Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Art of Math

by Carmen Nge

Helaman Ferguson, Harriet Brisson, Thomas Banchoff, George Francis, Anatolii Fomenko—unlike Leonardo Da Vinci, these names are not household in the rarefied sphere of art. But like Da Vinci, the five share something atypical among artists: they are also mathematicians. From algorithms to geometry, these mathematicians whose work encompass a wide arena beyond lay understanding, live and breathe a field of knowledge that is also, surprisingly, steeped in aesthetics.

In their highly segregated fields of science and arts, our young über -specialists of compartmentalized knowledge departments are largely ignorant of a long tradition where experts in science, mathematics and the arts work in tandem, feeding off of each other in a mutually enriching environment. Within art history, the documented collaboration of Da Vinci and mathematician Luca Pacioli, as well as the influence of mathematician-physicist Henri Poincaré on Picasso, illustrate the symbiosis of two presumably divergent fields.

Malaysian Dr Rajinder Jit Singh, 41, is the personification of such a symbiosis. Currently living and working as a microchip designer and electronics engineer in Singapore, Rajinder is a modern Renaissance man. Confessing to a love for studying, he has amassed an impressive array of degrees—from a PhD in Engineering Mathematics to an MBA from the US, this soft-spoken baritone is also completing a postgraduate degree in Philosophy of Art at the National University of Singapore.

Rajinder’s psyche is a fusion of math and art; his apprehension of reality manifests in equations and algorisms: “I can’t get away from equations; I like my equations. Some equations I like better than others. I do a lot of curve fitting in my head. I think of points and I think of how they would fit in 3D or 4D. Is it quadratic? What power would it be?

“I think about variables with coefficients, for example E=mc². C² is a coefficient, a weight to anything. [For instance] every sentence has a weight to each word. If you want to write an equation for the sentence you are speaking, the emphasis would be the weight. I am thinking about a weight to our lives: the ratios that you use in calculating or putting together a decision as to what you want to have for dinner. There are many different variables but there are also many different weights. Through computation you can come to a value of those weights.”

If life could be distilled into a set of equations, then what about art? Rajinder’s art is antonymous to the linear perspective painters of the Renaissance: Filippo Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Piero della Francesca, among others, who used mathematical equations to calculate depth, proportion and scale for their paintings. These luminaries saw math as a tool for artistic precision, resulting in a desired verisimilitude. Unlike them, Rajinder incorporates actual mathematical equations into his paintings.

“I use math equations in my art without there being meaning to them,” he explains. “I separate the meaning away from it [the equation].” In one of his newest work, Bin Bags, Rajinder inserts an equation based on the entanglement phenomena in physics. Even though a lay viewer would not be able to relate to it mathematically, this does not bother him in the least.

“I’m using the equation as it is, conceptually, because I think it’s pretty. I think it is pretty because I also understand what it is because I’ve read a lot about it. And I’ve used it before. I actually think the combination of symbols is quite pretty. This is not mathematical. It is about the aesthetics of [the equation].” He likens his work to that of Justin Mullins’ mathematical photography: taking beautiful equations from mathematics, framing them with captions explaining their context and meaning, and calling it art. The only difference is Rajinder’s equations are sans mathematical meaning and reproduced on a two-dimensional expressionist palate.

In many ways, Rajinder’s work invites us to reflect on the definition and parameters of beauty. Can mathematics, expressed in an equation sitting in swirls and swathes of colour, be elevated to art? Does the equation need to be mathematically sound before it can be transformed into a thing of beauty? Does our definition of art change when mathematics enters the equation?

Nurturing a love for math even as a child, Rajinder was drawn to what he terms “the preciseness and formality of math. I also like when the answers are correct, you knew. There’s a good feeling about it. Like a little buzz at the back of your head,” he smiles.

Yet, mathematical precision is never far removed from visual accuracy. As Rajinder puts it: “When I was doing my PhD, we used circles and lines as instruments to explain what we were trying to do. Even then it had to look “right”. The word “right” is weird here but I don’t know how exactly to explain it.”

According to Rajinder, Henri Poincaré says that all good mathematicians have a “delicate sieve”.

