When you find your way back up to where the adults are, waves of voices ripple through the crowd. You cannot see where the crowd begins and where it ends. There is too much here for your camera to capture and still you push your arm up, get on tip-toes and holding your camera you click several times. It shows you what you cannot see – heads and bodies. People and beyond them, more people. But it cannot show you what you feel – rapture. Just behind you, you see an old man who must be in his eighties, about 5ft tall, in slippers, pants and a shirt, standing with lips pursed, his gaze steady. He never looks at you, even though you stare. He seems frail, but that is because you overestimate your strength. You have an urge to call him ‘grandfather’. You do it inside and you send him love for no reason whatsoever.
Next to you, a man in his fifties with salt-and-pepper hair starts chatting to you. He laughs, he nods his head tentatively, uncertainly. He is sure of a win for the party, he wishes for a win, he is sure, but it is anyone’s guess. Guesses take the force of conviction. And another man, also in his fifties, joins in. This other man shakes his head…”they think we’re stupid. They treat us like we can’t think,” he says. He shakes his head again, disappointment, anger and defiance moving like light and shadow across his face. You feel their conviction and desire like it is a thing being birthed, a thing that gestates for four or five years, and emerges for a short-lived and glorious life. A lepidoptera with an even shorter life span – ten day, a few weeks. They’re handsome you think, and you wonder about their lives – where do they live? What do they do? Who do they love? What do they wish?
In front of them, four younger guys, to you they look like boys, but they must be young men. You are not in their circle but you are just at its periphery and you feel the intimacy of what they have created – intimacy you would not have felt had you stood behind them at the cinema to buy tickets for some summer blockbuster movie you will not remember. Intimacy that would have been sorely absent if you and they were in line in some neon-lit mall purchasing a product – a thing you think will mitigate the frustration but which only serves to distract you. It’s here and now you remember the dance floor and the punk concerts. They are not punk kids. That is not it. It is the sweat on the boy’s neck and the way the flood lights cast his profile in sharp relief – the way this brings him closer to you than any other circumstance might have. You envy them their intimacy and yet, you partake in it quietly because here you can. Because here, no one cares. This is punk. When you thrust your fists in the air and shout and whistle again, using your language to speak the words ‘people’ and ‘power’, they look back at you and nod their heads and smile. Just like that, their circle opens and you are, if only for a split-second, invited in.
And from the rally, you hear a call for change, a call you’ve heard before. You are implored to participate and you are comforted and told not to fear the powers that be. The powers that be. A term you’ve used often but which means nothing. A power that has been for so long, it has ceased becoming. It has ceased creating, it has ceased evolving. You swell with pride and you are filled with feeling. It is almost erotic because you feel free. For one moment in time, flood-lit and sweating, you feel truly free. You realise you’ve been asking permission for as long as you’ve lived in this country and it has become such a habit that you forget you are doing it. This explains your outbursts. You ask and act, when what you want to do is act from a place of pure love. You love to love, you want to love and you want to be a part of something that creates the change you desire with patience and tenderness. You are exhausted by resisting. You long to go downstream, but you fear the stream and so you’ve carved out a world so specific to your own rendition of reality that it must necessarily exclude these larger, more complex, ambiguous pieces. You are a part of it, yet apart.
A few weeks ago, on a bright, sunny morning, a sunbird (nectariniidae or small passerine birds), yellow-breasted with a greenish back and purple-brown wings, flew through the window of our apartment, perched itself atop the stack of books on our coffee table, regarded the room for a moment and then flew out.
I was sitting at our work table and had a front-seat view to this marvelous and entirely inexplicable event. I resisted the urge to gasp or make any sound and, as you might see in a comic book or a cartoon for children, quickly covered my mouth with both hands.
That was the second instance of a visit that morning. Earlier, I was folding the laundry in the bedroom when a sunbird flew to the windowsill, perched there awhile and then flew away.
In both instances, I didn’t sense anything like fear, or disorientation.
Why would a sunbird fly right into your apartment and sit on your books?
