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The Rock Kaka Thing: Critical Responses

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At what point did the work turn transgressive? Clues littered in the comment thread of Alex’s photo coverage seem to suggest at the unease some commentators felt upon seeing how a bill-board size image of our prime minister were casually stepped over by the viewing public. This transgression seems to be a cultural one, subverting the polite customary norms in a performance of disrespect towards a public figure which we could just step over.

I would have like that criticism leveled against the work come from more intelligent quarters and not one that solely rest on a very narrow interpretation of a subversion of cultural norms. In a country like Malaysia, where those in power and their supporters still believe they are able to control the production of culture. Consequently the gallery as a physical space is one that still exist within their territorial jurisdiction. This is where they err.

As bigger battles are being fought in our political arena, cultural contestations (though smaller in scale but no less important in terms of impact) will inevitably arise in the shifting sites where authorities naturally lose their grip.

In an art climate that is made up of a largely apathetic public, it’s hard to gauge where the limits are. We do get away with quite a lot of things in the arts. It’s only when someone complains about a work of art that the process of self-censorship kicks in. The removal of Fahmi’s work shows us how responsive art institutions and establishment in Malaysia can be, as much as they are committed to pushing the boundaries and skirting around sensitive issues. But I take to heart that there are spaces around town that are receptive to those who challenge the status quo and bold enough to support their initiative even as they recognise their limitations.

To know that the work has caused so much offense, I should like to think that the artist has achieved some measure of success in his provocative work. After all, this is why the work is powerful and relevant to our times.


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It was entertaining, profound and ultimately disappointing that Fahmi’s work and indeed the entire Rock Kaka show was removed or better still ‘erased’ from the gallery at such break neck speeds due to conservative paranoia and commercial pragmatism. I take some comfort in the fact that Arteri is able to preserve and continue discussion around this short burst of satirical provocation. Culture is a reflection of society and needs to be free to challenge and open debates on sensitive issues about the country and world we live in.

This cultural idealism is not often a reality because of the narrow mindedness, insecurities,  self indulgences and as Simon rightly says apathy of cultural practitioners, their public,the fans, critics and those who just don’t give a damn (which is the largest stat of them all) and of course Government. It is a flawed system and we know it. But what are we going to do about it? Say clever and not  so clever things in cyberspace? Well that is a start but we need to capitalise on this moment and do more, more shows, more things in real space, that create dialogue and further action that helps strengthen the importance of contemporary cultural and visual practice at a level of confidence and sophistication and not just in the rhetoric. Although striking the right tone is key, what is needed is a strength of conviction that allows for mutual communication. What we must strive for is a sustainable legacy and not a short flash in the pan to be forgotten like yesterday’s news. This is not easy to do, and is frustrating, our hands seem to always be tied, who is listening? is it intervention in commercial galleries and public institutions to make freedom of cultural expression noticeable to those in power or the role of intimate artist run alternative spaces with small passionate audiences to lead the way?

What I do want to say as well though is that this was a show with works by five people. That Fahmi’s work hijacked the exhibition is a testament to the ambition and confidence of this stellar piece. However, it would have been nice to have seen a tighter framing of the notion of Rock music and how the works linked to one another, or rather why these artists were chosen to show together. So in the end I left a little confused. Perhaps this is exactly the point? Aren’t we all a little confused most of the time in this great country of ours?

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How much is this an issue of art and how much is it an extension of current trends in political censorship? An extension of the media control exercised by the new administration to offset its troubled rise to power. It follows in the wake of orders to government controlled media outlets to cease showing Abdul Razak Baginda or Altantuya Sharibuu in connection with the prime minister.The private gallery is more readily censurable than the internet, there is an economic threat and a physical space which can, if so desired, be shut down. But interestingly, the piece survives online, not to forget that half of it is a cleverly constructed YouTube video.

It is an issue of art insofar as the artist in question has chosen a provocative subject, the image of a leader struggling to clear 45% approval from Malaysians. But it also means, via the proof furnished by the actions of the government and its agents, that to take a critical or provocative stance, to shock as has long been the wont of modern art, one merely has to stretch cultural norms on the image of the leader. Though one should ask, why this image of the leader and not others? What about that image famously trodden upon and criss-crossed by motorcycles in the wake of the Perak coup? What about all those campaign posters that fall to the streets or end up in the landfills? What is it about the context of the image that creates provocation? Does the leader have two bodies – one corporeal, one graphic – each equally mortifiable?

In highly censored societies the bar for dissidence is set very low by virtue of the fear of authorities that even wisecracks can lead to cracks in the wall of state. An authority suggests by such actions that it is unable to persuade its case to its subjects, to gain legitimacy by willing consent rather than coercion. It points to a crisis of legitimacy.

It also points to another feature of Malaysian political life, specifically the subculture of the ruling party. Namely, the culture of unquestioned leadership. Followers should not question their leaders. Loyalty is rewarded, disloyalty is punished, much like in the Sultanate court culture which preceded our constitutional monarchy. But in the present case, we have an extension of this logic. The followers have taken it upon themselves to affirm their loyalty by making sure NO ONE questions their leaders.

Yet this is at odds with the proper functioning of a democracy. Leaders are supposed to be questioned. Prime Ministers in other countries take questions in Parliament. Their actions are scrutinised by the media. Democracy, with a multi-party system, with competition for votes, effectively presumes institutionalised criticism and dissent. Orderly and peaceful change in government is part of this. To reject questioning and dissidence implies rejecting that power can be questioned. To reject the latter suggests an unwillingness to cede power.

For a government to oppose change in government is to lead to a one-party state. Such states have great leaders and are festooned with their images. There such images are invested with a sacred quality with severe penalties for disrespect. Has Malaysia become such a place? Should we look less to liberal democracies for lessons on and models of critical art practice and instead look more to one-party states? Yet, last I checked, we are a parliamentary democracy, and questioning should therefore be an honoured practice and right.

Hail to the thief?

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(Click on image to enlarge Fahmi Redza’s letter of protest)

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 15 June, 2009.

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