This Mirrored Dias of History and Signs
“For the signifier is a unit in its very uniqueness,
being by nature symbol only of an absence.”
~ Jacques Lacan
What object do you see, and attend to? The Kangxi emperor asks, ready to dab it with his calligraphy brush, a fearless dot and whorl. As if to sign in a new language. As if to denote it, at once an object of affection and objet d’art. Which object becomes memory; which memory becomes object?
The window looks out into Nusantara, the idea of whole lands afloat, betwixt and between. This is what liminality looks like. Mapped ideas, adrift. Dasein, like this moonlit moment, present to itself. These contemplative walks are their own indistinct rites of passage; we pause, if only to take in the view, to breathe.
Seated in a cave temple is a monk. Beside her is an unfurled scroll, on which anything can be written.
The field is awash with deities, the performers painted in gold, as if lacquered. Inscriptions glisten on skin, and no one can make out the real from the symbolic, truth from fiction. Look at Avalokiteshvara and the Virgin Mother. Look at Vishnu with wings. Look at Krishna as a boy, Mount Govardhana raised into the sky with his left hand.
Look at the Mughal emperor Akbar, his left hand placed over his son Jahangir’s nape. On the right is the Christ figure, white as ash, encased in a bureau shrine from Guangzhou. Look at the hilltribe pilgrims, what warmth of feeling. They brush their fingers over the elemental and unexpected. Burnished silver against old wood.
Look at the opium daybed, grand like the box carriage of a chariot. It is stark and bare. On the namwood are carved scenes from more folklore. You see Du Fu, his dreamier Tianshui in relief. Do you hear the rain songs, Yiruma and David Gray piped in from the rafters? You see Peter Gabriel singing “Here Comes the Flood”. You see Robert Creeley reading his love poem about “a decent happiness”.
The wide raised area of the dock has become a stage. The archaeologists and historians are discussing story and anthropology, and what to demythologise. A child is painting a resin figurine of Sang Nila Utama — that fifth effigy, simulacrum of the statuesque — as if to say there’s colour in our oral tradition.
This is a house of mirrors. You are standing in front of a window, the promise of a specular image. In the infinity mirror, Lacan understands our ways of the imitative and gestural, how the self forms its ego for its own subjecthood. Where and when is life not one more mirror stage? How does one ever stand outside the looking glass?
So these are the histories neatly marked off and buttoned down — of the adjectival. Of the urban and rural, the ethnic and gendered. Of kinship and unfamiliar ties. Of the defamiliarised. Of the public and intellectual, the economic and diplomatic. Of the world, as we have known it. Of a particular people, and the Other.
Say yes or no to the objet petit a, Lacan says. The monk lifts the singing bowl, both hands over the thick rim of its open mouth. The singing bowl doubles as a begging bowl. Around the cave temple exist bowls of every kind, in every colour. Celadon, copper, bronze, beryl, blood, plum, teal, slate. Look at the Sufi kashkul, baby dugout inlaid with camel bone. The Peranakan porcelain has retained its lustre, its kitsch of coral pink, emerald and bright yellow. Say a, Lacan says, as if to enunciate its presence in autre or agalma, or something beyond translation.
In the objet petit a, there remains hope. In its unknowability and ineffability, there remains a freedom — of ideas, of action, of being. The objet petit a, Lacan says, can be but what remains, what’s residual and extraneous, even incidental as if chanced upon. Like an objet trouvé, found and retrieved, then reclaimed. The objet petit a, Lacan says, may allude to a sense of semblance. The likeness or likability of the sign. There it rests, like a resplendent mandala, at the heart of today’s Borromean Knot.
The mandala, docked within, hovers, softly abob. It is also ready to dissipate and disappear. Each motif shifts between clarity and a dim murk, contingent on your state of mind, itself shifting between states — the subliminal and the supraliminal.
Arjuna’s arms are aloft, rising like high masts in the air. They are free of the body of the chariot. Look at Krishna as charioteer, how shadowless and defined. Look at the reins and the horses. Look at the turning wheels, the endless path. What do they signify?