We’re guilty of anthropomorphizing the birds, we admit. This is because about four months ago, a sunbird decided to build a nest on the hanging, arching foliage of a lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus evergreen subtropical plants in the family Gesneriaceae) hanging not far from the front door of my in-laws’ house. Their nests are lovely things. They are made on what seems to be a fragile vine and look to me like an almond-shaped eye, tilted vertically. With pointed ends, the hollow inside which they lay their eggs is a wondrous example of a warm cocoon.
We named her Mallika (the Tamil name for the jasmine flower, our favourite, and the flower of the gods in Hinduism). Whenever we visited, most often in the evening, she was done with her tasks for the day and sat in the nest, plump and utterly still. She was undisturbed by our goings and comings, the lights turning on and off at the drive-way and even by our irrepressible desire to stealthily walk by, stand not too far away and simply look at her. Sunbirds pollinate lipstick plants, so the choice was obvious and only natural. Nonetheless, it struck us as remarkable that she felt safe being so close to humans. We are, I suppose, less of a threat than the koel, the mynah, the oriole.
Mallika went on to give birth to three chicks. Our in-laws told us that a couple of days after this, they were about to head out in their car when these three sunbirds, Mallika’s offspring, appeared and began fluttering around their heads, twittering with great energy. They said it felt like they had come to say good bye. Mallika still came by and spent some evenings in that cocoon, quiet and still. We joked that it must be handful managing three young ones and that she probably came here to rest.
We got rather carried away with the story-telling. With this lovely gestation and birthing experience, we imagined Mallika letting her sister or friend know that this was a perfect spot in which to nest. We imagined another sunbird arriving after Mallika’s departure.
And of course, it happened. A new sunbird has arrived, the nest has been spruced up and of course, we’ve named her again. She is Manjula.
We’ve also bought a lipstick plant.
We’ve rescued all kinds of bizarre creatures from our house, most often late in the evening or at night, when we’ve only got the two standing lamps on. Yes, moths (often brown like bark, but also white as clouds), but also cicadas; once, a spider-moth, several wasps, a praying mantis and a grasshopper. In every instance, there is disorientation and sometimes, sadly, an injury. These are instances of short-lived lives; creatures seeking succor, desperate for the light, always drawn to it, creatures coming to a place to die. This is how it is: on a wall, just resting, on a wall, still, death around the corner. If they are on the ceiling, we leave them alone, knowing that the next morning we’ll find them on the floor, somewhere behind the couch or under the side table.
Sometimes, with the angrier ones (angry because they are on the defensive), rescue is difficult. So we have to capture them in tupperware, lightly place the cover and give it a gentle shake so that they’re a bit dizzy. Then, when they’re not sure where they are or what’s going on, we release them, usually into the bushes or onto a lush, healthy plant.
The most bizarre rescue (and possibly the most educational for me) was when we found a Banded Malayan coral snake near the door of another apartment in our small enclave. It was an infant, indistinguishable from a worm. But a worm is a worm and we thought it best to move it to the mud, grass and away from people’s feet and shoes.
But as it turned out, the worm was a coral snake. The tupperware exercise was nearly futile. A piece of paper to edge it into the tupperware also did not work and a twig, when dealing with something so slender and delicate, can be fatal.
Was it a newborn? Even then, the defensive instinct was perfectly operational. The coral snake flipped, belly-upped and suddenly, there it was: the luminous yellow and black stripes and the orange “head” with a black dot, signifying the eye. A new snake, a new version, a new avatar. This was its threatening posture: these colours were meant to evoke fear and also disorientation (the tail was now the head). This twisting, writhing dance continued for a while, so that it felt like an optical illusion: first a dull brown, worm-like snake, then a banded, bright, poisonous snake, back and forth.
It took a while, the neighbours got involved, people from upstairs peered down and watched and it all turned into a bit of an event.
We eventually managed to get it into the tupperware, where it continued to writhe.This moment in time, from capture to release, is a time in which I always feel a strange well of love. I have no way to tell this thing writhing or trembling inside this transparent box with the lid only lightly on (to let air in) that this is not an execution, but a rescue. Release is always a lovely moment. Of course, we have no idea what happens after that. We could very well be delaying an imminent death, or releasing them into the clutches of a more dangerous world, a predatory realm. We know all this. But this is how it is. Better that, than be trampled on, flicked, sprayed on with a chemical, or be stamped out with a rolled up newspaper by a human hand.
