Kentaro Hiroki: malaysian citizenship
An Artist in Migration
by Tan Zi Hao
In the realm of formal artist biographies, there is no sidestepping the nation. Artist Kentaro Hiroki is no exception to this rule. From biennales to artist CV, the nation speaks for the artist before he does so for himself. Disguised in passive modifiers or as parenthetical remarks—“(b. 1976, Osaka, Japan)”, “Thailand-based Japanese”, “lives and works in Thailand”—these laconic mentions accomplish too much with too little.1 Contextualization is their paramount justification, without which the artworks fall flat. But for an artist in migration like Hiroki, a nation is but a worthless promise that bears no witness to his capricious journey.
“Do I carry the term ‘Japanese’?” Hiroki prompts me jokingly, mindful of our distinct nationalities. Further arousing his interest is when the map of Thailand was unassumingly placed, cheek by jowl, with his artist profile in an exhibition catalogue:2 “How does the curator choose between ‘Japan’ and ‘Thailand’?” Without expecting my reply, Hiroki’s rhetorical questions point to the profound inadequacy of the nation. Has his nationality, or the nation in which he is based, spoken for him and before his artworks? “Nation” and “nationality” are hypostasized categories compressing the migrant artist into paper citizenship, literally flat and deprived of mobility, genealogy, history. Liaising between his national and personal voice, Hiroki unfailingly discovers, to his dismay, that the former prevails as a prerequisite to the latter.
While Hiroki is not entirely against the nation, his travelling has accumulated sufficient accounts to warrant some distrust against its definition. Experience of mobility turns the nation into an incomprehensible abstraction. For what is nation but a place? What is nationality but a crude label ready to betray an individual? The pernicious poison of nationalism once again strikes the artist as uncanny. Following from his two most recent solo exhibitions, in which he delved into the crucible of Thai nationalism, his inquisitiveness now lands on Malaysia, on a book prosaically titled Malaysian Citizenship, written by the late judge and Lord President Tan Sri Mohamed Suffian.3
Dwelling without permit has the expression of anxiety. When judge Suffian wrote Malaysian Citizenship in 1970, he dedicated it to those “anxious about their status”,4 at home or abroad. A slender book but thick with legalese, it enumerates the criteria of becoming a “Malaysian” proper. Objective clarification was his ultimate goal: in translating selected constitutional articles and other provisions into digestible chunks, Suffian allows his readers to estimate their possibility of being recognized as Malaysian citizens. The book is thus a practical text, written by a judge who cared enough for those untrained in law and, as an obituary courteously recounts, to “never let legal technicalities prevail over justice”.5
More than forty years after the initial publication, Suffian’s legal guidebook—now an “antique”—makes its way to the flea market at Amcorp Mall and was picked up by the artist-cum-hoarder. Serendipitous encounter as such is meaningless to the general observers but gratifying to Hiroki. Before we know it, what appears as a book for anxious readers is re-fashioned into drawings for unruffled art aficionados. Never in Suffian’s wildest dreams had he ever imagined his book to inspire an artist, to bedeck the uninterrupted walls of a white cube. For a book that revels in pragmatic clarity and accessibility, making a debut in an art exhibition is a sheer non-clarity. Reincarnated, Malaysian Citizenship secures an unlikely afterlife of being replicated page by page, line by line, and word for word in the contemplative exercise of Hiroki’s malaysian citizenship.
When I asked of the artwork title, Hiroki replies simply: “malaysian citizenship”.
Disappointed and surprised, I was inclined to ask again to be convinced of its foreboding staleness. But himself a cunning creature, Hiroki’s artworks are often a silent provocation. Playing innocent in his art of imitation and comment no more on what he chooses to imitate, his detailed drawings carry a reticent coquetry that tempts us into an open field of interpretation. As I am still sorting out a reason, Hiroki points to the front cover of the book, with a certain insistence: “not ‘Malaysian Citizenship’ but ‘malaysian citizenship’, in small letters”. The exhibition title is not the title of the book but the title on the book. Why the book cover title was minisculed belongs to a reasoning no longer graspable. But the moment the undue lower case is being appropriated as an artwork title, Hiroki’s copy assumes a conceptually dense position. Faithful imitation herein makes the ordinary extraordinary – an unbearable cliché that Hiroki follows religiously. Titled without compromise in the un-sovereignty of small letters, malaysian citizenship is a copy too religious it borders on sacrilegious.
