19 May, 2022
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My eyes brighten when I see Ari Tampubolon dancing K-Pop in the gallery. They are wearing a mask underneath a mask, playing a character within a character. I think of how Satan made Death with Sin in Paradise Lost, and wonder if irony can birth earnestness with sarcasm.
Naomi Riddle asks me who I want to commission for my 2022 Project.
“Ari Tampubolon,” I say “because I want to see their work without music, only with words”.
Well, I didn’t say it like that. But it crossed my mind. This is an a capella with reality and a singalong with fiction. The reader is the backing track.
• • •
This story is dedicated to Bryan Tampubolon (1997-2016). I love you.
Ari Tampubolon would like to thank the Australia Council for the Arts, Apple Inc., and Qantas Airways for their unwavering support throughout the development of this project.
Ten years ago, I cycled over to my local library to pick up a copy of Black Swan. It was an awfully overwhelming day for the likes of a typically depressed teenager with a ‘soft-grunge’ Tumblr blog.
My priorities back then were reblogging picture after picture of pale collarbones, flannel shirts and doc martens; cigarettes over bokeh-effect city skylines, John Green quotes styled in Courier New; Lana Del Rey music video GIFs in black and white, tree themed tattoos (and various fauna) inked on sickly looking men wearing beanies; foggy roads leading nowhere, blurry scratch marks on wide shouldered backs, distressed denim and round sunglasses; that one fucking photo of Bella Hadid pulling up her shirt to reveal her rib cage; and last, but certainly not least, the thigh-gap genre of selfies, which had me standing in front of the mirror every night, pulling up my dick and balls to check whether or not I had a thigh gap.
Here, in the harrowing, but safe space of Tumblr, I found GIF upon GIF of Natalie Portman’s anxiety-ridden face in Black Swan. As I cycled home from the library, I was thrilled by the thought of watching the film in my living room all alone, once everyone fell asleep because I never went to bed on time. Not even after my family moved houses further out into a new development in the outer suburbs. It was my parent’s first home purchase. Freshly built and in the middle of absolutely nowhere, which made going anywhere a difficult task with only one infrequent bus servicing the area. The bus stop was also a twenty minute walk away from home, adding insult to injury.
“Natalie is just like me,” I would say to myself, sleepless on the bus, as I listened to the Black Swan soundtrack that I had torrented into my phone. In the comparatively warm pre-sunrise chill of my winter, I was desperate to relate to the frosty aesthetic of Black Swan’s sub-zero setting.
On the rare occasion, I would run into my friend Liam on my second bus. He was one of three openly gay students in my cohort. He was also the only one, apart from myself, who had memorised the cake scene from Black Swan. We often re-enacted this in class.
“So pink…So pretty…” I would whisper to him. “PRETTY!” we’d then exclaim together.
Of course, our love for Black Swan was the only thing we had in common. Once he told me that he would’ve become top of our drama class if I died and missed our improv exams. He did top me though, eventually, when he cornered me at our Year 12 graduation party and made me kiss him. Just once. “Because I’ve had a crush on you since the first day you walked into class,” he told me, as if we were in a fucking coming-of-age film. This made the imminent possibility of running into him on the bus a dreadful event to anticipate and so, I often took the earlier 6:17am bus to avoid him.
But of course, I never went to bed early enough to make the 6:17am bus. I had a pretty busy schedule every day at home:
5:00pm: Arrive home and snack on leftovers.
7:30pm: Arise from said nap and contemplate excuses to skip my mother’s terrible cooking (usually a 12-egg omelette and overcooked rice).
8:00pm: Watch TV with my siblings.
9:00pm: Do homework.
11:00pm: Queue Tumblr posts, manage inbox correspondence.
1:00am: Pull up my dick and balls in front of the mirror to make sure my thigh gap was still there.
1:15am: Take artistic nudes while chatting exclusively with boys one year older than me in online chat rooms—eventually turning into Grindr, once I turned 17 and built the confidence to pretend I was 18.
2:00am: Desperately try to fall asleep in front of Black Swan.
Whenever I saw Natalie masturbate hesitantly in Black Swan, I’d repeat to myself “she’s just like me.” It also reminded me to try to have a wank again, even though the thought of finding a phallic entity in my underwear always terrified me.
I can tell it’s warm outside as my flight descends ever so slowly into Sydney International Airport; the sunlight sheepishly peering through the lush green and blue landscape below. My lack of sleep makes the landing feel like a relief, and the descent makes time move even more slowly. I know it’s all in my head.
