Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Art of Pissing

NOTE: This post relates to an incident that first occurred in 1974 and an essay about it was published in the New Straits Times in the 1990s. SBJ sums up the significance of his actions at the time: "I’d say it defends what I see as the true values of art and of intelligence - against the pretentious, the false and the fashionable." ~ Anna Salleh

An Open Letter to Redza Piyadasa

Introductory Note

The incident that is the subject of this open letter to one of the most vocal artists and art critics in Malaysia occurred in 1974. The setting was an exhibition frighteningly called Towards a Mystical Reality held at Sudut Penulis (Writers Corner) of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. It consisted of “found objects” (a half-empty Coca-Cola bottle, a dirty abandoned raincoat found on some rubbish heap, a half burnt mosquito coil and that sort of thing). It was accompanied by a manic manifesto full of abstractions, capital letters and exclamation marks.

Redza Piyadasa (center) discusses his manifesto
There were about fifty people – artists, writers and students – in that corner to witness my little gesture of friendly protest, the incident went unreported in the press; I was told that somebody or other had managed to have it hushed up, and I, having made a public exhibition of myself in that hallowed corner, was not about to make another one in the media.

The incident would have remained a lost footnote in the history of modern Malaysian art if, about a year later, Redza Piyadasa (bless his soul) had not challenged the perpetrator (individu was the word he used) of this sacrilegious act to explain “the rationale” of that act. This challenge occurred in the course of a debate in Dewan Sastera on this direction of modern Malaysian art between Piyadasa, Siti Zainon Ismail and one or two others. It was a challenge I had been waiting for.

My open letter was published uncut, title and all, in the July 1975 issue of Dewan Sastera. For this, I have Usman Awang, then editor of the magazine to thank. There was some faint resistance to certain parts of the letter at first, and I remember having to argue quite vociferously in defense of the title I had chosen (Kencing dan Kesenian or Pissing and Art.) But Usman as editor was a true gentleman who was willing to listen to argument.

I don’t know what my kurang ajar (ill-mannered) act was worth, if it was worth anything, from the point of view of the history of Malaysian art. This is for our art historians to judge. I note that the distinguished art historian T.K. Sabapathy has a flattering comment on my letter, and even quotes from it in his Introduction to Modern Artists of Malaysia (1983) which he co-authored with Piyadasa. But from Sabapathy’s comments you wouldn’t know anything about the incident that provoked the open letter he refers to. I sometimes wonder what the silence here means.

What is the point of reprinting this letter?  Am I not content that the incident had passed into the folklore of Kuala Lumpur underground; and I have, by the simple act of unzipping my trousers and zipping up my mouth, attained a minor Malaysian immortality? (I must admit that some inherited perversity makes me rather fond of the smell of the past; and the “Mystical Reality Incident” has certainly pursued me, to echo the words of an Australian poet about a notorious poem of his published in his youth, like a familiar bad smell?)     
         
Yes, what’s the point? Well, I would say that the points raised in the letter have more than topical relevance. If asked to sum up its significance in one sentence, I’d say it defends what I see as the true values of art and of intelligence - against the pretentious, the false and the fashionable. And the target of the letter is an artist of no mean standing in this country whose “Mystical Reality” thing - both manifesto and exhibition – is considered by Sabapathy a significant event in the history of Malaysian art.

As for the pissing act itself, I still consider it, to put it in the language of Asian courtesy and modesty, as much a “breakthrough” in the history and modern Malaysian art as the exhibition called Towards a Mystical Reality.
                     
A dunce once searched for a fire with a
   lighted lantern.
Had he known what fire was,
He could have cooked his rice much sooner.
 From The Gateless Gate by Ekai
   (translated by Paul Reps)


Dear Piya,
                
Whenever I open my big mouth people say vulgarities and obscenities pour out. When I unzip my trousers they say I sully my self-respect.