To copy a found object is to Hiroki an intense act of recollection. Here lies his sorcery of copying, and perhaps, of coping with, the ordinary: in the midst of alienated and accelerated commodity exchange, Hiroki copies to tease out a speculative biography of secondhand objects and their various intimacies. I would like to suggest that copying, in Hiroki’s case, is itself an enactment of zooming in, of practically diminishing the distance between the artist and the object. To get to the minutest detail, Hiroki angles his head closer, he tightens his shoulder as if to amass full attention, he lowers his spectacles to the bridge of his nose to inspect the object like a newfound treasure trove of flashbacks awaiting excavation. It is a “re-personalizing process” through which Hiroki is able to get up close and personal with the secondhand.6 But the artist is not the sole agent in this process of zooming in. Hiroki’s work is a natural invitation. An audience who chances upon his artworks will often be prompted by a curiosity to zoom in, to peek into the object, to follow the track of Hiroki’s obsession. By copying the ordinary, Hiroki magnifies and aestheticizes it. The toilsome reproduction begs us to rivet our eyes on his craft and his craft alone.
In malaysian citizenship we notice the book no longer. Suffian’s text is relegated to a secondary position, subsumed under Hiroki’s handiwork. The text no longer carries meanings, and the pages, remodelled into a typographic expanse flowered with manually drawn Times New Roman and Gill Sans. Hiroki has robbed the author of his intent. Each spread now divorced from the whole is rendered desolate but uniquely artful. With no page left unturned, the flesh of the book is laid bare for synchronous inspection and fastidious appreciation. But this time, contrary to his previous exercise, Hiroki is conscious of not wanting to make an exact copy. malaysian citizenship marks the very first in his repertoire to utilize a combination of colours to replicate an object. Zooming in on the letters, motley lines that constitute them slowly crystallize (Fig. 1). With the help of a magnifying glass, the solidity of text trifurcates into three primary colours, overlapping and outshining one another. In the sequence of blue, yellow, and red, Hiroki copies the text not once but thrice. The excess of colours failing to meet is what makes Hiroki’s copy more and less than a copy. “The mixing is always incomplete”, he remarks as he directs my observation to his tricolour letters that could never attain the resoluteness of the original black. Thus the resemblance can only be experienced from afar; zooming in, it collapses. The devil is in the detail. At a near-microscopic level, Hiroki’s letters tremble with the undisciplined pulse of a human that hesitates and errs, quibbling about the determined legalese. The text slumbers into a visual feast. Aesthetics here triumphs over semantics: the act of reading is substituted by a scrutiny inconsequent to the content at stake. Any effortless skimming through is suddenly deferred by Hiroki’s drawn letters, which, though still readable, acquire a new magnetism unfit for fluent reading.
Given the context in Malaysia and the title “malaysian citizenship”, my initial impression was to associate the blue, yellow, and red with the clichéd Jalur Gemilang or other patriotic paraphernalia. Having been annually bombarded with carnivalesque national day logos (Fig. 2),7 it is unwise to fault me for my dull-witted humour. But to Hiroki they mean nothing but the traditional elemental colours. “It is important that I am an outsider”, Hiroki reminds me, perhaps, with a courtesy to spare me from the risk of embarrassing myself. He cheekily adds, “surely it can be interpreted as the colours of Malaysia, but they are also very familiar colours in Thailand!8 It is difficult for me to pinpoint which colours are meant for which nation”. Hiroki’s indifference should jolt us into a new alertness and compel us to reflect on our presupposed visual schemes that have shoehorned our epistemic outlook a priori to what we see.
