SPARE CHANGE Essay by Ellen Lee
FOR THE FUTURE
Generational categories are like astrological signs: they’re shorthand—slang, meme—for a grouping of characteristics that apply to certain, though not all, people of a certain age group. Just like astrology, there are many ways to interpret the findings, and this diversity of interpretation is reflected in the current group exhibition, Boom Zoom Room, organised by R+, a dedicated strategic design-research unit of GDP architects, and curated by Sharmin Parameswaran at APW Bangsar. Comprising several artists and collaborators from various backgrounds and disciplines, including parent-child collaborations, each work proposes a different interpretation on the idea of generational change. The diversity of ideas here reflects the diversity in attitudes among the youth towards their elders, and towards change in general.
Boom Zoom Room presents R+’s latest research findings on current trends among “Generation Z”, the name given to the youth of today who are just about to enter the workforce, commonly figured as those born between the late-1990s to the early-2010s. The exhibition aims to use visual art as a medium to spark conversations between the older and younger generations, from the Baby Boomers, defined as those born after the end of the second world war, between the years of 1946 to 1964, and the Zoomers, and everyone in between.
The exhibition takes as a given that generational differences exist, though R+’s research—drawn from surveys with over 200 young people from around the Klang Valley—found that Generation Z espouse values pretty much consistent with those of their elders. The key takeaway from the research is that Generation Z are “rooted but progressive. They have ideals but remain pragmatic.” The fact that this sentiment could be broadly applied to any generation that came before the Zoomers is perhaps the most important revelation. Our dreams haven’t changed that much after all.
The exhibition can be broadly differentiated into two categories: artists who explore generational gaps through the dynamics of family and personal history, and artists exploring it through society and public history. Despite the different approaches taken by the artists, all of them have chosen to work in traditional mediums (insofar that “traditional” is now synonymous with being physical) and writing their statements in a decipherable language (instead of in the Zoomer lingua franca of memes and posts, which are being generated at the rate of sniper fire on so many new apps daily). Its formal conventionality is perhaps the exhibition’s most striking feature of all, just like how the most striking feature of the research is that the values of the youth haven’t changed much. In their art-making as in their values, the young contemporary artists of Malaysia remain “rooted, but progressive”.
Tabling a Conversation (2022) by Alvin Lau is the question mark punctuating the exhibition, asking whether generational differences really exist as empirical qualities. It’s a collection of photographs presented on two folded, upright formica tables, with the photographs on one depicting the trunk of a tree recently felled in Alvin’s neighbourhood and, on another, a monochrome collection of soil, rocks. On the ground, tape placed around the exhibit creates a barrier of entry to the artwork that adds a further delay to the “tabled” conversation. The work destabilises the exhibition’s premise of differences, instead choosing to focus on generations as expressed in nature.
A few of the artists have taken a very direct interpretation of the exhibition’s premise by engaging their family members in the creation of their artworks. This tendency aligns with R+’s findings that the younger generation still values their elders’ knowledge, while also suggesting that the way our elders lived and worked must be radically different from the way we live and work now and that there is something within their methods and values that is worth preserving for the future.
Ang Xia Yi’s Curtains (2022) uses domestic textiles, creating room to contemplate more intimate forms of intergenerational exchange, especially those manifested through the family unit: habits and traditions of the way households should be run, harsh words exchanged within close spaces, the complex ways that filial expectations are managed. These crooked forms of intergenerational exchange, the way children and parents come to an understanding of each other, is also poetically visualised in Okui Lala’s Sewing and Sew Eng (2014), which sees her engaging her mother, a professional tailor, in creating a sewn work with her child, with Sew Eng using the traditional foot-powered sewing machine while Okui sews on the other side of the fabric using a modern electronic sewing machine.
Both women artist’s decision to use the form of textiles and sewn material to facilitate participation and intimacy finds its echoes in Sharon Chin’s participatory artwork In The Skin of A Tiger, produced for the 2019 Singapore Biennale, and several other textile-based works in the most recent ILHAM Art Show 2022. As our technology picks up pace and more processes become automated, this rapidity is counterbalanced with a desire in art to slow down time by pacing it through the messy, mistake-prone processes of sewing. And perhaps, especially for women, for whom clothing is even more intimately regarded as a form of self-expression, this tendency can also be interpreted as a resistance against fast fashion, which sees precious textiles discarded and regurgitated at a nauseating pace. (R+’s research found that most young respondents still preferred to do their shopping via fast fashion labels.) Mothers in particular shoulder the burden of tradition’s legacy, as it is largely upon them that the maintenance of the home depends. The traces of their creativity and innovation in navigating domestic traditions are often felt through their cooking, their mending, their sewing.
