Enoch Cheng talks with Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail (a.k.a. Ise) about his collaboration with six Singaporean families, and the socioeconomic problems stemming from the so-called "New Economic Policy" in Malaysia.
Enoch Cheng: In Acronym of the New Economic Policy (2009), you collage found stickers, pamphlets, and posters that advertise the services of illegal workers in Malaysia. What is your view on the illegal worker situation there?
Roslisham Ismail: Actually there is a miscommunication about this work. There was a printing error in the Jakarta Biennale catalogue. The work is actually not about illegal workers in Malaysia, but instead about the problem of illegal money-lenders here. New Economic Policy (NEP) or Dasar Ekonomi Baru (DEB) in Malay is a policy that the Malaysian government instituted in the 1970s, to try to improve the economic status of the Malay people, but in my opinion, the policy is not working. It is allowing the rich to become richer while having no effect at all on the lives of normal people. Unfortunately, the government thinks this thirty-year old policy is still valid.
Small businesses have a really difficult time getting bank loans as terms and conditions are beyond what the average small business can afford, so an illegal money-lender business has arisen, offering loans, but with really high interest rates. These loans often become crazy nightmares for the borrowing traders; if they cannot make their payments, people start to harasses them, which sometimes leads to serious violence. It has become a new social problem that I see as a byproduct of the NEP/DEB.
Illegal money-lender stickers, pamphlets, and posters are everywhere. The lenders use a multitude of strategies to attract people to borrow money, including the use of bikini-clad girls on their stickers. It shocks me that this is what the New Economic Policy has wrought! I have been collecting these stickers for two years and I’m now using them to make a huge collage of the letters NEP.
EC: In Secret Affair, Secret Agent, and Top Secret poster project, you display your collages on the street. How was that different from showing your work in a gallery?
RI: I made this work while doing a project with BRITTO Art Trust in Panam City, Bangladesh. I had an idea to make fake film posters after I became interested in the local Bangladeshi film posters plastered around Panam City. I couldn’t understand any of the film titles as everything was written in Bangladeshi, so I just became fascinated with them on a visual level, and began to create my own story using their visual elements.
Then I started to think that film posters are in many ways more powerful than the films themselves, in their ability to convey the concept of a three hour film in one image. I decided to make these fake sequel film posters while working on my "secret affair" project for the Singapore Biennale, so I used the concept of the secret as the key concept of my film poster project too; it became Secret Affair, Secret Agent, and Top Secret.
I then hung out with local people, drank tea with them, and took their photos. I used them with images of real actresses collected from film magazines to make collages and designed the film posters to mimic the mood of original Bangladeshi film posters. I put my posters on the street alongside the real posters. Initially, I wanted to see how people reacted to the posters. It was really amazing to see more and more people gather around the posters and start to recognise people they know. Then, the whole village came and my Bangladeshi artist friends told me that people had begun to make their own stories about the fake film posters and many people believed that the posters advertised a real film coming soon.
EC: In the piece, The Story Behind Social Ill, you crush different everyday objects into one crowded space. Can you talk about the idea behind this work?
RI: The Story Behind Social Ill, an installation I made in 2000, addresses the housing problem in Malaysia which is directly linked to many social problems there. Many young people coming from small flat housing are involved in drugs, primarily because their houses are really small and crowded and they have big families, so they start feel uncomfortable in their homes and start to go out where they face all the negative things outside.
EC: In Secret Affair, you used six refrigerators to store the food from six different Singaporean families with whom you spent time. You then had the head chef of SAM at 8Q’s restaurant create a special menu based on what was available in the refrigerators. Tell us about this work? How did it come about?
RI: I worked with six different families in Singapore for six months. This project was really challenging for me because I dealt with six different families and fresh food, so the whole project was about negotiating timing. Fortunately, I got help from many good friends from Malaysia and Singapore to make this project happen.
I didn’t share the identity of the six families because it’s a part of the project that we don’t want viewers to judge them. This project is more like social sharing, because the families come from different backgrounds, as you can see from the contents of their fridges without knowing their identities. So for six months, I came to Singapore every month to talk to each family and hang out with them; they were my collaborators. For the last part of the project, I gave them each SGD 200 and followed them with a video camera while they went food shopping. The video only showed their hands picking things up; it never showed their faces. Then, the families came on installation day to install the food inside the fridges because they said that they had their own ways to organise their fridges.
David Heng, the chef from SAM at 8Q’s restaurant, Food for Thought, then responded to this artwork by making dishes inspired by the food in each fridge and the secret recipes that each family gave me. The collaboration with David Heng, which made my work edible, really expanded the piece beyond my original idea.
Actually the whole process of making this project was really priceless for me. From meeting these six families, becoming good friends, and having the chance to go inside their homes, to working with the families to open and share their private and micro worlds with other people was an amazing experience.