Steered clear of cliché I heave a sigh of relief. But before my suspicion is fully appeased, Hiroki throws in another concept equally clichéd – “harmony”. A word every Malaysian citizen has heard it too much to the point of disgust, but still he speaks of the cringeworthy word with conviction. For countless moments of bittersweet hilarity, the Malaysian government—of both old and new—has warned dissident voices against undermining “harmony”. With a furrowed brow, I speak again expecting some clarification: “But Kentaro, ‘harmony’ is a politically-loaded term in Malaysia”. Yet in all seriousness Hiroki beseeches me to give aesthetics a chance. Something of our banal assumption of “harmony”, according to him, deserves critical reconsideration: a cliché that takes place within the context of a nation should be rid of its own contextual pretense. Without irony, he dares say: “malaysian citizenship is all about aesthetics”. I can detect in his remark a taciturn yet persistent rebellion. Hiroki’s artwork cues us to concede to a meaning without a recourse to the nation, to a possibility of unthinking. It opens up a semantic interpretation of “harmony” beyond the purview of nation-states. It is a “harmony” irrelevant to Malaysia; a “harmony” characterized by Hiroki’s meticulous traces, by his rhythmic overlaps, than by the clichés of nationalist ideologues. The transformative potential in Hiroki’s conceptualization of aesthetics lies not in resistance but in desistance from the banality of nation-centric experiences.9 Aesthetics as such stands as the last bulwark of artistic interpretation where dispelling politics is itself political.
Skepticism on the nation is not unwarranted for the artist in migration. Hiroki’s unschematic trajectory across Japan, United Kingdom, Sweden, and Thailand,10 heightens his awareness of citizenship, and by the same token, raises caution about its precondition. Nationality, into which one is born without will, takes on an all too important urgency in Hiroki’s various exchanges – from work permit to visa applications and the attendant legal hassles required of a foreigner. Worse, this geopolitical liability is not exempted from the field he dearly belongs to – the arts and cultural industry. Over a decade of sojourn in Southeast Asia makes Hiroki an inadvertent witness to how nations divide more than unite. Problems of national boundaries were brought to his personal attention as he assisted Thai filmmaker and partner, Soraya Nakasuwan,11 on her films, namely, Rahtree Sawasdi (2012), Citizen (2015), and Powerhouse Complex (2016), all of which detail the precarity of transgressing and negotiating with sovereign territorial boundaries. In a region where segregation coexists with cross-border movements, nationalism tells an apocryphal story.
I first met Hiroki in 2010, in a haphazardly convened band of design educationists, who, in sharing a devotion to push for regional conversations among design students in Southeast Asia, decided to initiate a workshop-oriented initiative called “Neighbour Programme”.12 That the students knew little about the cultural similarities they share startled him. National boundaries, he noticed, have come to define the discourse of culture in postcolonial Southeast Asia. I recognize at once, being a Malaysian (and not without some reluctance), the isomorphism between culture and sovereignty that inheres in the kerfuffles over cultural ownership between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. “Why can’t culture be shared across nations?” Hiroki concurs. Animosity simmered for decades would occasionally trickle to the front with allegations of cultural theft: with Singapore are the trifling attempts to copyright particular cuisines from nasi lemak to chicken rice;13 whereas with Indonesia, fierce contestations over the folk song “Rasa Sayang”, angklung, or batik have headlined many stories and burned many flags.14 Culture, in this schema, is reduced to a word coined by nation.