Another of Okui Lala’s video works in the show, Chinese Whisper: 天顶一粒星, 地下开书斋 (2018), explores the significant role that older generations play in shaping the generations of tomorrow while also exploring the compromises that younger generations make in order to understand their elders. The slight shifts in the different family members’ behaviours as they adapt their recital of the same Teochew folk song to someone struggling with the language versus reciting to someone familiar with it are telling giveaways of the difficulties in overcoming one’s own shortcomings to rise to a better understanding of our elders.
Mark Tan introduces an interesting dynamic in the exhibition. He’s worked closely with his mother his entire career, assisting with operations and serving as an art teacher in her private music centre. Mark Tan’s works Song and Piano engage his mother in a collaborative process that also involves the participation of one of their students. As his mother plays a song on the piano to the student, the student follows her finger’s movements with his own, but into a mound of clay instead of on piano keys; the resultant sculpture is reworked by Mark into an artwork that bears both Mark and his mothers’ influence as teachers without overstepping individual boundaries. Respectful homage is also the general theme of Xia Yi’s Curtains, while it is Okui Lala’s works that is the most open to the possibilities of butchering traditions.
The artist’s practice is often an isolated one, shrouded in mystery and possibly disapproval, but the exhibition attempts to facilitate a reconciliation between artist children and their more conventionally-employed parents. Interestingly, the wider art world is trending away from the myth of individual artistic genius and embracing a more community-spirited art, art that engages with traditions, especially those of indigenous and minority groups, which are at threat of being forgotten. As the future of the world becomes more precarious and digital media fragments our attention into ever smaller shards, we retreat back into the family and into the past, when the pace of output was slower and where actions felt more careful and considered. To return to Tabling a Conversation, the sawn-off tree in one of the tables suggests a severance from our roots. We perceive traces of an older way of life lingering in the habits and values of our older family members, but this way of life is one that’s permanently shut off from us; we can only access it through a long line of Chinese whispers, and it’s a past that we’re inadvertently butchering even in our own attempts at preservation.
The thread that runs through most of the works in the exhibition is the urgency of documentation—of making sure that the past is not forgotten, whether that is through keeping alive certain traditions or through a dogged remembrance of promises made in the past.
In the exhibition’s return into the familiar, it should be noted that it is the artistic children who turn to their parents for guidance and not the other way around. Is there anything of value that the youth can teach to the older generations, or is everything worth learning buried in the past? Contrary the popular notion that the youth are the future, much of modern culture actually seems to be turning backwards: more frequently are creatives in the art, design, fashion, and music industries referencing and sampling from the archives; much of contemporary culture, including the persistent Y2K aesthetic, is influenced by earlier eras, as learned through sources from, well, the Internet. Among Generation Z, nostalgia is one of the biggest marketing tactics and it is through the lens of nostalgia that older generations see their influences translated into present-day youth culture.
R+ found among their survey respondents a receptiveness towards family tradition and Asian values, unlike their counterparts in the West. We might attribute this to typical Asian filial piety, but we could also read it as a uniquely local form of resistance to the domination of Western cultural exports on a global scale and the desire to forge an authentic cultural identity that’s rooted in the region. In the international world of art, this tendency reached a pinnacle with ruangrupa’s curation of Documenta 15 in 2022.
Among all the present artists, Xia Yi’s practice can most be characterised as nostalgic, in her engagement with fading traditions and her reinterpretations of them for contemporary consumption. Old-school traditions appear often in her works, whether in the subject matter (such as the vanitas style of still life composition present in Family Portrait, 2019), or the use of photo studios and their kitschy backdrops (as in The Malaysian Woman, 2022), and in her lasting fascination with old textiles and photographs, often sourced from her own family archives. The nostalgia factor is also present in No Good and Kuala Lumpur Ceria’s Tokleh Sko Tokleh Nok Kato, Dugaae Di Ibu Koto, with its use of cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions to lend the videos a homely, lo-fi quality, and in Alvin’s use of the ubiquitous marbled formica table.