That Salleh fellow, is he ever “serious”? Pissing, being vulgar and obscene – that’s the only thing he‘s good at. How disappointing when one thinks of our Eastern values.” Blah, blah, blah….Alright Piya, this time I’ll be a good Easterner - and you I hope will be a good listener. I accept your challenge that “the individual” who “membuang air” (literally “threw away water,” i.e., urinated) at your exhibition, Towards a Mystical Reality, should come forward to “explain the rationale of his act.” Actually I’ve been waiting for quite some time for this opportunity to explain an act that a lot of people seemed to have completely misunderstood; to set out my real attitude to your exhibition and to the manifesto that accompanied it.

Let me begin with two observations which don’t really require much elaboration, and two admissions which will be explained and defended later.

First observation: Our artists (that includes writers) and intellectuals tend to be on the whole a solemn lot. They tend to confuse solemnity with seriousness, verbosity with intellectual breadth, and pomposity with depth. This tendency often goes with egotism and an embarrassingly acute sense of their own importance. And needless to say (this being Malaysia, it has to be said of course), it also goes with shallowness of mind.

Redza Piydasa, Empty Canvas On Which So Many
Shadows Have Fallen, 1974
The most noticeable thing about our contemporary cultural life is the relative absence of humour in the field of ideas. [1] Oh people make jokes of course, and usually of crudest variety. They even attempt what they call comedy and, God help us, even satire. That’s not what I have in mind. The humour I mean is bound up with a balanced conception of the intellectual and artistic life; it implies the capacity to distance oneself from what one is doing, to see things, including oneself  and what one is doing, to see things, including oneself and what one is doing from different, usually unfamiliar points of view. This capacity Malaysian (predominantly Malay) men of letters and intellectuals are not distinguished with. That’s one of the things that make our intellectual life dreary and dry. Satire and parody are conspicuous by their absence, at least as a viable tradition (the existence of isolated attempts at such forms only serves to prove my point). In such an arid intellectual landscape, to expect the solemn Malaysian (again, Malay) Artist (with a capital A, a connotation better suggested by the contemporary usage of the Malay word seniman) – to expect this animal to laugh at himself is like expecting dew to drop at midday. [2]

Second observation: The two major categories of people in the world of arts in Malaysia are the type who say yes without understanding. Most of these people who welcomed or rejected your manifesto and your exhibition, Piya, belong to these two categories.

Now I would like to make two admissions. First: What I did at your exhibition was actually a serious act; serious but not solemn, and contained elements of the purposefully playful. The act was carefully thought out, and had a clear rationale. Second (this will probably make people think I am not right in the head, or incorrigibly facetious even when I protest the earnestness of my intention):  Not only was my action fundamentally serious, it was also consistent with the spirit of Zen which you keep invoking in your manifesto!

Yes, there was an unashamed stink of Zen in my pissing, Piya. (“Stink of Zen”, by the way, is not a gratuitously rude expression but a fairly respectable phrase often used in Zen literature.)  If the atmosphere that surrounded the opening of your exhibition had been different, and the people there were not as solemn as they were or not so awed by the self declared importance of the occasion, they would have smelt the stink of Zen and laughed the laughter of Zen. You will remember that although the target of my “Zenny” gesture (a Westerner schooled in the antics of Dadaism would probably have called it “Dadaish”) was the whole idea of my show, my actual pissing was aimed at a specific object. Not one of those “found objects” that constituted the so-called exhibition, but the only object that was not “found,” that was created  – the manifesto itself. At the moment the piss hit a copy of the manifesto a loud laughter should have been heard among the audience – the laughter of enlightenment, at least with regards to the meaning of the gesture. R.H. Blyth says of Zen’s deliberate use of humour: “Laughter is breaking through the intellectual barrier; at the moment of laughter something is understood.” (Oriental Humour)

You and I, Piya, have often argued, at times heatedly. Not infrequently the argument is mere noise; there is no real dialogue. Because you are extremely vocal, even eloquent, and fond of abstractions, you tend to talk at people, not to them. Most of us, especially the manic among us, are often guilty of this vice. But you, I think, are more guilty than most.

