Singaporean artist Berny Tan takes on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in her latest solo exhibition.
Art Radar met with the artist to find out more about her practice, her interest in Italo Calvino’s novel and how it translated into her work.
“…the invisible reasons which make cities live…” is an exhibition of diagrammatic studies on the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The show, presenting the work of Singaporean artist Berny Tan, is on view at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, an experimental platform in Singapore comprising eight showcase windows in a passageway connecting two iconic shopping malls, Peninsula and Excelsior Shopping Centers.
Berny Tan’s studies forming the exhibition function as the artist’s personal exercises in understanding Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel, which imagines a conversation in which Italian explorer Marco Polo describes 55 fictitious cities to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan who founded the Yuan dynasty in China in 1271 and ruled as its first emperor until his death 1294. In the novel, Calvino meditates on “the idiosyncrasies of our built environment, but also on the heterogeneity of human experience, and even on the nature of reality itself”.
Art Radar speaks with Berny Tan regarding her practice, Invisible Cities and its “geospatial ambiguity”.
Congratulations on your show at I_S_L_A_N_D_S. I love Invisible Cities myself. Let us start with the obvious: why this particular text, why Invisible Cities?
I first read Invisible Cities about eight to nine years ago. My junior college art teacher had recommended the book to me and lent me his copy. But when I read it, I felt like there was just something I wasn’t getting. I wasn’t really connecting with it in the way I think the text needed me to connect with it. It always bothered me – like there was something I hadn’t yet found to unlock the text. I’ve always wanted to do a work based on it, but when I started reading it, my practice was still very young. I hadn’t even started working with literature in my practice yet. There was just always this nagging thought that there was something that needed to be organised or systematised.
Over the years I’ve worked on different projects involving the interpretation of literature through my art, in particular articulating literature through this kind of investigative, diagrammatic approach. But I never got around to doing a project on Invisible Cities, until Pey Chuan who runs I_S_L_A_N_D_S approached me and asked if I wanted to do a project in this space. Because of the geographical nature of ‘islands’ and the space’s location in the Peninsula Shopping Centre – peninsula meaning ‘almost an island’ – I thought that it actually makes sense to think about using Invisible Cities, which is of course a very spatial text.
So I finally got around to re-reading the text. Over the years I’ve observed that artists who make works about Invisible Cities tend to illustrate the cities, which to me is not the point of the book. In my experience of reading the book, there are these fundamental principles in Calvino’s representation of cities, and the way the cities are described visually is just ornamentation as an extension of the underlying structure. I mentioned this project to a professor of mine, and he sent me this 200-page math paper about mathematics in the book. It started me thinking about all these ways I can represent the structure of the book. It took eight to nine years for all these factors to come together and for me to be able to say – this is the right time now for me to be doing this show.
There is a scholarly, even mathematical, quality to your diagrams. And you have just mentioned that math does indeed play a part in Invisible Cities. Can we hear more about that? How did this influence your production of the diagrams?
Calvino was involved with this group called Oulipo – they are a literary group from the 1960s that uses math and systems as the basis for constructing their literature. One of the most interesting things about Invisible Cities is the way that it’s structured: it’s broken into eleven themes, but Calvino actually divides the themes based on a mathematical pattern across nine chapters. He numbers each city within each theme from one to five, and every chapter is a different variation of this pattern. This is the organisational structure that is the basis for the diagrams in the first two windows – it’s been described like a spiral, or a parallelogram, and there’s a kind of rhythm to it. Things like this were made clear to me reading the math paper, as well as the other mathematical concepts in the text – repetition, networks, doubles and so on. The mathematical structure motifs influence the way one reads the book.
The paper also led me to re-read Six Memos for the Next Millennium, which was a compilation of six lectures he was meant to deliver at Harvard. He passed away before he delivered the sixth lecture, so there are only five texts in the book. He talks about the literary values he has sought in his own work and which he wants to give to the next generation of writers. One thing he talks about in the book is that he thinks Invisible Cities is his most successful work to date that uses one symbol – the city – and builds such a complex structure around it, and beyond that, takes the book as a structure to create a network around it; you can walk so many different paths just within this one book. It resonated with my art practice, which on the surface seems very systematic and rational, yet I try to leave openings for the viewer. The aim that I have in mind is that everything feels like a study and it’s just me trying to understand this information. I don’t want to suggest that this is the definitive way to represent it. That’s partially why I try to stick with media that – for instance in this situation, with the thread and pins – feel like they could come apart. And even when I finish this work, I could still decide to revisit it two years down the road.
