Minstrel Kuik is a Malaysian contemporary photographer, based in Kuala Lumpur. She studied painting in Taiwan before going on to study at the Arles School of Photography in France. Her portfolio is diverse but Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily is her magnum opus, a long-term project examining her life back in Malaysia after a long interval away, and what it means to be Chinese and female in this country. Complex and multi-layered, Minstrel’s work has been exhibited widely in Malaysia and internationally, picking up awards along the way.
Your work straddles fine art and documentary, which is often an uncomfortable relationship for the industry. How did you come to this point in your photography?
I started doing photography in a documentary style. With the documentary style, you try to be as objective as possible, to interfere as little as possible, as long as you find a distance and let things speak on its own. But documentary photography is very difficult in Malaysia because it is not considered as an artform. The most acceptable artform in photography would be digitally manipulated photography, like I-Lann’s work.
With documentary photography, it is hard to convince the audience or the gallery that you are actually doing something, and you’re not just doing a snapshot. I find it very challenging in that way. I mean, as an author, I am totally comfortable with this, otherwise I won’t continue. But when you show this work to other people, it can be challenging. It is hard to convince people that this is a representation of reality, this is not simply reality. This is a reframing of just a part of the world. But to them, it is almost invisible, this kind of framing, cropping thing. Gradually I have to acknowledge this situation happening in Malaysia, so I have had to modify or put more consideration, by putting myself in the place of the audience, when it comes to creating a space, play with composition, in terms of form, I should put more effort. Whereas with documentary photography, you try to do the minimum. Once the image is there, you try not to interfere. But even with documentary photography, I Photoshop every aspect of the photograph in order to have the best light or the best colour I want. So to me it’s never neutral in that sense.
Even with documentary photography, it is only a perceived truth, or just a version of a truth.
Yes. We are limited by our perceptions. And this can be your personal signature, your voice, but at the same time, we must know that we are limited as well. We cannot see everything.
It’s interesting what you said about starting off in the documentary style. Were you wanting to infuse this into your artwork, or are you interested in journalism?
Errmmm. You know (Zhuang) Wubin, and he is trained in journalism. He is very disciplined. Once he has a subject matter, he will build up on that. I don’t have this kind of training. It’s not that I’m not interested in knowing more about other people’s stories. It’s just that me, as an individual in a bigger collective, if I understand myself, the foundation of the self, than I have access to a culture, to a history, to an international relationship in a broader sense. By studying my own condition, I think I would be more objective in that sense, and I won’t be a pure outsider in my art.
Of course there are universal truths in any kind of artform, but I won’t claim that my art has that kind of meaning. Maybe because I’m not religious. That in this small thing you can see the universe, I don’t have that kind of thinking. It’s just that by understanding this, I understand my relationship with the world. That’s my starting point.
I am here, whether you notice me or not, I’m here. I don’t need your acknowledgement to become real. I’m just real.
How did you get into photography? I understand you were in Taiwan studying painting.
I went to France in 2000 because I didn’t want to come back to Malaysia. It was the year after the Reformasi and the economic crisis in Asia in 1998, I was in Taiwan at that time. I graduated in 1999 and stayed another few months till 2000 to go to France. When I was in Taiwan, the atmosphere was very liberal and free, especially in art school, everything was permitted. We could try anything. That’s why what was happening in Malaysia at the end of the 90s was a revelation to me as an artist and a Malaysian. Suddenly I realised there was a gap between my education and what was happening in the country.
I had this chance not to come back right away, so I went to France to further my studies. For the first three years, I was still studying painting. We shared a classroom with print-making and photography students, and I was attracted to a poster of a portrait by the Greek painter, El Greco, in the room. For the first time in my life, I had this exchange of vision, an exchange of look. I was very attracted to this mutual acknowledgement. Unconsciously I wanted to spend more time in that classroom, so I joined the photography class in that room. I enjoyed the lecture so much that in the end, I graduated with a major in photography.
My first work in photography was a black and white. It was influenced by the taste of our professor because he was a student of Joseph Beuys. He went to Dusseldorf, and that’s why he was very much into the performance of body and social consciousness. He really inspired us a lot. At the end of my degree, my lecturer told me to try for a good photography school in the south of France. I started to prepare because it is a tough exam, a lot of people try to get into that school. I got in and moved to the south of France, where I did another three years of studies in photography. So it was by accident.