EC: Obviously, your work has some sort of pop element. Your video and photo-collage SuperFiction, created during your short residency in Japan, is a good example. In it, you tell the hyper-realist stories of an urban city in an almost comic-book fashion. Some may say that in being "pop," you risk losing the potential to engage your audience critically. What do you think about that?
RI: Actually, I wasn’t trying to be "pop" or whatever title that people may have given to the work. I just did what I liked. I don’t want to pretend to be a cool artist by making work look like wise artwork that people don’t understand. Then, people start to feel guilty when they don’t understand the work and try to be cool by pretending to understand it and, in the end, there is no more fun in the art world.
People can enjoy the work, SuperFiction on many layers. I really tried to open many layers of discussion, so people can choose how they want to enjoy it. We can have a serious discussion about the work or people can just enjoy the video and the photos, depending on their experience.
EC: In Ghost, you recorded the discussions of more than sixty people including artists, curators, lecturers, social bloggers, and young children as they commented on ten drawings that you did during a period of insomnia. What did you learn from these discussions?
RI: What I learned from these discussion sessions is never ever ask sixty people to come and talk about what they think directly about your work. It’s like being on trail in public. Because the drawings were made during a period of insomnia, it is not really like they were made with 100% of my waking attention, so when people started to talk about them and give their opinions, it was really a nightmare for me because it told me about what was happening to me, what my problems were. Everything about my personal life came out and revealed all my personal secrets.
But the positive thing about this project is that it made me more prepared to handle myself with critics. It also made me more open-minded. For example, if I want to critique something about my society, I must also be open to critique myself.
EC: Can you tell us about your recent collaboration with the Indonesian group, ruangrupa art collective? What was the Trio Terror project about? You worked with them before in the Istanbul Biennale, didn’t you? What is your relationship with them? How was it different this time?
RI: Trio Terror was a special project for ruangrupa’s ten year anniversary exhibition. I collaborated with two members of ruangrupa, Mr Indra Ameng and Mr Omleo. When they saw my Secret Poster project in Bangladesh, we decided to make a film poster project in Indonesia, so we made posters about horror movies and the funny thing was that after we finished and exhibited the posters, a few friends who work in film production suggested that we make "the making of" the "film" and extend our project. They suggested that we do it the next day, so we called the main actor from the poster project and we began shooting ‘the making of’ film the next day. The film is still in the editing process and we plan to release it soon.
Yes, I worked with ruangrupa for the 9th Istanbul Biennale in 2005. They invited me to join them and it was a damn cool experience for me. After they invited me to participate in a residency at their space in 2004, I felt like we were family. Whenever I need inspiration, I just take low-cost flight to Jakarta for few week to hang out with them.
EC: You have participated in several residencies which I know have had a major effect on your personal development and career as an artist. How are residencies important to you? Can you give us some examples? Your graduation show was not well-received, so where did you gather the nerve to show your work to Pooja Sood, the curator from Khoj who then gave you your first residency opportunity?
RI: I think residencies have really had a major effect on my personal development as an artist, because I have had the chance to learn something new and also to meet artists, curators, and other important people from the art world. Residencies have also given me the opportunity to show and present my work to a wider audience.
I met Pooja Sood in 2003, five years after I graduated, and, at the time, I was feeling that there was no more hope for my art. Since graduating, my artwork had not been well-received and I thought I had come to a dead-end in my work. I didn’t know where to go or whether or not what I was doing was good.
So, when I went to meet Pooja, I was just thinking that it was good enough for me to have a chance to show my work to this international curator. Many artists were there waiting for the chance to meet and show their work to Pooja, so I realised my chances were really-really super slim. Then, a few weeks later, I got an email from Pooja saying that I had been invited to the residency programme at KHOJ International Artist Workshop in New Delhi. It was the most unbelievable email that I had ever gotten.
EC: I know you also work on the art magazine Sentap with serious focus. What are your motivations for being involved in the publication? How do you find a balance between being an artist and a critical editor? Are there areas of overlap or contradiction between the two?
RI: The magazine’s editor Nur Hanim Khairuddin and I started Sentap magazine in 2005. My role in Sentap is not a critical one. I’m the person who runs the magazine, because it would be incredibly crazy for one person to oversee both the business and the editorial aspects of the paper. We made Sentap because we love books. We made a DIY zine for a long time before we started Sentap.
EC: Aside from everyday life, urbanism, and pop, can you think of other keywords to describe your work and what are they? A press release said that you are known for your irreverence, wit, and use of travel as a social connector. To what extent do you agree with that comment?
RI: I think I’m an observer, so I observe people, events, and whatever interesting things are around me. And all these things are subjects for my artwork; I cannot talk about something that I don’t know.
Like I said before, I love to meet and hang out with people from different fields, so making friends and talking to people is a part of my modus operandi in life. And maybe people are right when they say that I use travel as a social connector because that is the real me.