Tan Zi Hao: “Translation is a method of listening and a mode of care.” – S.E.A. Focus

Tan Zi Hao: “Translation is a method of listening and a mode of care.”

Malaysian artist unpacks the layers in his installation ‘The Mercurial Inscription’

The work of Malaysian artist Tan Zi Hao contains multitudes. Though his subject matter spans the quotidian to the imaginary and mythological, he is committed to challenging essentialist ideologies in favour of complexity. One important facet of his practice is an engagement with text. For him, text is more than just a mode of expression or historical document. Equally important is its form and the fact that typography can communicate nuanced meanings.

This catch-up session focuses on Zi Hao’s ‘The Mercurial Inscription’ (2022), which was selected for acquisition into the Singapore Art Museum collection through the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund. The artist unpacks the various components that come together in this ambitious installation, such as the dozen translations featured in the animation as well as the aluminium sculpture that audiences are invited to activate. Zi Hao’s deep research into Malayan history and the politics of language comes through strongly as he speaks about the impact of postgraduate studies on his artistic practice.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘The Mercurial Inscription’ (video still), 2022, video animation, aluminium, touch sensor, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Could you talk about the collaborative process behind producing ‘The Mercurial Inscription’? It is a large undertaking which involved translators, type designers, animators as well as fabricators who worked on the aluminium sculpture.

‘The Mercurial Inscription’ has involved a number of people with varying expertise. I approached the translators first. There are 10 target languages and 12 translations. Target languages are chosen based on specific personal experiences and resonance. I do not view translation as a representation of cultural inclusivity nor as an index of political correctness, but as a biographical inscription, as an expression in itself.

Some of the target languages, such as Hokkien and Javanese, are local and specific, and it took some time to find suitable translators. I did not face this issue with the more common languages, such as Arabic and Mandarin. I have also considered translating the stone inscription into Hakka, but no one I approached was willing to take up this endeavour. This is because Hakka speakers do not necessarily know the exact Chinese characters that signal the pronunciation in Hakka. Chinese languages such as Hokkien and Hakka, my parents’ mother tongues, are inaccurately understood as “dialects”. Hence, my intention of translating them in the work is also to provincialise the notion of Chineseness while drawing reference from the broader Sinophone world. 

Translation also takes place beyond language. The translated texts were drawn by type and graphic designers, mimicking the worn surface of the original stone inscription in Arabic Malay or Jawi. On this, I worked with frequent collaborators Tan Sueh Li, Low Hsin Yin, and Louie Lee of hrftype foundry. Designers Mohamed Hammam Chebel and Aditya Bayu Perdana were also involved. Visual surveys were conducted to approximate a 14th-century writing style for each different script because the Terengganu Stone Inscription was dated 1303 or 1308, depending on sources. 

The animators and fabricators came at a later stage and worked with visual references I supplied. The aluminium sculpture was created based on a speculation of a missing piece broken off from the upper part of the Terengganu Stone Inscription. This speculation was initially proposed by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas in his book ‘The Correct Date of the Terengganu Inscription’ (1972). 

Tan Zi Hao, ‘The Mercurial Inscription’ (video still), 2022, video animation, aluminium, touch sensor, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘The Mercurial Inscription’, 2022, video animation, aluminium, touch sensor, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Kenta Chai.

The work was first presented at the ILHAM Art Show 2022, what was the Malaysian audience’s response? Were they able to connect your interest in the Terengganu Inscription Stone with the 2019 debate on Jawi in Malaysia?

The Terengganu Inscription Stone was an artefact familiar to the Malaysian public as it graced the cover of an older edition of the Form 4 history textbook. Most could recognise the artefact and its affiliation with the Islamic heritage of present-day Malaysia, but very few would recall what was written on the stone. It is this surface recognition that I find fascinating. The Terengganu Inscription Stone is a pure image, iconic yet enigmatic and almost incomprehensible.

“My intent to translate an iconic object in the Jawi script is to consider how translation could play a role in navigating this conundrum. In ‘The Mercurial Inscription’, translation is a method of listening, a mode of care and of attending to others.”

I was exploring the topic of history and language with this artefact due to a nationwide debate in 2019 on the implementation of Jawi classes in vernacular Chinese and Tamil schools. The debate became intensely racialised as the Jawi script was inextricably linked to the Malay Muslim identity. The Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools were adamant about this imposition and sought for more conversations. Such resistance was often perceived as a challenge to the unquestionable supremacy of Malay culture in Malaysia. The stake was higher given the impression that the Jawi script bears an Islamic connotation. Collectively, these anxieties revealed a society with deep-seated Islamophobia, Jawiphobia, and Sinophobia. 