Nonetheless, despite all the sound and fury, sometimes the points of your opponent do get through to you. At least at the level of the unconscious. I would like to think that this was the case when I argued against your manifesto the day you came to my house with a copy hot from the press. I said, didn’t I, that if you went ahead with the exhibition, I would shit on it? You heard it, but couldn’t believe what you heard, or that or that I would really do it. (Thank God for everybody concerned that the threat could only be partially realized, our bodies don’t always do what we want them to.)

I don’t suppose you can remember what you registered of my argument that day. Well, let me repeat it. Basically, Piya, I do respect the intention of your manifesto and exhibition. I respect your commitment to art and the life of the intellect. You rightly feel that something vital is missing from our cultural life, and something should be done about it. “Respect” did I say? But… there is always a “but” to my yes, Piya. (Well, not always; but often - especially when it comes to matters of ideas.) The proof of my respect is that I actually read your manifest, really read it – with a red pencil in my hand. It was not fun, I can assure you, because the thing is quite unreadable.

I sympathize with your intention of creating a habit of polemic that is positive and dynamic (how you love the words “polemic” and “dynamic”). There are a number of things in your manifesto which are relevant to our situation, though I can’t really say there is anything in it which is truly new. I support in particular your appeal to our artists and writers that they should be more aware of the rich cultural and philosophical traditions of Asia and their relevance to the perennial needs of man. (It is ironical that this Asia-centric business was got going by Westerners; and there is a danger that it will become a mere fad, if it hasn’t already become one, as it has in the West.)

I also agree with you that many of our artists (and writers) “are not aware of the implication of the idiom (idioms?) of modernism they use in their works.” But this doesn’t mean I agree with your call that they should all be as articulate as you are in matters of theory and in polemics. I don’t see any reason why all painters must be expected to theorize or engage in polemics. If a painter like Latiff Mohidin, for example, is content with just painting, he should be left alone to do what he does best. It’s good enough they are articulate on canvas without having to be articulate on the typewriter as well. But they can, of course, we would like them to be so.

I appreciated your intention, but I wasn’t happy with the tone, the manner and certain other things about both the manifesto and the exhibition. My little act of protest was a gesture that was clear in motivation, but not without ambiguity. A number of factors provoked me to do it. I wont deny the mischievous side of me had a hand in it; the exhibitionist in me too no doubt. But believe me these were not decisive factors. Do you really think I would melacurkan maruah (sully myself or prostitute my self-respect) just for a joke? You’ve got to be joking, Piya. Among the major things the act set out to do was to test a central premise of your manifest, as well as to protest against what I saw as pretentious, contradictory and false.

I was prepared to do this although I was quite conscious of the risk I was taking. Among the risks was the likelihood of the act being completely misunderstood, seen as an anti-intellectual buffoonery, perhaps even hooliganism. I was prepared to take the risk in the name of commonsense and for the sake of genuine intellectuality and true spiritual values.

There is an element of “bullying” in the rhetoric of your manifesto – a juvenile sort of “bullying”, and embarrassing in its excess of self-consciousness and solemn protestations. “OUR ART WE ALSO DECIDED WOULD BE MYSTICAL IN NATURE!” Who are you trying to convince or impress, Piya, with your capital letters and exclamation marks? Yourself?  Those who have some idea of true mystical insight might just wonder if you know what you are talking about; they might feel “mystical” is not something one or one’s art can just decide to be.

