Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Singapore Biennale 2016: The Myth, the Mirror and the Map

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By Elaine Chiew, Finalist, Best Essay by an Emerging Art Writer Competition

(2996 words, 30-minute read)

Much of our ideas about maps today are reduced to their function: their ability to tell us where we are and how to get somewhere.  However, maps as art inquire what a map is rather than what it does.  A map as a representation of the spherical world on two-dimensional paper is not the real world, though it purports to explain the knowable world beyond the map, to guide us to places that exist as a coded reference through indexes and symbols substituting for actual topology. This is one border artists in their mapping gestures explore, the border between reality and projection, real versus unreal, cognitive versus physical, because the map is but a surface, rather like a nonliteral mirror, reflecting the actual physical world.

A mirror is a piece of glass.  That border between real and unreal resurfaces when we look at how a mirror reflects.  Different kinds of mirrors, based on the shape of the glass, may reflect or distort the light-information received.  As a navigation tool, it helps the naked eye see the invisible, peer beyond the horizon. As metaphor, it reflects the truth of what faces it, but distorts, refracts, just as often that truth.

Mythology, strangely enough, pulls the same trick: its semantic content contains the notion of truth, reality, the sacral, the prophetic inasmuch as it contains fable, fiction, make-believe.

“The myth is always true (or else no true myth).”  — Ananda Coomaraswamy.[1]

The idea of myth today through the lens of Roland Barthes is different from mythology which we may associate with stories of creation, gods and the supernatural.  What we call myths today also contain half-truths, distortions of truth, but they are stories manifested in our belief in the singularity of truth, when in fact the myth may obscure other truths or hide the fact that what purports to be truth is actually an untruth.

These three concepts — the map, the mirror, the myth — power four works of the Singapore Biennale 2016 : Qiu Zhijie’s One Has to Wander Through All the Outer Worlds To Reach The Innermost Shrine At the End; Pannaphan Yodmanee’s Aftermath; Eddy Susanto’s Journey of Panji and finally, Ryan Villamael’s Locus Amoenus. Each activates mythology through an artistic device of literal or metaphorical mapmaking to reveal the depths of knowledge, history, culture and nature contained beyond surfaces.  They work to free the idea of maps from its functionality constraint.  They engage us with the entire universes of meanings, the contours of which aren’t entirely knowable, behind the idea of map and mapping, and in one respect, show us that maps might confer this illusion that once we have mapped a given geography, we know it entirely.  Thus, the surface of their maps functions as a metaphorical mirror, to reflect/refract back to us our ideas of map and mapping.

Distortion of Reality = (Dis)reality?

Edith Hamilton, in Mythology, offers this: “Through the myths we made, a glimpse of that strangely and beautifully animated world.”[2] Myths were accounts to explain the supernatural, to order reality, in Mircea Eliade’s words, to explain that “fabled time of origins”, “to account for creation”.[3]  This function invests it with a sepulchral caul of “sacred history”, that is, the truth of our origins. To know our origins confers power. Many myths surrounding our origins are invoked at key life moments like birth, sickness or death to siphon from that power. Fabled myths also have a pedagogic function, according to Eliade; they tell of tricksters and deceivers, fulfilling a didactic function of regulating human activities and behaviours, and instituting morality as an instinctual human urge.

Figure 1. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

 

At first encounter, Qiu Zhijie’s complex topography (Figure 1) appears to pour entire universes of knowledge onto a tabula rasa of two walled surfaces facing each other, from the history of cartography to records of voyages to distant lands. On closer examination however, fictive geographies like Narnia and Utopia emerge. Playful naming occurs such as Sea of Boundary Disputes. Lands are populated by mythical creatures such as Golem, Frankenstein and Big Foot while seas are inhabited by Fur-Bearing Trout and Loch Ness Monsters. Qiu gives embodiment to myth through his 3-D chimerical glass beasts placed on the floor as a shrine to the map. These mysterious beasts that traverse between mountains and seas confront us with the paradox that for all our acquired knowledge through history, philosophy, literature, science, geography etc., the mystery of the world remains one that can’t be solved. More than that, what we perceive to be objective worlds of knowledge often contain an underbelly of unknowables, lost histories and illusory completeness. Legends and mythologies trawl our understanding of civilisations. They are passed on genealogically, bearing half-truths and distortions of reality, or perhaps (dis)reality: that space between unreality and reality, fantasy and truth.

