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Review on Critics Republic by Bilqis Hijjas
This photo essay is an experiment in writing a fictional history of Kluang when it was once an island. Through two sets of photographs (YESTERDAY and TODAY) viewers are taken through a journey to the past and present, exploring memories of two days in August 1945 when a ‘Great Wind’ blew most of Pulau Kluang away.
WHAT HAPPENED TO PULAU KLUANG(?)
About the project
What happened to Pulau Kluang(?) is an experiment in writing a fictional history of Kluang when it was once an island. Through two sets of photographs (YESTERDAY and TODAY) viewers are taken through a journey to the past and present, remembering scenes from two days in August 1945 when a ‘Great Wind’ blew most of Pulau Kluang away.
This project is an exercise to extend the horizons of our imagination, and to reflect on how we personally and collectively engage with history. Can we imagine alternate histories? Can we emphatise and relate to events beyond our immediate space and time?
“What if…” is an equally valid question in our interrogation of history and identity as “What is…”.
Drawing from the factual well of a historical event, I began imagining a fictional Kluang. For YESTERDAY I looked for objects, scenes or even an assemblage that could be isolated from its environment, and be used to represent the memory of an unreliable witness. The context and meaning of the photograph is then defined by the narrative, and no longer functions as objective evidence. For TODAY, I travelled around Kluang photographing traces of this imagined event, as if I was looking through the lens of an urban archeologist.
The two sets of photographs are then presented together as a parallel but not concurrent timeline, exploring the mechanics of memory in shaping the way we observe and relate to our environment.
On August 6 and 9 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The details of the immediate destruction, lives lost, and subsequent damage are all well documented. This is the first (and hopefully last) instance of nuclear violence being directly inflicted onto civilians in human history.
Looking at photographs and documentations of the aftermaths of the bombing, I found myself reliving these experiences as if they were my own, and become overwhelmed by a sense of terror and dread. Perhaps it is related to my own nature to internalise the emotional notes within all that I encounter. Pain, happiness, pride, sadness, longing all form the universal kaleidoscope of feelings that is the human condition. We don’t have to be Japanese to understand the horrors of the atomic bomb, and their call for peace. As a world citizen, I believe in the power of art to not only entertain, but to serve as a bridge beyond imaginary borders of politics and culture.
August 2019 is the 74th anniversary of these events. The English translation of the epitaph at the Hiroshima Peace memorial reads “Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil.” The author of the epitaph, Professor Tadayoshi Saika, noted that ‘we’ refers to ‘all humanity’, intended to memorialize the victims without politicizing the issue.
In the past decade, my body of work has focused on documenting memory and relationship between people and history in Malaysia. My projects pay special attention to the way Malaysians remember and re-tell their experiences living through important moments in Malaysian history. It might sound trivial, to be concerned about nostalgic stories of old, but these stories have a profound impact in shaping the way the listener, typically immediate family and community, navigate through the complex and fluid history of multicultural Malaysia.
Through this project I hope we can:
- nurture a more humanistic reading and questioning of historical narratives
- better understand the impact of past events on contemporary identity
- find the courage to interrogate and re-examine past events on our own terms, not those imposed onto us by the previous generation
- find moments of humour in our daily life, that ignorance is only the first step towards wisdom, not an obstacle
- know that history can be deconstructed, and reframed in many ways
- engage in an exercise in non-linear thinking, divergent thoughts
May this body of work be a message of peace, a reminder that the violence inflicted and suffered throughout history should never be repeated. Together, let us be reminded of humanity’s greater potential for kindness, ambition, than the sowing of hatred or violence.