Saturday, 4 October 2008

BOOK PREFACE: Foundations

Title: Homes for the Damned
Publication: Foundations (companion document of The Consolations of Museology)
Author: Michael Lee Hong Hwee
Publisher: WORM & Studio Bibliothèque
Contributors: Lilian Chee (Text), Tang Kwok Hin (Paper Engineering), han (Photography), Willie Koh (Film), Nadim Abbas (Copyediting) & Brendan Goh (Graphics)
Launch: Oct/Nov 2008
City: Hong Kong

I get home, and the mess is still there.

Unwashed dishes pile up precariously in the basin. The laundry hardens and pushes up against the sides of the basket. Rubbles of unclaimed receipts and unpaid bills - sandwiching a few uncashed cheques I’m sure - are waiting to be sorted. Shit, where are my keys?! I panic, but attempt to lift up piece by piece the disarray of books, stationery and DVDs covering every conceivable horizontal surface, and my keys are still nowhere to be found. Then I pause, turn around and, there, my bunch of keys hangs dispassionately from the door’s keyhole. Phew! Silly me. Friends ask if my flat has been burgled. Advertisers suggest I should get a maid or more shelves. Psychologists say the mess in my physical space reflects that of my mental space. Perhaps this is the reality of a creative artist? But art magazines, with its coverage of the contemporary art circuit into which I have yet to established many entry points, remind me that I am getting further by the day from my dream of going international. Well, at least I have friendship, love and oh, my beloved students, right? Not really. For the first time, the compilation of students’ evaluation of my teaching includes a long list of “other comments” saying I am a terrible teacher even if I may be a great artist. Yet three curator friends so far have snubbed me in their first biennale outings. I have not had a date for months, and it looks like I’m not going to have one very soon, with the current shape of my body and domestic space. The term loser couldn’t fit me better.

Species of Solace

Humans go to varying extents in search of happiness. Some are too busy with daily survival issues to think about the concept of happiness. Others may spend most of their time mulling over what makes them and other people happy. For some, it is the pursuit of fame, fortune or both that keeps them alive. For others, it is contentment with a simple lifestyle that grounds them in reality. Among each tendency, there are satisfied and disgruntled souls.

What makes some people satisfied with their circumstances and keeps others in states of anxiety? Is everything a matter of perception? Or preference? Does desire guarantee disappointment? Which desires are personal and which inflected from others? Is frustration handicapping? How to console an unhappy soul? Are there species of solace as there are levels of sadness? Is feeling better necessarily good for us?

I find some clues to my queries from select readings in philosophy and architecture. In his book, The Consolations of Philosophy (2001), Alain de Botton pairs six common everyday problems (unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulty) with the teachings of a philosopher, and suggests that much of what is commonly regarded as personal failings may well be blessings in disguise. The lack of popular appeal, says de Botton, could ironically be a sign of one’s wisdom, as in the case of Socrates, the Greek philosopher who was sentenced to death by the Athenians for voicing unpopular but astute opinions.[1] Douglas Darden’s homage to problems combines words with artifacts. In his book Condemned Buildings (1993), he honours failings (such as sleeplessness, ill health and pretense) by proposing allegorical buildings that are “condemned from the start.”[2] Other authors specifically celebrate neurosis,[3] depression,[4] being alone,[5] messiness,[6] stupidity,[7] ugliness,[8] among many. Encountering such texts liberates, because they help me come to terms with my desires and anxieties. They do this through a series of reminders: firstly, that I am not alone; secondly, that I am only human, and thirdly, that I am special. Suddenly I feel euphoric with a newfound mission: to spread the word of such consolations to the world!

Traditionally, consolation consists of advice to eliminate one of two things: desire and pain. The first mode, which is the mainstay of religions, assumes that the existence or excess of desires leads to dissatisfaction. It advices that mitigations such as abstinence, prayers and meditation can help to overcome these desires. The second mode, the preoccupation of medical science as much as of entertainment culture today, diagnoses problems as ‘symptoms’, attempts to trace their root causes and seeks ways to removal these harmful roots. The main problem with the former mode of consolation is that it represses desire with the aim or effect of keeping people contented in their rightful place. For instance, if one is unhappy about ill-treatment by one’s boss, the New Testament reminds: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh…." (Colossians 3.22-4). The main problem with the latter mode is the removal or numbing of pain may be temporary and illusory, and more damaging than helpful in the long run. Alcohol, for instance, which allows one to forget one’s sorrow for the time being, may well play host to complacency, escapism and ill-health.

