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Visual Arts

Insights: Boedi Widjaja

Encoding the cultural experiences of a diaspora


Published: 7 Mar 2022

Time taken : ~10mins

With a practice that spans multiple mediums and unfolds across parallel long-term projects, Boedi Widjaja elaborates on his long-term interest in wuxia, language, and his diasporic experiences through works in the exhibition Kang Ouw《侠客行》.

Installation view of <em>Kang Ouw</em>《侠客行》, Boedi Widjaja, 2022.

The work at the Esplanade Tunnel draws largely upon a scene in the Chinese wuxia novel 《侠客行》 (Xia Ke Xing, Ode to Gallantry) by Jin Yong. While this story has since been adapted into several wuxia films and television series, your encounter with this episode was primarily through Jin Yong’s writing in Mandarin. In my search, to date, there is no published translation of the text, except for informal translations on the internet. Could you share how you came across this episode and elaborate on how your understanding/translation of this episode in the story could be likened to the imaginary line that cuts across the languages that you know, and to a larger extent, your diasporic experience?

My initial impulse to draw reference from the story《侠客行》came from an unexpected amnesia. Whenever I thought of 《侠客行》, I would see a still from the titular 1989 TV series starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and hear a narrator say the title, without knowing where or when I saw it. Having not watched the series, I was intrigued by the unlocated video memory and went to find out more. Similar to your online experience, I was not able to find much on 《侠客行》at first, but that changed when I started Googling in Chinese; the internet transformed dramatically into a kaleidoscopic resource. While I had been reluctant to read the novel due to my poor command of Chinese, however, my encounter with the language and cultural specificity that surrounded《侠客行》on the internet changed my mind—I knew I had to read the text. In the climactic chapter in Jin Yong's《侠客行》, the protagonist (who was amnesiac) wandered through crowded underground caves that had Li Bai’s poem, which shares the same name as the novel, engraved on the walls. The Tang dynasty poet’s ode to the gallantry of swordsmen held the secret to a supreme martial arts technique and had attracted many to come and study it. In a plot twist, the protagonist, in his illiteracy, “misread” the poem and mastered the technique. The gap between language and meaning in the story was fascinating to me. Not having a mother tongue as a result of my childhood migration to Singapore, I see the gap as productive, a liminal space where “misreadings” happen to produce unexpected energy. 

Lining both ends of the Esplanade Tunnel are two series of banners, “Kang Ouw, 侠客行” and “Kang Ouw, Ninefold” (both 2022), that feature the architectonic-numerical script you developed for the exhibition in various configurations. What was the process of creating this script?

The process was diffused over several months as I did not set out to develop a script. I was fascinated by the Ninefold Seal Script prevalent during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), and its probable connection to the Square Kufic inscribed on the architectural monuments of the Mongol-ruled Ilkhanid period (1256–1335) in present-day Iran. I started to experiment with typographical forms referencing the Ninefold Seal Script and the three numeral systems that I know—the universal Arabic, my hometown’s hanacaraka (Javanese) and traditional Mandarin. For Kang Ouw, 侠客行 and Kang Ouw, Ninefold, I focused on the Chinese numerals. There were several rounds of refinement, and two typefaces of dashes and dots emerged, respectively, which I then converted into digital fonts.

Using Chinese telegraphic code, the 13 banners of “Kang Ouw, 侠客行” encode the characters “侠”, “客” and “行” and a poem by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai of the same title. In conceiving “Kang Ouw, Ninefold”, you adapted the dots and dashes characteristic of Morse code. These strands surface the notion of long-distance that undergird many of your works. While the script on the banners is indecipherable to the viewer (much like the caves in Jin Yong's 《侠客行》), there remains this unstable relationship to modes of communication. Could you share your thoughts on this relationship between distance, communication and language in the context of this exploration of self-identity that underpins your practice?

The distance that my practice contemplates carries within it separation and longing, borne from personal and familial experiences. Analogous to my background, I decided that my art-making will seek out generative possibilities, and sense the networks—historical, cultural, biological and cosmological—from this gap.

Since the start of my practice, I have been researching language, particularly the hovering between words and images, sounds and meanings. This line of exploration cuts through several works such as Asemic Lines (2012), a word-glyphic public transit artwork, where I took inspiration from multilingual Singapore to visualise a creole word-image form. I am also keen on working with scripts in expanded, intermedia frameworks enabled through collaborations. For example, In A Tree+++ (2019 – ongoing), geneticist Associate Professor Dr Eric Yap of NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine was a key partner. The trilogy centres around a synthesised hybrid DNA which encoded the parallel migration stories of my grandfather and mine. As for Path. 9 ))) ) ) )) (2019), I had the honour of working with Chinese orchestra instrumentalist and composer Tong Wei Jie and Ng Wei Xuan, a dizi (a Chinese flute) specialist to imagine a personal geological music score and to extend a surprise live performance for an audience across a river.

