Saturday, 4 October 2008


Title: On abysses and other dark matter
Programme: Artist-in-Residence-with-Artist
Dates: Jun - Aug 2008
Author: Brendan Goh

My essay will lean towards a sharing of the secret adventures in the lives of the other living things within the confines of the studio where I lived and worked on the duration of the project, The Consolations of Museology, some of which are the unsung heroes[1] of this undertaking.

The defining moment of this entire collaboration occurred within the first ten minutes of stepping out of the taxi and entering the studio, although it is certain that the climax manifested itself in the immediate moments after exiting the lift door on the 18th floor of Wah Luen Industrial Complex Block B, walking down the corridor and crossing the threshold of the door frame demarcating the entrance of the 12th unit, the food/art boundary wherein on one side lies a netherworld of swines and on there other is where Studio Bibliotheque is located and in it resides the founder and director, Michael Lee.

The transition from airport to taxi to lift to studio was accompanied by a scale of increasing alarm, with the final moments of entering the studio culminating in a state of almost near hysteria: the outside, spalling concrete everywhere, grease fumes and whiffs of meat in various stages of preparation, storage and putrefaction; the inside, thousands[2] of roach carcasses strewn across the floor, together with a strange puddle in the middle of the unit and a peculiar odour reminiscent of something stale, probably dead and very moist.

When this project was first offered, it was delightful to hear that the studio was occupied an industrial space, replete with high ceilings and mountain views, on the top floor of the highest building in the vicinity. Immediately, the thought of the lofts of New York’s Soho - artist enclaves and quirky spaces that one encounters vividly in art magazines - constructed itself within the perhaps too fecund imagination of my mind. What was not expected (nor anticipated), was the row of roast pork factories occupying the rest of the units on same floor, the somewhat resilient community of six-legged arthropods of the order Blattaria, as well as a proliferation of mould, eagerly awaiting the arrival of one or more bipeds, cohabiting with them in the same living space. While the presence of the first two were immediately known, the company of saprophytes was established only through a) sighting cirrus-like growths on matter containing lignin, and b) the release of several million spores which inadvertently caused one of the bipeds to arise slightly after dawn with a serious and thunderous case of rhinorrhea almost every day.

Of course, these things – unsavory neighbours, pests and mould – are common occurrences in a variety of domiciles in any part of the world where homo sapiens has cared to settled, and though they are often things that one always tries to avoid, minor occurrences do appear from time to time and are worth nary a thought. Nevertheless, for all these to converge in a particular space and time, en masse, coupled with the discovery that these myriad organisms have been permitted to not only flourish but to create such a laissez-faire empire with wild abandon can surely result in escalating levels of panic for the uninitiated. In a bid to placate one of the key contributors from veering into an irreconcilable state of hysterics, the Director promptly suggested that a computer be taken out so that some surfing of websites can be done as a distraction[3] while the offending creatures were removed and put in their proper place.

In many ways, houses reveal many things about the inhabitants who make it their home; the traces they leave that mark their existence in this world. From the choice of furniture, their arrangement, the paint on the walls, the objects collected (intentionally or not), are all bits and pieces of that disclose the habits of those who live there, their likes and dislikes, preferences, and so on. Houses and homes remain the first containers that clothe human experience. They recall a point of being where all one knew of the world was a dark, pulsating beat and a continuous feeding, and muffled sounds of things that sometimes made themselves known. More that a merely a shelter from the elements, they are personal and the most private of spaces, where unseen and unspoken boundaries abound. Perhaps these unsaid words are but traces of memories, events that have happened within the earlier homes that one inhabits. The house speaks of inhabitants more than what they speak of themselves.

And it is because of these signs marking a house as a home that reminds visitors that they are the other within the domain of this most sacred space. Thus, an invitation into a house is an invitation one must not take lightly. It is an invitation into a world inside and beyond, the first step of many steps into corners dark and obscure, for there are places hidden deep within the psyche, abysses of the mind[4]. In the ensuing days, the encounters with other dark matter abounded. For example, a peculiar drainage problem besetting the bathroom[5] was soon discovered. There was a persistent puddle of liquid that appeared on the concrete floor under the toilet, with mysterious ebbs and flows that caused it to either recede until it was almost gone or appear threateningly to spill its banks, and possessing an odor that could be said to resemble the fragrance of the Fragrant Harbour. This rhythmic motion was not so much tied to the cycles of celestial bodies, but with bodies of another kind: those utilizing the shower[6]. This led to a second revelation involving plumbing, there was no drainage sump in the partitioned area where the flush toilet was installed, and owing to the flooring being bare concrete, noxious liquids were exuded through the floor where the piping ran during periods of usage only to percolate through in the absence of activity, akin to that of an oasis with an subterranean spring. This promptly ensured, that my visits to this area of the studio were limited to activities of a strictly essential nature[7], and even then, they were to be performed in the shortest amount of time and with as minimal contact as possible.[8]

As the days progressed, it became more apparent that the procedures that I attributed to making a place habitable clearly differed from those of my host. For example, dishes would pile up in the sink for extended periods until they formed installations of veritable size (while their contents turned increasingly unrecognizable) before they garnered attention, usually because labels would start appearing beside them indicating information such as titles, dates of production and names of their creators. There, too, was the issue of sustenance and physical activity. While some are content to consume whatever food within the distance of one’s limbs, dining for me was yet another one of those sacred activities that had to be conducted with proper attention to details. And while I had to perform my daily ritual of swimming at the pool, others find it perfect acceptable not to even make a step out of the door or building. The differences in opinion of what made a life livable created interesting points of discussion within the studio as well as outside of it[9].

