see myself as an artist in an institution, mostly because most of the work I’ve been doing is shown to circles of those I know and those who are interested in the work. I cannot view myself as artist vs. myself as Nurul Huda Rashid since that comes with all the visibility of being Muslim but also the confusion of being Singaporean, all of that. With regards to my work, the artist part almost becomes a bit unnecessary, since a lot of my work is based on gender so it’s about me as a woman relating to the work itself. At the same time, currently my work is more on women in war but progressively I’m looking more at women and violence, that becomes my main position: me as woman responding to these images of women as well. And at the same time my position as woman in relation to my religion, my family, my sociality, myself, is also very differentiated. So the self-care comes with the need to embody all of that or hold close all of that.
I just chatted with visual artist Fyerool Darma. We were talking about translation and he said “Why do we have to use the word ‘we’? Why can’t we remove that word ‘we’?” The idea of reclaiming is you’re trying to mark it in relation to someone else. Why can’t we just claim that story and bring it to the canon? There are all these pluralities, different selves, and how do I acknowledge each and every one of them? Every time I look at my work, there’s a different perspective to it.
Zihan: It reminds me of “double consciousness”.
Nurul: Multiple, quadruple consciousnesses.
Zarina: Our own work as a looking glass to ourselves. In some ways the work is about us as well, you can’t really make that distinction.
Nurul: It’s also about compassion, to respect the stories of the people whom you’re working with, part of self-care for me is being able to make room for someone else’s stories.
What is the lifetime for a myth? Does a myth expire or should it expire, if it is no longer serving its purpose? How do we engage people who are neither institutions, the state nor artists with myths?
Zihan: From what I understood from Daniel, he says we shouldn’t play into this idea of artists as counternarratives. And from Nurul’s strategy and my own, how do you teach someone you do not know? It is to empower them through classrooms, workshops, conversations like this, instead of declaring another myth that’s a counter myth. Sometimes we do this through our art practice, the very nature of myth-making is art-making of sorts. But also being very aware that we don’t create a space that reproduces the violence the state produces. We are producing through a questioning environment, through creating spaces of interrogation.
Nurul: There are different kinds of archives, like institutional archives, personal archives. So when we talk about retiring myths it also has to come from the community. But that also takes us back a step because how do you give the community the tools to be reflective about myths, how they can identify something as a myth as opposed to a truth, or history. One myth I’d really love to retire is the myth of Raffles. It has to be the masses that mobilise, it comes with being able to be educate and be aware. There are also people who produce knowledge who create myths.
Audience Member: We’re wired so that if we see something and have no prior knowledge of what that is, we most likely take it for what it is. So sometimes I think we also need myths, people need them to make sense of their lives. Some of these things, I think will never change. I don’t think all artists will perpetuate knowledge and teach the masses. It’s really about telling your own personal stories and hopefully there’s some kind of connection that impacts them and moves them personally. If we just turn and think a little bit more about individuals who see and are moved by art, this way to me makes sense.
Daniel: I always have a problem with the word masses, with separating the artist from the public, I feel like we are very much the public as well and it’s important to not forget that. And also to not separate the state from the public because especially in Singapore they are very much intertwined, inseparable. For me especially when I make work, it’s less helpful for me to think of myself as teaching somebody something or trying to change somebody’s mind. I don’t think I’m that different from that person, so I don’t think I’m in a position to tell them something new.
But maybe I also have a more pessimistic view of how narrative, myths are circulated. I have often been in many arguments with people trying to change their political positions etc and I don’t think I’ve ever had a single such conversation where I’ve changed someone’s mind in an argument. I think ideas and narratives kind of take hold of people… kind of like memes. To me especially living in the US and seeing how the Trump era happened, I think we always forget there’s something called random chance and sometimes it just happens without us knowing why, because the idea of humanity on the planet is so much bigger and when we’re thinking of changing an individual’s mind, tides change without us even knowing. It’s scary but to me also closer to the truth.
The only thing I can do, and not even something that I’m consciously willing to do, is to put something out there and that will hopefully have its own life, one among many ideas that can circulate and hopefully catch fire somewhere — or not, maybe just even with this room or the screening room.
Nurul: I feel that yes it’s about creating for the masses but there’s so much responsibility that comes with that. Why are we having a repeat of the same kinds of photographs to tell the same kinds of stories? Is society so amnesiac that they will forget? Before my project on women in war I was doing a series on hijab and looking at my work after a year, I asked myself why I was replicating the image of the faceless hijabi, why am I adding on further to that story? I think it’s the same with every kind of community work as well, there are certain kinds of visuality, disability. Aside from just creating, I think as an artist there is a responsibility to think about when you’re putting something out there. Once you do there’s no way you can take it back. If you see the Internet as a kind of online archive, how do you ensure you are putting stuff “in” responsibly, also not just adding on to the similar stereotypical narrative of people or rehashing the same thing?
Daniel: This responsibility is also not exclusive to artists, it’s also shared by everyone.
Nurul: It’s also part of thinking before doing the work. But yes it’s also about the spectator: how can they be responsible in their consumption of images, information, anything.
Zihan: I’d like to draw this productive session to a close by clarifying that the radical pedagogical intent I’m describing is not about me transmitting knowledge that you should receive, but is exposing the fact that I do not know this, and can you teach me what it is? It’s not an altruistic pedagogy. Thank you for coming down to join us today.