You see—I’m flying on the magnificent Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner operated by Qantas on their direct service from LAX to Sydney, after a stop in New York City. As a little reward for the smooth opening of my recent solo exhibition at the MoMA, I upgraded my ticket from Premium Economy to Business. MoMA is an acronym for Museum of Modern Art, in case you didn’t know. You see, I’m an artist, a queer artist, working with themes of identity, politics, and identity at the intersection of politics. My recent exhibition is a series of self-portraits, a love letter to the queer icons of our time who have really challenged the hegemony and taken up space in contemporary society.
Speaking of which, did you know that Qantas’ CEO, Alan Joyce, is openly gay? How wonderful to see members of our community represented in high places! I had to include a reference to him in my exhibition. It’s quite a fabulous and luxurious job, being an artist. A queer artist. It’s the reason why I’m well acquainted with the QF12 from LAX to Sydney, since I have flown this route several times before. For work purposes, of course, as I’ve had many an exhibition at the prestigious galleries this beautiful city has on offer. Why else would I come back to Australia?
Now, you see, despite the comforts of business class, I’ve become far too excited by the great entertainment selection available on board, far too excited to get any rest! This fabulous catalogue includes over 1000 songs, 100 TV shows and 350 blockbuster titles such as Dune, The Batman, and my recent favourite, House of Gucci. A fabulous film starring the inimitable Lady Gaga, a queer icon who is breaking boundaries in film, music, and culture.
Speaking of Gucci, I am wearing my ever so comfortable Gucci slides paired with my Gucci skirt and cardigan. A comfortable choice since I knew it was going to be a long flight. And yet, I could not get a moment of rest. I had far too much work to do, and thanks to the complimentary inflight Wi-Fi service powered by Viasat, I was able to travel in style, comfort, all while not compromising on productivity!
The first time I slept in a room that wasn’t my own or my family’s was on a road trip, when a few friends and I went up far north after graduation. It was an uncomfortable feeling to be away from home for the first time. Uncomfortable, yet strangely familiar. This was also the year I became close friends with Cameron, a dance student who didn’t talk to me until Year 12, when we were the only ones who showed up early for the first day of the year. He was a mysterious figure, often sitting quietly in the back seats of classes and punching darts outside the bus stop after school.
“Someone woke up early today,” he said mockingly, while butting his half-finished dart onto the concrete ground, “or didn’t sleep at all?” He then sat next to me, and in a manner that I can only describe as aggressively elegant, put his feet up on the table in front of me.
“I didn’t want to run into Liam on the bus,” I told him. He immediately burst into laughter, breaking the stoic and collected image I had of him.
“I can’t stand him.”
“Why?” I was cautious of laughing too early.
“Liam’s so annoying,” he let out a chuckle, “Anyway, what are you listening to?”
He pointed at my iPod Touch. I was too embarrassed to say Artpop by Lady Gaga, but I knew he’d caught a glimpse of my screen.
“Oh I really like that album,” he said, before I even got a chance to lie, “Really cool.” And just like that, we were repeating this morning catch up daily.
He joined my friendship group after we met and he would often mock his usual group of dance student friends. Yet every morning he talked about becoming a full-time dancer, and I talked about becoming a full-time actor, like Natalie Portman.
Cameron came along on this road trip, and we shared a room during the getaway. It was the only room out of the five in Chanel’s family’s holiday home that had a queen-sized bed instead of singles, and when Jonah asked us who would be comfortable sharing the room, it seemed like all eyes turned to Cam and I.
The first day was relatively tame. An afternoon at the beach followed by a barbecue and a game of pool. Jonah, along with Lewis, were the only ones who had turned 18, so by sunset, they were unloading the car with bottles of liquor they bought in preparation for the trip. I’ve always been quite a small person, which made the two glasses of badly mixed vodka lemonade I had on the second day a rather large ordeal.
“Truth or drink,” Kaisha demanded of me after the second drink.
“Truth,” I mumbled.
“Okay,” she said pensively, “What’s your biggest insecurity?”
This made me squirm.
“Uhh,” I rushed to think of something totally not embarrassing, “I guess, my height?”
Wrong answer. Too earnest.
“Hey!” she exclaimed, as she playfully slapped my arm, “We’re the same height!”
