Catch of the day: exhibition highlights Malaysian fishing village heritage


Boatbuilder Hor Lai brings us on a tour of his ‘workspace’, a half-constructed boat, in a video presentation that is part of the 'Labour And Weight' exhibition. Photo: Labour And Weight

For the first time since its inception, the rustic Labour And Weight project has been taken out of its site-specific environment and placed in a space akin to a blank canvas, its exhibits now on display to a city-dwelling audience who might not necessarily be familiar with some of the themes and concepts outlined here.

Traditional boat building? Netmaking? What do these suspended blocks of wood at the exhibition at Multimedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya mean? And what in the world is a “siam”?

Labour And Weight: A Travelling Exhibition, was previously shown in September 2021 at the Rumah Haikao, Batu Pahat in Johor, and then later in December 2021 at the Hokkien Association in Pulau Pangkor, Perak. It is a research project initiated in 2020 by four artists/cultural workers Lee Mok Yee, Okui Lala, Yeo Lyle and Koe Cheng Gaik, and carried out in collaboration with boatbuilder Hor Lai and netmaker Man Nian.

Yeo (back) of the 'Labour And Weight' team measuring his one ‘siam’ with netmaker Man Nian Aunty. Photo: Labour And WeightYeo (back) of the 'Labour And Weight' team measuring his one ‘siam’ with netmaker Man Nian Aunty. Photo: Labour And Weight

The current exhibition, open to the public, runs daily at MMU’s E-gallery hall until Feb 28.

“This project gave us an opportunity to ruminate on ‘labour’ and ‘weight’. Amid the continuous advancement of technology, we notice the diminishing space, demand and desire towards physical labour. With this in mind, the absence of labour in our day-to-day takes away the notion of weight in our life. Taking this concern as a common ground between the four of us, we embarked on a series of trips to Pulau Pangkor and Batu Pahat, Malaysian sites that have their own specificity in relation to the act of ‘making’,” reads a statement from the Labour And Weight team.

Through installation art, performance, photography and video, the project explores the notion of “labour” and “weight” and how it informs the way we perceive our surroundings.

With the traditional practices of boatbuilding and netmaking as point of departure, the team examined connections between unit, measurement, materiality and craftsmanship in their understanding of these two elements, while also tapping into the repetitive nature, bodily memories and the stories that surround them.

The 'Traces Of Action' exhibit is made of leftover wood pieces from a boatyard, reinstalled in a new space with the wood bearing marks from the boat production. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah The 'Traces Of Action' exhibit is made of leftover wood pieces from a boatyard, reinstalled in a new space with the wood bearing marks from the boat production. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

For instance, the team met up with a local net maker in Pulau Pangkor, affectionately called “Man Nian Aunty”, who demonstrated the act of measuring 60 siam, the length of a trawling net.

Siam is a measurement unit traditionally used in boat and netmaking there. One siam is approximately the distance between a man’s outstretched arms, which of course varies according to the size and proportion of the body it is based on.

“One of the highlighted pieces in this exhibition is a video that shows this act of measuring 60 siam. The viewer can see us taking turns to stretch our arms to measure one síam each, to complete the length of 60 siam, starting from the street all the way down to the jetty.

“At the MMU exhibition, we also conduct a workshop with students to measure how big 60 siam is. We want to share with the students how they can use their body to construct something bigger than themselves, instead of using a ruler,” the statement continues.

'Lightboxes Of Rumah Haikao' is a series of photos displayed in lightboxes, set in and around Yeo’s family house (the Rumah Haikao in the title) in Batu Pahat, Johor. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah 'Lightboxes Of Rumah Haikao' is a series of photos displayed in lightboxes, set in and around Yeo’s family house (the Rumah Haikao in the title) in Batu Pahat, Johor. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

At the exhibition, there is an installation made up of wood fragments from a boatyard, with many pieces bearing marks from the boat production. This installation is partly inspired by an earlier project by Yee and the Pulau Pangkor community in 2013 where wood was sculpted into miniature boats.

The current installation is complemented by videos, including one featuring boatmaker Hor Lai shown by the seaside in Pulau Pangkor, where he was building a boat.

“The artists’ idea was to capture the body maneuvering within the half-constructed boat, hoping to portray its scale. Still under progress, the assembled wooden parts form a floating site that requires one to be extremely careful in order to walk on it, so as not to fall into the water below.

"Through this video, we observe as Hor Lai performs his vigilance, as he walks slowly yet with an easy manner on the construction, leading viewers to experience his ‘work space’,” writes Amanda Ariawan in the exhibition notes.

The 'Labour And Weight' team (from left): Okui Lala, Koe Cheng Gaik, Yeo Lyle and Lee Mok Yee. Photo: Labour And WeightThe 'Labour And Weight' team (from left): Okui Lala, Koe Cheng Gaik, Yeo Lyle and Lee Mok Yee. Photo: Labour And Weight

Another series incorporates one of the team member’s family history into the narrative. Yeo’s grandfather was a shipbuilder and his father, a fisherman, both roles where physical material and production are central to daily life.

In the present day, Yeo retraced various gestures of labour that his father and grandfather might have performed in their work, an exploration of movement that was captured on camera by the team. The photography works were then developed into lightboxes and exhibited as part of the show.

The Batu Pahat presentation was held at his family home.

“One of the most unforgettable memories for me is when all my uncles and cousins came to the exhibition. While looking at the lightbox installation, they started to share stories from the past,” shares Yeo.

With the project now in Cyberjaya, the Labour And Weight team, together with their collaborators shipbuilder Hor Lai and netmaker Man Nian Aunty, are interested in how a younger, more urban audience will experience and respond to their work.

Labour And Weight: A Travelling Exhibition is on at Multimedia University (MMU), Cyberjaya till Feb 28. Opening times: 9am to 5pm (Monday to Sunday). Free admission. More info here.

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