Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts

  • 加入最愛
Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
Memories and Beyond / 2010 Kuandu Biennale
Of Infinite Possibilities and The Garden of Forking Paths
 Of Infinite Possibilities and The Garden of Forking Paths

An interview with Vertical Submarine (Fiona Koh, Justin Loke and Joshua Yang)

by Eugene Tan


ET:  I would like to ask how you arrived at Vertical Submarine for the name of your collective?


VS:  This came about through a conversation with a fellow Singaporean artist, who was the recipient of the Jacques Derrida Prize. He told us how during the prize-giving ceremony, Derrida, who spoke very little English, kept repeating the word ‘subvert’ while congratulating him. Since then, we became fascinated with the word ‘subvert’ and the context of the conversation between Derrida and this artist. We then decided to subvert the word ‘subvert’, to end up with the phrase ‘vert sub’. From there, the name ‘Vertical Submarine’ suggested itself to us.


ET: In many ways, the name Vertical Submarine, and the way in which it came into being, goes a long way in explaining your practice and concerns as an artistic collective. Many of your works deal with the notion of subverting received knowledge and popular perception, and their relationship to memory. I take for example one of your early works, Foreign Talents (2007), in which you erected two sculptures of migrant workers, one opposite a monument to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore and the other in the ‘Little India’ district in Singapore, where Indian migrant workers congregate. By juxtaposing a monument of a migrant worker with that of Raffles, the work highlights the loss of collective memory, of the numerous and faceless migrant workers who have contributed to Singapore’s development, and instead, how Singapore as a society still looks to and reveres its colonial past. The title of the work, Foreign Talent, is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the foreign (often Caucasian) expatriates who live and work in Singapore, who are seen by the government and corporations to be crucial to Singapore’s development, unlike the migrant workers. It is this ironic sense of humour which I also find interesting and which recurs in your work. In your most recent work, The Garden of Forking Path, your work has taken a new development, not longer just questioning received knowledge and perception but show new possibilities for the construction of meaning.


VS: The Garden of Forking Paths comes out of our interest in the relationship between text and the image, such as in Decomposition I and Decomposition II. De-composition, or decomposing, the opposite of composition, is derived from our interest in post-structuralist deconstruction, to subvert the meanings of texts and the functions of books. The Garden of Forking Paths is inspired by a short story of the same title by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. This multidimensional Borgesian tale is composed with complex conceptual and narrative layers, and several labyrinth models from physical, metaphysical and symbolic realms. There are two aspects in the story which relate specifically to our project. First, the reader, as the reader of the ‘historical document’ – written by the character Dr. Yu Tsun, a former English Professor – is situated within a war espionage scenario. The setting and characters in the story are like allegorical figures, or codes waiting to be deciphered. For instance, at the end of the story Dr. Yu Tsun, who is also a German agent, had to murder the Sinologist Stephen Albert he arranged a meeting with in order to communicate to Berlin the name of the city the Germans should raid. Second, the setting in China relates the reader to a labyrinthine garden constructed by Tsun’s grandfather Ts’ui Pen, a Qing dynasty writer and official who undertook the project of writing a novel for 13 years, but left only incomplete and chaotic manuscripts with endless possibilities for the plot and narrative. Like the symbolic and physical labyrinths mentioned in the story, the story as a whole with the various twists and turns are mutual reflections of infinite relations.


ET: Beyond it façade as a World War 2 spy story, Borges’s short story and his concept of the forking paths, has been seen as the inspiration for new media theory and hypertext fiction, especially where he writes of ‘a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression.’ Your installation, The Garden of Forking Paths, as it was first shown at Grey Projects in Singapore, takes the form of a labyrinth into which viewers enter. How do you see the relationship between your labyrinth and the labyrinth constructed by Ts’ui Pen in Borges’s story?


VS: This project is not an attempt at a word-for-word construction of the labyrinth mentioned in the story. The installation is actually based on our interpretation of parts the house inhabited by Stephen Albert. The viewer encounters a forking path that leads them into two different ‘ends’ of the work after entering the space. The first path leads one to the study and the garden; and second to the ‘secret’ room. The notion of materiality, of physical manifestation and experience, is extended to the concept of the labyrinth explored by Borges. Primarily, this collective project is of dual aspects. Our main concern lies with how the experience of the physical labyrinth could be analogous to the experience of reading and writing. The ‘concrete’ walls in the installation is to be read as a ‘literal’ and ‘concrete’ manifestation of the idea, where concretisation could mean both physical presence and realisation or the simply the state of a matter.  As a metaphor, the ‘lines’ of fold is the lines of text. In this literary labyrinth, the walls create passages that would lead the viewers – depending on their choices – towards reading different interpretations and conclusion(s) of the project. 


