ART/ARCHITECTURE CATALOGUE ESSAYS
an interview with Kwodrent and FARM (Singapore: WORM, 2008), catalogue for exhibition at the RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, Australia as part of the “State of Design” Victoria Festival (July-August 2008), 22-7.
lilian chee [phd], assistant professor, department of architecture, national university of singapore
grace tan, principal, kwodrent
peter sim, director, farmwork
torrance, associate, farmwork
lilian: how does this collaboration work? is it an equal partnership?
peter: it was grace who initiated the conversation with us. in that sense, i would say that she led this process.
grace: right from the beginning when we talked about collaborating, i felt strongly that farmwork should not exhibit their portfolio. instead, the idea was for us to come together to create something for this occasion. it’s a very organic process of working. the eventual paper structure is purely farmwork’s.
peter: not really because it’s made through a process of working, thinking and talking with you. if it weren’t for your input, perhaps we wouldn’t have done that.
torrance: so in that sense, rather than producing our own thing, farmwork’s paper structure is really reacting to grace’s method.
lilian: grace, do you see yourself as a kind of arbitrator to the overall installation?
peter: she hated everything we presented to her. [laughs]
grace: no. the only thing i told them was, look, it’s a very small gallery space and i’m showing my fabric art. i thought that farmwork’s contribution had to be in equilibrium with kwodrent’s pieces. it should never be about two entirely separate things. ideally, a visitor who’s not from a design background should be able to immediately feel that everything comes together as one although practically the installation consists of two separate components – the fabric art and the architectural space.
lilian: did the original brief for this exhibition demand a collaboration?
grace: no, there was actually no brief, i mean i wanted to show these things and i could’ve just done another of my own shows. but for me there’s no point in doing that……
peter: i think grace could have done a solo exhibition of her own portfolio but she intentionally wanted to use this event to work through ideas with another practice. it’s quite a brave, if not risky, experiment for her.
torrance: we were keen to work with grace because her methodology is almost architectural. she works both systematically and intuitively with materials. for example, she intentionally uses rectangular pieces of cloth, tears by hand rather than cuts the fabric, and her work constantly emphasizes the handmade.
peter: we are intrigued by how grace meticulously records her stitching points. it’s highly mathematical. but at the same time, she’s very hands-on with the fabric she’s working with.
grace: one is working with something one is usually very familiar with. but this collaborative exercise is not superficial. it’s not that i’ve finished this thing, and now i hand it over to you and you collaborate with it. the whole process is about how ideas are translated between the two parties.
peter: yes, we’re also inspired by the idea of ‘design’ as a verb. design is not just a product you see at the end. it’s more process-driven.
grace: it’s a means to an end….
lilian: tell me a little more about your new work.
grace: i’m showing n. 243. it’s a set of 7 pieces. the new work is different from the previous collections in that it moves away totally from functionality. it behaves more like fabric sculpture. i created these purely out of experimentation with the material. they are not meant to be worn. when arranged, each forms a circular shape but in its original structure, it’s actually a strip of fabric, consisting of four panels with one stitch line that joins the four panels together.
lilian: so what do you call these pieces?
grace: i call them fabricworks.
peter: actually how would you describe what you do?
grace: now i tell people i’m both a designer and an artist. i do commercial jobs, like uniform commissions. i consider those jobs as design work. but kwodrent is not a fashion label. i didn’t expect myself to be doing what i am doing now. but just last year i told myself i would still make these functional pieces but i also wanted to use the work to purely express my ideas. when things are purely expressive for me, that’s art. a designed object can be art, but art may not always be design. that’s how i see the difference. but at the same time, i’m trying not to pigeonhole what i do. i would rather say that this is my work and my intention is to make this, and it’s an experiment. if you are buying it, it’s up to you to decide if it’s a fabric sculpture or installation or an artwork or something purely derived from clothing.
lilian: if farmwork has gained from engaging your methodology and vocabulary, how has working with an architectural practice influenced you?
grace: i’ve gained from the whole experience… obviously with farmwork’s contribution, the moment you enter the gallery, you’re hit by this whole spatial composition. i think that’s what i wanted. i mean someone could just go in and look at my work. that’s good enough too. it has its own merits. but the paper sculpture is like a cloud formation which is suspended from above while my work seems to be growing from the ground. so you almost have this earth-sky landscape. for me, it’s visually evocative but it’s also a key experience to absorb the work. together, we’ve made a landscape which grounds the fabric pieces and the paper sculpture.
