IN TOUCH – the faces of Petaling Jaya

Artists Lee Ren Xin and Paul Timings met while Paul was on a Foundation residency in Malaysia in 2015 and have kept in touch ever since, sharing ideas about art, society and politics. For the IN TOUCH arts commissions, Paul has rendered a series of Ren Xin's photographs taken in and around her neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya. The project is driven by Ren Xin's long-term project in her neighbourhood, using dance and the body’s presence in and through common spaces as a way to make sense of social roles and relations in her community.

Watch a slideshow of the images (We suggest viewing this in full screen)

Can you describe the work?

 PT: Ren Xin has been working on this long-term project in her neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya. She documents the project, in part, through photographing transient/liminal spaces in her neighbourhood, Petaling Jaya.

Spaces intended for housing, spaces intended for commerce, how those intended spaces are represented, and how those intended spaces are utilised. The images that we produced are something of a sprout that fell from one of the many branches Ren Xin is cultivating for this long-term project.

 RX: The photos are a documentation effort parallel to my long-term work in a residential compound in vicinity of where I live.

Questions around non-existent relationship to land (due to commercial development and property ownership), how spaces are constantly constructed for the marketplace, rather than for living and coexisting.

The lack of space for pedestrian and social interaction and design that is solely for enclosed spaces and for vehicles, seem to bring with it a sense of alienation and isolation amongst folks who live in this city.

This alienation and isolation can also be disempowering when it comes to agency and participation in what is going on on this land that we live in. It is almost as if the urban design (or the lack of) is diminishing the body. And as the body disappears in this urbanscape, so do the humane and living well together.

 What was the inspiration behind the work? How did the work evolve?

 RX: Paul’s playing with the images offered room much needed for imagining and speculating various futures of the place.

I feel bringing these images (that are now with distance from the immediate reality) back to the actual site could stir up conversation about how we want to live, about what is going on in this place.

 PT: I felt like this was an invitation from Ren Xin to approach interwoven strands of, visually, geographically particular, but conceptually, major issues we face as a global community, and arrange a visual disconnect.

We were communicating often, in 2020’s distanced, ad hoc way. She had this idea about documenting daily walking rituals during our various states of lockdown.

I felt this helped me approach the collaboration in a more thoughtful tone. And humbling to the extent that I could reflect on our position in NZ. We are so fortunate to have an infrastructure that has kept us safe, healthy, and in essence freer than most over this year.

 Was the creation of the work influenced by your time in Malaysia? Can you say how?

PT: The work was influenced by virtue of meeting people in Malaysia in an organic way. In making the video, one practical example was listening to field recordings sent by Ren Xin that were recorded on her phone, hearing the birds, or the rain, or the traffic, and remembering experiences in the traffic, or of the bird life, or with the rain. Bringing it back to shared experience, and designing the audio from those intermediary prompts.

 How did you connect and start working with Ren Xin?

PT: Working with Ren Xin was a kind of esoteric dream I’ve been having for years. I remember meeting her in 2015 at an event in KL organised by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and fortunate to attend some really interesting works she was involved in, like SK!N, and in particular a site-specific performance during Dancing in Place at DPAC. I think we had just kept in contact sharing thoughts and ideas, which solidified in a certain way as a result of the IN TOUCH commission.

Can you talk about the collaborative process of creating the work?

RX: Conversation, ongoing, and spread over time. Exchanging thoughts, and realities in different places and contexts... Paul really worked on the images.

PT: The process felt more like conversation that intermingled with Ren Xin’s projects, and sharing thoughts and experiences over 2020. Ren Xin selected and named the sequence of images.

The trickiest bit was the final editing of the video – the timing of text and images was difficult to collaborate on without being in the same space – identifying those nauances overlooked when sending and receiving files across the ether. Plus I was forever getting the words and images in the wrong order.

Why do you think it’s important for New Zealand artists to collaborate with artists from overseas, specifically Asia? What do you get from such collaborations?

PT: We tend to spend a lot of time considering where we are going, rather than where we are. I think that if we consider first where we are, then what we do flows like a river that merges and diverges, with and from, others. I think it’s particularly important for NZ artists to collaborate with artists from Asia because we can learn where we are, and what we can do.

What role has the Foundation played in developing your relationships with Asia?

PT: I think Asia New Zealand Foundation’s support to develop relationships with sincerity, without pressures of transactional or political construction, has supported my development of relationships generally. Time to learn, and time to develop, is an invaluable part of the role the Foundation plays in developing relationships.

What have you got coming up?

RX: At the moment, I am working on a video with images and some text that started off as a digitalized form of sharing my process around these walking rituals, questions around the underused agency of a neighbourhood, urban design that is often not for living well, tracking what is going in the place I live in together with the folks around me.

I hope and am figuring out how it could be less a presentation, and more an invitation or activation for people to find their own parts or role in the place and people they live with.

PT: I’m working on applications for presenting work in a public space in Wellington, and exploring some other audio visual ideas.

About the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions

Paul Timing's and Lee Ren Xin's work is one of ten digital art works to be produced through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions. The commissions were offered to New Zealand arts practitioners who had previously participated in Foundation programmes to develop new works suitable for digital channels and which draw on the artist’s ongoing connections to Asia.