This is an exhibition with a big title that begs scrutiny. The operative phrase, “psychogeographical faultline” combines the academic gravitas of “psychogeography” with the visual metaphor of a faultline. The term is succinct and elegant – a perfect fusion of the cerebral and sensorial. But this seeming sophistication is diffused by the strange pair of backslashes affixed to the front of the title. The terse, dainty strokes are playfully cryptic, exuding a mock seriousness which dismantles the perceived intellectual overtones of the project to give way to a ludic sensibility. Apparently, the psychogeographical terrain here is really more of a playground – a site for experimental and at times, pointless play.
\\: The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline is Debbie Ding’s first solo show, staged as a part of the Substation’s annual Open Call. In the exhibition, the eponymous river, more popularly referred to as our national bloodline, is re-imagined as a faultline. It’s a well-considered choice of metaphor, for like the river, a fault is essentially a void. But the negativity of space also denotes malleable potential. Just like how a faultline is shaped by the movements of the tectonic plates surrounding it, the form, shape and purpose of the Singapore River is determined by the people who inhabit its banks. Within the community, individual experiences and memories intersect, coalesce and diverge to create the river as we know it today.
Ding clearly bases her definition of psychogeography on Guy Debord’s, which includes “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Debord’s approach towards deconstructing spaces through exploration and play is evident in Ding’s installation, which on the first encounter, actually resembles the Children’s Corner of a public museum. It is furnished with practically all the necessary contraptions to play the part. There’s a digital touchpool where you can manipulate the shape of the Singapore River, cute and nicely framed illustrations lining the walls and a massive centrepiece drawing of the river upon which one can place little placards describing a personal memory that took place along it. Even the exhibition catalogue is designed as a flipbook. All in all, a perfect show to be bringing the kids to.
The artist herself appears all too eager to play up this image. For instance, in the centrepiece installation, Here the River Lies, the artist carefully details instructions in the wall text, teaching us how to play this “psychogeographical game”. Like a preschool teacher, she tells us to fill in “1 true memory + 1 imaginary memory” on our “memory card” and stipulates the dos and don’ts:
Something you experienced while you were by the river? Suitable.
Some landmark you noticed by the river? Suitable.
Something of complete irrelevance to the place you were at? Not-So-Suitable.
Furthermore, in the like of one of those activities we would do in our “creative thinking” classes, we are told to go around and affix a small sticker to the memories of other people which we think are true. Of course, Ding does not forget to remind us that we can only mark out “a maximum of THREE” such memories and that, needless to say, we cannot place a sticker on our own cards.
At the rear of the gallery is an interactive map table which Debbie programmed herself with the help of infrared technology. The projection is a black and white diagram of the Singapore River which can be transformed using the three coaster-like devices available. One of them is capable of warping the city terrain, another the water body and the last works like a time machine, capable of restoring the map to how it looks at a particular period in time. It’s like one of those interactive exhibits you would find at the Science Centre.
The fancy pictures along the walls come from a selection of speculative maps made by the artist as part of The Shape of the Singapore River. The maps shown are digital transcriptions of sketches made by the artist’s friends who were told to draw the shape of the Singapore River as it appeared in their imagination. The recreations are marked by the Ding’s pedantic neatness and linearity. Landmarks are simplified into silhouettes, with the Esplanade reduced into two spiky urchin-liked forms and the entire landscape transformed into a dainty, Lilliputian world.
Pretty. Dainty. Fancy. Under usual circumstances, such terms would come across as derogatory. To the contemporary art world, prettiness is a malady. Some female artists, in particular, consciously eschew such an aesthetic for good reason. But in the case of Ding’s show, I’m really feeling more ambivalent than anything else.
For one, I appreciate the consistency of Ding’s style. There is not a piece which does not shine with the tenderness of the artist’s devotion to her craft. Notably, the methodical act of transcription which Ding so earnestly performs is not one of function but play. Her works gear more towards cultivation than presentation, intent on testing out the possibilities instead of producing any statement or clear line of thought. The artist’s role here is facilitatory in the sense that she not only creates a framework for personal memories to be consolidated but also attempts to devise a universal language through which subjective experiences can be represented and organised. This concept can be absolutely fascinating when it is applied in the right context, such as in Ding’s ongoing project which involves mapping her dream spaces.
There is also an element of sincerity in the interactivity of her installations. Much of interactive art today tends to appear painfully contrived, with the audience enlisted unscrupulously as a device to prove a preset conviction. Ding’s installations engage because they avoid prescription (assuming of course that the restrictions described in the wall text are written in jest). The open-ended nature of the central installation draws you to it. It’s the kind of work you wouldn’t mind visiting again and again, at least just to check out how many new stickers have been pasted on your memory card. The meticulously hand-drawn map and the persnickety tone of Ding’s written instructions also endear you to the work. It has the friendliness of say, a kindly, old aunt… which would be an apt analogy if Ding wasn’t actually in her twenties.
The problem I have with Ding’s pretty pictures is that nagging sense of incompleteness which comes with a truncated inquiry. While it is not necessary for conclusions to be reached, it is important for any inquiry to be driven by a certain hunger for clarity. The show would be pretty flawless if we were dealing purely with dream spaces, for then the lingering shroud of ambiguity would be both understandable and appropriate. But here the subject is the Singapore River, the topographically unremarkable stream which is nonetheless the site from which our nation germinated. Much more needs to be pursued and clarified. In fact, I think that a psychogeographical examination of this space would actually need to address the many socio-cultural-historical issues concerning the river, but the show was unfortunately anemic in this aspect.
There also appears to be a critical lack of the tension necessary for triggering a process of negotiation between the audience and the work. This is probably the result of the artist taking a rather microscopic view of the term, “psychogeography”, limiting it to the safe, resistance-free zone of the strictly personal. Perhaps it would have been more meaningful if the scope was expanded to consider the psychology not just of individuals but of institutions, which may create the nodes of tension which the show seriously needed. At the end of the day, Ding appears to be doing more of the work of a landscaper, pruning and prettifying spaces, when she should really have been the cartographer who maps out the totality of the interactions which shape this psychogeographical faultline.
Or am I expecting a little too much from a show which takes play as both its departure and end point? After all, the show has pretty much to offer even in its present state. Judging solely by the sheer number of memory cards proudly erected upon Ding’s map, it is clear this is a work people care a lot about, even if they don’t think too much about.
\\: The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline is currently running at the Substation Gallery from 2 to 26 September 2010. Admission is free.