Au Sow Yee’s work focuses on questioning and expanding the relationship between film, image making, history and power, mainly through video installation. We spoke with her about the show SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now.
TEXTS: CoBo Editorial Force
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
There are artists who are able, if only for a moment, to cut the ground from under our feet. Malaysian artist Au Sow Yee does exactly that. Her work compels us to look at our beliefs and see that some of them are not universal truths, but rather fabricated items.
“Since I was little, I always had an interest in history,” says the artist. “When I was in high school, we had to write articles about what our ambitions were. I wrote that I wanted to be an historian. This shocked my parents. Over time, things slowly started coming together into my artwork. Nowadays, I’m deeply interested in the history-making process, especially in questioning, self-questioning and re-questioning things.”
While the history-is -written-by-the-winners paradigm is valid at every latitude in Southeast Asia, historiography still has a lot of blind spots. In this context, artists often conduct their own research. While they are using different tools and frameworks taken from historians, they are also contributing to creative narratives in their own right, which are ultimately a form of historicising.
When we mention this to Au Sow Yee, she shies away from the definition. “I’m not an historian,” she says with conviction, “I’m a storyteller.” She points out that artists would make very bad historians, as rigour is not their job.
We are at the Mori Museum in Tokyo where she is presenting for the first time phases I and II of Kris Project (2016); for the show, SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now. The video installation looks at the history of the power structure during the 1950s and the 1960s through the lens of the popular film industry of that time.
Au reinterprets post-Cold War politics through fictional filmmaker Ravi’s script in Kris Project II: If the Party Goes On from the Kris Film Studio in the Mengkerang forest. She also evokes a party that never took place because of the death of Loke Wan Tho, the chairman of the film giant, Cathay-MP&GI. He died in an air crash in 1964, together with many others top members of the movie industry. Loke’s company and its operations provide an insight into the ideologies of and the power distribution in the Cold War.
“My research started from this episode. It made me interested in looking at how the power structures were constructed, and how the boundaries of our ideologies are shaped today,” explains the artist. “For example, how is our notion of Southeast Asia constructed? Is there a possibility that we can look through it?”
Mainly working with video, Au Sow Yee prefers to exhibit in contemporary art circuits rather than film festivals so that she can have more expressive freedom: “I personally think that film festivals are more conservative. Your work needs to be categorised as a documentary, a fiction film or perhaps animation. What if your work doesn’t really fit in any of these boxes? I think a contemporary art setting gives me more possibilities.”
The artist started experimenting with video at the filmmaking department of the San Francisco Art Institute. “The professor allowed you to do weird things. We had 24-hour access to the studios and all of the equipment, including the film projectors. One night, I sneaked in at midnight, so I could be all by myself. I projected films through the projectors and played with them. That’s how it all started.”
After graduation, she went back to Malaysia and started collaborating with some theatre companies while also teaching. In 2011, she decided to take a break from her job and went to Taiwan for a fresh restart. In 2013, she created a series inspired by the events that were happening at the time, following the Malaysian general election.
“The current Malaysian government has been the same since independence – there has been no change since then. The 2013 general election was important in Malaysia because people really thought the opposition party would win. They were supporting it. However, there was an element that was constantly brought up; the idea of ethnicity, identities, of who we are as Malaysians. Who is included, who is excluded? Are Chinese people included or are they excluded? Are Bangladeshi people included or excluded? This compelled me to start questioning identity and borders. How our concept and ideas about ethnicity are constructed. Where our ideas about nation states come from and how the borders were drawn.”
In response to these questions, the artist made a mockumentary, done in the style of a real documentary, complete with interviews and a very convincing “hate speech”. It told the story of a fictional place created by the artist, called the Koram.
In your work, you employ the language of film and documentary, but you also look at these mediums critically. What are you trying to show to the viewer?
In mainstream films, we think that what you see is what you get. In my work, I try to play with this belief, to mess with this idea. In my work, the narrative looks highly convincing. But if you really look at it, all of the images – the found footage and newsreels – are all constructed into a story. I am really interested in what is not visible. I try to play with this idea of the invisibility of the images and how images are constructed in our conscious mind through the work.
Implicit in your work is the idea that the medium of film comes with a sense of authority. When you see something on screen, you tend to believe it, even though we know that film and documents are edited, or sometimes even constructed.
In my work, I like to create ruptures rather than mending them. For example, there are ruptures between what you see and the actual ideas that you get. The forms that you see do not really tell the original message. In a way, it is very interesting if you look at the old Hong Kong movies from the Cathay Organisation, which my work here at Sunshower is based on. They really want to convince you of something, but my interest is to give you some clues that it is actually something else. I’m interested in all of these ruptures, whether on the forms or the context; ruptures between the historical facts that were hidden during that time.
Part of your work is based on live cinema performance. What is it and how did you first approach it?
There is a sort of disappearance in the history of the moving images; the disappearance of the human. When we go to the cinema you are camped in a dark box and kept there for the illusion to start. Then, one light comes through and that is the light of truth. In that moment, you believe that the world is what is projected on the screen.
However, in the past, the setting of the cinema was very different, with musicians playing live at silent films. You were in the shadows but you were very aware of the performance and the musicians at the same time. Interestingly, these musicians’ performances have disappeared in contemporary settings. Even the projection room is closed. You won’t even notice that someone needs to turn on the machine. So, in my work, I just wanted to try to reveal the invisible again.
I started a livestream series in my college years, working with the forms of live cinema where I was the projectionist. It was basically like a one-person cinema and the films were projected only once, they couldn’t be repeated. When I was back in Malaysia after graduation, I drifted away from it a bit. But then I came back to it because of an invitation from a curator asking me if I wanted to do it again, but in a theatre and performance context. They asked me if I could refer to a text or a novel specifically. I thought about it and then said yes.
And that was your work Mountain Plague (2015). Can you tell me a bit about it?
I used a text from the novel Mountain Plague, written by a Malaysian Chinese writer, Li Zi Shu. It was a short novel about the Malayan communists in the 1950s in Malaya. The Malayan communists’ situation was very different from that of the Chinese communists. The Malayan communists were deserted by everyone, even their comrades. They do not exist in Malaysia today and the history of that era has faded. The government is trying to hide that side of the story. They are disappearing, in a sense. They are invisible.
I did a live cinema performance in 2015 by using the text of that novel. I took out all of the lines that had indications of sound. At the performance, you could see the film projectors below, so that you see the live film fully, including the playing of the score. The images weren’t really clear because of the fast speed. Also, there was no narrative, only sound. The sound of guns or walking in a tropical forest. In that particular work, it was important that I revealed the presence of the performance in the moving images. Just like I tried to reveal the presence of the people who are not present in any official historical records. They were invisible and now they could be seen.
Thank you very much!
About the Artist
Au Sow Yee (b.1978, Malaysia) is a multi-media artist whose practice revolves around moving images, historical narrative, representational politics and power. She completed her M.F.A from San Francisco Art Institute on experimental filmmaking and currently attending the Graduate School of New Media Arts at the Taipei National University of the Arts. Sow-Yee was the co-founder and co-curator of KLEX (the Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film and Video Festival) in 2010, 2011 and 2016.
In recent works, Sow-Yee’s re-imagines the history of Malaysia, South-east Asia and related region as an alternative to the grand narrative of the Cold War.