History breathes. Some people talk about the past as if it was dead, but it is always alive, not just in the way of simple genetics — us being the stuff of our ancestors — but also in the sense that an object of history — a recorded story, a museum artefact — becomes a conversation when we chance upon it in the present. That communion is an act of resurrection. Like Bruce Springsteen sings, in Atlantic City , his voice a tight plea:
“ Maybe everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. “
When I think of history, I think of noise. I am drawn to places in which I can feel this communion occur. In a previous regular commute, I would take a bus through the Bukit Timah and Pan-Island Expressways in Singapore. There would be a bend in the road from which the urbanity of Singapore would fall away and we would plunge onto a silken street bracketed on either side by remnants of jungle. Not thick or dense enough to actually be a rainforest, but free from the skyscrapers of the country’s Central Business District, or the public housing apartments that scaffold vast swathes of the island. Going down that road, I would listen to Atlantic City on repeat. Something about the landscape that the bus would drive through — that blue tropical hum — gave the song a deeper gravity. Springsteen’s song is about a man caught between his mounting debts and inability to find work. The man accepts a “job” that might give him the chance to escape this cycle, but he knows, on some level, that he is already on his way to the slaughter. He knows already that it is futile to prevent it, but he continues anyway because he has no other choice. All that he can really ask for is another chance — that in some shape or form, he will be able to come back. This desire for resurrection mirrored the landscape I would see through the glass, that of the jungle feeding upon itself and yet living forever — finding its way back through the dark.
The work of the artist Mandy El-Sayegh reminds me of this imagery. There is a tactility and an almost brutal physicality about her work; there is something wounded about it, but also the sense of something existing within and through the wound. When I first spoke to Mandy, she took me virtually through the corridors of her studio and spoke of the space in terms of the body. The studio’s library was “the brain”. The room in which she painted was “the stomach”. Sheets of latex spread on a raw cement floor were, she told me as she panned over them lovingly, “like skin.”
There is a tactility and an almost brutal physicality about her work; there is something wounded about it, but also the sense of something existing within and through the wound.
This material is deeply personal to her. Her mother was a rubber tapper in her childhood in Malaysia, where she had grown up in Jerantut, in the state of Pahang. The latex was processed in local factories, and many of the workers ended up sickened by the factory’s toxic runoff. To Mandy — who still has family in the area — latex is thus a symbol of not only tropical geography but also of life and death. There is a tension to latex as a material; it is organic, living as it dies. Latex — rubber — is what provides the workers their livelihood, but the industry of rubber production is also what harms these workers in the end. This Malaysian background is something Mandy and I share. Her mother’s family comes from a kampung  in Pahang, my mother’s family is from one in Sabah. As we talked, we conjured up images familiar to us both: the hulking jungle, the cloying heat. Even the rubber trees and plantations that are represented in Mandy’s work were known to me. I grew up in Johor, just below Pahang; both states are clustered with said plantations, which sprout all over Malaysia like a rash.
But what also drew me to Mandy’s work was the nature of its relationship to archival practice. Yet I spoke with the artist through a state of glitch — in the present. As Mandy trawled through her Central London studio with her phone camera, the screen would shatter into pixels, the images arranging and rearranging themselves constantly. When she tried to show me a piece of her father’s calligraphy, all I could see were blocks of pixelated gold, but soon the text fell together, taking on shape. From the distance of my computer screen, her canvases — Net Grids — practically hummed with colours and shapes. In her 2019 show Cite Your Sources in London’s Chisenhale Gallery, sheets of sepia newspapers cascaded down the walls to the floors. Like her studio, Mandy’s works are hubs, sites of communion. Observing them, you get the sense of clamber and clamour.
In photographic language, “noise” describes a visual distortion, like the static snow you get when you turn on the television at six in the morning. Photography itself is a practice of light. You snap an image and you pull in light: a picture being the result of an intersection of light rays. Archival practice, documentation, archaeology — the practices of historians — all work in much the same way. They are processes of gathering, plumbing through, sieving to get to the core of a story. One might think that, after browsing through an archive or museum, history is organised, a precise collection of dates and names. But it isn’t really — what we see is just what we’ve managed to pull out of the dark. History isn’t something you can wade into, filing your findings into neat cabinets; you will invariably get stuck.
History isn’t something you can wade into, filing your findings into neat cabinets; you will invariably get stuck.
