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Mirrored Worlds, Dualism in Landscape

Cynthia originally wrote this pictorial essay for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture” as a student at the National University of Singapore. At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning.

 
Figure 1: Image of 24 Hours in Singapore by Baet Yeok Kuan (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

Tucked away in a corner of the central business district sits five shiny, stainless steel globes resting on the green manicured lawn of the Asian Civilisations Museum. At first sight, just like magpies to a shiny object, pedestrians gravitate toward these strange glistering globes.


People of all ages busily run around snapping pictures of their self-reflections, immediately editing and posting them on social media – a common practice and routine among people of the twenty-first century. I, too, have indulged in this sinful act as seen in Figure 2.


However, as we approached the globe for a quick snap, my friends and I started hearing odd noises. Little did we know these sounds constituted twenty-four soundscapes of familiar Singaporean spaces such as hawker centers and MRT stations. They were audio recordings emitted from these globes as part of an interactive artwork titled “24 Hours in Singapore” by Singaporean artist Baet Yeok Kuan. The intent was to evoke self-reflection for the Singaporean through a literal reflection of the self against the backdrop of local aural environments (Roots, 2015). In true Singaporean fashion, however, all I thought about was taking a picture and to then search for a dinner place!


I cared little about critiquing the landscape architectural elements of the artwork. It is not in my human nature to relish in such discussions for I was only familiar with the reviews on architecture alone (and not its landscape counterpart) that exist on well-marketed popular websites like Dezeen and The Architecture Review, which have garnered much attention in the world of design: everything outside the architectural discourse was beyond my concern. There was moreover a lack of awareness of strong platforms for landscape architectural discussions as compared to architectural commentaries. Thus, the act of reviewing landscape architecture, like the globes on turf, was tucked quietly away in the back of my mind. However, all of that changed when I enrolled into “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture.”


Esoteric Lenses
Figure 2: Instagramming (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

In examining “24 Hours in Singapore”, I use cartesian dualism as a way to structure a study of the landscape, starting with the mind which explores topics such as spatial practices that engage time, memory, and consciousness, and ending with the body which explores topics such as illusionary space and language of the familiar and strange.


Mind | Spatial Practices

Historically, it is the dialogue of space as a theoretical currency that has added value to architecture as an industry. Historian Adrian Forty expresses, “In so far as architecture had always suffered the slur of being no more than a trade, or a business, the claim to deal with the most immaterial of properties of – ‘space’ – allowed decisively architects to present their labour as mental rather than manual. [...] The component of “space” brought with it greater intellectual value and participation in considering architectural works than any other components. Space elevated architecture from “manual [labour]” to the realm of reason, reflection and insight– the “mental [labor].” (Forty, 2004)


Figure 3: Perforations where Soundscapes of Singapore are played (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

The landscape architecture in question – the five steel globes and its surrounding environment – incorporates audio recordings of Singaporean landscapes such as aural environments of hawker centres and public transportation. The purpose of such an incorporation is to bridge Singaporean’s lives into the realm of art, creating a mental window from which one self-reflects on otherwise daily white noises. These psychological contributions have allowed such a mental experience, rooted in sounds, to make way for psychological import into the landscape. The artwork thus emphasizes how the mind acts as the driving force in shaping perception of space and time, such that one’s immediate surroundings become secondary in defining one’s experiences of matter. What is primary are things like memories, thoughts and reflections. In invoking past experiences of another space, the soundscape plays on the subjective memories entrenched in the individual psyche, exporting them into mental spaces centred around the hustle and bustle of the city.


With this trajectory, the current space does not necessarily influence the psychological experience of the individual, but it is the other way around. It is one’s psyche that shapes the meaning of the given space for the individual. The outcome for me holds post-modernist sentiments such as the production of perceptions via spaces that are culturally constructed (Herrington, 2016, p. 76). In this landscape, the Singaporean culture thus constructs the perception for the observer of the given artwork.


Figure 4: Images of familiar spaces where I would picture the played soundscapes. (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

In a video interview, the artist Baet Yeok Kuan talks about how the sound recordings can serve as a reference for the future, as to how people’s lives used to sound (National Arts Council, 2016). This adds an interesting dimension of time to the idea of using sounds. The past becomes possibly bridged with the present through aural landscapes, allowing new meanings of the space to be constructed, no longer relying on past memories but present (mental) reflections.


