Uncertain observations

A dialogue between Melanie Pocock and Michael Lee

Melanie Pocock: The title of the exhibition and of your neon text, Machine for Living Dying In, incorporates two frequently cited notions of the home: the first, ‘A house is a machine for living in’ by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier from his 1923 book, Towards a New Architecture; the second ‘A house is for dying’ by American architecture professor Douglas Darden, whose Condemned Buildings (1993) comprises ten antitheses to architectural maxims. 

While these quotes appear to contradict each other—one invoking the home as a source of life, the other death—I would argue that they are actually quite proximate. Let me explain. While Le Corbusier’s housing projects aimed to facilitate living through their use of pre-fabricated materials and abstract forms, they ended up achieving the opposite: the sterile, soulless character of these materials and forms alienating their inhabitants. So the accent on ‘living’ in his architecture shifted towards a focus on its machine-like qualities—how it induced a kind of automated living that, by its very automated nature, seemed like an unfolding ‘death’. 

I was wondering what your thoughts were about such changing interpretations of Le Corbusier’s notion, and how they relate to your ideas of the home as a place of both comfort and discomfort?

Michael Lee: In his conviction for things simple or simplified, Le Corbusier may have come across as simplistic. He gets praised and maligned in equal measure for his reductive method. When things didn’t happen as he promised, he naturally gets the blame. Most objections, however, are directed at the word ‘machine’ in his maxim, blaming it for the bland and overly masculine environment his designs have fostered, leaving his ‘living’ premise unattacked. Douglas Darden’s project is to question the grand clichés of architecture, not least so its life-enhancing function. Darden does not name Le Corbusier explicitly but paraphrases the latter’s maxim (deleting the word ‘living’) and rewrites it in reverse:

A house is for living.
A house is for dying.

The word ‘machine’, originally in Le Corbusier’s notion, has not gone missing; it is transposed into Darden’s design for Oxygen House, which features a pump physically connected to the body of the client who has chest injuries. Designed to sustain the inhabitant’s life and for him to die in, Oxygen House serves as both home and tomb. The omission of the preposition ‘in’ also means that it is not just the dweller who lives and dies, but also his dwelling.

It would seem that Darden has replaced Le Corbusier’s simplicity with nuance, clarity with ambiguity, focus with openness, but I do not think Darden has the last say on what a house is. Neither do I. I think both definitions contain certain—intrinsically connected—truths even though they seem opposing. Instead of a full sentence, I opt for a phrase that allows both their conceptions to coexist, and then I leave it to the site that bears the phrase to complete my definition. The ideal site for my neon text piece, Machine for Living Dying In (2014), is the home of someone who is proud and confident to acknowledge a slice of truth about reality—that the place one lives in is also where one dies a little each day. 

MP: For a while you were exploring the idea of producing a manifesto that would serve as a rejoinder to Le Corbusier’s and Darden’s statements. Rather than declaratory or definitive, it would advocate the importance of self-correction/critique and of maintaining ambiguity in expression. These ideas do not just manifest in text-based works like Script For Unperformed Performance No. 1 (2014) and Gone Solo (2013) but also visually; for example, in the pared-down floor plans of the series ‘Dwelling’. They seem to resist passing judgment on their content, as if aiming to function purely as vehicles for it. 

Yet, at the same time, these works also evince clear aesthetic decisions—whether the type of font used, or the scale at which a particular floor plan is executed. How, and when, does a form for you become ambiguous, and do you think your works succeed as non-judgmental vehicles for the subjects they convey? 

ML: My early work had quite a ‘performative’ aesthetic, by which I mean a look that attempts to make visible or suggest its content. One or Zero (1997), a collaborative film that celebrates sexual diversity, is structured into ten loosely linked narratives through different genres and styles. Stud House (2003), a model of a duplex home for a couple, even though designed in the Corbusian style of purist lines and forms, features silhouettes of human figures in compromising sexual positions, as if eager to illustrate how spaces at home could be used to regulate desire. The human figure could be said to have culminated in my self-portrait series, including Skive: A Worker’s Guide (2005/2007), comprising photographic cutouts of me at different scales, responding to the site. I soon found such an aesthetic to limit interpretation; when things are spelt out visibly, little is left to the imagination.