The type of consolation I aspire to develop is one based on personal ethics. It requires one to be accountable for one’s desires and pain, destiny and tribulations. It involves taking ownership of one’s ups and downs, rather than giving up that responsibility to others. It encourages individualistic inquiries rather than social conformity, with the ultimate goal of becoming the best that one can and cannot be. Therefore, instead of advising all to curb our desires and problems by way of reduction or removal, I am all for consolations that embraces these issues as opportunities for reflection, growth and self-transformation. Friedrich Nietzsche’s co-celebration of difficulty and achievement is instructive here: “[H]appiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or… remain small together.”[9] In short, the consolation I seek facilitates not a regression to infantile bliss but a mediated form of happiness that recognises a necessary coexistence with unhappiness.

Books, at least in the conventional sense and those that have inspired me, are rather exclusive platforms. They reach a select few, if you are literate and lucky, in your private domains, alone or in small groups. They vie for your attention among a wide range of entertainment outlets and ongoing problems of daily life. Can consolations have a more public face? I put two and two together and I wonder if museums can help.

Museum as a Face to Problems

The traditional mission of museums lie in collecting, caring for, studying and displaying objects of lasting interest or value.[10] With the recent successes of new museum buildings designed by brand-name architects, such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, museums have been additionally tasked to rejuvenate a city whilst continuing to play its educational and entertainment roles for its dwellers and tourists alike.[11] Museums are, no doubt, interested in the human condition, including problems and especially those that inflict humans on the massive scale, such as in the contexts of war and poverty. Comparatively, individuals’ emotional hangups seem too trivial for museums to look into, while being already the purview of religions and the humanistic sciences like philosophy and psychology. Museums play host to the creative arts, but only to the extent that artists’ unique perspectives and aspirations have been transformed, despite or due to their inner struggles, into tangible and collectible objects. In distilling and presenting truths that remain constant or change over time and space, museums assume that their work will inspire people to transcend immediate conditions, devastating or overly comfortable ones, thereby enriching their souls. Museums’ implicit serial message: Get grips of your personal issues, check out our collection and transform your life!

Entitled The Consolations of Museology, the present project asks of museums what is beyond or against their usual tasks, to offer solace to problems of everyday life. This project investigates, questions, analyses, reveals, and proposes museological consolations for ten commonly perceived failings among human beings: unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, difficulties, messiness, stupidity, the lack of physical beauty, and cowardice.[12] It asks: How can museums offer solace to human failures? Its answer: Celebrate the failures.

Much of what keeps people in states of distress is the lack of access to information. The shame, guilt and fear of appearing ‘different’ prevents many from sharing their problems with others openly. For those with the access to religion and medical help, their confessions and testimonies remain in the specialist (i.e., private) realm of the respective institution for ‘diagnosis’ and ‘cure’. In short, there is hardly a public face to everyday problems. By celebrating human weaknesses as their organizational mission, museums can help to provide a public and open platform for discussing the meanings, functions and potentials of individual failings in the larger scheme of things.

The museums proposed in this project are an admission of laments on perceived personal failings, not an assertion of superior knowledge. This admission facilitates the first step in renewal: self-acceptance. The process continues with a re-examination of the universal values for which human civilisation stands, especially knowledge, morality, ethics, truth and beauty. Then, instead of upholding these values as usually do any right-minded museum, I propose hypothetical ones that celebrate the problematic counterparts instead. These proposed museums are aimed at triggering reflections and offering projections. In place of a singular solution, they suggest multiple, including conflicting, viewpoints and seek new or forgotten ones. By these means, museums can be seen for what they have been and can potentially be. Based on certain classic and contemporary missions of museums, the proposed museums are a turning-over, one by one, of these missions. This is not to suggest doing away with the museological missions, but to push them beyond their logical limits. Homage entails revision.

The Book as Wonder

The book form is a “sacred instrument” [13] that can reconcile the modernist breakthrough of the individual and intelligence with the ancient sense of the communal and sensual. Usually comprising pages of texts, images or both bound on one end into a volume, a book is a keeper and a revealer: of information, knowledge, ideas, messages and emotions. In this project, the book provides an ideal platform for concurrently exploring notions of consolation, museology, architecture, writing and book art.