I passed off the coyness with laughter, playing up my drunkenness to compensate and everyone joined in. Except for Cam, who only managed to feign a smile my way. I miraculously chugged a third glass out of pure anxiety, which I knew I shouldn’t, but I did anyway, spelling out my own embarrassment in the process. The night became a blurry haze after that, and all I remember was Cam carrying me in his unsuspectingly strong arms down the hallway and into the bedroom. He put me down gently by the left side of the bed facing inward, then laid down close to me and stroked my head for what felt like a million years, calming my vertigo and putting me to sleep. The best I’ve ever slept to date. He was awkwardly sweet when we woke up next to each other, and throughout the rest of the day, I noticed him laughing more than usual, looser than usual, and when nightfall came, flirtier than usual.
“I always found your height to be the best thing about you,” he told me, as we laid facing away from each other on the final night of the trip. I struggled to tame my giddy smile.
“I always did,” he adds, “it’s really cute.”
I turned around slowly to face him. His pale, wide-shouldered back amplified by the jet-black dyed hair falling off to his side.
Now here’s a crucial piece of information I should have mentioned earlier. Cameron did end up pursuing dance full-time. He even moved to Paris for it. We haven’t spoken since this road trip apart from the occasional Instagram story react, and he barely posts anything from his personal life. But I do know that he is dating a she/her now. Ellen Thongkham, a dancer as well. Petite frame, strong legs, probably has a thigh gap. But distinctively, and I say this with equal amounts of embarrassment and maladroit, Wasian. Half white and half Asian. As seen by the myriad of European flag emojis placed strategically in her Instagram bio after ‘she/they’ and before the Thai flag emoji.
This isn’t Cameron’s first romantic interest belonging to this particular…persuasion. I recall him dating a boy after his grand coming out post a few years back. Jamie Tran, I think his name was. A short king with lusciously long straight hair and a jawline that could cut deep into my platitudinous coming-of-age emotions. I reiterate that this is crucial information, because the next thing Cam said after telling me my height was “cute” has stuck with me to this day.
The ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature on my Apple iPhone 13 MAX’s iOS 15.5 has come in handy as work is getting busier. You see, outside of my demanding but luxurious line of work, I’ve fallen into the role of social media influencer. It was only natural that I start documenting my life online and the newfound ability to separate my work and personal affairs is a godsend. I can switch between my Work labelled ‘Do Not Disturb’ right to my Personal labelled ‘Do Not Disturb’ after I clock off and start brainstorming content ideas on the way home from my hybrid office/studio/emerging contemporary art space. The city has so many exotic sights and sounds that are ripe for capturing, especially here in Sydney.
Anyway, I’m losing track. I bring this up, because today I cannot make any content, as my custom Pride Edition Casetify phone casing unfortunately broke in my Uber to the airport. It fell and just cracked! I was devastated! Now, I don’t mind raw-dogging my phone like this, especially since the iPhone still looks quite gorgeous without a casing. I have the Product (RED) edition iPhone, by the way. Apple’s special line of iPhone products done in a fabulous cherry red in support of the fight against AIDS. A wonderful cause the company has initiated. With each sale, Apple donates a portion of their earnings to support life-saving medical treatments for 13.8 million plus people living with HIV. I’m so proud to have supported this wonderful cause, because it means a lot to me, as an artist—a queer artist and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Naturally I had to switch into activism mode, and give the content making a rest for today.
Cameron kissed me that night. My first. It was green and tender, a pleasantly soft contrast to the harshness I was accustomed to seeing in pictures. He twirled his fingers on the back of my head, like when he sobered my dizziness in the nights prior, and traced them down to my ears, eventually cupping my cheek in his hand. He leaned in slowly, and before kissing me again, he said, in a tone I can only describe as being so elegantly aggressive, “I’ve never kissed someone Indonesian before.”
I hark my worn-out little brain to this moment a fair bit. Not because of the obvious racially charged discourse this situation elicits internally, but because of what I said to him next: “Have you ever kissed a boy?” To which he then answered, “No.” Eyes refusing to elaborate, and mouth swiftly charging at mine to kiss me with further passion and teenage gusto. This memory is especially poignant today, as I’ve found myself on a boat by the Sydney Harbour surrounded by a flock of aloof white gay men dancing poorly to a Lil Nas X track.
This is my first ever Mardi Gras. I’m five hours into this party, and about to lose my mind. Not because I get seasick easily (although trust me, I’ve popped more than just a few motion sickness pills to combat this), but because I’ve lost my friends. I’m well aware that this situation is mired in irony; how the fuck did I lose my friends on a well lit, medium-sized, three-story boat in the middle of the Sydney Harbour? No response over text and nowhere to be found on Find My Friends. So after half an hour of touring the entire boat, I sit by the deck of the ship, and open Grindr since I lost all my lives on Candy Crush during my last phone break.