“When you are proving something or writing a math equation, you have an eye for it. Its complexity, its simplicity. When you’re doing that, you know when you’re correct, when you’re doing it ‘right’. That’s what Poincaré meant by ‘delicate sieve’. In my opinion, everybody has this ability even though Poincaré says only some do. It comes through practice and just through being familiar.”

This idea of the ‘delicate sieve’ closely approximates the idea of there being great artists with talent and bad ones without. What makes an artist great? Is it the monetary value of his works? Or does it have to do with something less concrete and more emotional, less predictive and more organic—a matter of taste? Who decides? Is taste arbitrary?

As Rajinder puts it: “One person’s good art will be another person’s bad art. Any distinction that you make through your senses, will necessarily be cultural, among other things. When you look at something and say this is better than the other, as soon as you make that decision, all your experiences, your whole history comes into play.”

Who can dictate which piece of artwork is valuable and why? One thing is certain: art is also about connection, an ephemeral but nonetheless significant communion between artist and his artwork, between artwork and viewer, and ultimately—though indirectly—between artist and viewer. Rajinder is testament to this simple logic.

“When I put the equation on my canvas, people react to that equation. Bereft of its meaning, when you see an integration sign, when people see it, it brings them back to their school days. With the mixture of that, along with the character of the painting, I am trying to build a dialectic, a contrast of emotion. I am trying to get a reaction and that reaction comes from several different aspects of the painting. The equation arises separate from its meaning. I am writing an equation in a piece of art. What is it doing there? By putting it on a canvas in a gallery I’m also questioning it.”

To question mathematics is to question the basis of its truth, its objectivity. Perhaps it is easier to question art because its foundations are subjective; interpretations can be challenged because they change. As do value. But how does one question math?

“Mathematicians look at the universe [in terms of] the whole grand unified theory—rules that guide the universe and our lives,” Rajinder concedes. Yet, he believes there exists a postmodern symptom in mathematics too, a symptom that rejects any notion of a grand theory of the universe.

“One person that I’ve read a lot about is Kurt Gödel,” Rajinder explains. “He did something that shocked mathematicians in the last century. Gödel said that if you have a system of rules that you develop and if these rules are all consistent and not contradictory, then there is no way you can conclusively prove the system is correct. Math is centered on proof—where we think we are completely correct all the time—but Gödel is saying that there is no way that that is possible.

“Gödel was saying something similar to the principle of uncertainty in quantum mechanics: that the person who is measuring is as important as the thing that is being measured. Math doesn’t like it when subjectivity comes into the equation. How can you bring the scientist or observer into it? It is a whole science based on objectivity, where you can conclusively predict. Otherwise it is not a conclusive statement and you can’t actually call it math.”

Rajinder likens visual art’s subjectivity to Gödel’s deconstruction of math’s inviolability. For Rajinder, Gödel brings us closer to what the former considers to be art. “At the end of the day, you perceive your reality based on your own experiences, based on who you are. That’s why I think art is so wonderful because it allows different people to have different interpretations,” Rajinder says.

But as a math practitioner, doesn’t the rigid and rule-bound nature of math cramp his artistic style?

“I have seen myself evolve. Many years of precise formal math, being very, very careful about how you write each symbol and how everything is put together because you cannot make a mistake. And now, the whole art thing kinda releases me. It’s a mark that I make. I could paint something that I do not want to make sense. I deliberately go out of my way not to be linear or formal. I feel that has opened up a different kind of understanding; it really opens up different ways of thinking if you do it long enough.”

For Rajinder, art also enables transcendence. An Indian of Punjabi origin, Rajinder has called many places home: Ipoh, as a boy; then Belfast, Ireland, where he received a higher education and spent a total of 15 years; and finally, Singapore, his place of residence for the past 11 years. But he feels at home nowhere and his abstract expressionist pieces reflect his fluid, transnational past and present. Wayang kulit characters and Indian men and women find their way into his many sketchbooks but so do samurai figures—hardly indicative of a nostalgia for his Malaysian roots.

“When I come back to Malaysia, I feel foreign. When I am in Singapore, I feel foreign and when I’m in Ireland, I definitely feel foreign. Why don’t I belong? I kinda want to belong somewhere but then I belong everywhere.”