Figure 2. Photo: Singapore Art Museum
Figure 2. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

 

Pannaphan Yodmanee’s Aftermath (Figure 2) tackles this function of mythology through a different lens altogether — that of Buddhist cosmogony — juxtaposing it with apocalyptic visions of dystopia. It’s an imposing wall mural that salvages out of temple debris and miniatures of Buddhist icons a map of The Three Realms of form, formlessness and desire. Buddhist cosmology sits astride that curious realm of religious mythology between dharma as moral truths and fictional tales. Like Qiu, she traces human migratory consequences and the march of civilisations, but unlike him, she posits the question of a doomed future, rather than one of past and future discoveries, wonder and mystery. The map that Yodmanee charts is one of inner worlds rather than physical lands. Rather than conquest and man’s achievement, it begs us to contemplate the aftermath of such achievements.

Figure 3. Photo: Singapore Art Museum
Figure 3. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

 

Eddy Susanto charts from a different geographical and metaphoric coordinate: the spread of the Javanese Hindu-based folkloric stories surrounding Prince Panji through Southeast Asia from the 14th century onwards, and rather than the sextant, compass or even mirror, he chooses script (Figure 3). Thus, a flow of letters from the English alphabet emerges out of S.O. Robson’s Wangbang Wideya, a translation of these stories gathered in 1971. Susanto contrasts Robson’s English letters with the scripts of different cultures that had taken inspiration from Panji legends in their dramaturgical and literary explorations. Like Yodmanee, the mirror here is an invisible one, reflecting various scripts back upon one another. The English lingua franca twist is ironic given that the spread of these Panji tales was first conducted in Malay through Malay-accented regions. The map too is invisible, occurring as it were in a cerebral space, charted through the unfolding of regional histories of migration, trade and culture-pollination. The (dis)reality here is that what’s being conveyed are oral and literary fictions, but the “how conveyed” parlayed the very real reality of seafaring routes as transmission channels, and produced interestingly the trajectory of power plays within spheres of Javanese political influence. These trajectories form another kind of invisible map, “cognitive mapping” as Fredric Jameson called it. [4]

Figure 4. Photo: Singapore Art Museum
Figure 4. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

 

Ryan Villamael also metaphorised cartography but in a different manner. Using maps temporally-distant in time, such as 16th century Spanish maps charting waterways and maritime dangers, juxtaposing them next to Philippine-government issued maps of roads and highways, he fashioned foliage that creeped up walls and dangled from the ceiling of the upper floor foyer designed like an arboretum where a section of the original 1852 colonial building has been retained. (Figure 4) This plant though, the Monstera Deliciosa, has mysterious origins. Non-native to the Philippines, it isn’t native to Spain either, and in fact originated from Latin America. How it migrated across time and journeys to manifest in the Philippines produces another cerebral map, one that references this particular shrouded history of Spanish expeditions, but also dialogues obliquely with Qiu’s pre-Colombian transoceanic contact theories about maritime contact between Asia and the Americas, themselves half-truth, half-myth.[5] Its creeper-like nature in overtaking the architecture of the arboretum provides an ironic reflection on the nature of conquests in expeditions. Villamael names this work Locus Amoenus, Latin for “a pleasant place”, invoking a kind of paradisiacal utopia, a mythical habitat, implicating mythologies of Eden, origins, religion. Myth upon myth; myth reflecting, refracting, generating myths of their own; myth therefore acting as mirror.

In these works, myth sheds an umbra on the artist’s conceptual vision: Qiu’s use of mythology generates that Eliade sense of “all the gods within us” while Yodmanee’s eschatological use evokes doomsday, but as Eliade argued, myths embed the very human longing for the “eternal return”, the notion of origin as bound up with the idea of perfection and bliss, and doomsday here implicates the idea of rebirth endemic within Buddhist cosmology.  Villamael’s Eden also draws upon this Edenic idea of the perfection of beginnings while Susanto shows us the virtual spread of myths, rather like Villamael’s creeper. These are all facets of myth, pervading and providing a key to unlock the creative question within these works, viz. why use mythology in contemporary mapping as art?

One deduction is that mythology parallels the idea that maps too, for all their truthful properties, are mythical; we see qua mirror that maps can show us a different reality, or (dis)reality composed of equal parts truth and fantasy. When charting the territories beyond, we are really charting ourselves.  Reflecting outward on the physical world only has meaning when one reflects inward because it is my eye that sees.

