Dropping Poetry Art on Unsuspecting Readers

By Yong-Yu Huang

September 2022 FOR ART'S SAKE
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Photos courtesy of Trina Teoh.

AGAINST A SHEET of peeling yellow paint and brick wall, bared to the elements, bold letters stand stark:



Trina Teoh’s work is often found spray-painted on scaffolding and other lonely walls. Reminiscent of American neo-conceptualist Jenny Holzer’s text-based art, her pieces often feature such thought-provoking sentiments.

There is a sense of precious temporality to Trina’s work – many of them are potentially at risk of being erased, as they are often written on construction walls and empty spaces. When Penang’s resident arts and culture hub, Hin Bus Depot played host to her Valley Deep Into You poetry and art exhibition in April this year, she explained that this kind of environment extracts the seriousness of her writing. People can see this medium as something a little bit more carefree and unexpected, which she hopes will transform people into unsuspecting readers.

When asked about the lifespan of her work, she explains, “They do get painted over, especially when it is too close to someone's private property. But usually, it stays up there for maybe a year, a year plus. The longest one I've had now is in the Mont Kiara area; it has been there for probably three to four years. Only because it is on abandoned zinc walls, no one will bother.” Of course, Trina says, there are walls that she knows are temporary and will soon disappear, along with her work.

Poetry in the Everyday

Trina spent much of her younger years in the United States, graduating with a degree in creative writing from California State University, Northridge. Initially, she says, “I went to school with the intention of wanting to be a scriptwriter. So most of my experience is in scriptwriting.” However, she ended up graduating with a creative writing major, after realising that she did not want to be confined to just screenplays.

In her later twenties, she moved back to Malaysia, where she is now based. She is currently a copywriter by day, while still working on her creative projects after hours. As opposed to what many of her more public work might suggest, her go-to writing genre is actually short stories rather than poetry.

One of her inspirations is Brit Marling’s Netflix show, The OA, which deals with concepts such as life after death. Trina is often drawn to three main themes: romance, spirituality and mortality. She refers to them as “the binding agents of humanity”. In terms of spirituality, she is most interested in themes such as the conflict between man, nature and God. Trina admits she does not read much poetry, chalking up her biggest influences to reading E. E. Cummings in high school, whose work she loved for its simplicity.

“It sometimes boils down to one or two liners that I will pick from a TV show,” she says. “Sometimes I like to use stuff from actors or musicians, or something with lyrics or even conversations. I like to repurpose the idea of what they're trying to convey with their dialogue.” 

“Poetry naturally is a very pretentious thing because it is like fine craftsmanship – not everyone has to care for it – not everyone cares about it.” Trina believes that by not being especially influenced or inspired by specific poets, she can extract just the raw emotions a poem means to convey. That way, “uncles and aunties, and grandmas and grandpas can read it and instantly adapt to it." this makes poetry more accessible for everyone. Placing her art in unassuming public places will increase exposure to her targeted audience.

Reaching the Unread

The people that she wants to reach the most are specifically those who do not read. In an era where media consumption has largely shifted from text-based mediums to rapidly evolving visual trends and bite-sized videos, Trina creates so that her words can touch those who might not necessarily gravitate towards regular books, be it young people on TikTok or even the older generations. She uses her father as an example, saying, “My dad is, like, a Chinese businessman who doesn’t show emotion, doesn't care about poetry, doesn't read for leisure. He reads contracts. That's all. And I guess that's my target market. I want to, in a business sense, also find a new market that is essentially untouched.”

For her exhibition at Hin Bus Depot, Trina focused on showcasing the collection of work she developed over the past five years. She is currently in talks to continue exhibiting in KL.

“Honestly, everybody has been beyond kind, beyond generous, beyond loving,” Trina says of the Malaysian art scene. Before the pandemic, her friends and connections were the ones who encouraged her to branch out into visual art and to get in touch with organisations such as Hin Bus. “I can see that everyone just wants each other to succeed – they just want you to start your next work because they love being inspired by each other.”

Empathy is the virtue Trina desires to foster in society. Therefore, with her simple yet poignant words, she hopes it will contribute to the development of a more tolerant society among the audiences it targets – whether they’re just driving by or stopping to linger a little longer on the words that she shares with the world. 

Yong-Yu Huang

is a Taiwanese student currently based in Penang. In the fall, she will be an incoming freshman at Northwestern University.