While Rajinder is cognizant of the pressure to inject local colour into his work, to imbue his paintings with a more local identity—the sort of hometown boy-made-good, can-do Malaysian spirit—he elects not to subscribe to it. “It’s very difficult,” he admits. “If I try, it will be contrived. I just have to be me. I hope that who I am will come together in what I am doing. I cannot draw something that is foreign to me. I will never draw the Merlion,” he laughs. By the same token, neither will he draw a bomoh or a bunch of bananas. “Geometrical shapes, that’s what I do,” he says, matter-of-factly.

This article was published in Off The Edge magazine, May 2007 issue

Wayang Protest, Wayang Deconstruction : Kampung Berembang meets Taman Tun

by Carmen Nge

FRU brandishing batons, pot-bellied men in blue, MPAJ (Majlis Perbandaran Ampang Jaya) bulldozers, physical assault, arson, forced eviction—these could well be the stuff of award-winning, hard-hitting documentaries. Rather, they were ominous icons throwing long shadows on a makeshift white screen, handled by a group of rambunctious, bright-eyed, children puppeteers.

In a performance too true-to-life earlier this year, the pre-teen denizens of Kampung Berembang (off Jalan Ampang) staged a wayang kulit show that would have made any dalang proud. It may not have had the hallmarks of a bona fide wayang because this kinetic troupe of grinning puppeteers could only boast a few weeks of preparation and rehearsal, but it was infused with something deeply authentic: the spirit of struggle.

Since December last year, these children of Kampung Berembang have continued to endure child abuse of the worst kind: emotional trauma from watching their homes razed over and over again; their relatives and friends threatened, cursed at, pushed, kicked and beaten; their mosque destroyed; their lives lying in ash and rubble.

When this writer visited what was left of the village after the second forced eviction attempt by the local and state authorities, Kampung Berembang resembled the West Bank or Gaza after a few rounds of shelling by Israeli forces. This is our very own Palestine, bleached by the searing equatorial heat, deprived of water and electricity, and a stone’s throw away from the eerie edifice of progress and prosperity: the Petronas Towers.

But the children’s persevering spirit never wavered. As the adults rebuilt one of the oldest pioneering urban settlements in the heart of the nation’s capital, this ragtag children’s group of various hues threw themselves into an art project. Aided by a small group of artist volunteers, who felt the children needed an outlet to channel their grief and anger, the art project developed into a full scale art exhibition culminating in a wayang kulit show.

After the resounding success of the first performance, held in a spartan space amidst broken concrete and hastily erected makeshift tents, the children were jubilant. This was art at its most spontaneous; created in a matter of days, the drawings, paintings and wayang puppets gave their creators expression. Although rough and rudimentary, the artworks communicated something more precious than technical virtuosity: life fervently lived and passionately felt.

A few days later, the state and local authorities—with their bulldozers—paid the children another visit. Their response? A follow-up exhibition and wayang performance in a different location, far from the disconcerting evidence of this more brutal second coming.

This was the genesis of Kampung Berembang’s wayang of protest. Ad hoc, expedient, retaliatory—these were the characteristics of an art form marshalled by the disenfranchised. Relatively simple to execute, using only cheap materials, and necessitating team work, this wayang was about democratization. Extracted from its ossified, state-dictated tradition, wayang was imagined anew by a precocious troupe who carried no weighty arts-identity baggage.

The men and women village folk, who witnessed this wayang testament of their lives, laughed while crying, and cried while laughing. The performance was an evocative distillation of the history of their 40-year old kampung, but more than that, it was a sobering reminder that their children were no longer innocent.

Far across the class divide, tucked in the suburban enclave of Taman Tun Dr Ismail and around the same time, a different wayang was being enacted. It was a performance of a different colour of protest. Less confrontational, more steeped in aesthete, but no less unconventional, Wayang Project was having its Malam Pembuka, to showcase the incipient promulgations of this beloved art form as deconstructed by another motley crew.