A sort of chimerical blurring occurs however when myth functions as a prism, a multi-faceted mirror, reflecting ourselves back to us, reflecting the idea of mirror back upon itself. We think we see “through the looking glass”, we think we see ourselves “through the glass darkly”, but what is really reflected? Here, the four artists have used mapping to refract our lost or forgotten histories, our fictions, our cultural realities. But the interaction of map and myth through the mirror produces a fractal metaphor, illuminating and obfuscating simultaneously various understandings of the confabulations of myth with the objective halls of knowledge, and their contribution to meaning.  At the moment that we see the map in our mind, the map exists. This point of encounter between artist and audience is a reality and illusion simultaneously; a transaction of Foucauldian power occurs, in that the meaning conveyed confers an “aha” moment.

Artist as Cartographer

This brings us to a new territory: the agency of the artist in myth-making and mapping. Hal Foster described the modern artist as “an ethnographer within the cultural politics of alterity” [6] wherein the artist whose identity as “cultural other” stands in to represent his/her cultural histories to others.  They are assumed to have automatic access while those outside of the culture are presumed not.  For example, Yodmanee’s Buddhist cosmological mapping substitutes for a cultural understanding of Thailand; Villamael’s trajectories of Spanish colonial conquest is a resurfacing of Philippine history; Susanto excavating Javanese literary traditions in some way speaks to ancient Indonesian kingly spheres of influence. The identity of the artist is presumed to speak of identification. Placing the works within the context of a regional biennale and the museum as an institution rather proves Foster’s point, “here is your community, the institution says in effect, embodied in your artist, now on display.”[7] The dialectics of mapping imbued Foster’s analysis even then: the ethnographic role of the artist as “quasi-anthropologist, mapping time onto space” in this myth that all histories are co-extensive, can be presented, understood and consumed temporally.

Concomitantly, the prevalence of religious mythology in pre-modern Asian art pushes the essentialist argument that Asian artists are inclined to deploy mythology in their work, and this applies still to contemporary Asian artists. The link between mythology and mapping refutes this essentialist interpretation. Mapping mythology provides a paralleling of processes: both relate specific human cultural relationships to their geographical locations. Both extolled humankind and its achievements. Both have mythic qualities (awe, wonder, discovery), and both are myths. What’s particularly Asian about mapping mythology? Because the myths employed are Asian? Is not the belief that the mystical, animistic qualities of Asian mythology making it prone for deployment in artwork a kind of “singular truth”, a myth?

The artist as cartographer conceptually diverges from the artist as ethnographer. It refutes the essentialist reading above because the link between mythology and mapping becomes a symbiotic zone of contact, making for a different reading. The cartographer here is metaphoric because what he charts are subaltern narratives, the subliminal, the subjective personal. Yodmanee’s apocalypse is signalling her vision of the End of the World, not Buddhist Thailand’s. Qiu’s seas of navigation history is universal, but each of his glass beasts is a manifestation of his mind, filtered through sands of time (doubly ironic as sand is the material used for glass), invoking the question of who is preoccupied with time here? Within this idea of the artist as cartographer, we as recipients of their creative output should look not just at Villamael’s paper cut-out creeper, and that paralleling of colonisation narrative between Singapore and the Philippines, but also at Villamael’s individual selection of maps. What juxtaposing maps did he choose, why? What alphabet, what script did Susanto carve, and why?

These intricacies of mind might seem too attenuated from the big ideas of map, mirror and myth, but if myth is about “creation” stories, then the artist as creator is also myth. Indeed, this is no novelty, “death of the author” as Roland Barthes conceived it has been around as an idea for decades, but the Barthian argument of myth is that it’s a system of communication. Anything could be made into myth, as a signifier of a series of overlapping meanings.[8] Myth generates a singularity, that the sign stands in for one prevalent meaning to the exclusion of others.

On one level, maps, in all their indexical panoply, are each a system of communication that purports to point the way. They are myths because their surfaces attempt to pass as depth, as entire reality, glossing over elisions. On a deeper level, mapping as a gesture of art plays with this surface, but also seeks to recuperate the overlooked and excluded. It supports Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea that what the modern artist does in mapping, in being an explorer, is to recover the excluded and discarded, the forgotten and irrelevant.[9] Because there are no more lands to physically conquer, the artist as cartographer conquers mental space, the internal, the cognitive. The Asian artist as cartographer recuperates particular histories, particular retrievables. It’s a persuasive theory; we can see this in action here. Qiu recovered for us obscure historical arcana, Yodmanee recovered actual physical debris from temples and Buddha figurines, Susanto peered behind Robson’s translation of Panji, while Villamael replicated and re-used maps from the country’s 464-year cartographic history.

