Hayati Mokhtar & Dain-Iskandar Said

Video installation by Hayati Mokhtar & Dain-Iskandar Said at the Sydney Biennale 2006.
By Gina Fairley | Aug 2006

In our contemporary world, conventional boundaries are increasingly becoming obsolete. Romantic notions of landscape have been eroded by development and we have become border-jockeys of the in-between zones, navigating a language of contemporary contact – cultural, physical and imagined. Charles Merewether chose this 'zone of contact' as the theme for his 2006 Biennale of Sydney. Malaysian artists Hayati Mokhtar and Dain-Iskandar Said explore it as 'intervisible lines', a surveying term and the title of their film for Mereweather's biennale.

"In Bahasa Melayu there is no real translation for 'landscape' ... the landscape tradition is a western concept. Here it is alien. If you translate it literally, 'tanah' means land and 'ayer' means water. Those two words composite to become 'country' or 'homeland'. In the film we approach 'landscape' as an abstract understanding of place." Mokhtar & Said [1]

How a commercial film director and a visual artist came to be filming on a remote sand-spit, an eroding site pinned between the oil reserves of Terengganu and island tourism along Malaysia's east coast, remains at the core of this film. Hayati and Dain both knew this landscape in their childhood. For them, there is a sense of belonging / non-belonging to this part of Malaysia; fractured memories that offer a kind of restlessness. It is a story we hear told often in contemporary art – and Mereweather's biennale embraced it with vigour - the story of displacement, altered realities and globalisation. Naturally, it becomes the quintessential metaphor for the shifting scape in Asia, but on a local level, it poses a more complex reading for Malaysia. How does one construct the foundations for 'landscape' in an erosive environment hell-bent on development, dismissive of tradition?

Blurred Genres

The concept for "Near Intervisible Lines" started well before the Biennale of Sydney and, over two years, became a shared expression for a place with a community.

"… [there's a kind of] symbiotic relationship between people and the environment. We realise that when you are framing the land, capturing it on film, you are also framing the people within that landscape … you can't separate the two. We are very aware of the act of 'looking' in the film – as filmmakers looking, the characters looking out, the audience looking in." Mokhtar & Said

The characters are real – Pak Ing, Pak Supa, Pak Ta, Wai Jin, Mak Yong Mara – their identities are not masked, romanticised or exoticised. They are portrayed as themselves, part of this landscape, as is their music and their stories. They are not passive or exotically supine. They are collaborators in the process presenting an odd juxtaposition to their traditional role presented in ethnographic filmmaking or as 'art' in a biennale environment. The genres are blurred.

Landscape as intersection

Viewing "Near Intervisible Lines" is a physical experience. The room-size multi-screen panorama frames the viewer within an exquisitely beautiful, but decisively ambiguous environment. It promotes a sense of displacement, nostalgia, and the romantic, yet it is strangely comforting and enigmatic in its beauty. Its four-screens: three seeming static with a horizon line - a minimalist band of blue on white shimmering like a Rothko melting in the heat - and the fourth, constantly panning through an abstract narrative steeped in the oral tradition of story telling inherit to this coastal community – the film rests in intersections.

"Near Intervisible Lines" is a slow piece, but it is not passive. The characters walk – in real time – from one screen to the next. We move with them through the landscape, across this broad sun-bleached sand spit; their voices become part of this landscape, and their stories part of the reality. Landscape is more than geography. It transforms us as we transform it. Time changes a landscape physically, culturally and socially, and this slow evolution (the film is just under an hour in length) is the success of this film – it allows the viewer to absorb its complexity with the pace of physically experiencing the environment, with dignity and elegance.

"…Many of our panoramas are so static they could almost be paintings … they fall more within a landscape tradition than video art." Mokhtar & Said

Presented within the biennale model where sensation is preferred to the didactic and video installations and new media genres have dominated as the current 'state of the art', this film's slick high-tech thread has a currency that is in contrast to its low-tech kampung location.[2] It is a contradiction echoed in the 'surveyors' presence within the landscape in the film, and in a less successful fractured montage of a car in the landscape. Both are editing decisions to snap the viewer from romantic notions of landscape, and wrench them back to the contemporary reality of the Malaysian landscape.

Framing landscape

Like contour lines on a map that never intersect, "Near Intervisible Lines" carries concurrent stories, histories, a present and a future. We experience one landscape, but then there is another layered beneath it, and one that will be imposed upon it. It is a kind of social mapping through interaction and sensorial readings, such as the ethereal sounds of the sea, or the Mak Yong's [3] song ingrained in this location – two key elements Hayati and Dain have used in a most poignant way. Just as these sounds tell a story, juxtaposed against the constant horizon of the tri-screen panorama – a flatline that grounds everything in reality – the fragility of this landscape is threatened, in an odd pun, by the sound-bleed of a neighbouring piece in the exhibition. No landscape is pure in its romantic vision.

It is impossible to ignore the implications of 'contact' in today's shifting world where we are not permitted to hold onto the past, where borders are sites of contention and cyber-technology throws it all into a broader context. Clearly, what evolves in this film is that landscape itself is the laconic reality-check.

"Near Intervisible Lines" is an elegant film. Hayati and Dain's sequence of framed abstractions are caught between subjectivity and a global neutrality. It is a visceral and cerebral landscape that continues to abstract memory and constructs of 'place' through its engagement with the viewer. Like the tide, it is in flux.

 

<line>Notes:</line>

  1. Quotes taken from a conversation recorded with the artists on location in Setiu, Teregganu, Malaysia&apos;s East Coast, July 2005. Elements of this text were originally published in Eyeline magazine (Australia), July 2006.
  2. Kampung: Malaysian word for &apos;village&apos;.
  3. <line>Mak Yong: dance drama said to be of Thai origin with a female-cast, and </line> <line>associated with magical forces. It can last for hours. The Kelantan province (northwest Malaysia) banned Mak Yong and Wayang-Kulit (shadow puppet performance) for having &apos;unIslamic&apos; influences. </line>


Gina Fairley

Freelance writer splitting her time between Australia and the Philippines. She was based in Malaysia during 2005.

Near Intervisible Lines. 2006
4 channel projection, HDV (High Definition Video), 60 mins.

Shown at the Biennale of Sydney 2006

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