Comprising performers Fahmi Fadzil and musicians Aziz Ali and Azmyl Yunor, the Wayang Project (as part of the Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series) was a year-long effort intended to engage with the tradition of wayang kulit from Malaysia and the region. How does one transpose a centuries-old art form into a modern, urban setting? What stories will emerge and what shape will they take? What’s the challenge of reclaiming wayang kulit as a contemporaneous art form for young practitioners not apprenticed in the tradition? These are some of the questions that will continue to whet the creative appetites of a large group comprising visual and graphic artists, theatre practitioner and photographer throughout 2007. Malam Pembuka is only a prelude of what is to come.

Utilizing everyday objects such as cardboard boxes, fluorescent light bulbs and books, the trio of Fahmi, Aziz and Azmyl proved that wayang kulit Malaysia need not be the provenance of revered dalangs to be exciting.

Kicking off the show was wayang at its very basic: all puppeteer, no puppets. Manipulating only his hands, Fahmi narrated an overly long and involved story of Arif and his mother, punctuated by references to current events in the news (Kampung Berembang among them!) and humorous asides. The minimalist wayang tangan, however, was not new. Years earlier, Fahmi had staged the same form, but with different content, during Lebih Kecoh, a performance by youth theatre group, Akshen (of which Fahmi is a member). The performance in 2001 was more political and had a sharper sting. In contrast, wayang tangan in its current iteration was more cheeky, itinerant and somewhat superfluous.

Wayang lampu and wayang bayang-bayang, on the other hand, were tours de force in form, sound and imagination. Elevating the humble light bulb to evanescent heights, the trio created a dynamic light and sound experience that was profoundly beautiful. Lights danced, flickered and shimmered in the darkened studio, their random shapes and angles transforming the bare ceiling into an indoor nightscape, against the Aziz and Azmyl’s haunting, live atonal soundscape. Breaking down wayang into its essential components: light and sound, the performers captured a magical, even mystical quality about the art form that transcended story and characters. The artistry of this non-narrative interlude also highlights the visual power of wayang, broken down into its elemental forms.

But the pièce de résistance of the night, in this writer’s view, had to be wayang kadbod and its endearing and uproariously funny shadow duo of SK, the mousedeer and Mr G, the ape. With two simple cardboard boxes, (recycled light bulb containers) the three performers created characters that were easy to love because their story is universal: a chance encounter, burgeoning friendship, trust, naiveté and wrong decisions with tragic circumstances. The subsequent entrance of Mr Hunter into the wayang narrative then transforms the archetypal tale into a postmodern allegory. Lies and deception by the wealthy capitalist; land exploitation through mono-cropping for commercial profit; and disintegrating relationships in the aftermath.

Half spoken and half sung in Azmyl’s sonorous voice, the storyline of wayang kadbod was as aurally riveting as it was visually whimsical. Played live, the jaunty folk music accompanying the characters only added to the wayang’s hypnotic rhythms. Masterfully fusing form and content into a story simultaneously sweet, insightful and au courant, the performers delivered something audiences rarely experience: thoughtful entertainment.

The finale of the Wayang Project was wayang buku, another resurrected wayang from a previous workshop performance earlier last year. Cleverly adapting the talk show format into his high-energy, and generally hyper, routine, Fahmi delivered a rib-tickling and tongue-in-cheek show worthy of the laughs it garnered. Gleefully throwing around terms like “collective memory”, “Jungian” and “autochthonous’, Fahmi was the consummate host, taking jabs at the Censorship Board, the government and Krishen Jit in a large-than-life persona that only Fahmi could inhabit. Parts of wayang buku could have been cut short for it was draggy towards the tail end but the audience was clearly entertained.

As the crowd trickled out after the performance, this writer could not help but wonder if they knew what they had been watching. Here was an art form that escaped its formal confines and redefined our understanding of the wayang kulit genre. It did not matter what its creators called it—wayang lampu, wayang kadbod, wayang tangan—because in the end, the ebullient performance actively evolved wayang into a new relevance.
This review was first published in Off the Edge, April 2007 issue.

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk -- Book Review

by Carmen Nge

“I read a book one day, and my whole life was changed.” In two years, this opening line propelled 200,000 copies of The New Life off the shelves and into the hands of a ravenous Turkish reading public, hungry for the words of their only Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, newly crowned last year. For a nation not known for its readers of literature, this statistic is staggering.
Since then, Pamuk has steadily gained international notoriety—for his prose as well as his politics. Outspoken against the atrocities committed by the Turks against the Kurds and the Armenians in the last century, Pamuk has been hauled to court, his books burned and his life under threat.

