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  • Writer's pictureNg Su Yin

The Illogical Progression Of The Mythological Bird

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

This is the story about the illogical progression of the mythological bird. The problem has always been there, that chronological time no longer makes sense to the Phoe, to correct this, a supposedly magical bird. This time, it started to notice its tattered and fraying feathers. It was horribly uncomfortable, she did not feel like herself anymore. She used to look gorgeous, colourful and regal, but she felt the need to carry on despite her less than optimal condition, she had to. Now, the thing about this bird is her inability to recognise its relevance and in particular, her inability to see where her future lies. Having lived for 600 years, Phoe knew that there has to be a catch somehow. Not many birds can live this long, something has to go obviously. With unyielding determination, she would attend to her wings every night by licking her feathers, straightening and patching together bits that were precariously hanging on its ends. She would often combine herbs and species to concoct her own special medication to treat her wounds.

What agonised her the most was to sew up her gaping wounds with plant fibers she found along the way. As the only bird of her kind to survive each time she comes back to life, she had to know how to take care of herself. Phoe soon noticed that some parts of her wings were missing , "strands that were left behind are nowhere to be found' she thought to herself. Much like history long gone and forgotten, perhaps no one would care about those lost feathers or even care enough to figure out what kind of bird these feathers came from. She found ways to weave her feathers carefully and delicately while trying hard to maintain the structural integrity of her form. She continued patching through the damage and as a means to stop herself from further disintegration. Her persistent efforts soon paid off and she was able to hold her frail frame together in one piece.

I wrote in my art journal “my cultural identity is like the outermost layer of me that will never touch my skin.” My next connection to this culture would be my maternal grandmother. My relationship with her was a rather interesting one. My maternal grandmother was someone I hardly had enough contact with. She resided in Malaysia and would visit us in Singapore about twice a year and my parents would also make an attempt each Chinese New year to visit my grandparents. However, my grandparents were always busy during our visits, my grandfather will always be at the garden and my grandmother almost always in the kitchen. In the Peranankan household, the mother takes pride in her cooking and she would take control of every aspect of her food preparation. This means that children like us had no place in the kitchen. As a result of her commitment, my grandmother was almost non-existent in the living room so to speak. One day as I was rummaging through the textiles my mother kept in her cabinet, I came across one of my grandmother’s embroideries. It brought back some hazy memories of her. I remember looking at the threads used on the piece, they were rather thick and the colours were far from flattering. I must say that I was not too enthusiastic about the workmanship more so than I was about the person who made it. It has been many years since my grandmother had passed on. The embroidery work was nowhere to be found. It was nevertheless an intriguing experience to remember her through something she made. Its raw appearance never left my mind and I could vaguely remember the unevenness of those stitches, a far cry from the usually more refined works I had seen. Despite its imperfection, it was perhaps the only object belonging to her that I can remember, something that she owned and worked on for a period of time. It was rather special to me, it was like a portal that allowed me to relive the moments I spent with her, again and again. My grandmother had the gentlest voice I had ever heard and she would often pat me on my back affectionately whenever she spoke. To be honest, I cannot recall the exact words she said, all I could remember was the feather-like sensation of her touch, her beautiful smile as her words washed over me like the gentle waves of the sea. I remember being very quiet whenever she was with me. It was never my intention to not speak to her; it was hard to imagine why anyone would not respond to such a warm character. It was simply because I could not converse in her language. She would often include smatters of English words in her attempt to communicate with me. As a Nyonya, she could not speak Mandarin, unlike me, a Singaporean Chinese whose ascribed mother-tongue was Mandarin. We are very different. “She doesn't even look like me”, these words still ring in my head every now and then. She was dark and rather tall for an Asian woman, big-boned and had broad shoulders. She dressed humbly, often in western blouse matched with a sarong wrapped around her waist. She looked like someone of Malay ethnicity to me. In fact, both my maternal grandparents looked Malay in every way possible, from the way they dress to the language they spoke. My grandfather was not a Baba, but he spoke in native Bahasa Melayu (Malay language). He left his native home in China at a tender age and had settled in Malaysia since then.This identity-related tension never ceases to exist in my consciousness, and in some ways it fascinates me. I became curious about these conflicting yet intertwining emotions of sentimentality and foreignness.

Phoe glided for days through this unfamiliar land. She was alone. In fact, Phoe was always alone. She was very different from the other birds, which never bothered her the slightest. One could say that Phoe was comfortable under her own feathers. She was aware that she stood out amongst other birds. Not all of them have crazily majestic colourful plumes like hers. That was all she knew about herself, 'a composite of a thousand colours' as she was once told. Phoe flew from one place to another, crossing one ocean to the next. One day, she found herself seeking shelter in a cave. She was totally drenched and was shivering uncontrollably upon entering the cave. All she could hear was the deafening gushing sound of the torrential downpour, which effectively consumed all of her senses. Soon, Phoe began to walk deeper, and deeper into the cave. She needed to find somewhere comfortable and safe to rest for the night, but all she saw was darkness. She finally did get some sleep in the end, she was tired beyond comprehension.