If the “mystical: is understood as a direct translogical knowledge or experience of the divine, the transcendent, or the “oceanic” I wonder how you, prisoner of verbalism that you are, can ever be guide to us? Listen to this: “… modern art… finding its raison d’etre in a dialectical reconsideration of phenomenal process…” often this sort of “rhetorical amok” is repeated, capital letters and exclamation marks bandied around so indiscriminately, almost threateningly. You claim in the Foreword that you have undertaken a “voracious reading programme” (it had to be “voracious” of course) lasting two whole years specifically for this manifest. I am impressed and prepared to believe that you know the meaning of the words you use with so much relish. But as I suggested above, a Zen master would most probably be amused by your “raison d’etre,” your “dialectical reconsideration,” etc., etc.

Well, Piya, you with your “Zen,” I with mine. In a way it was Zen which inspired my zippy comment on your “dialectical reconsideration of phenomenal processes.” I can’t really say I knew what kind of reaction to expect. Shock from the majority of those present obviously; even arrest for indecent exposure. But, against my better knowledge of Malaysians in such situations, I vaguely expected at least one or two people to burst out laughing. No one did. (One person, however, did walk up to me and touch my shoulder, which I took to be a gesture of solidarity.)

I must say I was a trifle disappointed by the total absence of even a smile. I don’t know what sort of Zen books you have been reading, but the ones I’ve read are full of humour, even accounts of practical jokes. These Zen jokes are designed to shock the Zen aspirants into awareness; they also affirm what I’ve always believed in -  that in a philosophy that sees life as a unity, the mundane and the mystical, the sacred and the profane merge; ordinary categories that separate reality in the name of Reality.

I can recall a host of anecdotes from Zen literature that demonstrates this. This story of the Buddha and his flower sermon you yourself must have come across in your voracious reading programme. You must have also read some of those stories that climax with a kick of the Master on the monk’s backside that produces enlightenment, or with the Patriarch tearing a sacred manuscript into shreds and tossing it into the winds. Of the anecdotes that are “vulgar”, my favourite is the one that was made the subject of a painting by the 18th century Zen painter, Fugai Mototaka. The story tells of a Zen monk on a very cold day burning an image of the Buddha to warm his backside. When reprimanded by fellow monk, who was shocked by the act of sacrilege, the first monk said (tongue in cheek) that he was burning the image to obtain sarira (an indestructible substance found only in ashes of cremated saints). He could find no sarira from the ashes of the image; therefore it couldn’t have been a saint’s, and since the day was even colder than he had thought, the monk went on to burn two other images to keep himself warm.

So, Piya, like the flower sermon of the Buddha, like the kick of the Zen Master that produced enlightenment in the earnest seeker, and like the burning of the image of the saint to warm one’s bum on a cold wintry day, my kurang ajar act at the opening of your exhibition was designed to shock you into enlightenment about some homely truths concerning art and reality. What could be more concrete, more ordinary and at the same time “mystical” in the sense of revealing “the essence of phenomenal processes” than the processes of our own body such as pissing and shitting that we do every day (at least I do; I don’t know about you)? So, from this point of view my act of spontaneous theatre had the aim of testing one of the major premises of your manifesto and exhibition. This, as well as protesting against the false, the pretentious, and the contradictory in it.

The atmosphere of the opening was such that it could not have induced the state of meditation that you claimed to have wanted in order to bring your audience into “confrontation” with the essentially “mystical” nature of reality.

Redza Piyadasa (1939-2007)
In your manifesto you go on about “the self-effacing role of the artist.” This may be evident in the objects of the exhibition, and consistent with your shrill rejection of the concept of art as expression of the artist’s personality. But the nature and tone of your manifesto and the manner and atmosphere of the exhibition clearly contradict your claim to a “self-effacing role.” No, Piya, you are not a self-effacing invisible dalang (the unseen puppeteer in Malay shadow play); you are a modern artist like all modern artists, subject to all the usual pressures and needs.

It wasn’t supposed to be an exhibition; it was supposed to be an “experience,” a “direct confrontation with (mystical) reality.” But it still had to be legitimized by the presence of a representative of officialdom; and he of course had to give one of those usual speeches.  What did you say, Piya? A situation conducive to meditation on “mystical reality”? Were you serious, Piya?

