Written by Yashini d/o Renganathan
“However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
From the vibrating regions of the universe to the micro-world of Planck, silence is not an inherent aspect in either, but a relational space experienced by you and me. With the pandemic at hand, such experiences have been unavoidable in the periodical lockdowns that got us into erratic and hermetic journeys. Relationally, being able to experience the simple yet fundamental aspects of life was and is still a privilege—to breathe, to feel the wind on our skin, to get lost in the soothing colors of sunset, or to hear the rhythmic chimes of crickets at night. This pivotal awareness nudged me towards the direction of exploring the role of silence in our lives, more so now.
As such, this journey required going beyond the notion of the self—to be curious about the various translations of experiences and to employ inclusivity. Anchoring on the core team’s prevailing interest in silence and shared cause for inclusivity, this initiative led to the collaboration with The Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) and The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf). This journey has enabled us to recognize a crucial yet often forgotten aspect: to design an exhibition to be inherently accessible, regardless of the nature of its audience.
With a great deal of valuable exchange among our team and collaborators, the pulse of Nodes of Silence speaks through; awareness, acknowledegment, grounding, empathy and compassion—in the works of Amrita Chandradas, Chok Si Xuan, Daniel Chong, Rafi Abdullah, Yen Phang and Zarina Muhammad. Through the language of silence and a common ground for hope, we ventured into conversations that matter.
Breathing is the primary driving force of life. However not all living things function with a heart-like pump. Unlike us, respiration is a vital aspect to the complex mechanism of a plant. Like lungs, tiny microscopic breathing tubes opening termed stomata on the surface of any leaf enables absorption of carbon dioxide and the release of oxygen, fulfilling its biological duties, all in a whisper.
Driven by her interest in complexly interlaced and concealed life sustaining system(s), Latent by Chok Si Xuan is an amalgamated manifestation that puts an image to the breathing aspect of a plant, along with stimulating curiosity to invisible networks and labor within it. In an earlier version of this work, I requested absolute silence from my peers to check if the work was still ‘alive’. Like monitoring a patient on the ventilator, the expansion and contraction was vital for visual confirmation. Notably, the pulse of the work takes the form of a pistil (reproductive structure of the flower) accompanied by a mechanical pneumatic system, mimicking a breathing and respiring heart. Stillness is the primary enabler to acknowledging the physical premise of the work. Awareness nudges right after, activating the conscious search for a visible flow of movement or a very familiar form of liveliness.
What is the role of the heart here? As perplexing as it looks, the network of information from the roots to all nodes of the plant works within a plant’s circadian clock. The heart here reiterates the uncanny similarity between us, plants and trees as sentient beings. It is a wonder on how in the grander scheme of things, immense information is constantly transmuted as energy to sustain life. With 400,000 flowering species in this world, this experience could alter our upcoming encounters with plant life—being aware of the nuances of the natural world, enabling active silence and honoring the fact that we are not so different after all.
Our complex and highly organized human bodies have an estimate of 206 to 213 bones in an adult which continuously replace themselves; from old to new. Yen Phang’s Still. Here. is reflective of the continuous renewal process that is elemental for the care of our body, but often not advocated and cared for. By and large, our body is thought to be lingering along the premise of being solid. As that might be, within it exists a realm of it’s own, continuously changing at a molecular level, that is directly affected by what we absorb and release within our psychological body.
Drawing inspiration from X-ray of bones and sitting on the interlacing realm of portraiture and landscape, it is how both appear to be exceptional representations of our bodies from within astounds me. Almost like a vibrational dialogue being imprinted—of the outside world, through the inside, Still. Here. opposes the notion of our bodies as mere vessels of containment, but a transitory space for energies to converge and be released. Unlike the inherent ability of our bones to renew and heal, when we fail to keep up with the natural order of releasing anything unserving, we subject our psychological and physical body to conflict. As the conflict manifests, we instantly look out for physical symptoms. However, how often do we look within the non-physical plane? How inclined are we to acknowledge the concealed realm within us, as an equally valid representation of our likeness? If so, what can it possibly convey?
