By Akanksha Raja
(1,493 words, 6-minute read)
It’s almost 4pm as the KTM train I’m travelling on trudges to a slow halt at the railway station in Kluang, Johor. The first thing that catches my eye is Kluang Rail Coffee, right in the middle of the station, one of the town’s most famous – and oldest – hangouts, having been in operation since 1938. But as soon as I alight, I realise it’s closed, which seems a little unusual for a Thursday afternoon, and then it strikes me how silent, and how small, the entire station is. I’ve never been to Kluang before, and I’m here now to stay for a few days and cover the inaugural INXO International Residency Programme.
Over the weekend the residency will culminate in a showcase by the six artists who have been living and working in Kluang for the past month. The artists are from Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, and the showcase is part of Pesta Kluang 2019, which is taking place at Gunung Lambak, a 500m-high mountain not too far west of the heart of the town. I’m fascinated and curious to find out what it’s like to experience an arts festival in this unassuming, understated town.
Shortly, I meet Tan E-Jan, the director of INXO Arts and Culture Foundation. As we wait for our ride, she gives me a brief primer on Kluang – it’s best known for its coffee and for its history as a former army base.
Before E-Jan joined INXO in December 2018, one of the Foundation’s main operations was running a grant programme for young practitioners. The INXO International Residency Programme was the result of efforts to engage and support previous applicants of the INXO Arts Fund, both local and international, working across all art forms. E-Jan – who is also the founder and creative producer of creative incubator Toccata Studio – had a clear vision for the residency to take root in smaller towns, believing that the growth of arts and culture in Malaysia is hindered by limited access to those not residing in major cities. Her conviction comes partly from lived experience: she grew up in a small town near Pangkor Island that “had only one crossroad… so I know how it feels when you grow up in a small town and you’re not given a lot of opportunities.”
She approached various towns to set up the programme, but Kluang was the only town that responded positively and immediately. “This kind of proposal is new here in Malaysia,” E-Jan shares. “If people don’t see a “product”, then they don’t know what to expect.” But there are some clear parameters to the residency: artists have to engage with locals and local elements. There’s potential for placemaking in such projects, which could grow tourism. Kluang had previously held the first Pesta Kluang in 2014; this year’s edition would be its second, and the town runs community activities and events under its Kluang 2.0 platform.
Part of the residency’s commitment to building a relationship between artists and locals comes in the form of workshops and talks led by the artists, held on the weekends leading up to the final showcase. For example, Malaysian documentary photographer and filmmaker Mahen Bala engaged locals at a Pasar Pagi (morning market) in drawing up unique personal maps of Kluang based on their memories and subjective conception of the town. Japanese dancer Yuhei Ara’s workshop session saw him dancing at Kluang Rail Coffee, a novel experience for locals unfamiliar with movement performance in public spaces.
Over the next few days, I find that the rediscovery or reimagining of one’s home or immediate environment seems to be the common thread weaving through the six artists’ projects.
Singaporean sound artist Ng Sze Min’s workshop session had participants share the sounds they most closely associated with Kluang: birds, dogs, children, coffee spoons clinking against cups. In a heartfelt Facebook post a few days later, a participant remarked in Mandarin, “我好像来到了一个新世界，感受到了另个居銮。” (“I seem to have come to a new world, and feel the other Kluang.”) Ng’s audio installation at the showcase in Gunung Lambak, titled Story of the Coffee Town, comprises an MP3 player playing a track that guides the listener around a section of the mountain park. It’s interspersed with what feels like an open journal entry on her experience of Kluang, as well as a song played on guitar whose nostalgia-tinged lyrics had been penned by a workshop participant who is studying abroad.
A short path behind Ng’s installation leads to Lee Mok Yee’s Being and Time, a majestic cluster of 40 upright wooden pallets obtained from local industrial pallet factories. From afar, they resemble a small-scale model of urban skyscrapers to my Singaporean eye, and I conflate the two contrasting images; for a moment, the sharp uneven edges of wood and organic coarseness of bark paradoxically meld together with the orderly metallic corners and smooth design of corporate architecture. The contrast strikes me as an indictment of human dominion over nature.
