Friday, October 24, 2008

A Bowl of Rice - Last Cycle

As a final entry to conclude A Bowl of Rice, below is an excerpt of an extensive dialogue between art historian T.K Sabapathy (in italics) and Zai on the work.

Rice comes from intense labour and with various kinds of farming technology that have been devised, the production of rice is continuous and no more seasonal. Watching you deal with this material, I am wondering if consciously or unconsciously, you are emulating the intensity of labour in rice planting? The intensity of labour is also reflected in the nature of the drawing you have developed. The drawing is detailed, elaborate and almost fussy; it is also uncharacteristic of your art language.

I think in order to be able to talk about certain things, I need to put some effort in physical work, and also give time. So when I talk about them, I really know where they come from. For the case of this work, I only realized how much labour I need to put in while executing it - standing, sitting and squatting with all the blood rushes. I’m not a farmer, I’m a city-boy; My physical activities and conditions are just like any other city person. We don’t squat six or seven hours and our legs are not so strong. This project really provokes my physical condition.

I have also been asked why I want to explore design in this work. Most of my conceptual works are not interested with design. Take the exhibition A Tree in a Room in 2004, I simply brought a tree into Sculpture Square Chapel Gallery. Similarly, I can get 1000kg of rice and just pour it onto the gallery floor for people to look at. That’s contemporary work. But if that is so, then I don’t challenge myself enough. I try not to repeat that form of working because it’s too comfortable and there’s less tension. So I decided to explore something which I have been arrogant about, which is design.

A Tree in a Room, 2004

I am still thinking about what design means? What can designs do to our mind when we look at them at a massive scale? Must they have a wow-factor? Are designs simply just decorations? I’m not sure, I have to take my time to think about this. When you go into the some temples the designs seem too much, but when you go into a Turkish mosque, the designs are so intricate.

In fact I am re-visiting a habit of mine as a child, to draw very intricately. When I went to art school, I learnt about conceptual works which can be very minimal or even in opposition to certain techniques. You know it is like if I do this, I’m against that. But here I am doing intricate designs. Besides the labour involved, I’m also challenging my own arrogance or prejudice against craft or design. I need to understand craft and design because they are everywhere - in the house, on the t-shirt, in the books… It’s everywhere.

A Bowl of Rice, third cycle

You were a little surprised when I used the word symmetry when we spoke earlier. How can something be seen as symmetrical? Usually symmetry is something which you have pre-worked-out already. For A Bowl of Rice, you may have subconsciously worked something out but I doubt you have worked out the details of the whole drawing.

I didn’t.

And yet there were certain demands that you put on yourself as you developed it. Even as you finished one sector, you stood up and looked at the other sector, and decided how that sector was going to connect and relate to this sector. That’s how the order and relationship begin to emerge. This kind of ordered power is to me, so important here in this work. On the other hand, order in your past works were very much improvised. There was certain degree of randomness and the accidental, so although it made sense, the order was not overwhelming or commanding as it is here. And for me, Zai, this has a certain hypnotic quality because of the sheer extensiveness.

The space itself is big.

Yes you could feel as if you are drawn to it or drawn into it, even if we cannot go into it. And you also have a centre made up of nine gold coins, which is the beginning of all building techniques in Southeast Asia; That is the cosmic centre upon which everything is built up.

I think it is related to architecture, especially the older technique where they could spend a lot of time building. I think I should not be afraid to think about centre because most traditions, whether philosophical or religious, are based on the idea of having a center.


What does a center mean? The center leads us to something quite constructive, unless you purposely want to make a center and have funny movements around it. That is just to express yourself. What I mean by center, is the higher form of expression. There is also difference in understanding the European sense of self-expression and expression. What is expression? How did the ancient people understand what expression is? I have to question that. Saba, I have told you for many years that I do not have anything to express because I don’t understand myself. If you want to express yourself, the question is how do you understand your self? If we get into the answer, actually we don’t have a self. So what is there to express and what is there to say?