No new messages.
I fumble around scrolling through the mass of pasty headless torsos until I come across a profile I recognise. 40m away. Their bio reads:
“Travel, Dancing, Food, and Good Vibes
Racists, Ableists, Transphobes, and Dickheads Need Not Apply!
🎨LA 🏢NYC 🏠MEL
If you can’t keep up, stop running! 🏃🏼♀️💪🏽🤣”
They have two pictures up. The first, a blurry mirror selfie in nothing but tight white Versace underwear, their phone covering their face. The second, a golden hour selfie taken on a rooftop overlooking a huge city skyline. I’m intrigued, but this interest is not borne of sexual attraction. I hover over their profile for a bit, racking my brain for a clever opening message. I seem to crumble every time I see profiles like these. Sexy enough to have my consent, but friendly enough to pine over. Maybe I should ask where their rooftop selfie was taken? Or maybe just a simple ‘hey’ would do? Something neutral enough to express platonic interest but not enough to be uninteresting. I think about this too much, and while I’m searching the depths of my last remaining brain cell, my phone vibrates. A new message on Grindr, this time from a very attractive headless torso. 4km away. Their bio reads:
“Looking for chill hangs, drinks, and fun with cute boys
TS/CD/Asian to the front
No response is a response”
Each time I receive an unsolicited dick pic from anonymous profiles like these, they unearth the memory of Cam from the depths of my brain. I know if he had a Grindr account, it would smell like this. And I wonder if they are messaging me because I fit their problematic desires. It’s reflexive rather than emotional at this point, a quick and easy safety net found in the act of reminiscing.
I wonder if ‘Versace underwear’ gets this too, if they even got the same gratuitous and unsolicited pink dick pic from this exact profile? Or perhaps the second line turned them off knowing that racial preferences are a bit of a social faux pas these days.
Before I can even conjure a reply to this phallic fortitude, someone slaps me on the arm.
“Scanlan! Where the fuck have you been?!” I look up, hiding the embarrassment of possibly exposing this nude to those around me. It’s my friend Sam, with a lollipop stick floating around his mouth, eyebrows turned down in relief, and pupils so wide they’re screaming “EUREKA!” right at me.
“I’ve been looking for you!” I exclaim. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Downstairs. Better music.” He immediately grabs my hand and leads me into the sweaty crowd. Cutting through the dance floor. Passing the bar. Making a beeline for the spiral staircase, not the safest place to be on a moving boat. We’re rushing down the stairs so we don’t to miss the climax of Taylor Swift’s Cruel Summer playing at the bottom of the stairs.
But as we make the second orbit down the stairs I notice someone walking up towards me. A beaming figure mincing up the stairs—as if she were hovering above it—wearing a skin-tight black dress with padded shoulders, gold-framed sunglasses, and the brightest hot pink thigh high stiletto heels coming into a sharp point by the toe. But most noticeable is her platinum bleach blonde hair, so shiny and wet, slicked back as if the dark roots peeking through were a feature, not a crutch. It’s ‘Versace underwear’ profile.
We make eye contact. Her deep brown eyes pierce sharply through the glassy layers of her beige-tinted metal frames, to stab my own eyes, digging all the way through to my occipital lobe, where her gaze scans and assesses the entirety of my body from within.
She releases a smirk from her mouth, which turns into a polite smile that makes me tremble in awe and fright. It’s cruel, really, the way a single look can shake me. I’m terrified, jealous, angry, and delirious. Overjoyed, infatuated, amazed, and overwhelmed. I am drowning on this boat, and my vision starts to blur. If this is it, then all I can remember is the shape of her body. How it curves, ever so slightly by the hip and shoots her chest outwards, into the sky. Fireworks. It’s blue. And aqua. Green, and yellow, citrus, sunny, warm, orange. A fast dash across the spectrum of emotions, colouring me. I’ve never felt like this before. It’s cruel. It’s hot. Red, and pink? A wave of comforting heat, blowing directly. Into my pupils, deep, purple, and blue, keeping me distracted from the piercing white glow emanating from her eyes.
