Facing Ismail Zain, at Fergana Art Space, Whiteaways George Town, Penang.
Some of us have their 'Phantom of the Opera', some 'The Phantom Menace', while some others 'The Phantom'. I have my "Phantom F4".
I went to Fergana Art Space last Saturday, and again yesterday, to revisit and face Ismail Zain's digital collages. I have to give Jaafar Ismail (the 'gardener' of Fergana) one 'tabik spring' for bringing these works that are so dear to me to Penang. Ismail Zain's works are included in the show with works by few other well-known local artists.
Frankly, I feel that the digital collages would be best served and honored on their own. It can be a specially-curated show, providing an in-depth look at his early experimentations with digital technology. But then, that will be my rock 'kapak leleh' or sentimental take on this special person. I can't help but to reminisce a show where I placed his whole digital collage series in one special room as a homage in the First Electronic Art Show back in 1997, that I co-curated with Niranjan Rajah. Would be interesting to see how the present generation of young new media artists and curators read this visionary icon.
I have reflected upon my personal encounters with Ismail Zain in several blog entries before. I hope I'm not repeating myself here, since I have a tendency to 'melalut ke laut' (get off tangent). I will also try not to repeat what other writers have written about him.
Ismail Zain used to be one of my lecturers (guru) during my final year drawing class at UiTM in 1988. Well, actually he was a guest lecturer, brought in by Fauzan Omar who was then the Head of Fine Art Programme. His drawing class for me, was a masterclass. Ya, I know I'm bragging. But one can always cross-check my sentiment with his other ex-students who were blessed to be in his drawing class back then. I will share few insights on his class in other blog entries, insyaAllah. Meanwhile, one may refer to this book called 'Between Generations' (2007, I co-edited with Beverly Young) that contains few reflections on Ismail (and Nirmala Shanmughalinggam).
I have to note here, that my encounters with him even went beyond the classroom, including hanging out and sleeping over at his house to see his 'digital' and wet studio, serving as one of his minions to construct his digitally-designed set for Noodin Hassan's 'Cindai', or just playing the role of willing punching bags for his witty and intelligent jabs, thrown to wake, tease and make our lazy brains work a bit, mostly at Centrestage Performing Arts in a rented bungalow at Bangsar (Malaysian Bangsar then, before it was 'internationalized' or 'gooblelized'). Ismail Zain had stirred and opened up several special paths within my own 'neural innernet', a gift that I will cherish forever. He had left a massive lingering impact towards my own personal growth. I hope I can leave similar impact to my students, but sadly I doubt it. Most have probably been frightened by my incomprehensible quantum ramblings, they ran away.
For now, lets focus on one of his digital collages, my favourite, "Phantom F4", dot matrix print on paper, 1988.
Im recalling a special lecture he gave on his then new series of digital collages, back in 1988, at the Gallery KSSR, School of Art & Design, UiTM. It was only for his final year drawing class students. He was visibly excited to share, not unlike a small kid I guess. Yet, we were naively dumbfounded about his small A4 size prints. Whats so special 'sangat'? Most of us thought they were etchings, nothing really significant. We can learn that in Ponirin Amin's printmaking class.
In his own 'Kedahan' way, he teased us with semiotics, structuralist, post-structuralist, global village, medium is the message, Marshall Mcluhan and other big big names with fancy theories and terms. Of course, we just 'oohhh, ahhhhh, hmmmmm, ok, ok, rite, rite,' punctuated by occassional 'wauu' to please him.
The closest to any 'post' for us then was 'pos opis' (post-office), the fastest was 'pos laju', while most of us thought that he was referring to jeans when he mentioned Strauss (structural anthropologist). Yet he was cool, even abled to deploy his usual Kedahan wittiness to bring his high end theories into common sense everyday understanding. I'll try to emulate that here, but no promise, k.