To me, Mandy’s work illustrated the messy heart of the archival process. When I spoke to her about the parallels between her practice and the work of archivists, and asked her about how she approached history, she told me that she thought it couldn’t be done. The viewer, she said, should approach the work with their own ideas, and she would let them do so. “Unless there are very specific contexts,” she said, and told me a story about her maternal uncle, a man who practiced calligraphy in Jerantut. His practice was limited from the wider reaches of the art world because of his geographical and material limitations, but the work that he made was more meaningful than what is found in many galleries. In a manner of speaking, her uncle was also an archivist of kampung life. He would write out announcements for deaths and weddings, beginnings and endings, and Mandy would ask her mother to bring back these calligraphies, etched delicately onto rice paper, so that she could include them in her own work. The recorded histories of the kampung were thus, quite literally, stored in Mandy’s work, turning her pieces into archives of written documentation. In exchange for her uncle’s calligraphies, she would give him ang pow  as payment, completing the loop of communication.
The process of sampling, at its core, is one that is regenerative. The old breathing again through the new.
This sampling of other materials constantly occurs in Mandy’s work. Newspapers and cut-out logos are fixtures in her pieces. Her studio in Central London has stacks of the Evening Standard and Metro — free London dailies — lined up, all ready to be chewed up in the workspace. In the works from Cite Your Sources , her father’s calligraphy also made appearances. Both sides of her family’s ink practice have thus been inherited and represented. “This is where the digestion happens,” Mandy said of her workspace in the studio — which is also a process of resurrection. The process of sampling, at its core, is one that is regenerative. The old breathing again through the new.
It is important for Mandy to ensure that her work keeps these aspects of her personal history alive. That is because these aspects of history are not solely hers; they are also her mother’s and father’s, and those that came before them. Her father is from Gaza, a site where not only life, but history is precarious. From 1967 to the present, Israeli authorities and settlers have uprooted over 800,000 olive trees belonging to Palestinians.
The olive tree has valuable tangible purpose for agriculture and the income of Palestinians, but it is also a symbol of their national identity. The olive tree might appear innocuous, but its roots belong to more than itself; the tree also carries history. When Mandy spoke about the insertion of her father’s calligraphy in her own work, she used equally tangible terms. She called it the “preservation of her father’s hand” — the meaning is explicit not only in the metaphorical sense but in the physical sense; her father’s writing is the proof of her father’s body.
Mandy and I went to discuss the relationship between materiality and identity. We spoke, in particular, about how abstract language, unconcerned with materialities, is being wielded in the current political climate to discuss identities and histories. Mandy has previously stated — and I agree with her on this — a distaste for the way American and Western (Anglocentric) identity politics have influenced the global discourse on identity. “Language”, Mandy told me, “is now filtered through an American lens.” The glut of, insistence on, and cut-and-paste adoption of these identity politics in global spaces erases contextual and geographical specificities. It is common, after all, to meet someone from Singapore or Malaysia who can tell you in-depth what is occurring in American politics, but might not be able to tell you what is happening in the region, especially for the working class. There have also been instances in which Westerners have been adamant in only viewing and discussing our politics through their own lenses. The issue with how the Internet and the media deals with identity lies in the lack of nuance. Situations are flattened, discourse and identities become commodities. The ability to narrativise in the first place, Mandy said, is a privilege. It is why she is so interested in working with materiality, turning the abstract into the physical, and why — despite her issues with the commercialisation of painting — she feels a need to enter the spaces that are not usually accessible to someone like her.
The issue with how the Internet and the media deals with identity lies in the lack of nuance. Situations are flattened, discourse and identities become commodities. The ability to narrativise in the first place, Mandy said, is a privilege.
What Mandy is against is the flattening of perspectives in documentation — and that is where any historian would (or should) agree with her. As an artist in London whose cultural roots are not in the West, she finds herself being pigeonholed based on singular, reductive identities. But she is interested in multiplicity; she is a product of it. As someone with a Southeast Asian background, multiplicity is inherent. A central characteristic of the region’s history is its role as a cultural and geographic meeting-place.
Mandy’s work is also a product of making peace with the inherent unknown within multiplicity. Take, for example, the calligraphies of her maternal uncle and father. Mandy does not speak Arabic, her father’s first language, or Mandarin, her mother’s language. Even if she does not speak the language of her parents, the sound of it — the instinct — is familiar to her. Even if she does not understand the language, it can be a comfort, or at least a well-worn memory. Mandy described this as “memory without syntax”. The histories of her parents’ generation, and those that came before them, were “punishing”. Her father is from Palestine, a nation whose existence is constantly being denied. Her maternal grandfather came from China, leaving the Civil War of 1927 and telling her mother to never go back. Mandy’s work has been criticised by some to be lacking in entry points, a thesis which I found absurd. All throughout her work I saw nothing but entry points. All those fractures in the body were gateways that you could find on instinct.
All throughout her work I saw nothing but entry points. All those fractures in the body were gateways that you could find on instinct.