In Path. 12, River Origin (2021), the gaze extended to deep space and deep time. I performed for the camera with a muon tracker (muons are extra-terrestrial and invisible subatomic particles) in an act of “listening” to the cosmos to “recite” a Tang dynasty poem encoded in morse code. I see these projects, including Kang Ouw《侠客行》, as explorations into an imaginary diasporic visual-sensory-language, informed by the intercultural liminality of the migrant experience. 

Detail of <em>Kang Ouw, 江湖水土</em>, Boedi Widjaja, 2022.

In “Kang Ouw, 江湖水土” (2022) you assembled film stills of figures, landscapes and texts extracted from “Dragon Inn” (1967) and its 1992 remake “New Dragon Gate Inn” through a process of distortion and generated through an algorithm. Why did you choose film stills of the three aforementioned categories? Could you also elaborate on what fascinated you about these two films and your thoughts on the idea of the film remake in relation to tracing?

江湖 (jianghu, rivers and lakes) or kang ouw (in Hokkien) refers to a realm where the swordsmen in wuxia stories roam and fight in the name of honour. It is a territory marked not by geographical lines but within the minds of its actors. Kang Ouw, 江湖水土 (jianghu shuitu, rivers and lakes, water and land) explores the relationship between the invisible mindscape of kang ouw with its manifestation in wuxia films—a psychological, action-packed cinematic space concerning the adventures of itinerant martial arts warriors in ancient China. The four-channel generative video contemplates language specificity, non-specific geographies and transculturality of action and drama in the film genre by focusing on texts, landscapes and figures, respectively.

I chose to work with Dragon Inn because it is a classic King Hu film, and also, I am a fan of dramas set against the backdrop of political contestations. The spatial narratives in Dragon Inn and New Dragon Gate Inn (the inn’s interior that cuts into vast mountainous landscapes in the former, and the inn’s windows that look out to an endless desert in the latter) encapsulates, for me, the dramatic, undulating psychological terrains of wuxia. Remaking a film, much like tracing, always references the original regardless of the degree of faithfulness in adapting the source. In a way, the film remake, or the act of tracing, reflects the desire to acknowledge the root but not be confined into its frame, mirroring how the Chinese diaspora reclaim their specific identities even as they look at their imaginary centre from outside, and from afar.

Returning to “Kang Ouw, 江湖水土”, the accompanying sound―acquired from an open source library―is of a 100-year-old gamelan originally in the Surakarta Palace and later acquired by the now-defunct Museum Nusantara in Delft, the Netherlands. The score cryptically encodes the poem《侠客行》by Li Bai through Chinese telegraphic code and Morse code and can be heard throughout the Esplanade Tunnel. Why did you decide to encode Li Bai’s《侠客行》into this work?

My practice approaches text, image and sound as enmeshed; sensorial elements are corporeally absorbed in a specific environmental context and refracted through our prismatic memories. As I was making the works for the Esplanade Tunnel, the decision to translate Li Bai’s poem《侠客行》into sound felt inevitable, akin to a somatic reaction. In Jin Yong’s《侠客行》, the protagonist Shi Potian was illiterate. While other swordsmen were cognitively interpreting the cave wall text for martial arts secrets, Shi could only see lines and dots. His eyes followed the strokes of the characters, which led his body to respond in movement, and directed the invisible flow in his meridian lines; Shi decoded the text.

I would also like to add that the crisscrossing cultural and contextual resonance in the sound for Kang Ouw, 江湖水土 is very important for me. The metallophone gamelan of my hometown Java; the instrument played and recorded in the Netherlands; and the disassembled, disembodied gamelan vibrations evoking the bells and chimes that ring in the soundscape of wuxia films.

Both the flipbook video “Tanpa Bayangan Mu (Shadowless)” (2020) and “Kang Ouw, 残刀” (2022) which comprises 99 drawings, feature a One-Armed Swordsman from the titular 1967 wuxia film. Looking at these two works alongside each other in the exhibition, how do you situate the relationship between drawing and moving image works in your practice?

In the spirit of copies and echoes, I shall trace to my text in a 2018 interview with curator Pey Chuan Tan on the occasion of my solo presentation Imaginary Homeland: Kang Ouw (一)  at the experimental platform, I_S_L_A_N_D_S Peninsula:

“Interestingly, the Chinese phrase for video (录影, lu ying) comprises of two words that could mean “copy/record” and “image/film” respectively. What I did in Imaginary Homeland: Kang Ouw (一) was to transpose (and transcribe), back-and-forth, my experience of wuxia in video and the printed book. In an abstract sense, the entire process could be seen as something that hovered between writing and filming. The tracing process was a tactile process that enabled me to viscerally connect with the flat, cinematic space of the stills.

By tracing only the images’ primary contours, the intent was to extract the action, movement and space of the film stills. In contrast, scanography and photocopy—flatbed photo techniques that responded to the flatness of the page—were used to place the book and the traces it contained, back into the floating world of images. While its pages were being scanned, the book was also at times physically shifted to introduce moments of disrupted space-time (akin to video edits) before the images were projected at a large-scale using photocopy.”


Check out Widjaja’s exhibition Kang Ouw 《侠客行》at the Esplanade Tunnel from 14 Jan to 1 May 2022.

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