by Sheryl Gwee
What does it mean to live in a body? To brush up against other bodies, knowing that flesh is at once a barrier and a conduit between the onlooker and the looked-upon? How do we represent difference and desire?
Gagandeep Singh’s In Pursuit of Temples in the Sky and Zulkhairi Zulkiflee’s Proximities offer us inroads into this tricky terrain.
While their stylistic divergences are evident, the two shorts converge in their explorations of brown, male bodies as sites of subjectivity. Gagandeep’s fashion film ricochets between grainy, monochromatic melancholy and luridly-coloured dream sequences, whereas Zulkhairi’s video essay unfolds at a thoughtful, measured pace, à la John Berger’s televised series Ways of Seeing.
Yet, in both films, under the loving, lingering look of the camera’s eye, bare bodies twist and turn, touch and tumble. They emerge not just as objects to be gazed upon, but as subjects that gaze back—experiencing entities, fully capable of thought, feeling, and desire.
As its title suggests, Proximities is about getting closer—in this case, to the trope of the Malay Boy, as represented by one of the celebrated pioneers of the Nanyang Style, Cheong Soo Pieng. In the mode of an expository lecture, the camera pans with deliberate clarity across posters and a projected photograph in an empty classroom, while a scholarly voice weaves in quotations from the likes of Roland Barthes and Gayatri Spivak.
Zulkhairi confronts us with the striking similarities between Cheong’s Fruitseller (1954) and Malay Boy with Bird (1953), as images of the black and white print and the oil painting bleed into one another. In both paintings a Malay boy wearing a songkok is depicted in profile, as he turns both his face and his naked buttocks towards the viewer.
Zulkhairi’s film could have run the course that much of recent art historical scholarship has, by critiquing how the Nanyang artists—Chinese émigrés who combined ink techniques with Western abstraction—replicated the colonial gaze, casting locals as exotic, semi-civilised “primitives”. But Proximities is less a condemnation of Cheong, and more an empathetic excursion into difference, one that opens up alternative ways of seeing the Malay Boy.
Describing the boy’s act of cupping a watermelon slice in his hands as “haptic”, Zulkhairi reframes the image as “an invitation to engage beyond pure vision,” asking us to “listen as a way to feel and sense reverberations.”
These reverberations ripple across the screen as Zulkhairi transforms the actor’s bare torso into a lush, cobalt-green landscape of rolling ridges and plains. The body rises and falls, gently undulating with each breath. Zulkhairi’s sensitivity to the naked, vulnerable body counteracts the violent, almost grotesque distortion that we find in Cheong’s works, where harsh light renders the Malay Boy’s body angular, almost skeletal.
Tenderness and care are written not only into the camera’s gaze, but also into the gestures enacted by the Malay Boy, here incarnated in the body of the Mat Motor (the slang term for a Malay male motorcycle enthusiast). As he dances in a field of birds, wearing his helmet, and crouches over his bike, listening attentively to the still vehicle, the trope becomes human. In fact, he quite literally gains dimensionality, as Zulkhairi turns a painting into a swiveling sculpture.
Proximities shifts our attention away from Cheong’s formal experiments in abstraction, asking us to attune our senses to the humanity that lies latent in the painter’s flat representation of the Malay male.
In a similar vein, Gagandeep Singh’s In Pursuit of Temples in the Sky asks us to gaze gently upon brown, queer male bodies, to recognise them not just as images or sights to be consumed, but as a fully dimensional, desiring subjects.
As in Proximities, there is a strong sense of the haptic in Gagandeep’s film. Light and shadow play on the bodies of the models, who are often garbed in multiple, overlapping layers of fabric—soft, stiff, sheer, shimmery, plain, patterned. Textures take centrestage in the theatrical spaces of the film, where tapestries are unrolled, curtains fall, and large wind chimes sway ominously.
In Pursuit of Temples in the Sky demands a kind of vision that is almost tactile, as it shifts from intensely saturated colour to black-and-white, from high-contrast, grainy images, to sleek, seamless shots against a dark background. These are juxtaposed against collaged stills, which flicker in quick succession, like the residual afterimages that you rub out of your eyes upon waking.