One of the most captivating aspects of Invisible Cities is its geospatial ambiguity – despite Calvino’s descriptive specificity. The premise is that Marco Polo describes all these different cities to Kublai Khan, but in the end, it is revealed that they are all descriptions of the same city: Venice. There is something very urbane and postmodern about Invisible Cities – you get the feeling that maybe it wasn’t even Venice Calvino was writing about – perhaps it was Paris or New York City or Bangkok or Barcelona. And we touched a little just now on the geographical aspect of I_S_L_A_N_D_S as an exhibition space. Did your engagement with the text in any way affect the way in which you engage with urbanism and your own geospatial environment, and how has it affected your practice?
It’s inevitable that I would think, “How can these words apply to Singapore?” One idea in Invisible Cities is that each city is every city; you can see elements of that in any major city, or you can see conceivably how it could happen in a model of a city. But mainly I was engaging with the text as a space – so it became very much about the material of the words, and not so much about how it relates to how I view the city. I know that a lot of architects study this book, but to me, that’s not what draws me to the book – it’s incidental. What’s more interesting is the way Calvino takes the city and breaks it up, but also uses that to teach you more about how to view the city. It’s the approach that’s more interesting to me than the content. It’s him being able to see these worlds and passing that on to me as a reader, which got me thinking about how I can represent the way that I digest information – that, I think, is the crux of my relationship with the book. In the math paper, I read about this idea of thinking about the book as transforming a textual space into a mental space. I think that’s where I am, more in that textual space, rather than thinking about how that textual space influences my urban relationships. A lot of my work is about that space between my thoughts and the source text.
On that topic, your engagement with text in your practice goes a long way back, and your diagrammatic studies of Invisible Cities strike me not simply as works of artistic labour, but more than that, as a labour of love by someone who has clearly spent a lot of time and effort poring over this novel. But you also mentioned before that text has not always been part of your practice. Since then, in that case, how has text/literature come to form a part of your artistic practice?
It’s kind of complicated. I’m still trying to figure out what’s the role text plays in my practice. But I’ve always been very clear that as a practitioner, writing and art have equal weight within my practice, even if I don’t necessarily write that often or put my personal creative writing out in the world. For my BFA, I very deliberately picked a course that had theory/humanities classes as well as studio art requirements. Different projects that I’ve done over the years have been different kinds of experiments exploring the role of language in my practice. One way is of course by literally taking a source text and responding to it. In another way it might be having language as accents in my work, like with my Thought Lines project – the embroideries were accompanied by rules that I wrote that described how I made the work, using that as a way to reveal the process.
I can’t ever let go of language – it’s the way that I formulate my thoughts. Even as an artist I write much more than I draw or sketch. A majority of my process of developing this work was writing out words, or retyping quotes into a spreadsheet – and that was a form of making for me. The actual percentage of the written text that forms a part of my process varies in the output of the final product from project to project, but it’s such a big part of how I develop my ideas that it inevitably emerges in my work.
In that sense, your work is very process-driven and whereas there is often a ‘making’ impulse with many artists, there is this sense that your work is very measured and deconstructivist…
The constant drive to make has always been problematic for me, not necessarily because of what I believe as an artist, but as a person, I don’t like just doing things – it feels very arbitrary, and I don’t like arbitrary. Even if it’s experiments, there still needs to be an aim. To me, the thinking and the doing interweave – in fact, I’d say that about eighty percent of the time, I’m just thinking about things. For me, I need to figure it out in my head first. The solution could come to me in the process of thinking, or while I’m out in the street, or while I’m doodling nonsense in my notebook. But something has to click first before I can do. I couldn’t really use a studio in a conventional sense – most of the time, I’d just be sitting there thinking.
Jumping back to postmodernism for a second – I have noticed as well that postmodernist writing seems to be an interest of yours. For instance, you have also done work on Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. Could you elaborate on that?
