Nobody could have envisioned that the year 2020 would fall on the wrong side of history. As the COVID-19 virus takes over, it sends the world into a state of anxiety and paranoia. Economic shutdown has consequently claimed the livelihoods of many. In May 2020, a survey conducted by JobStreet reported that almost two million Malaysians were expected to lose their jobs because of the pandemic. 1
The technology that defines our civilization is seemingly not ready for this either. Most hospitals around the world are not properly equipped to handle the virus, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands thus far in the pandemic. The world’s leading pharmaceutical industries are still figuring out the vaccine, as we speak. In the midst of this, other issues begin to resurface; racial tension, social unrest, and government oppression become more prevalent. All of which reveals the vulnerability of modern life. Our visions of an ideal future have come to a halt. Dreams of a utopia have turned sour, now a dystopian nightmare. To think about it, is there really a utopia? What if we are living in a never-ending circle of birth and death?
The current situation has revealed the reality of human survival. How fragile our humanity when dealt with adversity; when you’re only left with yourself to depend upon. Navigating his life through this pandemic, Haslin Ismail tries to cope with this new normalcy. Although the lockdown has been difficult for him, it has nevertheless offered new insights while working on his art. “The concept of routine is often perceived as boring or too strict for some reason but during lockdown, it has helped me to feel grounded and more structured. It is a strange time and it has affected the way I work. I had to refamiliarize myself with the little space that I have at home.” This situation prompted him to work with the most immediate form of image-making – drawing.
Indeed, drawing is part of our interrelation with the physical environment; recording in and on it, the presence of humans. We use drawing to denote ourselves, our existence within a scene. Within our understanding to map and decipher, we come to terms with our surroundings as we leave the marks, tracks, or shadows to mark our passing. The idea and execution of drawing has remained unchanged for thousands of years – as such, it is an activity that connects us directly in unbroken line with the first human who sketched in dirt or scratched on the wall of a cave. As an artist, Haslin utilised drawing to mark and record a fleeting moment and raw idea from the observation of his surroundings. He has a propensity for stuffing multi-layered narrative and symbolism into each drawing or painting. Each work branches into a different narrative flow, featuring material procured from art history, book, film, photo, comic and the view from his home – as well as his overactive imagination.
The stories told are deliberately open-ended, fantastic hybrids in which a peculiar mix of bodies, organic plant, creature, industrial machine and landscape interweave into each other, as characters engage in violent deconstruction. His busy scenes posit this activity against a sense of unease that shadows his work; this is, perhaps, also partly indicated by the consistently bleak, dystopian nightmare that denotes his somewhat whimsical landscape.
Bound within his home, Haslin began exploring with the idea of significant form – a term coined by Clive Bell in 1914 to describe the expressive quality contained in a form of artwork or a form within an artwork that largely or completely divorced from recognizable reality. He started scratching for ideas in what started out as a simple circle drawing. “The process of drawing a circle is a tantalizing experience. It is the simplest of shapes that can easily evolve into a different form. It just dawned on me  that something as unexceptional as a circle can grow into something meaningful.” Even in its purest form, a circle can mean anything but a circle. “I relate back our current panic-buying to an image of fierce motion of a circle, like a hurricane. Everybody went crazy.”
He refers to the surge of panic-buying in the country which occurred during the early stages of the pandemic. People stormed into supermarkets, sundry shops and convenience stores to buy necessities, in excess of their regular needs. The situation was sparked by rumors that floated around the shortage of food and other essential items during the extended lockdown period. One particular food item that was badly affected by this situation was bread. The phenomena inspired Haslin to come up with the idea of a comic strip entitled Rot to capture chaotic moments that revealed the vulnerability of society. The title Rot is a playful combination of its literal meaning in English, that is, to decay or decompose, and a shortened form of the Malay word of “roti”, that is, bread. The meaning intertwined, thus, creates an innovative allegory; once bread expires, the process of decomposition will begin. Rot tells the story of society led by a powerful shaman who acts as an oracle. All of the living things in Rot are connected and feeding off each other, forming a landscape of mutated bread. Over time, Rot deteriorates, forming a fungus that eventually takes over Rot from the overzealous shaman.