Further uphill, Japanese dancer Yuhei Ara’s performance Far From Here is similarly laced with symbolism. He leads the audience up the slope towards the rest of the exhibits, while hoisting a long bamboo stick at the end of which hangs the cardboard-tube puppet of a man. He climbs the steep incline in meditative slowness, pausing every now and then to swing the pole around so the puppet bounces around comically and plays about with the audience. The use of bamboo recalls the Japanese occupation of Kluang and Southeast Asian in the 1940s; Yuhei Ara, as a young Japanese body on Southeast Asian land, carries the weight of this atrocious history, but balances this with levity and playfulness in his attempt at reconciliation, or letting go.
Up the hill on scorching hot pavement, Korean performer and director Kim Yujin waits for the breathless audience to cool themselves off a little after the steep ascent. Her improvised participatory work Random Harmony is a gentle respite from the intensity of Ara’s climb, as she invites the audience to some moments of communal mindfulness of the surrounds before a session of guided improvised movement. Each performance comprises of entirely new audience-participants who threw themselves in with remarkable enthusiasm (considering the midday heat!)
We move towards a sheltered pavilion nearby for shade and find the broad pages of Mahen Bala’s What Happened to Pulau Kluang? rustling in the breeze. It’s a photo-essay in two books depicting an alternative history of Kluang, reimagined as an island ravaged by ‘Great Wind’ in 1945, alluding to the atomic bombings that took place that year in Japan. The simple storytelling and moments of dry humour in the text deftly undercut the gravity of the massively traumatic event – for example, a picture of lion statues on top of a temple is accompanied by the caption “The winds brought many strange things to Kluang, most notably a pack of lions […] They are shy creatures; be careful not to scare them.” The work quietly prods the reader to imagine further, empathise deeper, and question their understanding of history and historical narratives.
The last exhibit I visit is Teo Wey Herng’s So It Goes, My Poem. It’s indoors, in a dusty old room dimly lit by sunlight seeping in through the frosted windows. Long loose sheets of paper hang from the ceiling on strings and sway like fragile swings. They depict paintings of natural elements – flowers, trees, fauna – in pastel colours. Some of the sheets are torn in places, and the torn bits are hung up separately like a symbol of vulnerability.
I almost don’t notice Teo’s six poems pasted on the walls, and wonder if they’re meant to be inconspicuous. I have to squint to make out the words. The poems describe travels to, from, within Kluang, through overheard conversations, passive observations, and moments of quiet introspection. Teo hands me scraps of fragmented words and phrases from her poems and invites me to tie them anywhere I want within the installation, creating a patchwork of new verses and new meanings. There’s a sense of transience and the ephemeral in this work, but generosity as well, as if Teo feels her words and her perspectives are less important than what her viewers, the residents of Kluang, make of them.
It all comes back to the people of Kluang. In its own way each artist’s work invites the people of Kluang to a dialogue with their space they live in, their history, their identity. To some, the INXO International Residency Programme showcase may have been nothing more than a distraction on an otherwise routine weekend walk up Gunung Lambak, and to others it may have significantly changed their perspective on something they’d previously taken for granted. In any case, a new world, a different Kluang, had opened up through art. It’s hard to tell if it will stay, but with INXO’s goal towards establishing a regular series of residency programmes in Kluang (and other small Malaysian towns), it might just happen again in the not too distant future.
The INXO International Residency Programme Showcase 2019 took place between 30 August – 1 September 2019, at Mount Lambak, Kluang, Malaysia. The INXO International Residency Programme Showcase was part of Pesta Kluang 2019.
INXO Arts and Culture Foundation provided for the writer’s accommodation and transport to and from Kluang.
Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.