lilian: it’s common when working with another discipline for example, landscape architecture or art, that architecture, if nothing else because of its scale, could potentially overwhelm the partner’s contribution. in some ways it requires a lot of confidence on grace’s part not to be concerned that farmwork’s installation might unintentionally do the same. is there any kind of tension there?
torrance: no. right from the start, we worked strictly with grace’s parameters.
peter: i think we were very conscious of the balance that needed to exist between grace’s pieces and our installation. and rather than competing, we conceptualized the installation as a complete experience, to be seen and felt in tandem with the fabricworks. it’s not a white cube space where things are framed individually. we’ve tried to make a space where the two works – kwodrent’s and farmwork’s - may be appreciated as an overall composition.
torrance: yes, and also even before the design was initiated, we began to think through the theme of the exhibition which is ‘envelop’…
lilian: and ‘envelop’ is a joint idea?
torrance: we actually brainstormed over it.
peter, grace, torrance: the word ‘envelop’ not only means to spatially enclose but also alludes to grace’s method of working with regular, rectangular pieces of fabric.
peter: i think ‘envelop’ works on several levels. one is the material, that is paper which we are using, and the other is suggestive of the act of encompassing.
lilian: so the paper folds are emerging from the ceiling like clouds and the fabric folds are growing from the floor like land formations, and they come together to envelop the visitor?
grace: yes, something like a scene from a chinese landscape painting… you know now how architects usually work on computers so they are very hands-off. but this installation is very tactile. naiyan [from farmwork] was forced to fold and join paper with his hands. so suddenly it’s a very primitive, very organic, spontaneous and intuitive way of working that you can’t achieve with the computer.
lilian: grace, there’s a kind of paradox in your work because you start working intuitively with a new material but you also have a predetermined set of rules which you put together to create these organic forms.
grace: yes the pieces are controlled by all those regular stitch points, but it’s also how you put them together, that’s the organic bit. it’s like chinese painting or calligraphy - you know all the methods but you have to also work intuitively. it’s a combination of order and intuition which gives the ultimate form.
peter: with this project, i think we were trying to reflect a parallel process. we chose to use a4 pieces of paper because it’s something very common. we are transforming a 2-dimensional surface into a 3-dimensional object through folding. it’s all very experimental because although we start with the a4 paper, we still need to figure out the exact geometry through making the installation itself.
torrance: to be honest, we don’t know exactly how this paper structure will manifest itself. it’s happening as we make. in fact it is through conversation with grace that we realised the structure is spiralling down from the ceiling. but the exact shape is still pretty much intuitive.
grace: you might only know when you are installing the paper structure on location.
peter: hopefully not.
torrance: that’d be too late, grace. [laughs]
lilian: these fabric works are defying functionality. and fabric is something quite functional. fabric is clothing. it is traditionally functional. i’m wondering where farmwork sees itself in relation to the question of function?
torrance: it’s really an experiment for us to create something we imagine using certain parameters we know of grace’s work. we have had the liberty of not dealing with function in this situation. it’s a rare freedom.
lilian: i wanted to ask farmwork two questions. art and architecture – how do you feel that the disciplinary constraints of architecture are enabling or disabling you from participating in art? because there are certain requirements of what an architectural practice does, and art doesn’t really fit into architectural practice. the second question: architectural practice is a capitalist activity – it intends to make money. does engaging in art subvert this capitalist drive?
peter: i think we are not artists, right?
torrance: no, we are not artists.
peter: we are architectural designers. we don’t make art. i think that’s what grace does. we are trying to enlarge the boundaries of the practice or to make unclear the definition what an architect or what a designer does, how a designer works in terms of processes, and how architectural language, programme and forms are developed.
lilian: so are you questioning the whole premise of an architectural practice including its preoccupation with function, originality, genius, and design ownership?
peter: [laughs] hopefully… i guess this particular design is an installation. it’s not some thing we see ourselves doing as the only design activity in the long run.
torrance: we are still very conscious about budget. so in that sense, we’ve not been able to subvert the capitalist trap.