Back in 1988, Ismail Zain, like a 'tukang tilik' (seer), was already abled to foresee the incoming waves and consequences of globalization (or gooblelization, globalukasi and globalubasi, my fancy terms) brought about by information implosion. He was responding to how such implosion, such inter-connectivity (inter-textuality in 'canggih' clever-clever term), or simply such massive influx of information exchange may bombard our collective consciousness, our brain or our mind. Our tastes, our sentiments, our values, our realities and sense of identities, may not be naively mono anymore, but more likely a collage, mental and emotional collages.
These amalgamations of tastes, of sentiments, values, realities and identities may reside, co-exist side by side or hybridized in many odd combinations within our collective consciousness (I call it neural innernet). Some may even contradict each other, having no logical relationship whatsoever, as epitomized or shown through his work above.
Ismail even deployed Malay 'pantun' (rhymes) to explain how the combination of unrelated images were then becoming more and more common in the mediascape. He used the unrelated combination between 'pembayang maksud' (forebearer of meaning) and 'maksud' (meaning) in Malay pantun as an example of collage practice. Thats typical Ismail Zain, who could make a synapse leap from one source to another like no one's business.
Such odd combination was referred to as juxtaposition, a term used by another mahaguru, Krishen Jit. He used it to explain Ismail's juxtaposition of unrelated images, each with its own already-given meaning, but unveil new readings when placed together or juxtaposed.
The practice is usually referred to by heavy-headed theorists as 'inter-textuality' of 'textual materials' taken or appropriated from diverse open sources to be juxtaposed together to create new readings. (I used to 'layan' these when I was young-young!).
Imagine (back then, before instagram, twitter or facebook), us flipping between two concurrent TV channels, one a National Geographic documentary on fighter jets, another a local RTM news coverage on the plight of local kampung farmers to survive in the 'global' market. Two different languages, 'ways of explaining, of talking about, of communicating and making meanings/senses' (or 'discourse', to sound smart and hip), co-exist on air or on our mediascape. If we flip fast and many times, both may converge in our minds or consciousness. We may find ourselves conversing in two discourses concurrently, like talking to a jet fighter engineer about their weaponary system and itenaries whilst conversing with few local farmers about their 'temu lawak, terung, cili, bendi, petai, jering', etc. As we are listing Mk 84 GP bomb for the jet itenary, we are also seeing a 'terung' (eggplant)!
The combination between these two sets of textual materials, each with its own 'discourse' or 'discursive' logic, creates a 'hybrid' discourse, surreal, comical or odd it may be. Our collective consciousness may not be 'in harmony' all the time anymore, but conflicting and contradictory, full with paradoxes and ironies.
Of course, sometimes (or many times for some), we may feel as if our collective mind is in conflict with itself, attacking its own conscience. Today, in some intances, we have witnessed how such confluence of conflicting readings or interpretations (due to hyper-intertextuality of conflicting discourses and meaning making) have surfaced or been highlighted in the social media. We even surf in a highly-densed conflicting information landscape full of reactions towards reactions to other reactions perhaps like a chain reaction in a nuclear fusion.
Few would hypothesize that Ismail was also making a veiled statement about neo-imperialism, or the might of advanced weaponaries and war technologies by global superpowers (USA the main culprit of course) as an extention of power and instrument of global domination against weaker countries who rely heavily on their poor argriculture-based economy. Personally, knowing 'Pak Mail', I don't think he was interested in purposely making a political statement or commentary, not to mention one that desperately seeking attention to itself to induce political awareness or mobilisation. He was too much a thinker to commit to such endeavour. But I might be wrong here, dont take my reading here literally.
'Phantom F4' for me, is an epitome of Ismail's wittiness in anticipating and reading the imperatives and inevitable outcomes of globalization and information implosion, way ahead of his peers.
So, there you go, my 'ciput' (little) reflection on Ismail Zain's 'Phantom F4'. I hope we have gained some sensible insights on him from this reflection. If not, blame it on me, and just throw this aside.
As a Muslim, I send 'Pak Mail' my 'doa' and 'Al-Fatihah'. Rest in peace, my dear guru.