I’m not necessarily interested in it because it’s postmodern, but perhaps I connect with texts that happen to be postmodern. Maybe it’s what happens when you grow up in this era – you can’t believe that there’s only one way of looking at things. And one of the cornerstones of postmodernism is that there is that confusion and that questioning of all the possible ways of looking at things. Within one thing, there could be multiple approaches. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments is one of my favourite books not necessarily because of its postmodern qualities, but because of the way Barthes was able to distil the mechanics of desire and the mechanics of unfulfilled feelings in such a clear way – you just read it and you realise you finally have the words to describe what this feeling is. And the nature of something like love or unrequited love is that it is a very complicated and confusing situation because there’s no stability to it at all – so the nature of it is that when you describe it, it’s going to exist as all these multiple chapters, which is then termed a “postmodern approach”.
It’s similar to Calvino describing the city as well – the city is not just one thing, it’s so many different things with so many different people – whether you’re rich or poor, what race you are, or whatever your background is, where you live geographically. Everyone has a different experience of the city, even if it’s the same city, and that is what he captures in his writing. For me that is one way of looking at Invisible Cities that appeals to me – it’s that multifaceted nature.
While I agree that there’s many different ways to look at one thing, at the same time it’s something that I struggle with personally – because it’s very painful when you don’t have a fixed idea of something. It’s very human to want definition – but the world does not provide you that, other people don’t provide you with that, and you yourself might not be able to provide yourself with definition. So having these things to tell me that it’s okay, or that there is a way to manage to live in this very complex situation, or to allow for conflicting things to exist, is somewhat comforting – learning to be comfortable in discomfort.
Was there a turning point for you to start introducing this very close engagement with text and literature in your work?
Yes, actually, it was in a class called Visuality in Poetry, in my second year of university, with that same professor who sent me the math paper. The idea was that we would read poetry for an entire semester and we would respond with creative assignments, to find the synergy between literature and art. One of the things he asked us to do was to make a work on one of the poems we had read. I picked The Waste Land – it’s a 400-plus-line poem by T.S. Eliot. I’ve always been perplexed by this poem, so what I did for the class was rather than looking at the content of the poem or looking at it in terms of conventional literary criticism, I categorised the references in the poem. When T.S. Eliot published the poem he put down all these footnotes saying ‘this was from this conversation, this was from this text’ – so I classified all these things and I made a poster of the poem which didn’t have the poem on it at all. It was just recently shown at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. That was the first infographic I made.
Again, I don’t like things to be too conclusive. In a sense this infographic wasn’t because I hadn’t put the poem’s text in it at all, but after that I started breaking it up and exploring how I could move forward with literature in my practice. That was just one thread of my practice; there were other things I was thinking about as well at that time. I still couldn’t figure out how to resolve it yet, so I kind of just let it take its own course. In my last year at art school I did a project based on A Lover’s Discourse. That was when I started using pins and threads, because I was trying to show the build-up of references in the book – and the thing about pins and threads is that there’s a physicality to it, whereas something like a 2D diagram wouldn’t necessarily have that same quality. It also gives a human quality to the diagram. I’m very conscious that the diagrammatic reads as systematic and logical – but at the same time it’s still a human thought. I like being able to use pins, threads, cut-outs, writing, drawing, within a space, as it gives a depth to something that’s otherwise seen as just something very organised.
As you mention, you are partial to embroidery and threads in your practice, yet even in your embroidery-based work there is this diagrammatic, linear, architectural quality. And there seems to be an awareness in you about the stereotypes attached to these media – on the one hand, diagrams which are seen as very logical and rational, and on the other, embroidery which is very much associated with warmth and femininity. Where does that influence come from, and how does it interact with your leanings towards embroidery and text in your practice?
I know that I’m a rational person and I try to be systematic, but at the same time I’m very emotional, and I tend to respond to things with a lot of depth and intensity. It bothered me that I was making work that was either one or the other, while the fact is that both elements exist within me – so why couldn’t I be creating work that included both? A lot of my practice for the past ten years has this undercurrent that I’m trying to figure out: how do I exist in this ambivalent state between the rational and the irrational? Even as much as I try to hold on to these systems, what is it that I can bring out that’s indicative of the human presence behind it – that there’s a kind of intensity, and labour and pain, not like a tragic kind of pain, but the pain of investing so much of yourself into something? I’m trying to figure out a way to just let all these things exist in their own complicated network – just because it’s something that comes out of me, and I’m that person who made this work.