It is amid this nexus of concerns that Hiroki’s aesthetic evocation should be understood as radical. Not that aesthetics belong to a pristine storehouse immune to political parasitism, but of having the potential to evoke a parallax shift beyond it. His exploration began with the music of Thai national anthem. A musical rhythm, Hiroki vividly recalls in his research exhibition on Thai composer Phra Chenduriyang (1883–1968; born as Peter Feit), cuts across fragile political divides.15 Phra Chenduriyang was the composer of Thai national anthem, a reputed music teacher, and the Deputy in the Western music division of the Royal Entertainment Department.16 At a period when royalism and constitutionalism were in conflict, composing the national anthem put him under scrutiny of the royal family. Being accused of double-dealing, Phra Chenduriyang explained that the music was only written “personally in favour for a friend”, and since he did not write the lyrics, it “could not be considered as a national anthem.”17 In all likelihood, the composer, who had friends in both camps, was pressured by either side, and was caught in a quandary typical during an overt seizure of power. To Hiroki, however, Phra Chenduriyang’s motivation in music was free from the yoke of rigid political bondage. In Sound of Silence (2015) as in Dear Peter Feit, The Letter from Music (2016), Hiroki’s faithful imitation of the composer’s musical documents invites the audience to zoom in into the very aesthetics of his written notation and rhythm.18
Hiroki’s brand of aesthetics is reductive: Suffian’s book is reduced to an object; Phra Chenduriyang’s Thai national anthem is denuded to a rhythm composed for a personal friend. The “national” is almost always stripped down to the barest essentials, comprised of mere objects, persons, and the relationships in between. To privilege the object and person is not to succumb to the universalism of an irreducible abstraction but to regain insights into the subjectivities of the ordinary. Hiroki’s obsession thus far echoes Japanese postwar avant-garde movements in the 1960s, whereby the ordinary, the concrete, the objectal, were championed through the neo-Dadaist rubric of “anti-art” (han-geijutsu) or “non-art” (hi-geijutsu), Fluxus or Gutai.19 “Object”, as the argot of the epoch, was often invoked by artists with connotations of the French objet trouvé.20 But averted from the Surrealist track that appropriates a found object as an end in itself, the object is now employed by Hiroki as a point of departure. “The more I travel, the more I enjoy collecting objects”, Hiroki admits to his fancy as he jokes about how his partner Soraya Nakasuwan considers them to be vessels possessed by spirits and are better left untouched. But Hiroki is long spellbound by them, irreversibly, especially since his departure from home.
To the artist in migration, the found object is akin to a compass without a needle, and yet it points towards home. Every object he collected is a chimera of unknown itineraries, holding a memory of geography before him. Tracing its history and contemplating it set him in motion in his quest for selfhood. The object finds him inasmuch as he finds the object. This oscillating thought process was carefully cited by Hiroki’s former lecturer João Penalva of Malmö Art Academy, Sweden. It is only fair to quote Penalva’s observation at length:
Early on in our tutorials Hiroki-san21 would show me the bits and pieces he purchased at this and that secondhand or junk shop in Malmö. […] his main interest and pleasure was in Asian objects that found their way to Scandinavia, in particular photographs and figurines; small items that in various ways represented Asia and its people. […] it had taken him to travel to Europe to understand much that in Japan was not clear to him about what to [be] expected of himself as an artist. We talked of the notion of “place” as a set of cultural and emotional references that change with our distance from it; that no other notion is more fictional than that of a “place” to which one is linked to by personal memory, itself fictional to a[n] unknown degree. That Hiroki-san had “found” in Sweden an Asia, and in particular his Japan, was to me a fascinatingly intricate, winding and turning course.22
Hiroki reads in his found objects his very own passage. He who is equally estranged from home, finds solace by diligently copying them, possibly, to re-discover in them “his Japan”. Privately as much as socially, the subjectivity of “Japanese” lurks in his innermost recesses.