The film forms part of a much larger project which consists of seven chapters, each centring around the poetry of Avtaar Singh Paash and Richard Siken, and psychologist Daniel L. Schacter’s research on memory.
I found it hard, however, to trace a narrative in this surreal, atmospheric piece, where clear, logical lines of development dissolve into visual sensation. But perhaps that was the point—to plunge the viewer into the irrational realm of the unconscious where desire lies, beyond the reach of language and categorical thought.
And indeed, identity categories collide in Gagandeep’s pursuit of an in-between space where the aesthetics of Sikhism and queer desire might coalesce. Things overlap and amalgamate—not just textiles and collages, but also bodies. The photographer Ren Hang’s uncanny juxtapositions come to mind as a veiled figure obscures half of another actor’s face.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a disproportionately large comb levitates above a nude individual who lies on his side, his back facing us. The image sings with the poetry of a half-remembered dream. There is a sense of things forbidden—a luminous body glowing golden against the expanse of darkness, suspended in the moment before the guillotine drops.
The comb or kangha, is one of the five symbols of faith that outwardly signal a Sikh’s belonging to the Khalsa. (In another shot, a giant metal hoop resembling the kara or steel bracelet hangs in mid-air.) Used to keep unshorn hair (kesh) neat and tidy, the kangha represents discipline and cleanliness in caring for the body which God has created.
Acts of care and tenderness are not only implied but also exchanged throughout the film. In a scene colour-graded blue and speckled with star-like dust, a character collapses into the arms of another in slow motion. In another scene, tension simmers against a warm backdrop of reds and oranges, as the characters play out, perhaps, a line from Richard Siken’s “Seaside Improvisation”: “I take off my hands and I give them to you but you don’t / want them, so I take them back / and put them on the wrong way, the wrong wrists.”
Even as it stands poised on the knife edge of desire, the body is imbued with care and tenderness. It emerges not just as a vessel for eroticism or sensuality, but as a site for multiple, intersecting subjectivities.
What ties the two films together, then, is their insistence on the turning, moving, shifting body—a body that refuses to ossify into fixed tropes or categories of difference.
This resistance comes through in the quick cuts in Gagandeep’s film, and in the ephemeral, amorphous images of fire, falling embers, and feathers that suffuse the various scenes.
Proximities, in contrast, seems much more still, and quieter in tenor. But by expanding the etymologies of “trope” and “turn”, Zulkhairi shows us how, as discrete, and self-contained as a word might seem, its valences are plural. If a word has the potential to turn into something else, why not the body?
Turning figures are a recurrent motif in Proximities, which itself turns away from the usual art-historical emphasis on stylistic innovation. By refocusing the lenses through which Cheong’s work has been viewed, Zulkhairi establishes the blurry margins as new centres of analysis. Malay Boy with Bird, which lies in the background, among other paintings, fills the screen, as the camera zooms into a projected sepia photograph of Cheong at work,
In the penultimate shot, the Malay Boy gazes straight at us, his face half cast in shadow against a black backdrop. “In this scene, the Malay Boy looks at his mirror image,” the narrator tells us. Who is this mirrored Malay Boy who gazes back from behind the lens of the camera, if not the artist? Zulkhairi’s self-reflexive comment at once shatters the illusion of objectivity that the film’s expository style promises, while forcing the viewer to reflect on their own position—how do we see the Malay Boy, if we are not ourselves Malay, or male? How do we negotiate the distances and differences that lie between us?
“These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.” If we read “light” in relation to sight and knowledge, we might hear these lines echoing through Gagandeep and Zulkhairi’s films. At their core, the two films illuminate bodies of difference, without fixing them into static images that we could simply “get used to”. They ask us what it means to see, and to represent the body as shifting, subjective, fully dimensional, and fully human.
About the Writer
Sheryl Gwee is an artist, curator and writer currently majoring in Art History and English Literature at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). She has written for Plural Art Mag and Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), and is also part of Thow Kwang Clay Artists, a community of potters keeping the art of wood firing alive. If you would like to see more of her work, do reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.