The Cities As They Perceived


Things are changing in this post-14th general election of Malaysia and its reformation. The way we imagine the nation would soon to be, and the expectation for something better in the coming years. We could even hear voices of many people expressing their hope to return to their homeland from overseas, for good.

Though after awhile, the hype has subsided. Upon seeing, hearing, analysing, speculating, and feeling the shift of the political landscape, I figured it’d be nice to document two art events I’ve visited lately.

I was able to attend the opening of Berny Tan’s exhibition titled “…. the invisible reasons that make cities live…” in Singapore, with her works being displayed in I_S_L_A_N_D_S - a corridor gallery spaces in Peninsula Shopping Centre. The diagrammatic studies are based on the artists’ personal exercises upon reading Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel ‘Invisible Cities’ that she stated to have read probably more than 25 times back and forth, upon her first read nine years ago. This imaginary, fictitious read unfolds itself in many female names describing each city, a questionable feminist subject to be discussed on its own.

Image source: I_S_L_A_N_D_S official website

Image source: I_S_L_A_N_D_S official website


Image source: I_S_L_A_N_D_S official website
Image source: I_S_L_A_N_D_S official website

Image source: I_S_L_A_N_D_S official website


The form of this installation had to be spontaneously transformed within each window display during the set up , as if drawing in space as the artist mentioned. And the ‘invisible city’ turned into a tangible experience, a physical and analytical guide, serving as an introduction and an impression prior to reading the novel itself.


Photographed during the opening night

Photographed during the opening night. Artists' books and references on display for browsing.

Photographed during the opening night. Artists' books and references on display for browsing.

Photographed during the opening night. Artists' sketches on display.

Photographed during the opening night. Artists' books and references on display for browsing.

I haven’t read the entire book as I am writing this but have had several glimpse of the text, alongside with articles that summarise it. While this book has been represented visually many times, the artist dismiss the idea of "a predictable approach" and instead focuses on the structural aspect of the reading. Regardless, I did a quick non-selective search on visual artists who have illustrated scenes from the novel, and here’s what I’ve gotten.


Image Source (click on this link): Artist Colleen Corradi Brannigan on The Stilt City of Zenobia


Image source (click on this link to the article): Karina Puente on her Invisible Cities Project, above is an illustration of Isaura City

Image source (click on this link to the article):  Carrie Iverson and Nathan Sandberg's Synchronicity


See here for another article of an elaborated list of other artists that draws from Calvino's Invisible Cities, and a recent group exhibition.

Italo Calvino was once a part of Oulipo (roughly translated as “workshop of potential literature”), a group of notable writers and mathematicians who pushed the boundaries in writing, seeking methods based on mathematical problems. The article linked above pointed out that there are nine symmetrical sections across Marco Polo’s accounts of different cities, with the use of symmetry or duplication in the cities’ layouts. Berny maps out the organisational scheme of the novel’s text, along with her readings on mathematics to visualise and extract the novel's underlying system and data.

When asked by the audience if there’s more as to what the artist would further interpret, or had found something through this visualisation, she voiced out the dilemma in representing something that has already been so extensively described and represented in words, what more to add than possibly providing a fresh perspective to the literature reading.

This novel is currently on my pending to-read list, and probably all of Calvino’s literature works to be read and be inspired.

Image Source: Photographed by the artist Berny Tan

Image Source: Photographed by the artist Berny Tan

Image Source: Photographed by the artist Berny Tan

Image Source: Photographed by the artist Berny Tan





Image Source: Taken from "In Time to Come" Screening Event Page on Facebook. The unearthing of the SG25 time capsule 


This other event took place in Rumah Attap Library & Collective, Kuala Lumpur with Director Tan Pin Pin for the screening of “In Time to Come”. The key points here do no justice to watching and experiencing the film itself. Hence I only intended to jot them down as a personal archive to share.  

Taken during the starting of the screening

Taken during the screening

Taken during the screening


Besides the unearthing footage of the old Singapore time capsule and the making of the new time cube that holds the entire film narrative together, it also focuses on events that happened during SG50 when the nation celebrates its 50th independence. Tan Pin Pin mentioned in her sharing that they excluded many other footages she had filmed during the passing on of the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, which she clearly sees as another narrative on its own.

She also reinforces the way each shot being slow and still, and durational, mostly muted with occasional amplified sound of the film, an alternative cinematic language that would make us pause and lay ourselves back as we watch the depiction of mundane lives with a future looking perspective. The camera kept its distance documenting the patterns and the most banal aspects of daily encounters rather than on specific individuals.

She pondered, “What has changed and what hasn’t changed in Singapore?”

We see scenes of primary school students having their morning reading session, students walking down the staircase gathering and squatting on the grass. “The way fire drills are being rehearsed definitely hasn’t changed”, the director exclaimed. And it is the shape of our daily rituals that Tan Pin Pin triggered us to think, “How many of these routines would remain, or would one day flip and change?

She fleshes out her habitual interest of focusing on pre-ceremony incidents rather than the actual events. The waiting of guests’ arrival, the opening of a new road, student performers leaving the scene in the MRT station, and in many cases the audience are left to wait for ‘something’ to happen, or even wonder “what is happening here?” It is as though the entire mood is set on what is being preserved and what will take place in time to come.

The footages were non-linear; urges one to question what timeframe are we looking at each point. There is always a returning of the same scene from a different angle, and probably at a different time period too. The emergence of a bottle of Singapore river water, a copy of Yellow Pages, a bulky phone charger, to the careful wrapping of a badminton shuttlecock, an animated, possibly sculpted lion’s head, a swimming life jacket, objects that seem to be telesmatic being selected to be discovered in the next 25 years. One is prompted to ask to which extend these objects might be needed for the future, maybe a life jacket when the country is flooded as the director joked.  

I popped the question asking how the director had felt including Inuka in this particular film given that the Singapore’s only polar bear was finally put to sleep this year. The scene of the polar bear swimming repeatedly with the same pace, action and in the same place is definitely an over-recorded footage. She pointed out that Inuka has been pretty much part of Singapore’s landscape, and also a figure of exile. With this question, an audience led to point out the scene when Lucy Davies appeared that resonates too with the idea of being exiled. An artist and writer with her PR denied by the country she called home.

With the film projecting itself to the future, one person also asked if the film is better savoured after 25 years instead of now. I for sure would anticipate re-watching the film, and ask the question again, “What has and hasn’t changed?”

Image Source: Tan Pin Pin's official website, Still image from film, After the opening ceremony of Marina Coastal expressway before traffic enters 





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