The Mercurial Inscription

Tan Zi Hao

Medium: Video animation, aluminium, touch sensor

Size of work: 30 × 58 × 30 cm (Aluminium)

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The Mercurial Inscription lodges a moment of suspension and friction in the making of national history. Taking the Terengganu Inscription Stone as a point of interrogation, the work is a rejoinder to the 2019 debate on Jawi in Malaysia. In centring an artefact lauded as the oldest example of Jawi writing, the installation explores a broader circumference of subjects involving the politics of history and education in Malaysia.

The Terengganu Inscription Stone, dated to the 14th century, is known to be a foundational evidence of Malay-Islamic civilisation. The stone was only discovered after a flood in 1887, revealing itself half-buried in a river near Kuala Berang. According to local accounts, a spot on the stone was worn smooth as it was originally placed as a step before a mosque, upon which worshippers washed their feet before prayers. The missing patch, comments colonial officer H. S. Paterson, is due to the “constant friction of bare feet”.

Navigating the friction of contact and the stability of matter, The Mercurial Inscription looks askance at foundationalism in national history writing. The work comprises a video animation and an aluminum sculpture, shaped according to what scholar Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas claimed to be the lost upper part of the Terengganu Inscription Stone.

The overall incompleteness and incomprehensibility of the stone—weathered by water, smoothened by feet, compounded by Sanskritic terms with Hindu-Buddhist overtones—surrender the Jawi script to hermeneutic open-endedness. Despite these irregularities, the stone is always cast in the superlative: the oldest, the earliest, the most historic. Historians, too, claim that they are “the first” who could “settle once and for all” the muddled work of hermeneutics. But in due time, what one read as the “correct date” of the stone is corrected again by another. The history of reading correctly is bound to the correction of time. Reading, like flooding and the washing of feet, robs the stone of all its iconic stability. The installation invokes allegories that transcend difference, from the Great Flood, to the Babel Tower, to the veneration of Buddha’s footprint, suggestive of Southeast Asia’s cultural nuances. Diluting our historical myopia and phobias exposed through the Jawi debacle in Malaysia, The Mercurial Inscription sets in motion all that we have set in stone.

About the Artist

Tan Zi Hao (b. 1989, Kuala Lumpur) is an artist, writer, and researcher. His idea has taken shape across a diverse range of works involving soil ecology, language politics, interpretive etymology, mythical chimeras, and organic assemblages from carrier shells to household casebearers. Most of his artworks are conceived with an ideological intention to challenge essentialism by privileging the assemblage. He has been published in Art in TranslationIndonesia and the Malay WorldInter-Asia Cultural Studies, among others. His recent exhibitions include Dream of the Day (Ilham Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2022); Steep and Sample: Possible  Futures/Impossible Present (A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur, 2022); Synthetic Condition (UP Vargas Museum, Quezon City, 2022); Phantasmapolis: Asian Art Biennial (National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan, 2021); What's Left for Gathering (Mutual Aid Projects, Kuala Lumpur, 2021).

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