Functioning simultaneously as a fluid form and a resting body, while also accentuating every pocket, crook and crevice that makes us, through Still. Here., Yen encourages us to consciously surrender to the ebb and flow, the very flow that governs everything that has, does or will exist. By surrender, I refer to flowing, just like the meandering energies of water, far from a warfare surrender. With that aptitude, one will come to realize how fluidly able our body can be, steering away from the conditioned representation of the body—embracing and listening to the matter and space within us with awareness and stillness over time.
With the progression of time, we hope to nurture a sense of belonging for all. By belonging we mean, being accepted by people that matter, our community and society. However this home-coming experience is challenged across time and space, for bodies that have been othered. Utilizing the materiality of objects, Trodden Bodies presents a sculptural conversation on apathetic sentiments towards these bodies.
About 100 metric tons of cosmic dust enters earth every day, eventually resting on the ground—residing on and within various planes. Quite plainly, in this expression, anything that weightlessly comes in contact within the undersides of one’s footwear is deemed insignificant, abstract and forgotten. Likewise, the synonyms for the word trodden are, hammered, pounded, shaped, tramped, stamped down, etc. In reference to the act of stepping on and the materials that lay amidst the ground and our feet, Daniel’s amorphous forms present the topography of social treatment experienced by these bodies.
The instantly recognisable materials’ prime responsibility is to enable close examination of the cultural inter-relationship between these objects and mistreated bodies— further presenting the suppressed impact of disregard and indifference of personal and interior spaces. Simultaneously, rising from its troddened state, these erected bodies are here and now, reclaiming their space that has been conditioned to be dormant as a result of ignorance and a lack of care.
Resurfacing with grace and tenacity, Trodden Bodies questions the repercussions of such standards of human behavior. How can we work towards dismantling such societal practices and be a source of support? Concurrently offering an opportunity to revisit one’s tendency towards these pyramidal developments, these bodies ask for a compassionate look, as a means of positive change and openness. Riding on the malleability of materials, this work develops multi-layered conversations on the complexities of lived experiences of bodies that have been othered and the gravity of empathy to acknowledge and advocate diversity.
The thread of mistreatment, and neglect continues in Vanishing Hope. Hope amidst the hauntings of lost loved ones is what gives a purpose for the affected Sri Lankan Tamils by the 26 year old Civil war, between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in 2009. As famously said, it takes half the time of a relationship duration to heal from the loss of a loved one, but how so if that is privileged information: dead, missing or withheld by the government?
In the course of 45 days, victims of the civil war shared immensely, on the emotional turmoil of the war that has defined their lives for what seems like an eternity. Despite relieving the horrors everyday, these families warmly welcomed Amrita Chandradas into their homes and hearts. This body of work presents the oppressively silenced, telling their stories through portraiture, disintegrated personal belongings and traces of what’s left of who’s gone. Those waiting till today are primarily, aged parents, partners and mature caretakers as the missing individuals were young when taken by the government forces to investigate their proved and assumed association with the rebels, LTTE. The agonizing uncertainty of ‘no return’ is fractionally mediated with dressed up chairs, worn-down bicycles and letters of inquiry.
One of such stories is of Sudarshini’s. She firmly believes her husband lives and will return someday, to have and to hold, to compensate for the years they have missed together being apart. It is not a common sight to have both husband and wife making meals in the kitchen of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. However that was one way they bonded. She feels momentary joy while reminiscing about those episodes, like time capsules. Her son was three years old when he lost his father and a decade later, he still remains lost. Till today Sudarshini has not been provided with a death certificate to certify her husband’s demise despite the government’s declaration of the death status on all those missing persons from the civil war. Unable to grief, these families hold on to a kind of hope, a hope that fades with time, for all that remains are the echoes of voices, touch and memories within these silenced histories.