The next morning, Phoe was woken up by a shaft of light from above. As she gradually opened her eyes, she began taking in everything around her. Sinewy rock formation towering above her and surrounding the entire place, Phoe knew this was no ordinary sight. Her curiosity brought her further into the cave and before she knew it, she could see a tiny opening where she thought the exit of the cave would be. She could feel fresh air coming through the gap and so she began to dig, hoping to get a glimpse of the world outside. After hours of digging through the surprising soft wall, she managed to make a hole big enough for herself to get through. Soon, Phoe was outside the cave. One thing that instantly stuck her was the immense scale of the things she saw around her. The trees were incredibly tall and their trunks broad, their chunky appearance made them look like giants stood in their padded armour, ready to take on anything who wishes to challenge them. The plants! They can hardly be considered plants for their luxuriant foliage covered the entire forest floor, their shimmery appearance made them look almost artificial. "The rocks were fascinating as well, just look at how they slide!" Phoe thought to herself. Then upon realising what she just said, she jumped, and repeated " They slide! They slide!". Something was not right. In fact, everything was wrong. Everything started moving . The trees glided across the forest floor with their roots held together as they 'flew', the rocks spun around in a spiraling mess. The flowers went tunneling through the ground like some strange ailen worms, and not to mention the forest bugs, they seem to disappear and appear in different places. It was so confusing for Phoe. It was a very different world from what she used to experience, very, very different. What a strange land! Nothing appeared constant, perhaps the only constant was change. Phoe was lost, she cannot even see the cave where she spent the whole of last night. A nearby rustle caught her attention, it was caused by one of the strangest creatures she had ever seen. It has a antlers resembling that of a deer, scales like a fish and long thin legs like those of a elegant horse and with a long tail with a bushy tassel at its end.

Phoe was shocked for she had no idea what was going to happen. Out of fear, she threw her head back, puffed up her chest and let out a chilling shrill cry. She stretched her gigantic wings, which seemed to go on forever, her body glistened brightly under the moonlight. Her silhouette was that of eerie majesty. An aura of fading glamour encompassed her as she looked to the illuminating moon, before facing the strange creature again. The creature appeared to be bending over to pick something off the ground. Rummaging through the thick buildup of organic matter, the creature found some twigs, branches and dry leaves.

Wasting no time, it proceeded to attach the found materials clumsily onto its body. It wasn't skillful at all, it’s all very confusing what it was trying to do. It went on for a bit. Its unusually dense feathers held the appendages in place, it was a surprising success! Encouraged by it, it carried on, and each time with more materials. It was a hilarious sight to behold. Phoe was appalled by the sheer bizarreness of such ridiculous display, she was lost for words. What in fact caught her interest as she watched with amazement, was the spectral shadow of the creature, cast on the forest floor. Like a transmogrifying phantom, the shadow began to morph and gradually taking on the form of a bird-like creature. Gradually, a beautifully curved beak started appearing on the shadow, followed by an elegant slender neck, an arched back and a body fluffed up by its contour feathers. Phoe realised that the shadow made her feel that she was looking at her own silhouette, it felt like her. For the first time in her life, Phoe began examining herself, looking at every inch of her feathery coat and thinking to herself how strange it felt. It was a strange sensation, but a familiar one.

In my art journal, I wrote " It's been a week after the performance and people are still giving me comments on Cukup, very thankful for that, so I've decided to list them down. The viewer made connections between the unthreading of the distressed cheese cloth, its diaphanous quality and the idea of fragility. They felt a sense of discomfort, especially when my collaborator's face got cropped and that only a part of his body was visible on screen (thinking that things were not working out). The viewer felt the tension building from the very moment we set up the Skype connection. He was anticipating possible technical glitches as he had little faith in technology and was worried that the performance may not run smoothly. Others felt that the arrangements were clearly artistic decisions made to create the desired effects. The viewers were touched by the intimacy and simultaneous distance created using the Skype technology. They commented on the well synchronized and well-thought-out actions in the way that no words were needed yet there was a clear sequence of actions. They liked the use of thread as a metaphor for 'connection' and thought that the idea of using noodles was brilliant. They could see the juxtaposition between staged, purposeful presentation of tradition and the banality of a domestic, everyday scene. They were also fascinated by the traditional garb worn by us although nothing much was mentioned about it apart from the intricate designs and vibrant colours on the attire. One viewer commented that she was inspired by the performance , which made her think about the kind of actions she could create for her research on 'drawing'. I need to think about what all of these could mean, what's next ?

It has been two weeks since I left Birmingham. The Coronavirus crisis is worrying.