My intent to translate an iconic object in the Jawi script is to consider how translation could play a role in navigating this conundrum. In ‘The Mercurial Inscription’, translation is a method of listening, a mode of care and of attending to others. When the audience encounters a familiar script, it provides an opening for engagement. And yet, translation does not guarantee comprehension. The audience may stumble upon a familiar script at random but the translated texts are seldom readable, in part due to the incompleteness of the original inscription, and in part, its antiquity. A person adept in the Malay language may not be able to comprehend the inscription because it was written in old Malay permeated with old Sanskritic, Javanese, and Arabic terms. Another who could read Chinese characters, assuming them to be inscribing the Mandarin language, would be perplexed by a Hokkien translation.

It is through such dialectics of familiarity and strangeness that I hope to defamiliarise one’s own tongue, to create openings for rethinking alterity. Again, this does not guarantee a resolution. Imagine reading an enemy’s grievance translated into one’s own mother tongue. What does it take to listen? What does it take to be with that person whose language we could not understand and whose situation we could not resonate with? Translation is beyond comprehension, beyond the act of comprehending or apprehending a certain meaning, but of being-with.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘M’, 2017, solo exhibition at A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur. Image courtesy of the artist and A+ Works of Art.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘Bhāṣā Jīva Vaṃsa’, 2017, spray-painted fibreglass, dimensions variable, edition of 3 + 1AP. Image courtesy of the artist and A+ Works of Art.

Why was the interactive element of touch sensors in the sculpture important?

The element of touch is extremely important in the installation. According to an account given by the colonial officer Paterson, the Terengganu Inscription Stone was originally placed as a step in a mosque. Devotees would wash their feet before prayers. The stone was therefore smoothened, and part of the inscription effaced due to friction. I find this account to be poetically affective, it epitomises the nuances of reading and translating. It is intriguing that an artefact of considerable salience was once frequently touched or stepped on, before being stored in a museum and clinically displayed for distant admiration. How a sacred object was musealised is consequent upon a colonial epistemology that enacts violence to the object itself. In certain parts of Southeast Asia, touching an historic object activates berkah or “divine blessing”, implying an unseen flow of intensity beyond visible matter. It is with these historical sensibilities that I insist on having an element of touch in ‘The Mercurial Inscription’. A touch is a gesture of care, curiosity even, but it also introduces friction and the potential of erasure.  

Your work has been selected for the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund and will join the Singapore Art Museum’s collection. What does this mean for you personally and your practice?

It is a tremendous honour for the work to find a place in the Singapore Art Museum, a prestigious institution in Southeast Asia. As a work addressing the politics of translation and multilingualism, I am equally curious to see how the installation will be curated or exhibited. Singapore is a locality that has a complex history of language politics, from the linguistic experiment with an idyllic “Engmalchin” (a portmanteau for English, Malay, and Chinese) to the contentious period of Nantah in the 1960s. Multilingualism is never a mere neutral language signalling diversity to begin with. It constitutes a space for linguistic and ideological contestation.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘Susur, Galur, dan Bahasa Melayu’, 2017, book, colour pencil, ink, and acrylic on acid-free paper, 35 x 61 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and A+ Works of Art.

What made you decide to pursue a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies at National University of Singapore? And how did it impact your artistic practice?

Pursuing a PhD felt natural because I am passionate about research, writing, and pedagogy. I am also a bookish person, obsessed with text in itself or text as an image. The latter could come in the form of typography, which manifests in some of my works. But very early on, I wanted to be an artist without entering into a fine art department. I am intrigued by knowledge gaps between disciplines, and epistemic blind spots which become more apparent when you move across disciplines. What I could not satisfactorily interrogate in an academic publication, I would do so in the arts, and vice versa. 

Nonetheless, years of academic writing have impacted my practice as an artist. I believe my later works are more layered due to my research interests, and perhaps, a higher expectation for critical engagement that came along with postgraduate studies. There is also a very delicate dynamic to maintain because academic thinking, by virtue of its demand for the written form and its tacit rationalism could impede creative thinking.

Any upcoming exhibitions or projects you would like to share?

Several projects are in order. I am developing a series of photographic works that capture a close-up of domestic debris gathered on the cocoons of household casebearers. Another series of works is relatively personal for it addresses mental health issues amidst the Covid-19 endemic. I have exhibited works from both these series before, so these are continuing explorations of existing projects. Concerning language and translational politics, I am currently working with the type collective Huruf (some of whom are from the hrftype foundry) to document the practice of hand-painted signage in select parts of Malaysia. The findings will eventually be published as a book.

This interview has been edited.