In search for the imperfect

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
(Leonard Cohen)

In search for the imperfect in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

There is a sort of beauty in the uniform and the neat, and there is another kind of beauty in the diverse and the messy. The clinical versus the cosy. In Melaka, an old town filled with charm and history written on its walls, with little cafés or chinese old shops in every corner, is being massively developed by its municipality in some sort of quest for showing off to others what the city is capable of (e.g. the streets are filled with signs stating “Don’t mess with Melaka!”). The ancient houses are now surrounded by skyscraper 5-star hotels, fancy shopping malls and thematic parks, all to please the hordes of tourists from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. It seems that from this quest was removed any attempt of discussion about this new aesthetic of the city and what it does to harm the uniqueness of the Unesco’s heritage downtown of Melaka, afterall the main attraction for all this bustling tourism industry. (Ironically commited to destroy exactly what they are trying to sell.)

Personality emerges from the details, not from the big bland surfaces but from the rough-textured walls and little interventations of the locals on their streets. Maybe a tiny plant piercing her way out of a hole in the concrete, maybe a small cup for incense in the entrance of a door. Erasing everything in exchange for another bland metal-and-glass environment has the consequence of taking the multiplicity out from the city, of killing the charisma of people-filled and stories-enriched places for a collection of clean flat faces and empty artificial beauty. Plastic surgery to clean the wrinkles of time in this city’s walls. Streets have to be neat, façades have to be perfect. The modern obsession with the new and the eternal, an always frustrated fight against decay and impermanence.

In a country where organization and cleanliness are worshipped almost in a religious way, where for instance chewing gum is forbidden, canning is an official punishment and signs with the fines of doing this or that populate all the streets and public spaces, any deviations and won battles of the organic over the artificial are doomed to disappear from society.

In the heart of the modern and the neat, I tried to find mistakes and resemblences of entropy, perhaps the leftovers of sanity and freedom. I was drawn by the pockets of naturalness and spontaneity I could find, traces of a more care-free way of living. Somehow, my own little private resistance against the dictatorship of perfection and conformity.

Hoi An is a heritage city recognized by Unesco and developed as one of the main historic and touristic attractions in Vietnam. Its downtown is composed by walkable and pleasant lanes filled with old chinese-style shop houses, a picturesque sight that is available only if one pays a ticket to get in, independently of being a public space. While crowds of tourists flood the downtown, the prices rise and its inhabitants end up selling their houses to the common factory-like souvenir shop or bland boutique hotel. Somehow resembling what happened in Venice, Italy, the city slowly transforms itself into a two-dimensional postcard (one just needs to search Hoi An on google images to enjoy the catalogue).

Beyond the questions of ‘ancient site vs. amusement park’ or ‘historical vs. entertainment value’, I end up being fascinated by the alleys and secundary narrow lanes between the main streets, usually not clean and beautiful — not designed to please — full of life going on and, somehow, being the backstage of the whole spectacle happening in the rest of the downtown. There’s always something behind the façade.

Polarities, the passage of time, entropy. On one side, old photographs from women of a village in one of the most southerly provinces of Thailand, on the other, new pictures from the skies of one of the most northerly towns of the same country. On one side the human and the earthly, on the other the ethereal. The past and the present, culture and nature, the individual and the universal. The real and the ideal. Perhaps clouds of memory and how time is continuously melting them, how history wears out everything. Wrinkles on the content, scrapes on the form — the permanent ephemeral. Innocent, as clouds go by.

Symbols of authority and rules on the road, an ever frustrated tool in the chaotic traffic of asian urban landscapes. Authority, this very much human-made concept, being conquered by the power of nature, the laws of entropy and the passage of time — always conquering the human laws and our attempts to create certainty in this uncertain world.

We just need to pay attention and beautiful rusting patterns and wrinkles of paint emerge, the subversion of an object of functionality in order to become art, an irony only possible with the work of nature’s hands.