Subsequently, I began to explore abstraction. City Planned: Tracing Monuments (2005-06), a set of twenty-one scale models of lost ‘modern’ buildings of Singapore, was the first series for which I attempted to ‘purge’ the figure from representation. I still invoked the figure—two figures, to be exact, those of a mother and a son—but it was not explicit; I did it by allusion, in the way I limited the selection of referenced buildings to the ‘modern’ era. The site of the exhibition, the Singapore Art Museum, could be summarily understood as a ‘pre-modern’ entity, it being a refurbished colonial building, formerly the premises of a Catholic boys’ school, the St. Joseph’s Institution, with all its Greek cornices and Roman columns. By exhibiting miniatures of forgone ‘modern’ architectures in a ‘pre-modern’ site, I was suggesting what I call an ‘architectural Pieta’, referring to the biblical scene in which the Virgin Mary cries over the dead body of her son, Jesus Christ, freshly brought down from the cross. I am not an advocate of any form of organised religion, but I find the analogy between that biblical scene and the urban redevelopment situation in Singapore to be apt. More recent series like The Consolation of Museology (2008), Second-Hand City (2010-11) and Office Orchitect (2011) incorporated fiction and humour to reflect the relativity of truth. 

I do not think it’s necessary or interesting to wear one’s soul on the outside; the contents of a work may be suggested elsewhere—in the title, for instance. Appropriating existing resources and then transforming them through reduction and selection could be seen as a form of ‘editing’, a method most apparent in Gone Solo, which compiles forty-five reported cases of people who had died or disappeared alone. For Script For Unperformed Performance No. 1, which I am currently developing, I am striving for a sense of ambiguity and mundaneness. I prefer not to be literal, and I am aware of only a few—not all—of the layers of symbolism that the juxtaposition of a found object and a short text might offer. Instead of a visual ‘hook’, I see my ongoing aesthetic as a slightly ajar and quite non-descript ‘door’. Half or most of the world would probably miss it, and that’s fine for me. Those who are curious might open this door.

Have I been successful in developing non-judgmental vehicles? It’s hard to say. I do wish that my projects are triggers for reflection and self-critique, but they, too, run the risks of being co-opted or maligned. I have been thanked by a number of architects for promoting architectural heritage, especially through works like National Columbarium of Singapore (2009), and slammed by others for the futility of cooking up a fictional life and work of a failed architect (Office Orchitect), but really, all I am trying to do is create a common platform for history and fantasy to coexist. When a draft of Notes Towards a Museum of Cooking Pot Bay (2010-11), my proposed mindmap for Telok Blangah MRT station, was released in the papers before its launch, members of the public unanimously, and understandably, polled against including the name of Huang Na (a China-born girl murdered and found on Telok Blangah Hill) in my work. More than one who saw my painting of Führerbunker, from the series ‘Dwelling’, asked if I am a neo-Nazi. I am more into acknowledging the diversity of the world than advancing a certain cause. But misinterpretation and misuse understandably happen to all things that go public. Some of such slippages between intention and reception could be creative and transformative. 

MP: While your works convey a strong sense of ambiguity, they also feel incredibly resolved. It is as if acquiring such ambiguity were dependent on having thought of all the possible interpretations that a work might have, in order to find the best possible means of encapsulating those possibilities. Your sketchbooks really illustrate this process, in their careful refinement of texts, ideas and concepts. 

In this light, the physical aspect to Script For Unperformed Performance No. 1 is interesting. It is really a ‘readymade’—a transposition of a photograph of a hammock taken by a citizen journalist. There are other works in the exhibition that are also less ‘refined’; some are ongoing series, like ‘Hazards’ (2014) and others, like Slab (2014), which are recent experiments. 

Could you elaborate on how these nascent works relate to other, more resolved works in the exhibition? For example, do you see the exhibition as a ‘total’ work composed of different, but equally important, parts?

