Written By Grace Hong
25th Jan 2017
Mention the word “map” and the first few images that spring to mind are the globe or the colourful poster pasted at the back of most classrooms—ordinary objects that we have taken as accurate representations of our world. But between the sphere that is our earth and the two-dimensional print-out are huge leaps of estimation; what then, has led to the normative acceptance of this “truth”?
Since it is impossible to project a sphere onto a flat plane, the map we see is hence an inaccurate representation skewed to human preferences and agendas—which countries should appear larger? Should size or distance be misconstrued?
All maps lie; the decision here lies with which author one chooses to believe.
The exhibition Mapping Macrocosms brings this very discussion into the field of art, presenting three artists whose practices examine the foundational structures that define notions of place and space.
Upon entry, visitors encounter Planet, Earth & Moon (2012)—a seemingly blown-up version of the classroom globe that now commands the gallery. But a closer look soon reveals the sculpture to be a flat sheet of steel engraved with markings to delineate geographical areas.
Exhibition view of Gallery 1, Mapping Macrocosms. Photo: NTU ADM Gallery.
The artist Tawatchai Puntusawasdi poses in front of Planet, Earth & Moon (2012). Photo: NTU ADM Gallery.
Thai artist Tawatchai Puntusawasdi plays with the paradox of our expectations, first replacing the sphere with a two-dimensional representation, and secondly by offering a different understanding of a map. The sculpture’s front shows the world’s major mountain ranges with latitude and longitude lines, while the other side depicts a view of Earth from space on slate planes. Tawatchai’s Planet is a map fuelled by intentions far from the “factual” territory-marking we know, but inspired by the travels of Marco Polo himself. His research project on the maps of Marco Polo’s travels took place over two years, which saw the artist creating his own form of manual calculations for the maps and finding, cutting, and assembling raw materials by hand to create the eventual works. Artist draft and processes encased behind glass accompany his other drawings and sculptures on display, such as Figure of Egg (2012) and Over Heated Globe (2012). Choosing the tedious way of accomplishing all these without machine technology, the physicality and thought process gives rise to a “self-determination and knowing”, mirroring the journey that Marco Polo himself went through.
Tawatchai Puntusawasdi's Drafts & Processes. Photo: NTU ADM Gallery.
Figure of Egg (2012). Photo: NTU ADM Gallery.
In Gallery 2, Singaporean artist Ng Joon Kiat brings this discussion closer to home. Since 2007, Ng has been actively researching the history of mapping and developing a language of abstract painting that both translates his interpretations of maps onto canvas while observing its ambiguities. Drawing Cabinet displays Ng’s earlier works and conveys the idea of paint as specimens (the cabinet is commonly used to house biological specimens such as insects and animal bones). From here, visitors are encouraged to think of abstraction to envision our understanding of a place—familiarising ourselves with Ng’s vocabulary that uses a range of acrylic paints and material to communicate urban planning and its relationship to land.
Exhibition view of Mapping Macrocosms in Gallery 2. Photo: NTU ADM Gallery.
Close-up of Drawing Cabinet. Photo: NTU ADM Gallery.
The artist Ng Joon Kiat explaining his research process to visitors. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
Research material in Ng’s handwriting are tacked on the gallery wall, as if field notes taken from an archaeologist’s findings. Here, Ng has compiled and displayed excerpts of speeches from Singapore’s politicians on issues of culture, history, and identity. One in particular, stood out:
TRANSCRIPT OF PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG’S SPEECH
AT NATIONAL DAY RALLY 2005 ON 21 AUGUST 2005
AT NUS UNIVERSITY CULTURAL CENTRE
“Most sentimental of all for many people was the old National Library. We spent hours there studying, chatting, pak tor (courting), made friends, sometimes found partners and many Singaporeans were sad to see it go but unfortunately it couldn’t be helped. So we’ve saved 5000 bricks and put up a wall in the new National Library to keep the memories alive.”
Opposite this wall, Map Drawing—a series of six new paintings—carry the visual representation of Ng’s research and contemplation. His act of painting as mapping comprises squiggly lines that at times cluster in a mound or sprawl across the canvas. Map Drawing reminds one of the unchartered topography beneath our skin: veins, arteries, and capillaries zig-zagging all over our bodies; presumably random, yet fraught with purpose.
Ng Joon Kiat, Map Drawing. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
Close-up of Map Drawing. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
With Singapore constantly under construction, Ng's lines also recall blueprints and shifting geographical demarcations—at once markings upon the canvas but an erasure of what is past. In the end, are 5000 bricks enough to hold a map's memory?
Behind the wall partition, the exhibition Mapping Macrocosms continues with the works of Philip Beesley. The artist, architect, and professor is also known as the director of Living Architecture Systems Group (LAS), a design-collective housed in Toronto, Canada, with over two thousand individuals contributing to the series since 2003. No longer thinking of built environments as static, Beesley imagines a future where physical structures respond to us.
His sculptures and installations draw the eye upwards, white models constructed of silicone, feather-like pieces, and plastic seemingly taking flight. Employing a meshwork system that uses repetition of patterns, Beesley creates models of various shapes and sizes. Visitors would have gotten a glimpse from the video screened in the lobby of the ADM building, and up close, they do not disappoint.
The digital screen in the ADM Lobby. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
Exhibition view of Mapping Macrocosms in Gallery 2. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
Exhibition view of Philip Beesley's installations. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
Philip Beesley explains his work to gallery visitors. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
Beesley's "living architecture" highlights the practical usage of mapping today, in how we imagine and build our environments. Positing architecture as a living organism that can learn about and respond to us (an idea that is fast taking shape through smart homes), this opens the field of study to examine points of contact between the home and the individual. Beesley's models and systems are thus fluid representations that deconstruct the rigid structure and understanding we have of architecture.
Close-up of Philip Beesley's sculpture. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
The details of Beesley's works are laid out for gallery visitors. Photo (c) NTU ADM Gallery.
With the idea of mapping re-introduced at each turn, I could not help but observe as well the mapping of my movement as a visitor through the galleries. The ADM galleries are side by side, but separated by a corridor. While Gallery 1's entrance is located beside the main entrance of the building and facing outwards, Gallery 2's entrance is within, a more enclosed space inside the building.
A parallel exhibition of the Singapore Biennale 2016, Mapping Macrocosms responds to the title "An Atlas of Mirrors", beginning with the subjectivity of the map itself and spotlighting three artists whose practice reconfigures our thoughts and understanding of the map. The artists presented emphasise mapping as not only a means to way finding, but a discovery of the self. In viewing, multiple entries mark the traversing of Mapping Macrocosms, a motion that invigorates curiosity at each door.
Mapping Macrocosms is on show at the School of Art, Design and Media's Gallery in Nanyang Technological University till 27 January 2017. While the show might be ending soon, stay updated with the latest exhibitions from NTU ADM Gallery by visiting their website and following this Facebook page.