ESSAYS IN ARTIST BOOKS

2007:

Divine Library: Building an Unseen Monument

In Documents: The $100,000 gallery of art, Lilian Chee and Michael Lee, eds. (Singapore: WORM, 2007), 18-21.

An email arrives with an attachment. He sends us an image of the building. It is the only one that survives. It arrives as a grainy scanned sketch from an old newspaper. There is a rectangular box elevated on columns, with a mural in the centre. The paper promised a monument worth a hundred thousand dollars, which was never made. He dreams of resurrecting the box, 49 years after it vanished, buried like a ruin in a forgotten paper archive. He systematically investigates. He talks to the architect. He is looking for answers. Paradoxically, the more persistently he digs, the less he finds. So he starts folding, cutting, creasing and slicing paper. This is not a mindless activity. He visits bookshop after bookshop in search of techniques. He stays for a long time in the children’s books section. Parts of the building start to appear in paper fragments. Their fragile carcasses lie precariously on tables. Some are pinned on walls. In the meantime, the singular image of the building acquires more weight than its original role as historical evidence. It turns into a talisman. In the next three weeks, we all stay transfixed on the image. He complains of backaches and does not sleep well. It must, we imagine, occupy his dreams.

With the rise of the book as an object in its own right, nineteenth-century French novelist Victor Hugo forewarned that ‘This would kill that’, meaning that the book would threaten the stronghold of the building as a primary medium of experience and meaning. Hugo’s premonition could not have been more prescient especially in the realm of unbuilt architecture, whose afterlife is guaranteed only insofar as it is properly preserved on the page.

 

Yet, paper architecture is no bad thing. Architects from Vitruvius to Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas have implicitly acknowledged the pulling power of the book as a corollary medium to the building. Books have also tended to outlast buildings. While operating at vastly incommensurate scales and emphasising different materialities, the building and the book nevertheless share a common desire to communicate emotion and poetry through an immersive experience, one which may be described simply, if not summarily, as enabling us to ‘enter’ another world. This mode of entry is however highly differentiated given that the realm of the building coheres more closely with a physical and tangible reality, while the book operates loosely through allusions, associations, imagery and imagination.

 

Michael Lee’s The $100,000 gallery of art is situated at the threshold of these two experiential dimensions. Taking Singapore architect, past city councillor and past president of the Singapore Art Society Dr Ho Kok Hoe’s 1958 unbuilt sketch for the Singapore Art Gallery as its seed, Lee constructs three sets of architecturally inspired models, each encased in an identical book format. Plans is based on imagined architectural plans of the gallery, Perspectives reflects one-point perspective views of the building’s key spaces, and Assemblages contains a mèlange of the gallery’s structural framework with the interior contents spilling out of the book’s tidy A4 boundaries, recalling the all-time favourite pop-up book. Lee’s books explore the experiential and visual mileage of the architectural model whilst keeping this three-dimensional artifact firmly within the conventions of the bound copy.

 

‘The construction of a model, therefore, was for him a miracle of equilibrium between principles (left in shadow) and experience (elusive), but the result should be more substantial than either’. 1

 

In themselves, the architectural model and the book are powerful objects, which function equally through metaphorical and metonymical means as they do in their literal forms. Albert C. Smith argues that the architectural model carries the propensity of a ‘divining mechanism’, that is, the model can be used ‘to foretell through inspiration, intuition and reflection’ what is still unseen.2 Etymologically, the word ‘model’ may also be associated with the French word maquette, which means a kind of demonstration. Significantly, ‘the word “demonstrate”’, Smith reiterates, ‘comes from the Latin monstrum, and means to divine, portend or warn. …. [and] allows a certain prophetic indication of meaning through marvel, prodigy and wonder’.3

 

The architectural model is also never a mere representation of the real but a barely imaginable ideal with a life of its own, in a sense, a utopia constructed. As architect Michael Graves succinctly declares, ‘Once we have modeled or represented an idea, that representation, the object made, begins to have a life of its own, somewhat separate or beyond our original conception’.4 In striving to point towards an idealised and still invisible condition, the model is essentially, that is, necessarily, always incomplete:

 