Also because I didn’t really enjoy being alone in the studio, facing the same canvas all the time. At that time I was living with my ex-boyfriend and his French family. During the daytime he went to work and I spent hours in my studio, not talking to anyone. But now with drawing and picking up painting again, psychologically, I don’t feel this kind of isolation anymore in Malaysia, like I had experienced being overseas. But at the beginning, it was a big challenge for me because I am not a very outgoing person. So to pick up a camera and go exploring or photographing strangers and wandering around the streets, it’s still not in my nature, it’s not natural to me. I don’t like machines, or the camera actually (laughs) so it took me quite awhile to get used to the machine.
What did you use as your subjects?
For my first project in colour, I used every object that I could find in my apartment and try to combine them together to make sort of like a sculpture so I didn’t have to go out. I called them a group photo of objects. One of my professors say why don’t you do some tricks, like put tape to make them more spectacular. But I would rather put them together to create a balance, trying to make the objects hold on together on their own. It could be anything – books from the library, fruits, tools, plants, anything I can find. That was my first project.
Looking at your work now, it seems that you have continued the use of found, inanimate objects in your work, instead of people.
Yeah, I think it has to do with my character, and my relationship with things and to people. I stayed in my hometown until I was 18. I was bored most of the time because it is a small town in Perak. My father seldom brought us anywhere, he doesn’t enjoy travelling. I spent a lot of time looking at things. After dinner, I would sit in front of my house looking at the sunset. It intensifies our senses, our perception. When I went to Taiwan and then France, I tried to open up and go out more often. But it’s not my character. In the end, I have to acknowledge that this is part of my nature. But with time and because of my job in teaching, I have to talk to people. It helped a lot.
Are you still teaching?
No, I quit last year in March.
What was your experience like coming back to Malaysia in 2006?
At the beginning I didn’t want to admit that it was difficult for me. I wanted to merge in into the country, culture, my family. But when I look back, I wanted to return to France. From 2007-2009, it was a struggling period in my life. Starting from 2008, I started working on Mer.rily. I started to build up a relationship with the places I stayed in at that time in KL, to have a better understanding of Malaysia and got to know some people and have some friends. When I had to go back to France in 2009, I didn’t want to go and I came back to Malaysia six months later.
How do you think your time away has influenced your work?
It sounds contradictory to say that I am Chinese, a Malaysian or a woman. To me, these identities are temporary. From a Buddhist point of view, you look at your life, beyond this life, it is very far, or very long. Or your past doesn’t stop at your birth date.
When I went to Taiwan or France, I didn’t plan it, it just happened. I went to a Chinese school, my parents were working class and they didn’t have the money to send us to the US and England, so the three sisters ended up in Taiwan. It was just the circumstances of life. Going to France was because I met my boyfriend at that time in Taiwan, and he happens to be French. So it is part of the journey. That’s why I say chance or accidents create a lot of possibilities. If you don’t look at your life with regrets about mistakes, then it’s fine. All those experiences inspire me and influence my life. Like how I look at identities and cultures. Everywhere you go, they will tell you that they are local, and you are not. That they are authentic, and you are not. If you go to Mainland China, they will look at you as a second-rate citizen as well. I think my experience overseas gave me some insights into the human condition.
Sometimes I have to remind myself, that it is good to have that feeling that this is the first time you are here, so you still appreciate things around you. If you get used to it, and you get trapped in the routine, you don’t see anything at all. That’s why I enjoy being a tourist here sometimes, not having any prejudice or knowing what you’re going to see.
How did you start on the series Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily? Was it a conscious decision or did the series come about organically?
You wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t have a camera when I got back. I used my brother’s digital camera and for one year, did some work. I finally bought my own DLSR, and I started to photograph my niece, KL and the many trips we made between KL and my hometown. In 2008, we had the general election and the whole atmosphere in Malaysia really inspired me to do something. And that was the beginning of Mer.rily.
I am a photographer, but I also have other identities. Photography matters because it helps me to establish a relationship between me and my subject matter.
Is Mer.rily still on-going?