The problem now is not knowing if anything I am doing now will be of any use considering that none of the things I do now seem urgent. Needless to say they distract me from the grim crisis and the dreadful global statistics I had to endure seeing every morning, there is however a clear sense of false security that all will be well and that we will soon be meeting, discussing and presenting our research to our friends at the University. But, the truth is that we now live in a world where toilet paper could possibly be the most important paper to have, perhaps more so than churning out paper loaded with texts and images that probably don’t matter to anyone, anymore, well unless it is printed on toilet papers.

Who cares if I do not address the waning cultural spirit of the Peranakans? Who cares if some Peranakan old grannies have their stories to share? Who cares how amazing artistic research methodologies are and how it can potentially contribute to the betterment of humankind? I guess at this point I can only be grateful that I can still process these emotions. This state of emotional deprivation has definitely made me more aware of how fragile human relationships can be and how importantly it is for me to see other beings on my little monitor screen. To me at least, I just have to keep going, even if it means being deemed irritatingly pretentious or overly optimistic. Move regardless, work regardless, write and draw regardless, for we need to give ourselves a chance to worry about what we can still worry about and to do what we can still do something about.

In my art journal, I wrote “ I looked at objects-no object that were forgotten, remembered, used, discarded, absent. I looked at the incoherent and missing narrative from my Peranakan family, and the mystery that surrounded the lost object. It was like a convenient container where I kept my memories of her. It was alike an alien object I would never see again , a dislocation from home, of connection and disconnection.”

I am trying to refocus as I have paused a little too long. I am now looking at my immediate environment for inspiration, looking at some of the photographs I took during my walks at the nature reserves. I thought of transposing some of them onto old Peranakan tile designs. I began visualising flower motifs on Peranakan objects just like how flowers were commonly used as the main motifs on Peranakan tiles in the earlier days. Using Google Lens app, I was able to identify the types of plants I found along the way.

Gradually I began exploring Dandelion, a common weed here in the UK, and there is a system kept in place to get rid of them. To me at least, this was a plant forgotten by most, but one of the most resilient I've ever came across. The Dandelion soon became a metaphor to represent my much forgotten but still very beautiful Peranakan culture.

The Case of an Unusual Presence is an incident of re-storying an ubiquitous weed. The irony of this story lies in the fact that one often lose sight of the protagonist. Where did it go? It was here a minute ago? What have I seen and would I remember it again? Would it still be as fun as it was before or have I lost it all over again ? Wait for it , wait for it...and poof! Now what did I say?

Next morning, Phoe continued her adventure on the strange magical land. She found a really amazing plant, it has a round fluffy head, standing on a tall and thin stem. Phoe bent down and moved closer to the plant, something happened. The tiny hairs attached to the head of the plant suddenly began to detach themselves. The poofy little things soon got carried away in the wind, Phoe thought they looked like pom-poms, whatever that meant. Phoe glided alongside the pom-poms, where they sometimes travel long distances. Some pom-poms ended up in cracks on the ground, some got stuck in sticky muddy piles of soil, some on meadows and hills, some floated on water. She watched as it happened, she was curious where these pom-poms would end up. She was now so far away from the magical land, but she didn't mind. She soon witnessed how the little poofy things got rooted, grew and flowered, they were beautiful. Phoe thought to herself "Trust the wind for it can bring you to places you never thought you could go." Some pom-poms floated a while before they finish, some stayed up high in the air, some landed quick, even for those carried away by the currents. Phoe realised that was difficult to decide which to follow and which to ignore.

Phoe made a discovery. The plants ... they look discoloured, cold, strange. They hardly looked alive. Then again, you could not say that they were dead. They were in a state limbo, of neither dead nor alive, neither growing nor disintegrating. Phoe can obviously relate to that; her fraying wings and weary body... yet she was still very much alive.

'Marcescence, a boundless moment' describes the state of endless existence in nature. Inspired by Robert Frost's 'A Boundless Moment', this series explores the inevitable cyclical nature of life and its continual flow and transition between life and death. The seamless connections between growth and decay sets in motion meditation of our own existence.

The shadow of language by Olivier Richon discusses the creation of shadows as a phantasmagoric act, a language that defies definitions and specifics, but instead creates and alters like a stain that did not initially exist but eventually claiming existence beyond its physical limits. Shadows illuminate, elucidate and proclaim while simultaneously obscure, complicate and mystify.

In my work, the stain or residue became more comprehensible when presented with the time lapse footage showing the drying process of the paint marks. The process indicates a story one of what happened before the stain marks appear. However, the stain also became a point of departure for those who had not seen what happened prior. On close inspection, one observes the added textures of the patio slabs appearing almost shadow-like, an added visual interest to the residual marks. In many ways, the faint mark can potentially spin off in many directions, producing diverse readings other than the intended.

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