And it is the body that Mandy returns to, again and again. What she wants to do with her art, she said, was to make tangible the feeling of a wound. She is excited when she “manages to get the right transparency of flesh, of a bruise” in her work. In addition, she is interested in how speech and language move and exit a body. In her Mutations in blue, white and red works, she superimposed words onto each other, running line into line until they all looked like a network of veins. “It is like anatomy,” she said, “this repetition”. A constant refrain that, when repeated enough, deepens and solidifies into a permanent scar — a mark that becomes a record of history.
This furrowing act brings us back to the concept of noise with its emphasis on recurrences and constant movement. I was reminded of how the imagery of a “glitch” in a technological or visual sense includes repetition. It is like those memes which are captioned “A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX”, beneath a scene of three strangers sitting in a row, all of them wearing the same outfit. In Mandy’s work, things happen and happen again, not just in the conceptual sense as with the recurrence of her father and uncle’s calligraphy, but also in a literal and aesthetic sense, with her work in assemblage, with motifs and imageries being repeated throughout her pieces. “If you meet your doppelgänger,” Mandy said, laughing and quoting Freud, “you have to kill them.” The idea in her work is that repetition — absurdity, the glitch — brings us closer to an understanding of what wounds us. Confronting the absurdity of trauma is, after all, the first step to understanding it, to acceptance. It is an idea that has been repeated throughout time. We spoke a little about David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks , in which the show’s Season 3 slogan “It is happening again” is central to its entire psyche. Throughout the series, things change — time goes on, the physical landscape and the faces of the residents of the town age — but the town’s strange events keep reoccurring, its residents caught up in the patterns of the generation that preceded them. The same strangeness continues to lurk in the forest, the same light shines from the stars, the same things happen. This idea is illustrated in Mandy’s Net Grids . While the “net” — the work’s grid-like surface, crafted out of latex — is always of the same measurements, what happens beneath the grid is subject to change. And with change will come equilibrium. “Novelty”, Mandy said, “is for capitalism.” Repetition, however, is for and from nature. History is cyclical. What lives will die and what dies will live.
Repetition, however, is for and from nature. History is cyclical. What lives will die and what dies will live.
The idea of regeneration is embedded deeply in the tropical landscape. Mandy added that the idea of death always hovering at the edge is something that the West and its ontologies still try to keep at bay. For her, Malaysia is an interesting place for material because of its tropicality. London, she said, is impoverished in that regard. To me that was interesting because in terms of a material history, Southeast Asia and other tropical climates suffer from the climate. Things preserve better in cooler, drier climates. In the humidity and heat of Southeast Asia, things soften easily and disintegrate. Yet it is that equatorial dimension, she said, that is perhaps the key to her work. The landscape of the tropics has “a direct relationship to rot and death.” As an artist, she had to live with the idea of death and become comfortable with it. Decay lurked in the jungles, plantations and factories of Jerantut. Both of her parents’ histories dealt with fracture. Perhaps, at the heart of it, that is what archival is — being able to live alongside death and to work in the rot that is the fate of all bodies; to work in the wound, through which the light enters. “I am just trying,” Mandy said, “to make new bodies with old parts. I want to model a new body that can exist in time”. Like the practice of the best historians, Mandy’s work allows a single moment in time, plucked from the noise of history, to last forever.
“Maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.”
Bruce Springsteen, 1982, “Atlantic City”, Track 2 on Nebraska, Columbia, studio album.
The literal meaning in Malay is “village”, but the term can also colloquially be used to refer to one’s hometown. Here, “kampung” contains both meanings.
Ang pow, or ang pao, means “red envelope” in Chinese. In many East and Southeast Asian societies, it is a tradition to provide a monetary gift in a red envelope during holidays or special occasions.
Noor Ibrahim, "Olive Groves in the West Bank Have Become a Battleground. That's why Volunteers Come From Around the World to Help at Harvest Time", Time, November 1, 2019, https://time.com/5714146/olive-harvest-west-bank/
Enid Tsui, “Artists wrestle with split identity in Hong Kong shows, and find resonance with city’s own struggle”, South China Morning Post, July 26, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/3020171/artists-wrestle-split-identity-hong-kong-shows-and-find
Southeast Asian history involves the convergence of not only South and East Asia with the region’s own native histories; the region also served as a meeting-point for various trading routes, invasions and empires. The region came into contact with the Indian subcontinent as early as 400BC, and was the site of empires such as the Majapahit. Various points of the region were trading hubs, and the region was also subject to European colonisation and invasions from the West and Imperial Japan.
Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ , in The Complete Psychological Works, Vol. XVII (London: Hogarth Press 1955 & Edns.), pp.217-56. Freud’s “double” (doppelgänger) relates to the formation of the super-ego. The super-ego projects all the things it represses onto this primitive image of the double. Hence, the double in later life is experienced as something uncanny because it calls forth all this repressed content. The “double” may also represent everything that is unacceptable to the ego, all its negative traits that have been suppressed.