The art of seeing demands the act of apperception. It is an indictment of the simple encounter, deepening, set in motion. I am seated in my room, surrounded by things and objects. There is an empty bowl on the floor. There is the sound of bells and water. In front of the bowl stands a plane mirror, and everything reflected in it.
* The source text of this found//fount sonnet is “Cities & Memory 3” from Chapter 1 of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver. The fourteen found words are as follows: it, window, which, and, the, the, dock, for, the, say, in, dock, in, a. This was one of four found//fount sonnets, commissioned to help frame Light to Night Festival 2020. The other three sonnets were penned by Kevin Martens Wong, Marc Nair, and Nuraliah Norasid. As the marquee event of Singapore Art Week, the annual Light to Night Festival is celebrated across five of the Civic District’s most iconic cultural institutions: the National Gallery Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, The Arts House, Victoria Theatre & Victoria Concert Hall, and Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay. Over the two weeks, art moves outdoors, onto the streets of the Civic District, with a stellar showcase of artists, writers, musicians, designers, filmmakers, performers, among other creative talents. This video is specially produced by Karen Kon.
** The ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan have deeply influenced post-structuralist theory. Expounded on by philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger, the German word “dasein” translates as “being there” or “presence”. Avalokiteshvara is a bodhisattva, also seen as Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism. At the heart of the Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Krishna being an avatar of the god Vishnu. The Asian Civilisations Museum contains an exhibit of Shrinathji, mentioning the famous legend of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana. Another rare exhibit is an antique Christian bureau shrine, dating back to the 1730s. The most eminent of Mughal emperors in India, Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605. Similarly, the Kangxi Emperor remains one of China’s most illustrious rulers, with his long reign from 1661 to 1722. Born in 712, the Tang poet Du Fu is recognised as one of China’s greatest poets. The pared down 1990 recording of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” can be found on the album, Shaking the Tree. The line from Robert Creeley is excerpted from his poem, ‘The Rain”.
A Direction of Yellow
“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
~ James Baldwin
What are you left with when your lover has died? The idea was itself a collaboration, both of yours; now only you are left behind, to execute the conception, the idea of what it means to walk away, a return to the direction of home.
From old emotion and lost memories. Perhaps, even from land and country, you said in your sleep. The utterance from the subconscious is another layer of truth, that’s what you admitted to, in your better days. Another layer of narrative as truth, you added, as if to reify the point.
From a plane, this looks like a runway finally boldly coloured enough to see from miles away. That function doesn’t need to come at the cost of beauty.
That tarmac can be painted over, and made symbolic, something to mull over on the way to Poland or Portugal.
If you were here, you’d see the yellow lines — boxed as if to situate, parallel as if to echo — and wonder how a small isle could raise such glitz, the shine of the fast city. Fast, insomuch as the endless pummel of energy and heads and money and work and every other kind of curated artifice.
There are yellow arrows too, how they seem to point to something of a dream, something of ambition and hope. Within a glass exhibit is a new installation — a headdress for some ritual or dance. It is a crown of antique hornbill casques, rising from a base of lakawood inlaid with broken celadon. The pamphlet says the celadon is Chinese in origin. They were ordinary bowls, first made in the Longquan kilns of Zhejiang, then shipped to the Melaka Straits in the thirteenth century.
There are the same lines everywhere — they reach into Bishan, Bedok, Punggol, Jurong, Geylang, Kallang, Sembawang, Bukit Panjang, and every other estate the kid uttered as a homage to home. These are the happy lines, the lines that imagine utopian ideals, unreachable but symptomatic of our hidden goodness.
There are no other tourists or beachgoers on Christo’s Floating Piers. I am standing at the crossroads, at the apex of an arrow, as if about to step off a diving board.
There is every inclination to walk left, towards the assemblage of flora, that idyllic rectangle of what must be a Tembusu and Narra tree. You wish someone had planted a Pink Poui in front of our porch, its light coral flowers falling over everything. There was every inclination to do every kind of small thing, you said.