Haslin’s Rot embodies a city as an idea. The city is a confluence of dreams, drive and purpose intensified by diverse groups of people bouncing their energy off each other. The ever expanding nature of the city creates bubbles of opportunity that lead to the unequal distribution of prosperity which fragmentises the society into a class struggle. Rot depicts the city’s hierarchy in the form of an industrialized landscape, with the network of the population portrayed as a big factory that keeps consuming resources to feed its growth. In the real world, these exercises for superior productivity that depend on constant reconstruction contributes to the collapsing of socio-economic distance between diverse populations. The city’s treatment of its citizens varies, concentrating resources for the affluent and consequently crowds out those at the margins. The reliance on speedy connectivity results in an inequality of access and opportunity for disparate society divided by consumption of resources. Behind these intriguing imageries also lies a criticism of society’s herd mentality and the willingness to blindly follow others that reflect our current struggle to exercise self-control, while adapting to new environments that demands us to be considerate towards others in this time of great difficulty.
Until death will not tear us apart
Prior to the pandemic, he had already worked on a new series of paintings. The series is based on his two months residency in Sapporo, Japan in 2018. It was at the beginning of winter when he arrived there, and most places were covered in snow – barren white landscapes with the occasional leafless tree. First time experiencing a different climate away from home, it was an opportunity to feed his curiosity of this new environment. He invested some time into getting acquainted with nature – its colour, scent and breezes, while exploring various types of plants and landscapes far removed from where he came from.
He was introduced to the story of Yoshihiko Tonohira, a Jōdo Shinshū priest who embarked on the task of unearthing the remains of young Korean men who were conscripted for forced labour to Japan during the Asia-Pacific war. In the 1990s, with the help of other volunteers, the priest initiated the effort to trace, exhume and repatriate the remains. Despite intense political dissonance, humanity emerges through the work of those like Tonohira, proving that it is our nature to care of others, to feel connected despite ill-fated circumstances. “I feel a certain connection with the Tonohira story, although, not in a direct way,” Haslin explained. “Every living thing has a soul. Although the body will give up at some point of time, our soul is alive in the memories of the living,” he added.
Here Haslin refers to the efforts of the Japanese priest in returning the victims’ bodies to their original country as an act of remembrance, to give proper respect towards the souls of the deceased. The body here is sacred and celebrated from when we are born until the moment we die. Haslin envisions a world where nature possesses an ability to feel, similar to humans. Contrary to Rot, his painting challenges the idea of a manufactured society by going back to our intrinsic relation with nature as an organic and inartificial bond. Here, nature is depicted as simultaneously abject and beautiful, repulsive and attractive. The titles of each painting finds reference to natural occurrences such as Busut (Anthill), Tanah Pekik (Shouting Land), Ribut Busut (Anthill Storm), Angin Malam (Night Wind), Ribut (Storm), Angan-angan Kelkatu (Termite Swarmer Dreams), and Bawah Tanah (Underground).
The Sapporo residency and later, the pandemic has presented a period of mobility and stationary for Haslin, serving as a latent principle to build his current dualistic body of work. On one hand, he has concocted a world of synthetic society, and the other embracing our innate relation with nature. Departing from the simplest form, the circle, has led him to the complexity of reality. His fascination with science fiction has allowed him to deconstruct reality into an ambiguous and bizarre world. Dealing with constant acceleration, rapid transformation and looming disaster at every corner, this ultimately influences how he views the future as being dreadful and bleak. The anxiety of being helpless only fuels the thought of a worst case scenario. In this sense, Haslin’s dystopian worlds act as a reminder to not allow ourselves to follow suit. This ominous perspective allows him to reflect on the harsh realities of the present moment, on conditions that are difficult to confront head-on. “I wanted to have a sense of purpose in my work, not just another fantastical imagery, but a recording of the experiences and anxieties that reflect our present.”
1 Excerpt from https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/06/03/covid-19-malaysian-job-losses-could-hit-over-two-million-new-survey-finds/1871989