The Strangest Encounter
Inside This White Cube
by A Band of Unusually Unsuspecting Suspects
Room 36, Abby Hotel, Ipoh
Ni Art Festival
by Peng-Ean Khoo
I woke up with meaning today.
I woke up thinking of Martin Seligman and Victor Frankl.
I woke up thinking about wildflowers, our encounters in the moonlight shadows.
I woke up wondering about hopes, our vulnerabilities and our fears.
Of recurring woundedness.
I think about Pema Chodron and shenpa.
I think about Thich Nhat Hanh and the wonders of the world. I think about maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha.
And most of all, I think about Thomas Merton, and how he arrived at “your heart is my hermitage.”
I think of my Beatitudes piece which refused to surface from the chambers of my wardrobe.
And I think of stringing the soul beads of Meher Baba. And The Glass Bead Game of Herman Hesse revisits me. And I began to be in anguish, without knowing why an invite to an art festival would trigger all these visitations.
Strangely, I didn’t think of Rumi. Nor Attar. Perhaps Rumi’s “far mosque” is too distant for me to even fathom an encounter. Likely, it is too terrifying for my inner cowardice to even begin to think of taking a peek through its windows: the fanas and baqas of our inner worlds.
And so, this morning, I wondered what it was all about. The art, the ruckus, the madness, the grief, the joy.
Did I mention Henri Nouwen? And Jean Vanier? L’arche. How could I forget the Eucharist, the vulnerable self.
And then, I remembered our love.
I started to look for my love letter piece, where I had referenced 1 Corinthians 13.
And that too, I couldn’t find.
And I thought of Saint John Paul the Great’s “Letter to Artists”, where he spoke so deeply and encouragingly into my heart of desperation and anguish about my own direction and vocation as an artist, as a human person. He whispered into my inner vacuum a great reminder of our innate truthfulness, goodness and beauty, “Beauty has already saved the world.”
I kept looking and seeing this: all the art that I had made when I wasn’t making art, but those times when I was instead, doing things, making things, searching, looking, struggling, flailing, desperate, trying to heal and mend my own broken heart.
I didn’t think about making art. Art was what surfaced to hold me together. That thing that if it wasn’t there, I would not have been able to cohere and made sense of all of life, and I would have remained broken, fragmented, unknowing, and unloved.
Unloved, by me.
So, it has been one giant love letter.
What I understand my making art is this: they are my unsheddable tears, my inarticulable words, my indescribable longings. Making art is my hermitage.
It is that which sustains my sacred self.
One giant love letter that initially spoke to my own heart, and which I have come to realise speaks all the hearts of those in my life.
We are very much intertwined.
So, for Ipoh, I have one big love letter to read to you. I don’t know how to say thank you. I have been in diaspora for so long, it is not easy to come home and greet nothing that is familiar anymore.
I have changed so much.
And then this recent trip to Ipoh, I understood something interesting.
Ipoh has changed too.
It is for me to rediscover Ipoh anew. So I am now the stranger in my own homeland.
The second journey that Odysseus had to undertake, ironically, is not about a new land. It is about our own inner heartland. And the wayfarer, the only one who can mistake the stranger’s oar for a winnowing fan, is myself!
And that encounter for me happened in Ipoh.
In the heart of my own reconciliation, held and rebirthed again on the soil of my birthplace.
I thought maybe I would return one day to offer to my hometown a hero’s return, but instead, I find myself a vagabond, a diasporic stranger, who really no longer has anything.
Because I understand now, a true return, isn’t about my accomplishments or my battle scars, but that I am empty. I have exhausted and given everything I have away. I have shredded away everything that isn’t important because of the distance and perspective of wandering, and so the only thing that I can offer is my true self, the child who left Ipoh 30 years ago:
Once that journey begins,
And the only doorway for me to meet that child is to shed everything that I had adorned since that departure, and enter the door of mystery and come home.
Not with the bloodshed and courage of the warrior.
Not with the leaving of all armour outside the door, at the threshold of homecoming.
Not with the adorning of a returning bride or princess.
Not with the grandeur and riches of a king.
And certainly not with the wisdom nor compassion of the sage.
And good heavens shall have the kindliness to forbid the hot airs of the puffed up braggart.
There is not one single glory that befits to pass through this doorway of homecoming.
But the loneliness and sense of failure that only and every prodigal child knows.
So when I met Peter who then introduced me to Kok, who then invited me to contribute to the Ni Art Festival, it never occurred to me that this was the place, the strange land (is this my “far mosque”?) that I had been too afraid to encounter.
Because it would require me to be the wayfarer and the stranger at the same time. The prodigal parent, child, sibling, innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders.
And this meeting place, this elusive meeting place that has been always just slightly beyond my grasp, has to happen. And I guess, the best place to happen, is in the birthplace of one’s own, where one does not need a map to navigate where to go, where the intimacy is beyond the word intimacy, where one just is. Without maps, without concepts, without borders, without an agenda, without needing to make sense of those who welcome you home, not because you are a pilgrim or a traveler or a stranger, but because you are one with the village, “kakilang” (a fellow country person). You are kin. And you find yourself surrounded by excitement, chatter, mirth – welcome: “Come, sit down, I am so happy to greet you. Tell us about your adventures.”
And then, I begin to tell the story.
But first, I must weep.
Because I am going to share a story not of adventures, but one of conversions.
Of how the strangers I met in my travels became my friends and now I know that everywhere I go, I have family. I have family everywhere I go and I have family in Ipoh.
The world is my family.
So for Ipoh, I bring a gift.
Into this sacred place of homecoming, I offer you my global family. “Inside this white cube”*, you will find a gift from all my friends all over the world – their love letters of every kind of artistic expression to Kok, CP, Peter and Ipoh for their generous and courageous love, and warm and open hospitality.
Thank you for hosting such an amazing longing – of meeting, knowing and conversion from one single encounter : we are now all one family.
It is our heart hope that a contemporary art museum is birthed in Ipoh because of the inaugural Ni Art Festival. And primarily because of this one mutual inexpressible longing –
The Encounter Within.
September 21, 2016
*Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space by Brian O’Doherty
Peng-Ean Khoo loves making art, living poetry in action. She draws, she paints, she engages art installation and community projects, she makes films, she makes claywork, she sings, she writes music. Her next project is a band and musical theatre. She hopes humanity can fully experience and be completely fulfilled by the deep peace, silence, joy and harmony of knowing and living love in action.