ML: I use my sketchbooks more like notebooks. I make lists and working drawings as ways to plan what resources to use and how to manage them, but they are notes for production and setup options, like what a contractor would need for work. What I don’t have are sketchbooks after sketchbooks of expressive sketches or visually illustrative ideas. I like to use my notebooks as platforms for key points and data sets to mingle. Often artistic ideas engage in a long-drawn battle or standoff before they are committed to a form. Hence, there is a lot of last-minute work, which is my forte and Achilles’ heel. Sometimes I reuse pages in my notebooks, and later discover that the encounter of notes and information across time fosters interesting insights. 

I see the exhibition ‘Machine for Living Dying In’ as an ‘uncertain observation’ about home, particularly ‘the gap between the home as we have been told, and the home as we experience it’. There are many definitions and assumptions about home, and I wonder how they square with actual experiences and needs. For this exhibition, I strive to select and arrange a number of pieces and objects that disturb the binary of comfort and discomfort about home. Pieces like Machine for Living Dying In and Gone Solo are expected to stir unease, given the taboo status of topics like death in a modern society such as Singapore. 

For Slab, I refer to the ‘furniture hacking’ subculture to engage debates about urban development and conservation. Instead of reconfiguring everyday furniture pieces into new pragmatic uses, as the furniture hackers do, I turn them into three-dimensional puns. For instance, by modification and arrangement, I turn the IVAR storage system of the household chain IKEA into a model of an archetypal slab block typical of public housing. Public housing continues to be a hotbed of debates, not least so in Singapore, pertaining to issues of eligibility, affordability, subsidy, upgrading, underpinned by official policies that promote certain household configurations (e.g., the heterosexual family), social relations (e.g., ethnic integration) and political leaning (e.g., pro-establishment) over others. My modified furniture is at best a skeleton of a small slab block. While I hope it can trigger thoughts and discussions about housing and living, I don’t expect the issues raised to be resolved immediately, if at all. Indeed, I don’t see the disparate parts in this exhibition as components of a ‘total work’ or a resolved argument on issues at hand; each piece is a zoom lens that surveys the home across the world on different scales.

Perhaps, the most challenging series for me is the new collage series titled ‘Hazards’. When anything can go with anything else, how do I know a chance encounter has clicked? How do I know one set of juxtapositions is more powerful, insightful or truthful than another? The word ‘hazard’ has offered me a way to think through these questions. The advancement of architectural design and construction methods has given rise to sophisticated buildings and homes, so much so that the norm today is to think of—or at least wish for—home as a safe and comfortable shelter; a repository of memories and hopes, and a venue for gatherings and celebrations. Such assumptions can be dangerous if they leave us complacent. We get a rude shock when disasters happen: when the roof of a house is torn away by a storm or when accidents and violence happen at one’s doorstep. In some contexts, the concept of home-as-haven is itself the repressive agent that sustains the façade of domestic bliss even when relational structures have crumbled. For me, ‘Hazards’ also serve as a kind of aesthetic conscience, where risk-taking, failure and difficulty are preferred to guarantee, success and ease.

MP: The background behind the original ‘stomping’ photograph that inspired Script For Unperformed Performance No. 1 is worth revealing. ‘Stomping’, for those unfamiliar with this term, refers to the online posting of photographs by citizen journalists that express their authors’ disapproval or shock at something—in this case, a hammock strung between two columns of an HDB void deck.1 It seems bizarre that somebody would be so shocked at such an innocent act. Why do you think the hammock provoked such a reaction? Do you think it says something about Singaporeans’ attitudes towards public space, and how solitary pursuits—like dwelling in a hammock—are seen as unwelcome there?

ML: What makes one faint-hearted? I wanted to say the lack of exposure to diverse sources of information, but I think it is due to repeated exposure to and faith in ‘expert advice’. The STOMPer ‘Izzac’ appears to have a valid case to report: the wrongful placement of a hammock in the void deck of an HDB block at Blk 121 Rivervale in Sengkang, when its rightful place, according to him, is the beach. ‘Izzac’ evaluates this as an act of transgression, ‘an “outrageous” usage of our public void deck’. In this line of reasoning, making oneself ‘at home’ in a public space meant for everyone, is deemed incongruent. A major cause of this narrow definition of the use of space is the belief that there is one right way to do something, which relegates other ways as unorthodox. This way of instrumental thinking, which is unsympathetic to surprises and contradictions, has been the means that moved Singapore swiftly from Third World to First World status, but for a society to grow, there needs to be a sense of openness to difference and debate. Singapore is, of course, not unique in this predicament. 