But where does this Barthian fractal legacy of reality leave us? If anything can be myth, and there is no grand scheme of truth, can we trust that parsing through of a particular moment of encounter in which a glimpse of sudden truth is arrived at? Can we trust that we have arrived at particular truth? Perhaps the mirror begs us to ask, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who am I and how do I get somewhere?”

The Space/Time Dimension

We come back to Foster: the “mapping of time upon space”. It’s also Bourriaud’s contention that contemporary art is pre-occupied with temporal mapping. When there’s no corner left of the earth that’s unmapped, wonder, mystery, awe may now only be recaptured in recovering time. Yodmanee’s map is precisely a temporal one: from point of creation in Buddhist cosmogony to apocalypse. Qiu collapses multiple past temporalities, creating a deliberate heterochronicity within his imaginary topologies. That kind of temporal mapping is so abstract it takes on mythical characteristics; it also seems to be the way the mind works, when we reach the outer limits of knowledge, our imagination overtakes us, we encounter chimerical beasts. Susanto maps from 14th century onwards, and this collapse of an accordion of centuries onto one surface scroll makes a myth of that reality, literally and temporally. When the past is revivified in two-dimensional present, what myths or truths are generated about past, present, future? Villamael inscribes an element of the mythic onto a common houseplant, given time, it could colonise an entire building. Their invocation of various chapters of history recovers them for the present, to be given life anew.  Their power to speak to the future demands questions of us.

These four works were also site-specific, a mapping of time upon this geography — SAM in Singapore — not just the geographies on their maps. The artist has explored and mapped, the artist now knows this geography intimately. But not just the artist, the audience too. The sheer sizes of these works invite the audience to enter their worlds literally, to criss-cross their spaces, to sample and make mental maps of their own, itself a moment of conquest. Their physicality demands attention. Glass beasts accost us, a ruined temple houses us for a brief moment in time, ornamented letters spill out in a flood towards us, foliage spirals down to us, engendering realities that project myths of their own — these illusory worlds.

If Bourriaud is right that intellectual space is what’s being hoarded, the particular accretions of knowledge here has a psychical aspect. Our creative uses of mapping and our encounters with map art extend the metaphor regarding explorations yet uncompleted, and assuage our need to believe the myth that we are created anew in our artistic voyages that are becoming ever more microscopic. It draws upon the power of mythology as a time of “fabled creation”, now called “muse”, now called “inspiration”.  This myth is inherently atavistic. It powers human endeavours. Without the excitement and wonder at discovery and artistic creation, what we see in the mirror would be a blank.

 

Endnotes

[1]  Rama P. Coomaraswamy, preface to Door in the Sky: Coomaraswamy on Myth and Meaning by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[2]  Edith Hamilton, Mythology. Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011).

[3]  Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1998).

[4]  Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

[5]  John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen, “Scientific Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages To and From The Americas,” Sino-Platonic Papers 133 (April 2004).

[6]  Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Roland Barthes, “Myth Today” in Mythologies, transl. Annette Levers (London: Vintage Books, 2000).

[9]  Nicolas Bourriaud, The ExForm. Leeum 10th Anniversary Lecture, Samsung Museum of Art, published January 8 2015.


*This essay is one of 4 written by finalists of the inaugural Best Essay on the Singapore Biennale 2016 by an Emerging Art Writer Competition.The competition is a new initiative, jointly organised by ArtsEquator and AICA SG (Singapore Section, International Association of Art Critics). A call for entries in October 2016 resulted in 19 proposals submitted for competition. A jury of three judges, all members of AICA SG — Dr Adele Tan, Curator, National Gallery Singapore, Dr Kevin Chua, School of Art, Texas Tech University and Kathy Rowland, Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com — selected four finalists, who were then commissioned to write a 3,000-word essay based on their proposal. From these four commissioned essays, the Jury will select a winner, to be announced on January 31st 2017. For this inaugural competition, each finalist receives an honorarium of SG$200, while the eventual winner will receive a total of SG$500.

 

 

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