Additionally, the phenomenology discussed in Herrington’s book regarding Satre’s group praxis is at play in a group setting of observing the artwork (Herrington, 2016, p. 91). In reference to my initial impressions, I did not experience the soundscapes in the way that was needed for me to generate mental imagery. At that point of interaction, the soundscapes were perceived as odd noises by my friends and I. I suppose my adherence to routine group behaviours, which for us consisted of workplace gossip, possibly became a distraction and mental barrier, thus hindering my full mental participation with the artwork. Perhaps a group setting deterred my making sense of the sounds, thus hindering my ability to generate the psychological experiences of space-time the landscape had hoped for. As a side note, this experience possibly highlights the limitations of the mind when placed in a group environment.


Body | Space + Language
Figure 5: Figure lying on globe (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

Illusionary spaces are employed to prompt the viewer into questioning the reality they see as experienced by the body. Historically, according to Susan Herrington, “mirrors, water features and other reflective surfaces provided virtual worlds of illusion.” (Herrington, 2016, p. 78). Such an “illusion” can be seen with the artwork. The stainless steel globes morph reality creating a fisheye lens distortion; the phenomena becomes a playful enigma that attracts viewers to the objects as seen in Figure 5. Upon closer examination, the globe morphs the perspective of the viewer showing the sky, green manicured turf, massive surrounding trees and dwarfing the viewer’s body. It involves the classical western composition of a landscape painting such as sky, lawn and trees. In this respect, the artwork provides the illusion of a totalistic perspective of one’s environment. In reality, it is distortion and alteration that characterises one’s comprehensive sight and engagement with the steel orbs.


What one sees is not what is.


As a participant standing in front of the big globes, the landscape invokes a sense of familiarity and strangeness as we commonly see mirrors and spherical forms in our daily lives but not in this scale and context.


This perception of familiar and strange is highly exploited in pop art (Mahsun, 1989), as seen in The Bagel Garden by Martha Schwartz (Figure 6), where she curated a temporary installation which displaces the bagel, taking it out of its normal context and placing it on the purple coloured gravel. She explained that the bagels were “locally made, shade tolerant, inexpensive, and low maintenance,” (Schwartz & Richardson, 2004) adding an element of satirical comedy to the landscape. In general, the act of manipulating an ordinary object context intrigues viewers, creating the perception of familiarity and strangeness as the body attempts to rationalise its environment.


Figure 6: The Bagel Garden (Martha Schwartz Partners)

The body and the eyes are interrogated with the artwork, thus challenging the observer to interact with a landscape that stretches beyond immediate reality, tying back to the artist’s initial intent of invoking disparate environments and soundscapes in one’s immediate surroundings. The body, along with the mind, becomes sites for new ways of thinking about space.


In the case of “24 Hours in Singapore”, the artist has unknowingly shaped and manipulated the landscape, rendering him into an agent of spatial change – the landscape artist and architect – thus blurring the lines between art and landscape architecture. Baet Yeok Kuan’s play on memory and time using sound and employment of optical illusions, scale and manipulation of objects effectively, entice pedestrians to interact with the otherwise empty Asian Civilisation Museum front lawn.

Figure 7: Asian Civilisations Museum Green (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

After a semester of “History and Theory of landscape architecture,” I am more aware of the way I perceive my surroundings and the multitude of contexts upon which our landscape is built on, such as the dimensions of mind and body. y perception and critique of the possibilities around landscape architecture has changed.



Figure 8: Asian Civilisations Museum Green (Cynthia Wee, 2022)

Moving forward, I hope to see a centralised platform for landscape architects to discuss projects such as Baet Yeok Kuan’s “24 Hours in Singapore” with more depth. I imagine a platform where we can popularise urban landscape architecture and hold important discussions on the topic, utilising theories like the cartesian dualism, to give new insights in the way we navigate the spaces around us.

 

Cynthia Wee is pursuing a Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Architecture. She has worked in various fields of research, from the effects and movement of pigeons in urban spaces, to the nuances of productive landscape strategies in urban town planning.


Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong

 
References

Forty, A. (2004). Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. Thames & Hudson.

Herrington, S. (2016). Landscape theory in design. Taylor & Francis.

Mahsun, C. A. (1989). Pop art: The critical dialogue.

Martha Schwartz Partners. (1980). Bagel Garden [Photograph]. https://toposmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Topos_Bagel_Martha_Schwartz_1-scaled-aspect-ratio-16-9-scaled.jpg

National Arts Council. (2016, February 19). 24 Hours in Singapore - Interview with artist, Baet Yeok Kuan [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umai2GhdFBg&ab_channel=NACVisualArts

Roots. (2015). 24 Hours in Singapore. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.roots.gov.sg/places/places-landing/Places/landmarks/public-art-walking-trail/24-hours-in-singapore

Schwartz, M., & Richardson, T. (2004). The vanguard landscapes and gardens of Martha Schwartz.

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