It’s funny. Wubin was the first friend I made when I first came back. I told him a few years later, I don’t know how to say goodbye to Mer.rily, because it has become an organic body of work. In Mer.rily there are so many different parts to it. Sometimes it depends on the nature of the exhibition, and I would select images that would fit into a new space or exhibition. But I simply don’t know how to say goodbye to Mer.rily. In 2013, I don’t know why, but maybe because I moved to a new place in Kajang, a big change in my life, one day I discovered that I was on to something new. So it just happened. It’s still going on, but I’m able to work on something else now. Before, I was obsessed with Mer.rily. Now I can give a series a name and the relationship is less obvious, whereas before everything came under Mer.rily.
Why did you choose the snapshot-style for your work?
I think it was influenced a lot by cinema, like how a director makes a cut, and that frame seems irrelevant until you realise that the scene cannot do without this frame. I also have this belief in equality, that things are equal. I don’t believe that just because I look at a certain object it becomes more important because I looked at it. But if it were you, you probably wouldn’t look at the same thing again. So whether I discovered it or not, the object is still there. This kind of relationship I have with things. That’s why I think snapshot is a method to acknowledge the presence of things in a specific time and space without trying to say too much. You see that it is happening.
It is a democratic process.
Yeah, in a way. It is happening whether you have a camera in your hand, whether you decide to click or not, things are happening. Whether with the photographer’s presence or not. I think it is beyond our control, and it is much more interesting than what I can do. Because if I try to do still-life or try to compose something, it is limited by my taste and experience and mood, but when you look at objects and how we organise objects in our everyday lives, it could be very interesting. I’m more into chance, something unexpected, and I think the snapshot really preserves this aspect of things. I wouldn’t say it is totally snapshot. It is half and half. I organise a little bit.
Your photographs have multiple meanings, but at a glance, it is easy to just scratch the surface of it without comprehending the meaning. Do you need to understand the visual language in order to understand your work?
Yes, of course with every medium you need to know the basic language. In terms of visual arts, people tend to take it for granted that what you see is what you get. I’m not blind, of course, I can see. But I see nothing because this is a reality thing.
I have this belief in equality, that things are equal. I don’t believe that just because I look at a certain object it becomes more important because I looked at it.
How have the audience reacted?
They are fascinated by the visuals of the butterflies, but they are totally untouched by what I did before. So to them, that is considered art. But to me, this is all me. I’m interested in many kinds of images and methods. I started digital photography when I bought my first computer in 2006. I had just finished my studies, and suddenly I felt I needed to use my hands to do something. I started to draw, using my mouse to create digital imagery. I took pictures of my drawings and I reworked it with Photoshop, all messed up. When I had this opportunity to show at Richard Koh, I could show things that I had never shown before in Malaysia. People here are more familiar with my snapshot work. So I started to explore other things.
How do you think it is best to see your work?
(Laughs) Maybe in the form of a photobook. I used to have this idea. I would choose a number of images, say 100 images, and then I would lay them out in a different way to create different photobooks, based on different narratives. That is something I would love to do at a specific moment in my life. Because with a photobook, you can really set a beginning and an end. But at the same time, the reader is free to enter the space whenever they want. The structure is there, but it is up to them how they want to read it. I think the photobook is very flexible in that sense. And it is also because of the way I work. I have a lot of images, and to show them in an exhibition space would be too challenging and it will cause me a lot of money for the printing and framing.
You already have A Song for Durga. Is this a transition point for you or part of the project?
I had this opportunity to show my work in Taiwan, by a female curator. The reason why I specified female is because she only invited female photographers to exhibit, in trying to give a voice to female artists in Taiwan. That’s why I had this idea to do something based on the theme of the show. When I came back in 2010, I was pretty much broken because of my marriage and everything. I watched Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, and I was very touched by the female protagonist in the trilogy. I was more interested in the female characters surrounding Apu – the mother, his sister, his wife, his lover – and how Satyajit Ray portrayed Asian women at that time. Durga is the name of Apu’s sister, but she dies in the film. A lot of questions that I had was not answered by any women in the family. I don’t have any role models. From cinema, I managed to have a glance at other people’s lives, their problems, drama and destiny. So A Song to Durga was a reflection of what happened to me and the decisions I made. Although the images selected are not direct, they are not documentary. A lot of shots are empty. By my second return in 2010, I was more into story-telling. I’m more willing to embrace my identity as a female artist, for example making use of certain material that mostly female artists would use like textiles, a lot of words and stories.