Critics have labeled his work “self-absorbed”, “cerebral” and “difficult”. But literary luminaries like Salman Rushdie and John Updike, as well as scores of book reviewers, have compared Pamuk to Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka. And to think, were it not for Pamuk’s own dogged persistence, he would have become an engineer—a career legacy of his wealthy, industrialist family.

The New Life, an earlier work, is the exemplar of the kind of postmodern text Pamuk has been praised for. It is complex and challenging, demanding a reading rigor that frustrates as much as it satisfies because the book is not a fast-paced, Dan Brown-esque page turner, even though it contains all the necessary elements of a bestseller: murder, mystery, mercenaries. Pamuk intentionally leaves gaps in the narrative, questions without answers, confusion that remains rather than gets resolved. Students and aficionados of literature and philosophy will most appreciate this highly enigmatic and symbolically rich novel. Others may find it tough because it requires something rare in readers of contemporary fiction: continuous contemplation.

At the heart of the novel is a book. Like most self-referential texts, this is a book about another, and both with the same title: The New Life. The protagonist is a young engineering student, Osman, who becomes obsessed with a book, his reading of which completely transforms him, rendering him incapable of continuing his present existence. To assuage his restlessness, Osman leaves his hometown and goes on a long journey lasting many months and passing numerous small Turkish towns on different buses.

Other than to discover the secret of the book through his journeying, part of Osman’s quest also involves a beautiful young woman. Janan, a fellow student, is the one who initially caught his eye with the book she carried: The New Life. Osman is inexplicably drawn to the book; through a series of co-incidences and accidents, he manages to secure a copy for himself and thereupon begins his intellectual and soul-searching quest.

On the surface, Pamuk’s novel appears starkly simple. It is a story of a search, a mystery encased in a book that is similarly mysterious because its contents are only alluded to, never revealed. It is a puzzle within a puzzle, a story within a story within another story and another, ad infinitum. To understand Osman is to understand the connectivity of the stories, and to follow the trail of literary clues left behind.

But more than just a personal quest, The New Life is also a well-crafted allegory of Turkey. On the outskirts of secular, modern Istanbul, lives the rural, poor periphery who struggles to make ends meet in the onslaught of globalization. As foreign consumer products invade the country, local goods and small businesses die out, unable to compete with the cash cow of Western capitalism. The despondency and subsequent rage of the people eking out a meager living are manifest in their religious fundamentalism and retrograde conservatism.

Turkey is a nation rife with contradictions—on the one hand, it desires to be part of the European Union and to partake in the attendant financial and political profits; on the other hand, it still represses freedom of expression and curtails opinion critical of the government and its policies. Caught in the cusp between religion and secularism, parochial and globalized modernity, this is a country that has been unable to reconcile its many strands and sects of Islam. Kemal Ataturk’s republic instead preached a different identity: secularism sans tradition and largely disconnected from the rich history of Turkish Islam and Ottoman culture.

Pamuk’s meditation on the complexity of being Turkish is mirrored by a narrative structure that detracts from a standard novel. Osman’s life is his own but his meditations on it are ours as well. As readers, we share in the protagonist’s point of view because we live in his shoes and see through his eyes. At the same time, by using narrative devices such as direct address and second-person pronouns in his novel, Pamuk wants us to know that he is aware of our presence in his text. In fact, he writes to speak to us; his anticipation of our responses assist in his storytelling.

The genius of Pamuk lies in his ability to disturb our novel-reading conventions. Osman’s quest in the book is our quest as we read The New Life: our journey of self, life, death, love. Though particular to the context of Turkey, the themes in the book are relevant to us in Malaysia, and hence, also universal. Pamuk never delivers clichés, even though the ideas he abstracts may appear to be so. Instead, he writes a book that invites us in, changes us and by so doing, changes the meaning of the book for us. As Osman puts it: “So it was that as I read my point of view was transformed by the book, and the book was transformed by my point of view.”

This review was first published in Off The Edge, February 2007 issue.