In a somewhat subdued manner, Hiroki admits that his curiosity about Southeast Asia is buoyed by an urge to “correct Japanese history”. This is followed by an abrupt pause. Brief but critical. As if his tongue revolts against his words. He continues, “but only at a personal level”, seemingly, to prevent me, the local, from reaching too harsh a verdict on his private ambition. Residing in the region, other than a consequence of romance with Soraya Nakasuwan, is in part a learning process informed by conscience and gravely marked by the still-unresolved historiographical bias of Japanese imperialism, whose assumption of war responsibility remains contentious. Even an aesthete could fall victim to politics. Despite Hiroki’s qualm about the term “Japanese”, he carries with him a historical burden intrinsically tied to the nationality into which he is born. “Japan” or “Japanese” here points to a provisional term not necessarily pervaded by the petulance of nationalism, but by an emphatic sensitivity towards historical circumstances. It is another Japan: still a Japan nonetheless, but a Japan “same-same but different”, to borrow the hackneyed Thai lingo. In many ways, I find this viewpoint level with that of critical scholar and activist Hanasaki Kohei: “I […] am still positioned in a historical situation where the decolonization of Japan is not complete, [but] I would provisionally take upon myself the definition of being a ‘Japanese’, the definition that is given to me by other people and that puts me into the national Japanese collective.”23 Between the dungeon of critical inwardness called “personal” and the historical consciousness of the “national”, Hanasaki reclaims an abyssal separation. Mirroring Hiroki’s radical aesthetic methodology, Japan as the sovereign entity is re-personalized; it becomes his Japan, distinct and adjacent to the Japan. This subjective positioning complicates notions of nationality and citizenship, for it distances the personal self from the nation, while acknowledging its continual presence as historically contingent.24 We now arrive at a remedial overcoming of national history with personal biography. Hiroki’s reductive aestheticization brings to light the microcosmic ecology of the ordinary objects and persons, and their uncontained transit across nations. Yet, he does not stop short at magnifying the ordinary. His repertoire is an exploration of zooming in, in anticipation of, a zooming out. It hauls us into an intimate rapport with an apparently trivial or useless objects, in order to transport us out of totalizing points of reference.
Seen from this standpoint, malaysian citizenship is another bid to seep through the cracks of nationalism and sovereignty, to make aesthetics a threat again. The possibility of sidestepping the nation lies in a double reading: zooming in, we undo our overinvestment of meanings, we redeem banal values as we know them personally; zooming out, we foresee within the intricate networks of the ordinary a legion above sovereign nations. Hiroki’s malaysian citizenship may appear like a detached and quiet appraisal of socio-political affairs, but they are far from indifferent and disinterested. Like a trap set up to pry open a space unhampered by signifying motives, malaysian citizenship posits an array of questions elegantly basic and vulgar: What does it mean for a Malaysian audience to read a Thailand-based Japanese artist drawing a book entitled “Malaysian Citizenship”? What are the odds of bypassing nondescript nationalities that speak before us and for us? Can we look pass the book and its content as we confront the aesthetics of the thing in itself, so that every feature appears as a husk of unpurposed creation? Hiroki, as an artist in migration and an aesthete, may very well be the final arbiter of the ordinary.
1 John Tung, “Kentaro Hiroki” in Singapore Biennale 2016: An Atlas of Mirrors (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2016), p. 45; BK Magazine, “ART: Sound of Silence – Kentaro Hiroki”, BK Magazine, 583 (2015): 32; DJ Pangburn, “Southeast Asia is a Mirrored World at the 2016 Singapore Biennale”, Creators, 5 December 2016, https://creators.vice.com/en_au/article/yp5ynb/mirrored-world-2016-singapore-biennale [accessed 5 August 2018].
2 Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale 2016: An Atlas of Mirrors (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2016), p. 45.
3 Mohamed Suffian Mohamed Hashim (1917–2000) was the fourth Lord President and one of the most celebrated judges in Malaysia. A staunch defender of the Malaysian judiciary, he was reputed for siding with the people against government injustice. His written judgments are never obtuse and his books take into consideration readers who are unfamiliar with legal jargons. In his innumerable obituaries, much has been said of his humble and generous personality despite his privileged status. For a more comprehensive account of his legacy, see: Salleh Buang, In Service of the Law – Simplicity and Greatness: Tun Suffian’s Legacy (Kuala Lumpur: Tun Suffian Foundation Incorporated, 2007), pp. xi–xxxiv, 325–395.
4 Tan Sri Mohamed Suffian, Malaysian Citizenship (Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Penerangan, 1970), p. iii.
5 The Telegraph, “Tun Mohamed Suffian”, The Telegraph, 28 September 2000, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1357064/Tun-Mohamed-Suffian.html [accessed 5 August 2018].
6 Soraya Nakasuwan, “shadows: Exhibition of Kentaro Hiroki”, Heterogénesis, 6 September 2003, http://www.heterogenesis.com/H-45/KentaroEng.htm [accessed 5 August 2018].