With embroidery, I’m very interested in the repetitive nature of the medium, and the quality of the stitch and the line created by the thread, more so than I am interested in the image that I’m making. But even when I do my embroidery projects, it runs parallel to the work that’s more diagrammatic. There is this same obsessiveness – there is a system that exists and a struggle that exists in that system. I think that the impulse that motivates these explorations is pretty similar – but as of now I’m perfectly happy to let my embroidery exist in parallel to, rather than in combination with, my diagrammatic work. You wouldn’t say that the work I did for Thought Lines looks very similar to this work on Invisible Cities – but under the surface a lot of the working processes and the motivations really resonate with each other.
In relation to my embroidery and its association with feminism, the fact that it’s women’s work, or seen as women’s work, is in a way incidental to my exploration. I don’t do it because politically there is something to subvert. But I think it lends itself to an ambiguity that I want in my work – what I’m trying to do is to treat embroidery in a completely different way, by focusing on the process of the individual stitch. Yet without the existing stereotype of what embroidery is, I wouldn’t be able to find a way to subvert it, or respond to it, and to create work that is a bit more complex by introducing unexpected elements into my embroidery.
As with the diagrams, my embroideries can read as very logical, but I deliberately treat either diagram or embroidery as something that’s in flux, something that can’t be defined or pinned down. No matter what, for either medium or visual system that I’m using, I’m trying to find a way to bring it further from what people assume it to be – not with a clearly articulated agenda, but just because that’s not the way I think these things work. For instance, every diagram has a human behind it, someone who conceived and executed it, and naturally it will have flaws. Admitting that you are within that uncomfortable space is more important.
During your reading at the opening, you selected an excerpt that I had highlighted in my own reading of Invisible Cities: one of those exchanges between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, at the beginning of the third chapter. I’m particularly fond of this passage: “With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Do you have a favourite passage that you can share, and comment on?
I would say that passage I shared is my favourite as well just because it’s the one thing I feel like resonates with me personally. Thinking about dreams of fears or desires, you’re always trying to find that one thing that drives you, that helps you understand why it is you’re doing the things that you do, or why it is you think the way that you do.
One of my favourite cities, or rather, one city that sticks with me for some reason, is Fedora. In the city there is a museum that contains these models of Fedora in glass globes, based on how different people think the city could be. Everybody’s potential hopes for what their city could be is contained and represented. Yet at the end he says that both the real Fedora and the model Fedoras are all assumptions, because “the one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible is no longer”. In a way that resonates with my work – a thing that already exists in itself is already starting to be questioned.
Another favourite passage is the last two dialogues about the Great Khan owning an atlas, which is the section where the title of the exhibition comes from. Kublai Khan says to Marco Polo: “And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.” So he’s saying to Marco Polo, you are bringing cities to life, you are explaining something at the core of what makes cities tick. I also like that whole image of the atlas – he talks about atlases as representing most places that exist or used to exist, utopias or dystopias, places that don’t even exist tangibly. It actually has to do with my next work.
On that topic, what is next for you?
Soh Kay Min
“…the invisible reasons which make cities live…” by Berny Tan is on view from 15 May to 19 June 2018 at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, 3rd Floor passageway between Peninsula & Excelsior Shopping Centres, 3 Coleman Street, Singapore 179804.
- “A Common Thread”: archiving a practice with Malaysian artist Grace Tan at FOST, Singapore – May 2018 – examining her practice over a period of the last 15 years, the show is Grace Tan’s third with the gallery
- “Imagination is Reality”: Chinese father-son artist duo Hu Jieming & Hu Weiyi at ShanghART Singapore – May 2018 – the show is the result of ShangART’s Southeast Asia 2018 residency programme
- 7 exhibitions to see during Singapore Art Week 2018 – January 2018 – Art Radar brings you 7 highlights not to miss during Singapore Art Week 2018
- 3 emerging Singaporean artists to watch – November 2017 – 3 artists are contributing to boost the Singaporean arts scene
- “Ghosts and Spectres”: 4 Asian artists explore the “Shadows of History” at NTU CCA Singapore – October 2017 – the 4-person show features Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ho Tzu Nyen, Nguyen Trinh Thi and Park Chan-kyong
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