A young David Medalla once wrote a series of prose poems that referenced the creation of fantasy sculptures that would breathe, perspire, cough, laugh, yawn, smirk, wink, pant, dance, walk and crawl. They would walk among humans and roam the earth like migratory birds or intercontinental missiles flying at nine times the speed of sound. A few would even set out for space, zipping past planetary bodies and discovering wondrous new galaxies.
“To cross interstellar space ... accumulating as they wing along, asteroids, meteorites, magnetic fields, interstellar germs...of a new life...on the way from our galaxy to the Spiral Nebula ... Mmmmmmmm,” he wrote.
More than five decades after this MMMMMMM...Manifesto (a fragment), written by the Filipino artist, was first published in 1965, it finds itself at the centre of a new art exhibition at Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
Dream Of The Day, its title lifted from Medalla’s Manifesto, is a group exhibition that presents over 80 works (including Medella’s text) from 39 artists mainly from the South-East Asian region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and beyond, including Sri Lanka and Egypt.
Through a range of genres, styles and sensibilities, these works ponder on the realities of everyday life, situated mainly in the context of this region and viewed through a contemporary lens.
This exhibition serves as a reminder that the past can still provide us with many lessons to move forward.
The oldest work in this show can be traced back to the 1930s, but the curatorial message is evergreen – one of dreams, progress and transformation, one of speculation and imagination, yet with feet firmly in the present.
“I was interested in how we look at the future, through our knowledge of the past and present. A future is about anticipating the new. This transformation often calls for experimentation, which is a medium through which the future can be grasped or made palpable. So I was conscious that there must be an effort in the artworks here that alludes to this change,” says Patrick Flores, the exhibition curator.
Flores was convener of the forums for the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year and the artistic director of Singapore Biennale 2019. He is the professor of art studies at the University of the Philippines and curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila.
In Dream Of The Day, there are works - surrealism, slow cinema, photography, performance and paintings - that move away from realism and delve into the supernatural or the mystical. These are mysterious things that defy the rules of the physical world we live in, yet are very much part of life and tradition in many communities.
Shifts in perception are also embraced here, such as in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Worldly Desires, a film within a film. It alternates between a girl group performance in the forest, and a couple eloping in broad daylight in real time, and during the dawn under the lens.
“The couple don’t reach a destination, they just keep running. At some point, the girl band and the couple come together, and it is like the music of the band becomes the music of the couple. The film crew disappears and the forest then becomes the witness to their world. It is like a kind of transition from a filmed reality to a new world, a new construction through cinema,” says Flores.
Conception is celebrated here as well, as in Tan Zi Hao’s Kalau Kala Mengizinkan and Maka Kita Boleh, where he draws from the fictional account of the discovery of a 15th century stone carving of a ferocious mythical beast and real life architecture motifs in South and South-East Asian cultures.
“The artist re-articulates mythology through fictive archeology, showing us that in creating something new, you don’t get rid of the old. Perhaps you surmount it, overcome it, or reassign some elements from it to the new one. But in the new, there is always a relationship with the past,” says Flores.
Also marrying fiction, imagination and reality is Singaporean artist Nor’s Wedding, a detailed account of a beach wedding at sunrise, between the artist and the ideal man. In both text and video, this world beckons to the viewer, as real as any other documented reality, but one that exists only in the fictional world in this specific instance.
“I got married on the East Coast to a bespectacled boy I have loved all my life ... I would die to be in any of my friends’ shoes, to feel the way they felt when they saw their favourite girl finally get married to the love of her life,” she writes.
In any case, it is obvious that Flores is rather taken by Medalla’s Manifesto, one that he describes as a playful reverie and a beautiful fantasy.
“It is humorous yet urgent, but not dogmatic. It doesn’t grab you by the collar, but invites or urges you to make your own dream and to break free of your constraints. It is a bit of a wild dream and I think the world needs more of these,” he says.
The open-minded curator sees the phrase “dream of the day” which the exhibition borrows its title from, as an evocation of a current condition, and at the same time a plea or a call to action.
The first dream of the day, he says, is the present project. The dream of the moment to change the world, to be a kinder person, to transform the body, to address social inequality, or whatever it is your current project of change is.
“But the other sense of the phrase is the imperative mode, the phrase as a command. It is decisive, a call to action to dream of the day when things are not like this anymore.
Maybe to dream of the day when people are free and no one is hungry, or a dream to go against the grain, to go against rules set by society or history. Aim for the impossible because in time, you can make it possible.
“People should always be inspired to believe in themselves and to believe in their capacity to be part of the project of change,” he concludes.
Ilham Gallery will be providing weekly tours for its current exhibition Dream Of The Day. The tours will be held every Friday at 3pm and Saturday at 11am until show ends.
Dream Of The Day is on at Ilham Gallery, 8 Jalan Binjai, in KL till May 14. Closed on Monday and public holidays.