Occasionally, the need to revise history comes from the urge/necessity to relook at people, narratives, experiences that have been cast aside. To ‘revise’ is to examine and re-read works done previously on a subject matter with new/supporting reliable sources OR in the context of revisionist history, altering developments and impacts people have already made between the past and the present. Our fundamental understanding of all fathomable things: past present and future are primarily governed by mainstream historical narratives. With formally excluded and recently surfaced memoirs, autobiographies and declassified official documents, Malayan Orchid is a collaborative effort by Rafi Abdullah, Tristan Lim and Studio Darius Ou. Set in the year 2024, the graphic novel examines the consequences of ‘revisionist’ history through speculative fiction writing on pre and post colonial Singapore.
Rescuing narratives that silently linger along the folds and creases of revisionist history and providing an existential and accessible space are integral aspects of Malayan Orchid. Interestingly the medium of speculative fiction deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent. The role of reiterating societal agility in being more prudent of the narratives we normalize encourages us to understand and reconsider what shapes our place in the world. The way the selected references are utilized in this graphic novel also proposites the following line of inquiry: what questions are unfolding? What evidence do we have at hand to address repressed accounts and what revised perspectives should be considered? A source-based inquiry, bound in a sequential format that questions the linearity of events.
As a graphic novel presenting obscured capsules of the past, it plays well in the quest for accessibility. This medium is consumed by the masses and social commentaries in graphic novels hold considerable weight and pull. Curating the multi-referenced historical content as an espionage, Malayan Orchid hopes to engage the reader through a linear uncovering of events and persons—inviting us to permit old-new sources to naturally form narratives that are true to their essence.
Speaking of old, celestial occurrences particularly eclipses are known to enable a shedding process. Surviving Eclipses by Zarina Muhammad invites us to recalibrate our way of life, therefore re-assessing our sensorial world along with others who experience it differently. As we know, it is strongly encouraged for one to engage in a less demanding phase of life which allows honest and deepest introspection during an eclipse. The revelation from these still moments may not be favorable but are necessary acknowledgement and acceptance to heal one’s self. With the self consciously healing, these energies then permeate onto others and the environment. This is said to be the rudimentary path to survive eclipses.
Now, like a tiny bleak in the vast expanse of time, we are facing an exacerbated period of eclipse with the pandemic. With this new way of being, this work explores in raising our awareness on how we sense time—sensing time here, is an umbrella term that consists of feeling, seeing, speaking and remembering. Also, known as the primary way of memory making, but how is this done by people who map these experiences differently from us?
As part of a long term effort and supported by collaborative research, Zarina encourages expanded awareness in extending arms of comfort and an inclusive space more so now—by respecting and honoring the validity of everyone’s experiences that constitutes a community. This directs our attention to who is included in what we establish as a community. What does everyone’s story have to say? Encouraging us to employ empathy through relativity, this installation presents ways to recuperate from the extensions of the ‘I’ syndrome and meander through the dynamics of ‘we’. ‘Empathy is about finding echoes of another in yourself.’ Change is not always comfortable but gives one the compass to hope, redirect and make room for acceptance and adaptability.
In the exploration of conditions that exist within the biosphere, the artists of Nodes of Silence have presented on-going affairs worth questioning and acting on. From the insights of the artists, whose works sit on a different yet analogous line of silence, much can be learnt from what is not said. Be it a flower that simply exists or the enduring human and planetary connection till today, the expansive relativism in between is what brings about hope. Hope binds us to the future in ways that the present cannot comprehend. With that in mind and in the midst of adversity, this exhibition was derived from a multitude of enriching conversations—resulting in a pilot program by an independent team that hopes to be a predecessor to better evolved efforts in the future.
To have this thread as an ongoing effort of exploration and collaboration, our inclination to be curious on the myriad ways of sensing the world has to extend beyond our known horizon. Our engagement with anything that interests us comes from the pull on our heartstrings. However it is imperative to note that the conversations that we are not drawn to are equally valid and worth pursuing. As such let each encounter be a reflective experience in allowing compassion to be a collective expression while integrating art with the world. Be an enabler for cultural transmission that brings people together from all walks of life. As the poet Joy Harjo writes,…remember that you are all people and that all people are you…. Handle everyone and everything with curiosity, care and compassion, for every story has its own language and history.