Saturday, April 23, 2011

Operation Resurrection, 2008-2011

I find that it is the random daily occurrences that are the easiest to write about in a blog post. Those long, deep, meaningful journeys are much harder. For how does one find adequate words to express just what such journeys mean?

Operation Resurrection was taken down yesterday, albeit on short notice because the display boards are, apparently, needed for an exhibition that will be prepared in conjunction with the Chinese Premier's visit to the university next week.

Such is the irony: the exhibition that went up on Ash Wednesday (9 March) was taken down on Good Friday (22 April) and will, it is hoped, be resurrected soon enough once the E.T. itself is ready to house the works.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

* * *

Operation Resurrection is the culmination of everything that the University of Malaya has meant to me over the past three years; it is, in many ways, the summary of my life as an undergraduate.

I will not go into length about the exhibition here. Like the MPH Search win, the experience was so much more than words could ever describe, and I will probably revisit it from time to time. Like the MPH Search also, I don't think I will ever forget what it was like, to go through the preparations and see it through to its triumphant culmination.

It all began when Kaun and I 'illegally' let ourselves into the (then) out-of-bounds Experimental Theatre (E.T.) behind the Dewan Tunku Canselor (D.T.C.), in April 2008. We wore blazers (can't remember why) and carried backpacks. We were denied an audience with then Vice-Chancellor Datuk Rafiah Salim, and shoo-ed away (with a warning not to enter the E.T.) by an administrative official (an Indian man) in the reception area of the VC's office.

But upon reaching the barricades around the E.T., we found that there was an opening, and some labourers were hanging around. We asked if we could go in and have a look; they said OK. What we saw blew our minds. Armed only with Kaun's camera phone, we took a few snapshots. I can't remember if we'd ever thought we'd come back.

Over a year later, in August 2009, I was keen on doing something on Merdeka Day. What ended up as a romp through town involving myself, George, Hannah, Ruth Choy and Hyma, began as a morning exploration of the E.T. by all except Hyma. This time, I went in with the wide-angle lens and got quite a bit of decent footage.

It was really the announcement of the E.T.'s impending restoration that got us rolling out the random idea into a full-fledged project. Then Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Development, Datuk Khaw Lake Tee (above; photo by Alan Teong), issued a notice on UMISISWEB stating that restoration works would commence near the end of 2009. Knowing that the E.T. would never look the same again, we proposed a photo shoot to Datuk Khaw; George and I went to see her in person. She liked the idea, and soon enough we got the go-ahead from the (then relatively new) VC, Datuk Ghauth Jasmon.

The process of gaining access into the construction site was an arduous one. Suffice to say, the JPPHB (Department of Asset Maintenance and Development) was a thorough pain to work with, first demanding that every member of the team obtain Green Cards (standard procedure for construction site personnel), but then later changing their minds when it became obvious that we would not be able to obtain the Green Cards prior to commencement of works.

But that was not the main problem; the issue at the centre of it was that the JPPHB personnel assigned to assist us on the project, did not conduct themselves very professionally, in terms of the scheduling of meetings, efficiency in replying email, and in their general knowledge of the E.T. and enthusiasm for the project. Nonetheless, by the grace of God we got everything mvoing.

Principal shooting was on 24 October 2009, and for this we came in with models, props, musical instruments, and a primitive but nevertheless impressive lighting rig. We'd wanted to shoot through the night, but the contractor had us shoo-ed out by late evening as there was, apparently, no one to supervise our work at night.

We had the black-and-white footage developed at Eric's, and the rest done at E-Six. Scanning was at E-Six; I had then not yet known of the existence of Applied Imaging in TTDI, which is, as far as I know, the best place around for scanning.

Dr Nor Edzan, the Chief Librarian, came to know of the project through Datuk Khaw. She expressed an interest in preserving a copy of the photographs taken, and so talks with the Library commenced shortly after principal shooting. Kaun, Hannah and I went to see Dr Nor Edzan at that first meeting, and she was very supportive and enthusiastic. However, that was also the time that the Library was getting a lot of upgrading work done, and so our project was pushed aside for a while.

We jump-started it a year later, after Convocation 2010, and within a few months had the exhibition up and running. In contrast to the JPPHB, the Library was an absolute pleasure to work with. En Mahbob Yusof, the Deputy Chief Librarian assigned to oversee the project, was enthusiastic and supportive, and as a photographer himself, understood where we were coming from.

Although the budget was slashed heavily from what was initially suggested by Dr Nor Edzan herself, we were able to find a fantastic printer at a reasonable price in the Ng family of Photo Media, SS2. Boon and Winnie of Aidea Art & Frame in Hock Choon, Jalan Ampang, did the framing for us. The black-and-whites were hand-printed by Eric himself, as a fitting closure to our work on this project, as well as the last major project he would undertake before going on hiatus.

* * *

There is so much more to be said, but I shall let the following do the talking for me.

The Star ran an article on our exhibition. Written by Allan Koay, you can find the online version here.

But for the original article as it appeared in print, click here. There is one very telling difference: the title was changed from "Witness to a Resurrection" to "Witness to Revival of UM's Experimental Theatre". Someone must've felt the Christian references were a little too overt!

Sivin's comment to that was, "From resurrection to revival? :-) Well done."

A lot more resources and information can be found on the project's blog, here.

Among other things, there's a video of the set-up, pictures of the launch and profiles of the team members. Coming soon, updates and snapshots of some of the first few shows at the E.T., and a transcription of an exclusive interview with the architect, Mustapha Kamal.

* * *

I would like to dedicate this exhibition to Kaun and Yen, two people who made every moment of my life in U.M. worth living.

Yen remains, as SooT has aptly described, my favourite model. A personal highlight of the whole process was the making of the concept shots; the girl in the changing room, the Staircase Cinderella, the girl who traipsed in, and many others that did not make the final selection.

In retrospect, I told Yen, the one photograph that probably best summarises how I feel about the whole thing (the shoot as well as the E.T. itself), is the one in the dressing room (published in the Star article, linked above). Somehow, I'd wanted, more than any other shot, to get that one right. Which may explain why I blew nearly a third of the roll of Velvia on that same angle, same scene. After a whole morning of shooting, it felt as though we'd finally settled upon something special, something different from all the earlier shots.

And so it turned out to be, at least in my opinion, a picture that had 'timeless' written all over it.

* * *

I would also like to thank Tim, George, Fit and Adila.

Tim, for enduring everything from that first meeting with Datuk Ghauth, for all the work on the hardware and logistics, and for sorting through all the nitty-gritty of actually putting up an exhibition.

George, for August 2009; for giving me hope that my third and final year could be the best of my undergraduate life. And indeed it was.

Fit, for sticking through all the admin work, for accompanying us throughout the entire project.

Adila, for being the best Library liaison we never knew we could have.


Joey said...

i visited the E.T. exhibition on opening day and it was great! a job well done! congratulations to you and your crew! as an amateur photography enthusiast myself, it is rather inspiring to see photography exhibitions such as yours.

i also love your previous entry, re: your LAB tour! inspiring stuff! i hope to go out and shoot more often as well!

P.S. i was wondering why would you think of Applied Imaging as the best place to do scans? i'm looking for alternatives to the usual place where i send my films for developing and scanning, SS2 Photosun. your thoughts on this?

SimianD said...

Dear Joey,

I like Applied Imaging because of their relatively inexpensive scanning fees. RM35 for a roll of 35mm film, at 6 MP and 300 dpi per frame, in TIFF format. I have yet to find a better alternative in the Klang Valley.

Do email me at if you'd like to carry on this conversation. Don't wanna hog the comments page!

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