And also the human anatomy, by putting yourself into the frame.
Yeah, yeah, something like that.
How many copies of this handmade book are there currently?
Most of the time, only one copy (laughs). It should be 10 copies. Like A Song for Durga, I made only one copy and I’ve sold it to a Malaysian collector. In the certificate, it says 10, but so far I’ve only made one. And it’s not with me anymore. Now it’s easy to self-publish, it’s become a common practise. I was looking for a publisher but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. I always change. I did one edit for a photobook. The second time I had an opportunity to show in Houston, I did another edit. I keep changing the narrative, the editing or the design of the book.
I understand editing is a big component of your work, especially with such a large body of work. What is your editing process?
It’s trying to be organised, to create rooms in my mind. In my computer, I categorise my images by year or by month, but never by theme. A lot of images I take, I don’t have time to develop the images that I want, and I forget some images. Every time I start on a project, I have to go back to my archives. It’s like a computer, you try to select different images and to create a certain relationship or narrative. You find out there are too many images and you have to let go of some. By changing one photo or an arrangement, you can create a whole new story. There are endless possibilities. Basically, the whole process would be a testing process, to test what I want.
If there are endless possibilities, what is the starting point for you?
The starting point could be that I like an image or was inspired by a movie, a sentence or a book. Sometimes as I go further, I would realise that it doesn’t work. It’s just an idea. And to test the idea you need to have more evidence, things like that. That’s why it is a very painstaking process. I could spend months, day and night, in front of the computer. It’s just like editing a movie. Rhythm is very important. The book itself is a physical space, so I have to maintain the rhythm in order to have a musicality.
You seem to be doing more painting now, does this signal a departure from photography?
No, I think it’s all together. Photography is really about seeing. And I think it is a very good training for me as a painter to explore seeing and what is representation. What is a subject? And also to expose myself as a photographer, or as an artist. Sometimes we think we are the people behind it, that we are invisible. But no, no, we are in our work. And if I am aware of it, I think I will be more considerate. I think I will be less arrogant as an author. More aware of my limits. Because photography tells me what I cannot see, what I cannot photograph. The things outside of my frame.
Do you consider yourself as a contemporary photographer or an artist using photography as a medium?
I am a photographer, but I also have other identities. Photography matters because it really helps me to establish a relationship between me and my subject matter. It’s more like an equal kind of relationship because of the angle we use, the distance, the lens. It is a lot of things actually. Because of my training, I am more sensitive now, I’m more aware now of what the director was thinking or what the cameraman is trying to say.
Is there a concern that you have to follow certain styles in your career?
It’s true. When you go to a gallery, they will ask you to stick to a certain medium. If you do photography, you only do photography. But I don’t want to simply be Chinese, a woman. I don’t want to stick to only one human condition.
You don’t have much of an online presence.
I have a blog, but I don’t have a website. I should. Like I should have a Facebook account so it’s easier for curators and whoever to contact me, but I don’t have one yet.
You’ve also been quite elusive in the arts scene.
No, no, it’s like how I was mentioning about the object. I am here, whether you notice me or not, I’m here. I don’t need your acknowledgement to become real. I’m just real. Once I understand this, I have less fear and anxiety in my life.
How do you survive in Malaysia as a contemporary photographer?
You cannot survive (laughs). That’s why I’ve been teaching for many years. Last year, I won a prize in painting and suddenly the Malaysian art scene took notice, she’s not simply a photographer. So I thought maybe I should grab this opportunity to further my dreams as an artist. But it’s quite challenging to be a full-time artist. There is a lot of uncertainties, in terms of income and recognition. My father went to Nanyang Academy of Art in the Sixties. He was the only child in the family who wanted to be a painter. I saw him struggling. In the Eighties, he picked up his paintbrush, staying up late to do his oil paintings. In the end, he gave up. In a way, I am ready. It is okay if in the end, it doesn’t happen.