Sam yanks me back into consciousness, pulling my arm down the stairs. I stumble into the sweaty dance floor and crash into the rest of my friends. I’m so happy that I could die right now. Billy gives me a kiss on the forehead. James is relieved to see me and throws a hug my way. Grace’s eyes light up and she cups my face. Alli screams something illegible at me with the biggest grin on her face. Audrey starts jumping to the beat, and Ella joins in. Jack lifts his hands in the air, and Francisco pats my head in excitement. Abeny lifts her hands in prayer as Zecheng yells in delight, both patiently anticipating the climax of the song. Jack’s head lifts back to lip sync,
“He looks up grinning like a devil.”
It’s Jack James doing the worm. Eloise spinning in cartwheels. Karen, twirling her hips in circles so wide it sets Viv off flying into the disco ball above. Lynn begins belting in a beautiful soprano voice cracking all the windows of the boat. The shards of glass swirl in the sky and gather in Mina’s hands. With one point, she shoots them into the Sydney Harbour bridge, setting Brady’s fairy wings off. He flies, morphing into Deana as the two plunge into the water and emerge out, like a dolphin, jumping over the bridge. The shards of glass turn into pink fireworks, and settle to form the shape of Adam’s face. I look across the dance floor in shock, and a spotlight finds its way to Versace Underwear, standing at the foot of the spiral staircase. She strips down, ever so slowly. Taking everything off except her Versace underwear. She gathers her orange dress, pink boots, beige sunglasses, and scrunches them all into a ball, placing it into the cannon that RuPaul rolled in earlier. It’s pointed my way. In one swift blow, Versace Underwear strikes a match on her silky blonde hair, slicked back and seemingly growing into the floor. She lights up the cannon. “Kaboom, doll,” she says in a voice so deep it sounds like god herself, “remember to use code ‘ARI10’ at checkout!”
Oh, I hardly go out dancing these days, and when I do, it often ends early in favour of a movie and a joint at home. But this is a wild exception, as I’ve found myself donning my finest Balenciaga dress and favourite hot pink Y/Project thigh-high heels in Australia for Mardi Gras. An off-brand choice for me. Not because I absolutely despise the cheap corporate aesthetic of polyester, made-in-a-sweatshop pride flags, but because I rarely ever come back to Australia, let alone Sydney, unless it’s for work.
See, this is an exception in the truest sense of the word because I’m actually enjoying myself dancing on this boat floating down the Sydney Harbour. I’m downing each glass of Absolut Vodka with lemonade as a double shot or a single blessing amplified slightly by seasickness. There is something so magical about being surrounded by members of your community, looking at so many Andrew Christian jockstraps and JJ Malibu harnesses warms my heart. Truly. It’s so cute to see people who know nothing about turning a lewk try. And mama, there are so many of them here. Not to mention half of them are really trying it with these ASOS acquired Shein-type fast fashion Mugler rip-offs.
But that’s alright, because at the end of the day, things like shared taste (in this case, bad clothing), are what make a community magical.
Anyway, I’ve flown in from London this time, on the swanky new Airbus A350-1000 Qantas recently acquired into their fleet. Did I mention that the CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, is gay? I flew down with a few friends of ours to Melbourne so I could show them the sights first and then we took the Pride Flight up to Sydney. What a fabulous flight that was! It was sponsored by Absolut Vodka, so of course I got a bit tiddly on the flight over.
It was a very short flight, unfortunately, but we landed and checked into the W Hotel by the Harbour. They’re quite the LGBTQIA+ friendly venue, in my experience. The receptionist even had a limp wrist. But anyway, when we entered our room, we were so pleasantly surprised to have a care package hamper waiting for us by the dining table in our suite. Complete with a bunch of skincare products from Malin + Goetz, a stunning LGBTQIA+-owned brand, a few bottles of Absolut Vodka in their Pride packaging (so cute!), vouchers from Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras partner Doordash, and my favourite inclusion, new underwear from AussieBum’s newest Pride collection!…
Running Dog presents
TO DOUSE THE OCCIPITAL LOBE IN BLEACH:
Trans-auto-theoretic approaches to the gusts of western cultural neo-imperialism blowing east into the horizon.
featuring Scanlan Wong and Ari Tampubolon
with Ellen Thongkham
and Jamie Tran
written for the screen by Ari Tampubolon
edited by Anador Walsh, Diego Ramirez, and Elliott Papazahariakis
produced by Diego Ramirez and Naomi Riddle
Special thanks to friends old and new, Abeny, Adam, Alli, Audrey, Billy, Brady, Deana, Ella, Eloise, Francisco, Grace, Jack, James, Jack James, Karen, Lynn, Mina, Sam, Viv, and Zecheng, for sharing this life with me.