Residency allows artist to
see familiar city in new light

Four weeks into his Foundation residency at Rimbun Dahan, Kuala Lumpur, artist Richard Liew says he is rediscovering the city he thought he knew well.

Crowd of people in the backseat of a carTomorrow I will have been in Malaysia for four weeks. In the lead up to arriving here at Rimbun Dahan I was unable to think too hard on what it meant to be undertaking this residency.

I knew that it presented an opportunity to operate outside the normal pressures of life in Auckland, pressures responsible for that inability to think ahead to the residency in the first place.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL) at 3am on a Monday, a city I am familiar with, a city with which my family has ties going back at least four generations.

However, what's been revealing in the month I've been here is the relative lack of understanding I had about this country, its people, its history, its culture and its challenges.

Despite having visited KL around seven or eight times, my perspective has been limited by a number of different factors, to the point that only now, on this occasion, am I able to look and see how things actually are.

There is a definite irony in this. One of the main factors that framed my view of Malaysia through my previous visits was my family.

Of Hakka Chinese heritage, my family’s presence in Malaysia is defined by the New Village scheme that was implemented post World War 2 as part of the Malayan Emergency, a violent episode that closed out the colonial presence in Malaysia through a battle against a communist insurgency (you can read more about this on my blog here).

So my understanding of Malaysia came via the view of the Chinese experience, staying with my grandparents within a Chinese village, with information and experiences delivered via that perspective.

And now here I am, in KL for three months to look, learn, reflect, explore and produce in depth, as an artist tasked with producing outcomes that help build relationships and understanding between New Zealand and Southeast Asia.

My particular focus is on Malaysia, on Kuala Lumpur, and by virtue of my residency submission, on the experience of Chinese New Village inhabitants, such as my own family; and in doing so, develop a broader understanding of modern Malaysian life and society.

While my family experience previously limited my view of Malaysia, within this residency it is enabling me to contextualise it as part of a much larger and complex picture.

It feels a little like walking into a place you've previously frequented with your eyes wide open for the first time. That's actually exactly what this residency is.

I think it has taken the better part of four weeks to be able to work through that; my previous experience and relationship with KL providing both advantages and difficulties to me as I simultaneously navigate, explore and reconcile.

The thrust of my project here is centred around the notion of dislocation, something evident through the history of my immediate family and our tradition of immigration, and further through centuries of ongoing Hakka migration.

It's evident throughout this multicultural country, reflected in the historic election of last week with a promise to address the dislocating challenges created by a constitution that manifests in race-based policy. It’s evident in my own position, sitting between cultures as a Eurasian, Austronesian, Chinese, European and Pakeha.

One of my colleagues from Auckland asked me how the residency was going. They asked in regard to dealing with the removal of myself from normal routine, from my domestic setting and my family. It’s an interesting question and not one often addressed in regards to residencies. The residency experience, while a number of things, is in itself dislocating. 

My line of enquiry has a deeply personal thread, one that threw me when first confronting it.

Within the residency experience you achieve the time and space so difficult to create back home, allowing a degree of contemplation not normally possible.

I’ve become so adept at delivering outcomes with the most economic use of time and resource, as the modern work zeitgeist demands, that the opportunity and need to go deeper with this project has become a little intimidating. And from what I can tell, the intimidating aspect is in response to the focus on self: I really don't like talking about myself. And here I am with weeks and weeks to do just that.

I'm looking forward to moving through this period to a place beyond internalisation, where the outcomes of my experience manifest in ways relatable to people through themes universal in nature but personal in origin.

A month in and while no closer to knowing what these outcomes might look like, I know the significance of them and what they will embody for me and my understanding of the challenges faced by others moving between cultures. A month in and it feels like I'm only just now in a place to get started.