The snake was released into a wide, open field. We saw it hesitate and then move quickly through the undergrowth.
And Manjula just gave birth to two little ones.
Walking without purpose two days ago, I wandered into Art Plural Gallery on Armenian Street, remembering that the last time I wandered in, I discovered Fabienne Verdier and sat quietly at the sprawling upper floor of the gallery drinking in her vast canvases of calligraphy and abstract brush strokes generated with a fat brush the width of a large bucket rigged onto bicycle handles. A brush that I imagine looks like the stumpy tail of a large beast.
This time I discovered the works of Chun Kwang Young and once again, confronted with his works, I drifted back and forth, from one side to the other, back and forth again, as though in a trance, performing a walking meditation on an invisible grid on the gallery’s cement floor.
Chun Kwang Young began the series called “Aggregations” in 1995. It is a network of triangles, wrapped in mulberry paper. Known as hanji, mulberry paper is used in almost every aspect of daily Korean life: for wallpaper, window shades, for books and as wrapping for herbs and vegetables. It has a hardy, imperishable quality. The hanji used in Aggregations have fragments of text, much of it from schools books, exercise books etc. These jagged triangles (equilateral, isosceles and so on) sit side by side, are pushed into claustrophobic juxtapositions creating an almost forced harmony on the canvas (they must be side by side, whether it pleases them or not). They jut out, they give in and sink into the canvas, they push their way out again. Each piece seems alive.
The work bristles. From up close, texts seem to be in dialogue or in mid-debate, so that contestation and contradiction overwhelm the viewer. From a good distance, Aggregation 07-D132 (a name that makes me think of obscure solar systems, nebulae, mathematical equations) looks like a dense, concrete jungle bathed in the ocher hues of sunset. And because we’re in Singapore, I found myself imagining the city on this canvas also veiled in a smoky haze, so that the sharp, clear quality of light in the evening as the sun descends, is muddied and diluted, the colours spreading, choking instead of inspiring awe.
Writing is a funny business. Hours of researching on a flower, a type of food, or a street, is often condensed into a line, or a paragraph at most. The labour that goes into writing is often unseen.
With this sort of work, the labour is unmistakably evident. Speaking to the gallery staff, I was told that Chun maps where these three-dimensional foam triangles wrapped in hanji will be situated on the canvas. There is a skeletal structure, an outline. After that, these pieces are individually wrapped, painted and then glued on the canvas following the “map” the artist pre-sketches on the blank canvas.
It is impossible to guess how many hanji triangles are on each canvas (each piece is anywhere from 3cm x 5cm to 5cm x 7cm and the dimensions of Aggregations 07-D132 is 250cm x 205cm). As they say, “do the maths”. The labour itself overwhelms and were I able to read the textual fragments, I imagine hours going by as bizarre narratives emerge in one’s mind.
Up close, it also looks like an array of miniature gifts wrapped in paper and string. I had the desire to reach for one, to tug it out of the canvas and unwrap it. But all that there is to see, is on the wrapping itself. Inside, there is emptiness, there is matter, but no substance to decipher.
The others in the series, like Aggregation 10 – SE031 BLUE (63 x 131 cm, 2010, the blue-hued photo in this post) do not use hanji from textbooks. As many have already observed, they look like a series of lunar landscapes, portraits of the moon, planets juxtaposed, the dusty trail of a bleak comet streaking across the large face of Saturn or the moon (the surfaces are almost always grey, so one does not think of Mars or Jupiter).
Sometimes, you wander on streets, or you go somewhere, get things done, see someone, all of the purpose taking the possibility of chance out of your meandering.
And sometimes, you do intentionally enter a space, but within its vast floors and walls, you are momentarily outside time and inside someone else’s realm.
Chun Kwang Young’s work left me gobsmacked and I shall return to see it.
Raining bleak outside,
the mustard coloured walls brief respite.
Just now, the final laundry load handed over,
I voluntarily parted with a bit of biography,
a segment, a slice so thin it would hardly count I think,
told the Chinese lady who took my bag of not-so-dirty clothes
who now smiles at me because I am a regular,
that I will soon return to Singapore.