In an exhibition ostensibly aimed at bridging the gap between the young and the old, the artworks are remarkably accessible, with most of them being crafted in traditional mediums. To the extent that it’s experimental in its blurring of the word and the image to question what constitutes an artwork, Mark Teh and cloud projects’ Reading the Padang remains wilfully old-fashioned in its insistence on the textual tradition within our short-circuited attention-limited world of algorithmic images and video. Something about established, even nostalgic, forms of presentation still has a hold on contemporary artists, perhaps because they are the last bastions of authenticity in our world of screen surfaces and digital ephemera.
Where does nostalgia arise from if not the idea that the future holds nothing in store?
It’s worth noting that the R+ research touches on politics only in a broad sense. While the survey attempted to capture how Generation Z feels towards the present moment, their attitudes towards the future are a little more ambiguous, and the data is suggestive.
Mark Teh’s ongoing The Complete Futures of Malaysia project (begun in 2017) is perhaps the most future-oriented element in the show. For the exhibition, he has also produced a work in collaboration with cloud projects, a young Malaysian publishing house whose recent projects, including the online exhibition Wawasan Directory (2021), also take an interest in speculative concepts of the future. Mark and cloud’s collaborative work, Reading the Padang (2022), takes the Dataran Merdeka padang as a locus for excavating all the futures that have been closed off to the average city dweller by unpacking the baggage of symbolic associations that the Padang has accumulated over the years: as the headquarters for colonial administrators during the British occupation of Malaysia; as the site where the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time; as the gathering point for various protests including Occupy Dataran in 2011; and, now, as a dead zone in the middle of the city that is only activated on August 31st, when it hosts the independence day parade.
Meanwhile, the collaborative work by punk band, No Good, featuring content from Kuala Lumpur Ceria, an Instagram page which runs on user submissions, explores the city and its futures through a crowd-sourced documentation of the streets of KL. The work revolves around the track D’Kolupo, off No Good’s sophomore album, Punk Gong (2021), a track about how the city of Kuala Lumpur is not what it turns out to be for inter-state migrants who move to the city in the hopes of a better life. Instead of a straightforward rags to riches story, the characters in D’Kolupo find their dreams corrupted by the pressures of living in the city and its fetish for luxury consumer goods. No Good’s fanbase stretches across state borders, resonating with thousands through their celebration of the provincial (all the lyrics to their songs are proudly written in the Kelantanese dialect) and their critique of urban lifestyles. D’Kolupo’s critique is driven home with user-submitted videos from @kualalumpurceria that show the city in all its glorious vulgarity. On the level of the streets, the dissonance between the realities of the city and its projected image of East Asian miraculousness is much clearer than up in the clouds, where one could be misled by the glitzy skyscrapers and high-rises.
What do the youth of tomorrow dream about? If the R+ research is anything to go by, their dreams are still the same as at any point in time: to settle down in one’s own home, to make one’s parents proud, to eventually be freed from debts, to marry, to have children.
Thanks to the many unfulfilled promises of the future that Malaysians have had to endure (most typified by the extravagant Wawasan 2020 vision), the youth have adjusted their desires accordingly. Instead of an automated, technological utopia, now we just want technology to leave us alone. We didn’t ask for all these skyscrapers or multimedia super corridors, we just wanted our parents to be proud of us. We didn’t ask for the super-mega-malls stuffed full with foreign luxury brands or the architecturally inane high-rises, we just wanted to have a house of our own where we could raise a family. We didn’t ask to have the world’s tallest flagpole, we just wanted to hold hands with our partner in a public space without fear. The younger generations can be characterised by a diminishment of hope in the future, their dreams becoming smaller and smaller. Their struggles to cope with the rapid advancements in technology and industry around them have confounded their desires and ambitions to the point where they merely want to have things made simpler, the way they were before. Generation Z: end of the line. Something must have gone horribly wrong along the way, so it’s back to the books. Square one. We have to learn the alphabet again.
If there’s anything that the exhibition tells us about generational gaps, it’s that they’re not so big after all nor are they insurmountable. The shorthand that we’re using to separate the ages seems reductive, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Mostly, culture and history are recursive, and everyone has to witness themselves going out of style eventually. The good news is that everything returns in time. What it boils down to is this: do you believe in the future? And if you do, do you see yourself in it? The continuation of the conversation hinges on the answer.