She's on her knees, swaying to the beat of her own music. And she’s in an orange garment – metres and metres of slinky cloth winding its way around the space, up, down and around, like a roller coaster ride. Her face peeks out at one end, and like the light at the end of a tunnel, a pair of legs pokes out at the other.
US-based artist Anida Yoeu Ali, having transformed into The Bug for this performance, is at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur. And people are keeping their distance.
Are we meant to appreciate performance art from afar? The ice is broken when a curious child draws closer to The Bug and starts pulling funny faces. Then a man rubs heads with The Bug, in a conversation without words.
At the other end, another child tickles The Bug’s bare feet.
To Anida, this is precisely what the performance should be – and more.
“With live performance, there is something in the way that the present moment is honed as an exchange of energy between the performer and the witnesses. It is something that isn’t easily definable, because it usually stirs up emotions and memories, all these feelings that create the interactions that emerge, whether it is a simple gaze or a head rub,” she says.
Performance breaks the institutional rules of how art has been housed and it gives permission for people to engage with the art. It pushes people to trust their instincts and initial reactions, she notes.
“So for me, performance has always been powerful in setting parameters around what it meant to be in a setting that allows others to engage in a really innocent moment. It is in fact a really powerful moment of humour, joy, playfulness and human interactivity, which is the core of our existence,” she explains.
The American-Cambodian artist was in Malaysia recently for the opening of The Buddhist Bug: A Creation Mythology, an interdisciplinary series that combines live performance, photography, installation and video art.
The project was first conceptualised a decade ago, but what really made it take flight was Anida’s return to her birth country after being away for some 30 years.
She was five years old when her family fled as refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and settled in the United States. In 2011, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, found her was back to Cambodia and lived and worked there for almost five years.
She is now based in Seattle, Washington.
“Being in Cambodia, having both feet land on the ground and see, feel, touch and be really rooted in the land, was what opened up this work and pushed it into what we see today. It only happened, and could only happen, once I became part of the land and its people. The Buddhist Bug was birthed from that energy and it allowed me to make public art that includes everyday people in ordinary moments,” says Anida, 45.
Her documentation of her performances around Cambodia, captured in both photography and video, are currently on display in KL. It also features photographs from her performances in different countries, and a 60m installation of The Bug.
The Buddhist Bug has travelled to numerous countries, but this Malaysian show is the most extensive one of this exhibition series to date.
Anida describes The Buddhist Bug exhibit as her most ambitious body of work, a creation myth that sprung from her interest in "hybridity", transcendence and otherness. The orange is inspired by the saffron monk robes of Cambodia, and also of South-East Asia.
She relates how it struck her during her time in Cambodia “just how Buddhist the country was”.
Anida has Muslim Khmer roots. Her ancestry is mixed: Thai, Malay, Khmer, and Cham.
“I realised that the religion my parents taught me and carried with them to the US was an ethnic minority (in Cambodia). For the most part, The Bug questions ideas around otherness and the ways in which we may seem foreign in an everyday setting. It is also a celebration of difference in a really joyful way,” she shares.
It is a work that is rooted in both imagination and autobiography, and raises questions of identity, belonging and displacement. In trying to create a form that captures, metaphorically, the diasporic dilemma and transnational experience, Anida ended up creating this creature with a form that could be elongated to its full expanse of 100m or be collapsed into a tight ball.
“I see it as a bridge between two points, like when distances are brought closer together through the collapse. I see it as a creature itself, and I also see it as a tunnel where you can secretly get from one point to another. For me, The Bug is a displaced creature destined to travel and wander amidst the ‘in-between’, a powerful place for encounter, habitation and reinvention. It is mysterious and playful, and it fills people with joy to see this kind of exuberant colour,” she says.
Anida adds that a project like The Buddhist Bug requires a team effort and collective will.
“I ask for participation from people and it takes the belief that one can do something that is odd and seemingly foreign, and bring it to regular, everyday people.
“I hope visitors to the exhibition will see the scope of this work and appreciate how something that feels impossible can be done with a lot of passion and collaboration,” she says.