The aim of the whole endeavour, however misguided, could only have been saved by something unexpected, by something that proved its essential point, however clouded by confusion and pretension virtually in the teeth of its arrogance. The act of mine was something unexpected. So, Piya, you should have been thankful to me for pissing on your sacred text that morning in Sudut Penulis.

John Cage whom you seem to admire would certainly have appreciated my gesture. Cage, also influenced by Zen, at least has got the essential message of that incredible philosophy, and is never solemn. The critic Virgil Thomson, an admirer of Cage, once described a Cage concert in New York in 1958 as “cartoon comedy.” One recalls Marcel Duchamp, the one-time Dadaist, saying, “Humour is a thing of great dignity.”

Our local “guru” of the performing arts, theatre critic Krishen Jit, who is so dazzled by your rhetoric, affirms your proud claim to be (together with your collaborator, Sulaiman Esa) “savage”? – far from it. Innocent in the way you get so terribly excited, like a kid with new toys, over newly discovered notions that are already dated elsewhere; but far from savage in your understanding and ability to deal with reality (with a small r).

Actually, Piya, your concept of art seems to me to be ambivalent, if not confused. Your manifesto suggests that what you set out to do in the exhibition wasn’t art (“direct confrontation with reality”), but also “art” (thus words like “We are approaching art…”). If your aim was to bring us into “direct confrontation with reality” (why “confrontation” and not simple “experience,” say?), I in my simplicity of mind would like to ask, if that is your aim, why talk about “Art” at all? If you really don’t want to have anything to do with “art”; you still want to cling to the word, however supposedly radical your concept of art may be.

What exactly is your function, Piya? If I want so experience reality directly, to meditate on the “mystical” dimension behind ordinary objects and experiences, why shouldn’t I do it on my own, free from manic manifestos, free from boring speeches by cultural bureaucrats – in short free from the Piyadasas of this world? Why on earth should I “buy experience” from you? (“The person buying my work will really be buying an actual experience not an artifact,” says Redza Piyadasa!)

I remember Jasper Johns saying: “what makes something art is its being placed in the context of art.” My agreement with Johns hangs on that “something.” Context is important, tradition is important, the complex of intellectual assumptions is important; that’s why anti-art only works by reference to art. But not everything that is dragged into context of art and draped in custom-made theory can be considered “art.”

I don’t agree with Cage (whom you follow so slavishly) that art and reality/life are the same. Art is “based” on reality, perhaps even “feeds” on reality; but art and reality are not identical. If we truly value reality/life, we cannot possibly confuse the two. But art can deepen and widen our consciousness of a reality that is multi-dimensional. To perform this function art needs form; but it must be stressed that the concept of form meant here is not static or rigid. The important thing to realize is that art cannot run away from form. The literary and art critic Harold Rosenberg once reminded artists and writers: “Formlessness is simply another look, and a temporary one at that. In time, organization shows through the most chaotic surface.” Piya! Piya! You want art, but how confused you are about what art is. You want reality, but how innocent you are about reality. Reality? Just remember the rainbow arc of my piss, the fountain of life affirms and celebrates the unity of reality: the vulgar and the refined, the bawdy and the spiritual, the concrete and the transcendent, the stinking and the mystical, the profane and the sacred. A zippy gesture of affirmation that you would do well to meditate on.

So, my dear Piya, (and Cik Siti Zainon too), when I unzipped my pants at the opening of that historic exhibition, I wasn’t “prostituting my self-respect.” I was just revealing reality.
Fraternally yours,
Salleh    
________________________________

[1] By “our contemporary cultural life” I mean mainly the world of letters, and Malay world of letters at that. “Malay” because I refuse to pretend that there is a national cultural life in this country, simply because there is no such thing, at least not yet, as a truly national culture.
[2] Literal translation of Malay saying harapkan titik embun di tengah hari


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