… the space of the model lies on the border between representation and actuality. Like the frame of a painting, it demarcates a limit between the work and what lies beyond. And like the frame, the model is neither wholly inside nor wholly outside, neither pure representation nor transcendent object. It claims a certain autonomous object hood, yet this condition is always incomplete. The model is always a model of.5

While envisioning a size, which far exceeds its physical form, the richness of the model lies precisely in its minute scale. Mark Morris observes that the model captures our ‘precondition’ to relate to and understand miniature objects given that this skill was developed since childhood.6 The miniature creates an illusion of control or alienation (recall Gulliver with the Lilliputians or Alice after she ate the cake). It ‘presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulatable, version of experience, a version which is domesticated and protected from contamination’.7 The experience of a miniature is also enriched by what Susan Stewart astutely observes to be firstly, a rare insight into the slippery notion of time, ‘… an accumulation of transformations made in time; the laboriously handmade object results in a representation of temporal magnitude’.8 And secondly, the miniature restores a fleeting intimacy between consumer and maker:

 

… the miniature historically has emphasised a particular configuration of subjectivity: first-person experience; single-point perspective; spatial extension from the individual perceiving viewer; interiority and domesticity in opposition to … the monumental; the diminutive, the childlike, the pastoral, and the picturesque as ‘alternative’ or alienated views.9

 

More poignantly, the smallness of an object emphasises the frailty of the human condition, and honours a period in one’s life when greatness and elegance could still be grasped through things, which were comparatively simple and ephemeral.'

 

… it is worth remembering how very strange a thing a book actually is’.10

 

Books are not only used for reading. As Alec Finlay convincingly argues, ‘a new proprioception of the book’ has emerged, that is to say, our relationship to books and how they are used has evolved given that books are valued ‘not only in reading but in the reassuring and inspiring presence that they have’.11 In her sophisticated discourse on the miniature, Stewart includes the book as part of an exclusive inventory of physically small yet psychologically immense objects. The book, according to Stewart, has a metaphorical structure, ‘The metaphors of the book are metaphors of containment, of exteriority and interiority, of surface and depth, of covering and exposure, of taking apart and putting together’.12 In Stewart’s description, the book is explored in its own right as a space, which can be occupied.

 

Similarly, Gèrard Genette suggests that one’s ability to read a book hinges on the book’s formal conventions or what he calls ‘paratext’, that is, the banal materiality of often takenfor-granted elements such as ‘the title, the frontispiece, the author’s name, the publisher’s colophon, the binding, format or dimension, the fact of a bookmark, etc.’.13 Genette observes that the ‘paratext’ is actually a ‘threshold’ or a ‘vestibule’, which offers the reader ‘the possibility of stepping inside or turning back’, and thus, may be also seen as ‘a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction’.14 Thus, books, in the sense of their unique objecthood and in their capacity to transport the reader to somewhere else, may be also seen as spatially orientated objects. Consequently, the confluence of the architectural model and the book, as we find here in the case of Lee’s The $100,000 gallery of art, produces an uncanny third space, which is at once alluring in its familiarity of forms, yet also demanding in this hybrid object’s foreignness.

 

Lee’s book-models are meant to be tactile, intimate and wondrous. They are miniatures of a utopian moment. They seek out the lone reader. They strive to materialise the unseen monument. While emphasising the labour and ephemerality of the handcut and handmade, Lee’s technique is significantly modelled after architectural drawing conventions, albeit by transposing hermetic architectural drawing codifications into more tangible forms. For example, in Plans, the strategy is to cut through voids, literally hollowing out the page while simultaneously using the thickness of the book to burrow, as it were, into the vertical depths of the imagined building. Similarly, each page of Perspectives captures a void, which initially appears on its own like a misplaced hole but effectively represents a discrete space contained within one’s single frame of vision as one journeys through the gallery. Consequently, only when the pages of Perspectives are turned do the fragmented voids merge to form a legible space: a room, a corridor, a doorway takes shape as the book-model is read.