As if that wasn’t enough, the weather, too, made its presence felt through the creation of a time-based work spanning from floor to ceiling in the middle of the reception area. It was easy to tell what it was like outside, as wet periods would bring in progressive stages of water dripping from the ceiling and pooling on the floor and dry periods would cause tiny flakes of paint to descend gently to the ground, much like snow. It was as if the building was alive, communicating through silent cues that another presence was here, all along, and that you, are foreign and intruding; a trespasser. On another occasion, I was savagely roused from slumber by a loud crash, to discover that a chunk of plaster previously part of the ceiling, was now lying just a hand’s width away from my head, the dust from its impact still clouding the air. I was seriously beginning to wonder if the building didn’t like me.

In spite of all these, there was a sense of making-do as discussions on the project went well underway and work began. From being gripped by panic after sighting yet another of the six-legged tenants, I soon devised and created experiments in the eviction of that species. Two important discoveries were made on this matter, and both involving the preparation of food. The first discovery occurred one evening while preparing dinner; I had opened the fridge only to find some of my invertebrate friends scurrying around the door. Normally, I would have immediately notified the Director who would assist in eradicating these creatures, but it so happened on this very night that he was out for a meeting, which left me alone and at the mercy of the roaches’ reign of terror! While I almost reached for the canister of insecticide nearby, the half-done meal that lay on the counter made me reconsider. On closer inspection, the roaches concealed themselves in a nook formed by the hinge of the fridge door, and subsequent attempts to remove them using some thin plastic implement had them scurrying back after running a lap around the perimeter. Perched in the hideout with only its antenna visible, the chief roach waving them about frantically, while I was tinkering with a flashlight and a can of deadly poison on the other. No doubt, there was a standoff while the food was getting cold. In a brilliant flash of inspiration, I dispensing some near boiling water into a receptacle, and splashed the heated liquid directly into that tiny space and out came about four generations of these little critters. Peace and calm once again descended upon the studio as I put my newfound methods to several very successful tests.
The second discovery occurred a few days later, when I sighted a stray individual in the microwave oven when I was about to make my daily cuppa. Emboldened by my earlier triumphs, I immediately set the device to its maximum power and timed it for three minutes, eagerly anticipating the dried out husk of that offending creature. There was no such luck to be had, for it scurried around and soon disappeared into the inner workings of the oven without a trace.[10]

In the course of my residency at Studio Bibliothéque, I had often wondered to myself on numerous occasions, how I managed to survive the entire duration of the project under these harrowing circumstances. From devising ways to eradicate six-legged tenants; finding a suitable bathroom in a foreign land where I had never been before, as well as labeling installations of dishes in the sink as reminders for busy individuals, the strategies of coping under chaotic situations certainly gives one a sense of achievement. As it turned out, the reservations that I had at the beginning of my stay turned out to be catalysts not only in prevailing over some foibles, but in scoring some victories over one of the most tenacious life forms on this planet as well. Given this project’s endeavor to house the unhomely and the abject – the unnameable things that one both recognizes and is repulsed by, often part of oneself – as celebration and affirmation, it is only fitting that one acknowledges their presence as bedfellows first.

[1] While I am not religious, in a parable I encountered, a man was advised to revere those that he disliked or that did him harm more than Buddha. When he asked why, it was replied that though Buddha taught one precepts of morality, it was only through encounters with such people that he could have opportunities to practice what was advocated by Buddha, and hence, he should hold them in higher regard.
[2] In my hastyness I might have overestimated – perhaps they only numbered in the hundreds, maybe less.
[3] It was soon discovered that the internet account of the Studio has been suspended due to a late payment of bills, with almost threatened to render the director’s diversion unsuccessful. Fortunately, one other tenant of the industrial complex had not bothered to secure their network and thus allowed the diversion to proceed as planned.
[4] Houses articulate human presence more than anything else. For some examples, see Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1994), op cit. For the discussion of the logic of encountering any living space, see Michel de Certeau, et all, “Private Spaces” in The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living and Cooking, trans. Timothy J. Tomasik (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp 145-148.
[5] The décor of the bathroom too, was rather intriguing. A conscious effort had been made to maintain a monochromatic colour scheme throughout the entire space, perhaps drawing from Modernism in architecture. During the time of my visit, however, the very materiality of the bathroom was in crisis – flaking paint, crumbling walls and the like.
[6] This, was not the most serious incident. Earlier, during a visit by another artist, the flush toilet refused to work as intended, owing to strange plumbing and equally interesting installation.
[7] I was unable to convince myself to void any solid waste under these circumstances, which soon presented a rather serious and immediate problem. Fortunately (and to my utter relief), just a 7 minute walk away was a somewhat acceptable public restroom in a shopping centre which I visited every day for the remainder of the five weeks.
[8] In my own abode, the areas associated with any rituals of cleansing the body are kept scrupulously immaculate, maybe even to the point of being clinical, the philosophy being that daily ablutions were of a most sacred and personal act, and in order to achieve the highest possible state of purity, all related paraphernalia must be pristine.
[9] It took sometime to acclimatize oneself to these cultural variances, and to this I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Zarina Muhammed as well as Tania de Rozario for bearing with my episodes of distress before some adjustments were made. Equal thanks must be made to Elaine Shum and family for planning and providing much needed excursions to calm my nerves.
[10] Alarmed, I promptly did some research online and found out to my dismay that these vermin were highly resistant to radiation as their cells divided only once a week or so, when they moult. Cockroaches are able to tolerate between 6 -15 times as much radiation as humans. See Karl Kruszelnicki, Cockroaches and Radiation (Available at:, accessed on 24 Jul 2008).

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