The creative process begins with contextual and visual research (e.g., notable quotes, illustrative images) to amass ideas related to the perceived problems; especially how they have been defined, interpreted, developed, sustained or changed across history and cultures. These references are then analysed, selected and compared to suggest possible architectural forms and museological programmes for consolation.

Each architectural-museological proposition is presented as a three-dimensional form and in words. Paper-engineering techniques ranging from origami and kirigami, popup to automata, to deboss and relief are variously employed. The recurrent motif in each museum-book is the form of a pitch-roof house, the architect’s notion of the primordial hut. This motif refers to the mission of this project to provide “homes for the damned”, platforms that throws up for open discussion those phenomena we perhaps too easily name as ‘problem’ and address by way of ‘elimination’. It helps to ground the project in the history of architectural ideas, and also highlights the diversity of scales, designs and programmes across the ten hypothetical museums. None of these design and programming concepts need to be functional, logical or immediately useful[14]; the main aim is to encourage a revisiting of definitions of personal success and failure, and to approach crises with a sense of openness and irony.

Each of the ten museum-books contains seven categories of texts preceding the architectural-model forms. These texts appear in the following sequence: museum name; mission; site; person to whom the museum pays homage; representative quotation by this revered person; museum design, dual truism and museum programme. Of special note is the sixth category, the dual truism, which I have adopted from Darden.[15] This text format allows me to revisit, question and extend well-regarded museum missions. For instance, the commonly understood and agreeable view that a museum “is for everyone” calls for a sense of encompassment that includes the seemingly opposing idea that it “commemorates the outcasts”. I represent this paradox, with the help of the strikethrough and boldface treatments of keywords in each truism:

A museum is for everyone.

A museum commemorates the outcasts.[16]

In condoning the condemned, this project suspends logical judgment and instead invites all to wonder. Can trash be treasure? Can a crisis be a blessing? Can a problem be an opportunity? Reignited from within, self-acceptance, imagination and rediscovery are empowering and perhaps the most affordable clues to understanding the feelings of unhappiness.

[1] Alain de Botton, Consolations of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2001), chap. 1.
[2] Douglas Darden, Condemned Building: An Architect’s Pre-Text: Plans, Sections, Elevations, Details, Models, Ideograms, Scriptexts, and Letters for ten [-] Allegorical Works of Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993), book, back cover.
[3] For Marcel Proust, the frustrations that a neurotic person perpetually experiences are the seeds of excellence: “Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics. It is they and they alone who found religions and create great works of art. The world will never realise how much it owes to them, and what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.” Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way: In Search of Lost Time Vol. 3 (1921; London: Penguin, 2005).
[4] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (London: Scribner, 2002).
[5] Anneli Rufus, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto (London: Da Capro Press, 2003).
[6] Eric Abrahamson & David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (London: Little, Brown and Company, 2007).
[7] Matthijs van Boxsel, The Encyclopedia of Stupidity (London: Reakton Books, 2005).
[8] Umberto Eco, On Ugliness (London: Rizzoli, 2007).
[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882; London: Vintage, 1974), 338.
[10] Peter Vergo, “Introduction,” in his (Ed.), The New Museology (1989; London: Reaktion, 1987), 1-5.
[11] Raul A. Barreneche, “Introduction: The Age of the Museum,” in his New Museums (London: Phaidon, 2005), 6.
[12] The first six are from de Botton, op. cit.
[13] Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Book, Spiritual Instrument” (1895) in Jerome Rothenberg and David Guss (Eds.), The Book, Spiritual Instrument (New York: Granary Books, 1996), 20.
[14] In the words of Robert Harbison, “uselessness is the most sublime of all human constructs, and art fulfills itself in floating miles above every desperate human involvement.” Robert Harbison, The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuidable (London: Thomas and Hudson, 1991), 8.
[15] Darden, op. cit.
[16] Michael Lee Hong Hwee, The Great Hall of Rejects: The Consolations of Museology Book I of X (Hong Kong; Studio Bibliothèque, 2008).

1 comment:

artsywan said...

very nice! love this piece of writing!