I am not a propagandist of how one should live or think. But if there is one thing I like to have more of in this world, it’s a sense of being unsure: the ability to resist ascribing total faith in anything and anyone. By this logic, one cannot be too sure of oneself, so you must not place too much faith on what I say here; you need to feel comfortable being alone. It’s a precarious mode of existence and relating. I don’t think it works for everyone, especially not for the faint-hearted. But this is how I live and grow.

MP: Your interest in linguistics beyond language has made me think a lot about the role of signs vis-à-vis material in perceptions of objects. Take Diagonals (2014): while its stripes signify a typically ‘dangerous’ zone, their material quality is equally important, the feeling and weight of the PVC exerting a certain effect on the body. 

Do you think one of these is more important than the other in how we read objects? You mention ‘wanting to allow material to offer instructions’ in relation to your collages ‘Hazards’… are you arguing for an appreciation of an object’s material over its signified content?

ML: My most recent and ongoing way of working is to allow material to suggest what to do with or to it, rather than adhering to the rules of abstraction or figuration or following a coherent template for all installments in a series. The floor plans in the painting series ‘Dwelling’ may appear like abstract line drawings, but they are, except for details like fixtures and fittings, indeed quite representative or representational of their references. Moreover, select details of each site’s history and use are included in the extended titles.

So, in response to your question, between material and meaning, I don’t think it’s one over the other. The formal qualities of a material have their raison d’être to perform its intended function. For instance, the PVC material (which I’m exploring for Diagonals) affords a cost-effective separation of spaces, in order to create cold or hot rooms, or zones free of dust or noise. Its transparency allows for visual access despite physical segregation. Its weight keeps the strip curtains relatively still rather than flapping violently for too long. Of course, the material qualities lend themselves to more uses beyond those for a single product category. At the same time, the material and the product category each has a host of cultural and historical associations. All these qualities and associations are data that could be harnessed, challenged or transformed in more ways than one. The yellow-and-black diagonal stripes, commonly used in urban situations, make use of abstraction to highlight attention, for instance to danger zones. I like it that they are similar to abstract painting, except that what goes on behind an abstract painting could really be everything and nothing at all. I am bringing such abstract diagonal forms, usually existing in the open of the city, into the interiors of an art gallery, to observe what associations and reactions they might conjure. I am specifically planning the exhibition’s ‘danger zone’, as it were, to be walked out of, rather than to be considered for walking into

Like Susan Sontag, I feel that interpretation or excavating art for its layers of symbolism can, ironically, rob it of its propensity to evoke and provoke. Rather than suggest that the room beyond a particular doorway is a danger zone to be entered at one’s own risk, I’m suggesting that believing in anything at all is highly risky. So is non-belief. Risks and returns are intertwined, as with any form of investment. Finally I think it’s important to take risks on one’s own accord, embracing the rewards and pitfalls along the way, rather than overly crediting or unfairly blaming others for one’s predicament. 

Michael Lee, Diagonals, 2014. Emulsion on wall, polyurethane on PVC and enamel on galvanised iron, 294 x 650cm. Courtesy of Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

Michael Lee, Hazard No. 4, 2014. Paper collage, 41 x 38cm. Courtesy of Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

Michael Lee, Machine for Living Dying In, 2014. Neon, 45 x 200cm. Courtesy of Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

Michael Lee, Script for Unperformed Performance No. 1, 2014. Found hammock and vinyl text, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

notes: 

1. HDB is the acronym for the Housing & Development Board, Singapore’s public housing authority.

This discussion took place in Singapore from May to July 2014 and was first published there in August 2014, on the occasion of Michael Lee’s exhibition ‘Machine for Living Dying In’ at Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. ​