Singapore, which sound so far away,
so fictional, the title of a book or a movie
(there have been many)
& she, still smiling,
says ‘lots of Cantonese people there’ (?) –
a partial statement, a partial question
& I, not knowing much of anything say,
‘Oh, Hainanese, Teochew and Hokkien speakers too’
& she, pleased that I would know these
elementary, rudimentary distinctions in dialect groups,
we part ways.
Do I go to her for this bit of insignificant connection?
Some yearning for threading an artificial umbilical chord,
resonance rather than dissonance,
the clattering inside that makes me feel
like everything is loud
& I have not
maybe do not want to master that pitch
does make room for a polyphonic spree
(good band, they are)
but somehow seems designed only
to hear the loudest thing
even when quiet
the quiet a statement, bold,
impossible to ignore.
It must be the drilling.
I’ll put it plainly
I feel awkward, a type
though no, not a stereo-type,
not volume on
mostly static mumbling
& yes I have done these things
these marvellous things
but I still feel I know nothing
(even nothing is difficult to know)
Here I’m longing for there
and there, for elsewhere
I used to call it the immigrant’s dis-ease
that’s it, it’s just dis-ease
but disabused of this notion now
because everyone seems a little
So sinking back into oblivion
I am no one
which suits me well,
the pressure is off
until in the subway again
between 42nd and 3rd
(or was it 47th and 49th and 7th?)
the pounding returns
the mathematics of intersections and grids
this will not to do
does not suffice
big in a small place
small in a big place
it’s all a matter of scale.
In a trilogy in four parts
they can put you in a machine
that tells you how
big (small) you are
in proportion to the universe
(not even the multiverse!)
and you go mad.
Insignificance couldn’t possibly
be conveyed more beautifully, surely?
Or consider this, Vladimir sighing and saying
the other day,
“This is starting to become really insignificant.”
Yes, nothing to be done.
That’s how it felt when
the astrophysicist and particle theorist
talked about death at the edge of a black hole
your body elongating far beyond any
magazine air-brushed model’s
long, long, long legs
until you become string-like noodles
the last thing you’ll see before you perish
the entire everything of all,
the future present
all ending then
you, well, decimated.
No one to tell but really who cares?
Insignificant but talking just the same.
Languages like it’s mainly words and sentences.
Learn Business Mandarin!
Learn Legal English!
Language like it can be segmented, partitioned
carefully carved out,
the good, useful bits to
get things done!
the utility of it
even in one domain, 26 letters,
you learn to talk like
this & this & this
subtle, exaggerated, fluid, dead-pan,
educated, beguiling, uncertain, grown-up
all that in one language 26 symbols
infinite variations on no theme.
26 letters holding it all together.
Like that, language, talking to people
in foreign cities like a foreigner.
Everywhere an immigrant
everywhere another tie, another connection
a net that works knitted together
to make a map
map it online
get the program to tell you
how your linkages look
a piece of abstraction cataloguing your life
get your linkages to work for you
get the program to tell you about
the words you use.
Font size 18, the words you use most
Decrepit, Memory, Identity, Immigrant
Font size 8 the ones you use least
pig, chowder, cerulean
There is madness in the method
everything a tether to rein in
the flinging, fluttering ribbons of your life
that will make nothing
that only want to curl, twist and collapse
until the current picks a strand up again
and makes it come to life.
This another thread I wove.
Not like spiders
methodical workers making webs to live
ensnare, trap and survive.
Do we need them, want them?
Theirs one web to ensnare them all,
ours mutating webs, us at the centre
to calm our soul.
I don’t speak for any general condition
not even mine.
It’s a day, a particular perception
which Greene, Tyson et al. tell me
is lacking the appropriate verification
do the calculations, and even then,
Coffee…conversation…soy milk with blueberries…toast…work…sunshine…fighter jets and rumbling thunder…letter to KJ…poetry by BPK…poetry and pausing…poetry and stillness…car horn and laughing thrush…cicada and gurgling chirping of myna…cold shower…errands…poetry.