The water beneath me seems to ask for my attention. It’s the long shadow of an eel swimming out from under the pier, as if dislodging its body from the straight and narrow path of the yellow. Its skin shimmers under wave and sunlight, the saffron turning a bright gold as it turns inwards, back towards the shoreline.
* This poem first appeared in the anthology, CONTOUR: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore.
the 38th parallel in two villanelles
as if summer brought in the frost, this hanok village now left cold,
its pine a bold teak, its floors burnished with a kinder soybean oil
as if a child stepped across the threshold, a line, its wood creaking
as if the Shilla artisan embossed red on a temple bell, its carvings
an ornate embroidery, its shape like an upturned urn, ashes gone
as if this winter were dipped in a deep russet, more lacquer as paint
as if the domoksu dropped a straw rope from the farthest pillars,
to rebuild the hanok, its roof a softer arc, a curvature like the hill,
as if a soldier bent the bayonet blade, to look into his eyes, glassy
as if an eternal lagoon rested in Pyoseon Beach, the low tide awash
and out, the ocean of secrets swallowing more history and fiction
as if this fall would be a quieter autumn, austere as Sonjuk Bridge
as if the slabs cut no corners, their stone an old clay now monument,
the kiln’s fire at once gilded, bloodied and celadon, like a ceramic pot
as if a family reached into it, drew threads of story and sentiment
as if a poem or song were lilted or lit, along the hilt of a long sword
and asked for a poem or song in return, like an echo the pain of loss
as if the seasons ended in spring, and the trees turned into emblems,
as if a historian brought a book to you, and opened its blank pages
* Written upon invitation, this poem commemorates the 60th anniversary of the armistice of The Korean War in 1953. The Korean War, also known as The Forgotten War, left the world a divided Korean peninsula. The death toll was grave – two million Koreans died – and many families remain separated by the Demilitarized Zone, which runs along the 38th parallel north. The poem was presented in a joint ceremony that straddled America, Korea, Japan and Singapore. This poem comprises two villanelles — a composite of 38 lines — one as an open invitation to the writing out of the absent other. The villanelle is a poem of 19 lines, with structural requirements of five tercets and a closing quatrain, replete with two refrains. Translated into Korean by distinguished poet Cho Soo-Hyoung, this poem appeared in Cho’s 2013 poetry collection. The limited edition broadside is housed for archiving or exhibition at The Queensland Korean War Memorial in Australia, as well as The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies and The Center of the Study for the Korean War in America.
Objets D'art at The Arts House
* These are two images that found their way into exhibitions at The Arts House. As part of Food-O-Philia 2013, The Arts House sent out an open call to the public to re-create favourite food scenes from literary texts through photographs. Edible Lit: The Exhibition showcases 15 of the most creative original entries that evoked a powerful connection between food, photography and literature. My photograph of blue bowls was an ekphrasis of Natasha Trethewey’s poem “After Your Death”, published in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Native Guard. In The Straits Times feature, “Eats Meet Literature” (17 June 2013), I shared my image-making process: “I began with both text and image. I collect blue bowls, so I knew I wanted an image of that. At the same time, I had a recollection about bowls in a poem somewhere. I scoured my home library and only after quite some time, found the poem. I liked the poem’s atmosphere, its themes of absence and loss, of removal and abandonment. In four stanzas, Trethewey manages to convey the deep hollowing that arrives with death. I stacked the bowls and took them outside. I placed them on the ground. I spent some time thinking about which bowl would end up at the top, since it’d be the one providing the strongest statement. I deliberately avoided using food, and allowed the vessel to represent the notions of hunger and consumption and a primal need.”
The image on the right is the poster The Arts House created in 2019, for its Textures weekend. The Room of Love and Loss (and some things in between) featured a photo gallery of objects that were significant to various literati, as well as featured artists of Textures. The exhibition offered visitors a snapshot of our world. I also collect worry stones, and offered one as my objet d’art contribution. In the poster, my quote says: “This hand-painted pebble is my worry stone. In 2016, I made a research trip to Jerusalem. It became a pilgrimage. I found myself completely falling in love with the city — its history, culture, people, traditions, art, food, music, all of it.” I like these two images because they represent the rare occasions where I open up my private world to the larger public.