7 Kyadizah Abd. Hamid & Siti Nor Khalilah Abdullah Halim (eds.), Sayangi Malaysiaku: Koleksi Logo-Logo Hari Kebangsaan 1976–2018 (Putrajaya: Jabatan Perdana Menteri, 2018). See also: Siraj Mohd Zaini, “Kisah Di Sebalik Logo”, Harian Metro, 17 August 2016, pp. 10–11.
8 Red and blue are part of the national flag of Thailand. The country has also been divided between the yellow shirts and the red shirts. Beyond national politics are the royal flags awash in yellow and blue, representing the King and Queen respectively.
9 Krzystof Ziarek, The Force of Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 52–59.
10 Having obtained a BA in Fine Art (1995–1999) at Osaka Art University in Japan, Hiroki left Japan for a Foundation Course (1999–2000) at Central Saint Martins, and later a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art (2000–2001) at Goldsmiths in the United Kingdom. Finally, he pursued an MA in Fine Art (2001–2003) at Malmö Art Academy in Sweden. Upon graduation, he returned to Asia and settled in Thailand until today.
11 It is worth noting that Hiroki first met Soraya Nakasuwan during his stay in London. His decision to work and reside in Thailand, beginning from 2006 onwards, was no doubt factored by this personal relationship. Here too, perhaps, the national is rendered secondary to the personal. Love looms as the most transgressive anarchist.
12 Hiroki was representing the School of Architecture and Design from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Bangkok. I was then working for Dasein Academy of Art in Kuala Lumpur and had the chance to attend a few meetings. Other participating institutions included Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, and Binus University, Jakarta.
13 Cynthia Chou, “How Chicken Rice Informs about Identity”, in Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, & Morten Warmind (eds.),
Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), pp. 139–150.
14 Chong Jinn Winn, “ ‘Mine, Yours or Ours?’: The Indonesia-Malaysia Disputes over Shared Cultural Heritage”, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 27, 1 (2012): 1–53. See also: Marshall Clark & Juliet Pietsch, Indonesia-Malaysia Relations: Cultural Heritage, Politics and Labour Migration (Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 67–89.
15 Hiroki held two exhibitions on the same subject in Bangkok. The first was Sound of Silence (2015) at Bangkok University Gallery and the second, Dear Peter Feit, The Letter from Music (2016).
16 “Agenda: 100 Years Professor Phra Chenduriyang Exhibition”, National Library Division, Ministry of Fine Arts in collaboration with Phra Chenduriyang Association, 28 July 1993, unpublished document. The document referred to here is an unpublished English translation provided by the artist.
17 Ibid., unpaginated.
18 An irrelevant detail to the readers but nevertheless an important one to the artist: Hiroki’s initial exhibition plan in Malaysia was to continue his research on national anthems in Southeast Asia. He went to the flea market at Amcorp Mall attempting to look for old documents on “Negaraku” or “Mamula Moon”, instead, he stumbled upon the book Malaysian Citizenship, which led to this exhibition.
19 Reiko Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2016), pp. 26–33.
20 First deployed by critic Shuzo Takiguchi and later popularized by artist Genpei Akasegawa. Pedro R. Erber, Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan (California: University of California Press, 2014), pp. 145–172. See also: Genpei Akasegawa, “The 1960s: The Art Which Destroyed Itself: An Intimate Account”, in Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan 1945–1965, trans. John Clark (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1985), pp. 85–90.
21 -san is a common Japanese honorific. It is gender-neutral and may refer to either “Mister”, “Madam”, or “Miss” with a sense of reserved politeness.
22 Italics original. João Penalva, “Teaching Teaches Teachers. And Students, Too.”, in Malmö Art Academy: The First 10 Years, 1995–2005 (Malmö: Malmö Art Academy, 2005), p. 125.
23 Hanasaki Kohei, “Decolonialization and assumption of war”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1, 1 (2000): 78.
24 Chen Kuan-Hsing identified this critical positioning and reflexive desistance as “internationalist localism”. See: Chen Kuan-Hsing, “Positioning Positions: A New Internationalist Localism”, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 3, 3 (1994): 680–710; Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 223.