I first came across Tan Zi Hao’s works at the Singapore Biennale 2016 — An Atlas of Mirrors. There stood Makara, the ominous mythical beast of Hindu origin. Usually depicted as a half-mammal and half-fish hybrid, the Makara had for a very long time, pierced cultural, religious and philosophical dialogues. With these heavy themes in mind, Tan contrived a large-scale fibreglass/metal carcass: an elephant-crocodile crossbreed finished with a fish tail and boar tusks. His version of Makara challenges that history is every so often constructed on something completely delusive, fictional and illogical.
His latest show, M, is no less intriguing and magnificently-caustic, and this conversation ensued upon our unforgettable meet-up.
What were your formative experiences and what swayed you to become an artist?
I’ve always wanted to become an artist, a portrait painter to be exact. It was only later when exposed to contemporary art, that I became more attracted to conceptualism. I received my diploma in graphic design from The One Academy and one of my favourite subjects was typography. It was there that I learnt more about the Malaysian art scene, in part thanks to Marion D’Cruz and Mark Teh of Five Arts who were teaching part-time. Looking back, 2008 was an important year; the political tsunami, events at Annexe Gallery, Farish Noor’s lectures, my participation in Five Arts Centre’s Emergency Festival (2008), translating communist posters for Fahmi Reza and many more. All got me rethinking history and the ideological construction of “Malaysia”. My particular interest in typography indirectly led me to a deeper inquiry of scripts, languages, and their political relationship with nation-states.
I pursued degrees in Cultural Studies and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, and am now completing my PhD in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. In relation to my art output, I find these courses more gratifying than fine art.
What is your first language?
Mandarin is my mother-tongue. Other languages that I speak include Malay, English and Cantonese. Throughout my education I’ve struggled with language. Before entering primary school, my parents bought me many English and Malay books to prepare me for exams. It was a sudden change of mind when they eventually decided to put me in a Chinese vernacular school — as both of my elder sisters were from the mainstream government primary school (Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan). However while Mandarin is still their (my sisters’) mother tongue, hey can’t read Chinese.
So my parents decided at least someone in the family should read Chinese! Still, I ended up doing better in English and Malay because I had been reading books in these two languages since childhood. My Chinese was unsurprisingly the worst, despite it being my most comfortable spoken language. When I entered tertiary education, The One Academy was my first encounter with an Anglophone environment. While I could read and write fairly well in English then, speaking English was a relatively new experience to me.
In retrospect, I believe my language experience has affected the way I think about language today — with a greater appreciation of its nuances. I understand the occasional reluctance or discomfort speakers have in speaking a certain language, but they’re compelled to do so due to the social environment. I strongly disagree with the prescription that one should speak a certain language due to its “ethnicity”, “nationality”, et cetera.
Can you talk about how you first began to produce artworks and improve your technique?
I don’t have a personal art studio. I spend most of my time in libraries as I am also a researcher and an avid reader of non-fiction books like continental philosophy, cultural studies and Southeast Asian studies. That is where my thinking process begins. I tend to ponder over issues that are considered mundane, normalised and therefore overlooked. Language is one of such things.
Is there a specific artistic tradition that you would position yourself in, or historic traits that you are predisposed to?
I would say conceptual art, perhaps in the vein of Hans Haacke. It’s challenging for me to name personalities because I always see myself playing with ideas coming from different disciplines. I’m affected more by my socio-political situation than by any “historic personalities.”
What does the title of your show M signifies?
The main crux of the exhibition is to examine the nuances of language and its relation to nation-states, how language is simultaneously totalitarian and yet anarchic. Language can be used as an instrument of control, and of setting standards of propriety.
But language, in and of itself, always defies our attempts at containment. The moment we speak a language, it will have already betrayed us. To me, the title M encapsulates this nuance: “M” or the phonetic [m]-read as “ma”— which is an almost universal denomination for the maternal caretaker, cuts across different languages and cultures; and yet, “M” as “mother”, is often used and abused as the signifier for our xenophobic and ethnocentric struggle: mother-tongue, mother-nation, motherland — and essentially, “M” for Malaysia, Malaya, Malay, Merdeka, and so on. “M” unites us as a common language, a common sound, a calling for the mother-figure, but it also provokes us into harming one another.
I’m also ideologically interested in anarchism. The problems with language today are largely due to its bondage with nation-states and national sovereignty. I am strongly against the nationalisation of any language. Due to the practical nature of language and its immediacy, it is always impossible to institutionalise or to standardise a language. But nation-states are obsessed with conceiving its own national(ised) language, thereby setting essentialist standards of authenticity.
Any etymologist would tell us that there is no such thing as a pure language. In as much as we like to claim ownership of a language, “my mother tongue”, language does not belong to anyone. Language evolves only through translation, linguistic contamination, loan-words, adaptation, and at times, mispronunciation. Language also progresses through the travelling of sound — the inevitable transmission of sound from one to another (communication). Every communication is already an address to the other. We can try to “territorial-ise” and to own a language (to give a sovereign place to a language), but it’s wishful thinking. Anyone familiar with the history of language will immediately notice that it’s difficult to even categorise a language. Which words belong to which language? Or more fundamentally: which sounds belong to which language? Can the sound [m] be owned by a specific speech community? Can we own a “mother tongue”? At which point does one language begin and end? There is no clear answer to these questions, and yet, we have put so much faith in our national(ised) language that we’re willing to demean and humiliate another person for not mastering a language well.
One thing truly salient in terms of the features in your work is the sense that you’re using language enthused by advertising or other non-specific styles of dialogue, but reconstructing it in a way that’s very unusual. Are most of your words of sentences taken from somewhere else, or do you craft them to appear that way?
The multilingual signage is mostly appropriated from an existing visual format. For the multilingual danger signs, I simply put in my own words whilst trying to maintain the same design. The visual strategy, as with most existing appropriation artworks, is to de-familiarise the familiar. For the shop signage, they are hand-painted by me with an attempt to imitate (with modification) the visual style of existing ones. These signs may appear as if they’re found objects. In this regard, my intention is to “de-contextualise” something that is seemingly familiar. Depositing this signage in a white-wall gallery allows the audience to not just look pass it, as we often do on the streets. It gives an added emphasis to something ordinary.
Where do you get your imagery from, and what (if any) bases do you apply?
I live and work in Serdang, so my visual experience is influenced by some of the signage I find near my place. And I often take photos of multilingual signage whenever I travel.
Was there a feeling at any time, that you are doing something significant and creating a change? If so, what are those changes?
I am an advocate of art for social change. But at the same time, I think all artists have to be aware of the limitations — one, an art gallery has very limited audience, and two, whenever art is taken as an instrument for making a change, it could backfire. The subjective nature of art also means that it has limited capacity as an instrument. The audience can read art differently. In this case, it depends on what we mean by “change”, be it a revolution, a change of policy, of mindset, or of perception. Besides, the danger of thinking about “making a change” is that these changes are often prescriptive in nature.
I intend my artworks to provoke certain questions about the existing status quo. Art, if perceived as a medium for social change, has its own constraints, which is also why I’d never consider myself a full-time artist. I’m also a researcher, writer, graphic designer, zine-maker; to each medium its own language. Nonetheless, most of the works I do, I do it with the intention to dissect history with vision. For this reason perhaps, art can in fact be truly radical, for it denies our societal expectations and our obsession for instrumental “meaningfulness”.
Creativity is an anarchist.
Where A+ WORKS of ART, d6-G-8, d6 Trade Centre
801 Jalan Sentul, Kuala Lumpur
When Until Nov 25
Contact +6018 333 3399, firstname.lastname@example.org