[Designing Acronyms & Aphorisms]
* Here are three plates of collected broadsides where I used typographic design to animate acronyms and aphorisms. In French, écriture means “writing”. In his 1953 book, Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes discusses writing in terms of style, dismissing assertions of writing as neutral or blank since all writing engenders some discursive element in reflecting an individual’s worldview. In writing, Derrida saw eternal slippage and an illusory trace: writing as “différance”. In this typographic project, I found myself particularly interested in working with minimal, spartan text, looking at how visual formulations would transform the print’s textuality. This is the throwaway remark given a presence and especial staging. It is a transcription of language, where the apothegmatic — and sometimes axiomatic — paints its own portrait.
Before The Graphologist’s Dysgraphia
[Assorted Journal Covers]
* Here are samples of handwritten axioms, pithy remarks that revel in stating the unremarkable. It’s an effort to appear effortless, clean and quiet in its plainness. It’s the last stop of the intelligible before the writing becomes asemic, devoid of semantic content. These are book cover samples, extracts from The Madding Mission Jotter Book series. The Madding Mission Jotter Book encourages hypergraphia. It thinks Plath writes awesome poems. Plath should have met Dickinson. Dylan Thomas too. Shelley. Poe. Lord Byron. Artaud and Baudelaire. Who can forget Hart Crane? Versus Eliot. John Berryman and Robert Lowell, who knew they joined these ranks? And of course, Celan. Whitman, whose “right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road... Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.” Together they would write great things, Plath thinks out loud, to no one in particular. She has brought her pen to paper. There is madness in the method, and sometimes a little bit or a whole lot of genius too.
This Is Visual Poetry
How the light of the world has changed—these sudden wintry weeks within the tropics. Then, the burning airlessness, turn of sweltering weather. These lily pads rest low in the basin, half the pondwater. Our boxed-in homes house herb gardens now, small straw-grasping acts, feeble attempts but hopeful nonetheless. It’s the same in our churchyard, its bible garden with small plots of dill, coriander, mint, sage, all for the refectory table. For colour, there are lilies and tulips, even wild roses.
I’m seated on a Jacobean bench. Beside me are four books:
Odds Against Tomorrow
Get A Life
The four titles line up to form a neat quatrain, and really, an exhortation. This is what ecofiction can do, reimagine the already seemingly unimaginable. These novels read like long epistles, as if trekking the frame and run of an epistolary novel. But today, I remain content reading scripture. There are gardens mentioned in scripture too, within Ecclesiastes, Kings, Genesis, John.
What was it like, to bask in such a pristine bed of land—like a new forest, first breath of morning always? What was the colour of nature like for you, Monet?
The world has become a vast terrain of every kind of letter, of accretions accruing towards a grand letter to what we’ve left behind, and are still enmeshed in.
I chose a home that angled itself, the sun hitting the outer wall instead of shining into the inside. Inside, the day would burn up everything, scorch everything I hold dear. I have seen what heat and fire can do, make everything look old and used, discoloured, weathered, worn down, undone.
To say one loves the Impressionists is to say one is dull, boring, too set in one’s ways to embrace the novel of the fertile, to imagine a new world. Alas, this wandering lust, less wonderment, more desire turned greed, has turned the world in.
Your simpler days, Monet, seem so much more alluring. A charmed life, as it were. Your view seemed less cluttered, less noisy, less beat-up. You watched the light, its changing qualities from day to night, what happens to things with and against time. You depicted and celebrated the ordinary. Your view seemed closer to nature, what our own human nature is, after all, made of—by-and-by, for keeps, for good.
* Written upon invitation, this video poem was specially produced for World Anthropocene Manifesto, organised by École Urbaine de Lyon, Université de Lyon, in France.