I think the ancient method by using geometry, lines, circles and squares is to express something beyond the self. This brings people into something connected to something beyond the ego and leads them to something larger than the self; The self is not very important.

How interesting.

That’s what I was thinking: what does geometry mean? Some people did come into the gallery and said that the drawing is not geometrical, and it isn’t, in a mathematical sense. Actually I want to talk about how geometry influenced the minds of the people in the past, architecture, literature and all that. I think geometric designs really function quite powerfully and people find, a sort of, I can’t find the right word, peace? But it is not religious.

That’s the point. I know we are finding the word to describe this. Higher and larger, but not in any orthodox or symbolic ways at all. It is not pointing to a particular belief system.

You talk about humility; I’m quite taken up by that remark. Could you say something about that? How does this particular project, the medium of drawing and the discipline of drawing engender humility?

I have had some experiences with farmers in Bali and Malaysia, but I have worked more with fishermen. There are basically two communities of people who feed us: farmer and fisherman. They grow and hunt for food; We have money, and we buy from them. When I was studying under Sultan Takbir Alis Jahbana in 1989, we talked about rituals which are created by farmers and fishermen. They are the people who in many, many ways, need rituals because they depend on nature and they pray for rain, wind and so on. From this arises the practice of using materials from rice, tapioca leaves to cloth to make designs. They have been doing this for thousands of years and there is nothing new to create.

One of the areas which I am always very interested with ritual is that its process is directed towards humility. It is an act of surrendering and offering that brings one’s ego down . Humility is like a wind, not a stone which can stay permanently; You are not created as a humble person, yet mind is capable of being humble although it is always disturbed and destructive. We always search for humility so that we are not easily affected by anything. I use the word humility, not peace. I think that’s what ritual really does to people, because the act of surrendering and offering actually brings certain grounded feeling inside us.

When it comes to visual art installations, I think physicality is very important. From music to theatre to installation work, it is always very important for me to think about ritual. Ritual reminds people that we must be connected to something that is larger than our being; it is not so much about art. At least the ritualistic aspect of the work should make you remember for example, a paddy field, which some people may not have seen except on screen. I want to suggest people putting in some effort to find a paddy field; Look at the buffalo, see how big it is, and how it breathes. When you see the actual environment and production, then you can reconsider what you are eating and why you are eating.

The material, rice. There are so many issues about rice for the past few months so I thought I should just work with this as a material and find ways to understand many problems. I didn’t have a solution in mind when I decided to choose rice, it was just a gut feeling to get 500 or 1000kg of rice. Through the process of drawing, I learn something. It is a little bit different from some artists who make a proposal, full-stop, and do the work. They stop learning after the proposal is done. I think process work means you set off with a certain idea and you keep learning. In a way, I see that as humility: developing work and not just creating a concrete thing.

I was linking that with another aspect of what you are doing with A Bowl of Rice and that is the method, the scale, the material you are using, the way you have to arrange your body, and the kind of time that is required. I’m building up to this state of absorption which you have to be immersed in. And that total absorption and immersion can also be a way of arriving at humility. It is not that you are the master, but you are part of and inside the work. You can only see the little patch that you are bent over and the little bowl of rice you have in your hand. That’s it. It’s only when you get out that you can see the whole thing; But that whole thing happens only because of that single bowl of rice in your hand; From that alone, the rest has emerged. To me, this is also a sense of humility and you have to, while developing the work, think about whether the whole picture will work or not work. How is it going to expand? These are things that make you small, rather than make you big. Am I making sense of this in a way? This is my end of looking at it.

You described it in a wonderful way. Yes, the process doesn’t make me feel big but it makes me feel small in many, many ways.

Other entries on A Bowl of Rice:

Invitation Opening Work in Progress H.O.M.E Second Cycle


Anonymous Anonymous said...

is there an email i can contact you guys at?


3:59 AM, April 13, 2009  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home