Upon entering the exhibition space, the viewer will encounter the ‘excerpt’ from Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths that elaborates the concept of labyrinth and the notion of infinite possibility. For viewers who are familiar with the short story would recognise how this excerpt has actually been subtly doctored to expand the concept of a labyrinthine structure. In our reading of Borges’s text, we noticed how he did not elaborate notions of return, repetition, reverse and double, when he recounts the various possible outcomes of Tsui Pen’s novel. Thus, we edited words and inserted sentences into the passage (see text-image below) to reiterate these concepts which are often the essence of most Borgesian tale, and to emphasise how the horror of one being trapped in a labyrinth includes the vicious cycle of endless repetition and return.


[…]Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can switch roles, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings and repetitions. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend. The scenario could also double itself as in a mirror. If you will resign yourself to my incurable pronunciation, we shall read a few pages."

His face, within the vivid circle of the lamplight, was unquestionably that of an old man, but with something unalterable about it, even immortal. He read with slow precision three versions of the same epic chapter. In the first, an army marches to a battle across a lonely mountain; the horror of the rocks and shadows makes the men undervalue their lives and they gain an easy victory. In the second, the same army traverses a palace where a great festival is taking place; the resplendent battle seems to them a continuation of the celebration and they win the victory. In the third, the same army strategically raided and completely razed a village the enemy troops laid ambush; the heroic victory necessitates the cruelty of undervaluing the lives of the peasant folks. I listened with proper veneration to these ancient narratives, perhaps less admirable in themselves than the fact that they had been created by my blood and were being restored to me by a man of a remote empire, in the course of a desperate adventure, on a Western isle. I remember the last words, repeated in each version like a secret commandment: Thus fought the heroes, tranquil their admirable hearts, violent their swords, resigned to kill and to die.


The Garden of Forking Paths – Jorge Luis Borges (pp.26-27)


The working copy of the doctored excerpt, The Garden of Forking Paths, 2010, vertical submarine


ET: In the installation, several objects which you have previously used, appear again, such as wardrobes and mirrors. The mirror, in particular, is especially significant in your work as a subversive tool, to subvert meaning. This was also evident in Foreign Talent, where the monument of the migrant worker mirrored and thereby challenged the position of the existing monument of Raffles. The notion of mirroring is, of course, an important notion in post-structuralist theory, particularly in Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ of human development, where the child and the development of its Ego happens through its experience with the ‘mirror image’, where it assumes an identity through seeing itself being seen.


VS: The objects in the installation are based on the character Tsui Pen, the writer cum builder of the labyrinth garden. Along the wall adjacent to where the wall text is located, the viewer will also noticed forty-nine book-sized wooden tableaus containing plans of mazes and labyrinths from various eras and regions. As the viewer proceeds towards the far end of the wall, he/she will be forced to choose between two paths. If the viewer were to continue the journey by choosing the path on the right, he/she would be led to a chamber with a pyramid glass cabinet displaying a labyrinth model. To get close enough to scrutinise the model, the viewer would have to walk over a ‘dead body’ (as part of the installation, an actor was engaged to play dead). It would be apparent that the labyrinth model is based on the labyrinth the viewer is located – however this model is actually a misrepresentation of the space. The viewer who took the left path would enter a room. In this room, the items include a table with a drawer containing the actual model of the labyrinth, a painting, a vase, a half-played weiqi (or Othello) chess set, a ‘mirror’ and an inverted wall text. The ‘mirror’ is located on the wall opposite the inverted wall text. The viewer will notice how the ‘mirror’ is actually the entrance to the ‘inner chamber’ where everything in this room is reflected, doubled and inverted. For instance, the text, which is another version of the doctored excerpt, is readable; the chess set is in a reversed scenario; the drawer in table contains the inverted version of the labyrinth. If the viewer were to venture further by exiting through the other end of the ‘inner chamber’ , which is the ‘mirror reflection’ of the ‘entrance’ of the previous room, he/she would encounter a secret of garden of artificial flowers. Contrary to common sensibility, the sentence ‘Nature is a whore’ (with reference to Kurt Cobain’s song lyrics In Bloom) will be inscribed on the wall. Following this path of artificial flowers, the viewer will be eventually led to a toilet where he/she could decide, whether to answer to the ‘call of nature’ there. 


This project is based on the awareness of our position as a silent reader, and a sort of ‘translator’, caught between the lines of the text and our world. Existing on the margin of a page, our situation as artist-translator is the situation of one trapped in the passage of a labyrinthine reality. The task in this context is a form of visual translation where words from one language are not necessarily substituted with words from another. Instead it is substitution for a form of visual language where words as the readymade materials are replaced with, perceived as or transformed into images.