Assemblages explores the architectural section, which technically means a ‘cut’ through the building. Here, Lee’s desire to manifest the ‘magical’ takes hold. The genre of the pop-up book is an inverse of the experiences provided by the other two books, which respectively demonstrate space as a quantity to be excavated or an element, which envelops. A ‘cut’ through the building unfurls its unpredictable contents, which promptly spill out of the neat box frame structure, and subsequently also outside the formal boundaries of the bound book. Unless disciplined under the covers of the book, the section is a slice through the box, which demonstrates the excessive and alchemical assembly of hidden forms, furtive movement and secret desires. By literally opening the book, the reader liberates the section of the gallery, that is, its innermost potential, a dream space vast and familiar in the Project: The $100,000 gallery of art Title: Creator: Page: 21/52 Dimensions: Date: 1:2 All dimensions are in millimetres unless otherwise stated. Book: Documents Divine Library: 23/8/2007 Building an Unseen Monument Dr Lilian Chee manner of childhood afternoons spent with magnificent castles, beautiful maidens and monstrous creatures, all summoned or dismissed by the flip of a page.

 

Beyond the pleasure of the page, the book and the model all rolled into one, the three model-books and an accompanying volume of texts (compiling a list of historical documents and a transcribed interview with the architect of the gallery) serves an archival function. They open a cultural window into a historical event, which has largely been forgotten. The reading of these model-books bring to life the makers, in this instance, both Ho the architect and Lee the artist, in almost equal collaboration, and thus cast, on a larger scale, architecture and art as rich interdisciplinary counterpoints. Most importantly, the book-models give us, its readers, a way into the Singapore Art Gallery, from which we are at liberty to proceed or detour, accept or contest. Here is a threshold space, which we can inhabit alone in private, or collectively in reverie.

 

Recalling that the model is a divining mechanism, which can inspire and reveal the invisible, then, we may perceive these books as to form a divine library, that simultaneously portends, unearths, remembers and mourns a monument, which never would be.

 

‘I never… searched for nests… never looked for plants or threw stones at birds. But books were my birds and nests, my pets, my stable and my countryside; the library was the world trapped in a mirror; it had its infinite breadth, its variety and unpredictability…’ 15

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NOTES

1 Italo Calvino, ‘The model of models’, in Mr Palomar, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva, 1994), pp.97-100; here p.98.

2 Albert C. Smith, ‘Define/Divine/Design’, in Architectural Model as Machine: A New View of Models from Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2004), pp.1-37; here p.2.

3 Smith, ‘Define/Divine/Design’, p.2.

4 Michael Graves, ‘The Wagenman House and the Crooks House’, in Kenneth Frampton and Silvia Kolbowski (eds.), Idea as Model (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), p.38 [catalogue for architectural model exhibition in New York (1977), curated by Peter Eisenman]. See also Karen Moon, Modeling Messages: The Architect and the Model (New York: Monacelli Press, 2005), pp.11-32; Marian Macken, ‘Supermodels’, review of an exhibition of Supermodels: An Exhibition of Space and Form of Architectural Models at St Margaret’s Complex, Sydney (2006), curated by Sam Marshall http://www.archmedia. com.au/aa/aaissue.php?issueid=200611&article=4&typeon=1 (accessed on 19 July 2007); Mark Morris, Architecture and the Miniature (West Sussex: Wiley Academy, 2006), pp.117-8.

5 Christian Hubert, ‘The Ruins of Representation’ (1981), original essay in exhibition catalogue for Idea as Model, republished online http://www.christianhubert.com/writings/index.htm (accessed 19 July 2007).

6 Morris, Architecture and the Miniature, p.117.

7 Susan Stewart, ‘The Miniature’, in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), pp.37-69; here p.69.

8 Susan Stewart, ‘On the Threshold of the Visible’, in The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp.159-65; here p.162.

9 Stewart, ‘On the Threshold of the Visible’, p.164.

10 Shepherd Steiner and Rodney Graham, ‘Book Things’, in Alec Finlay (ed.), The Libraries of Thought and Imagination: An Anthology of Books and Bookshelves (Edinburgh: Pocket Books, 2001), pp.155-9, here p.158.

11 Alec Finlay, ‘And so books entered our lives…’, in Finlay (ed.), The Libraries of Thought and Imagination, pp.13-20, here p.15.

12 Stewart, ‘The Miniature’, p.37.

13 Steiner and Graham, ‘Book Things’, p.157.

14 Gèrard Genette cited by Steiner and Graham, ‘Book Things’, p.157.

15 From Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, cited by Finlay, ‘And so books entered our lives…’, p.13.

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