Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Systems of Space and Other Relics

Systems of Space and Other Relics

By Michael Lee

  • Sponge Block Square Plaza
  • Karmastica Republic
  • Halved Hay House
  • Bhaja Caves
  • Fonthill Abbey
  • Arab
  • Eiffel
  • Liberty

Buildings are the bones and sinews of a city. In an urban city-state such as Singapore, where so much is calculated and planned, it is difficult to escape notions of how the ordering of spaces embodies and structures meaning—both overtly and covertly.

In 2011, I made Office Orchitect, a retrospective exhibition for a fictional architect of Singapore, Mr. K. S. Wong (born in 1911, and in 1982 reported missing). Consisting of twelve paper models with accompanying captions, an introductory text, and a mindmap of the architect’s life, inspirations, and work, this pseudo-biographical survey weaved history with fiction to highlight that both are valid forms of reality, though of different orders. Without revealing the architect’s face, the installation nonetheless suggests that his likeness could be gleaned from one of his architectural ideas featured in the installation, namely, SpongeBlock SquarePlaza, an unbuilt design with a polka-dotted façade and a slanted core, conceived by Wong in 1950. Who is K. S. Wong? Why is learning about his “failed” career as an architect of relevance? Can we infer a life from the fossil relics of what we leave behind?

Belying the subject of architecture in my art is a concern about the human condition. I am interested in how space can be an asset and a liability, liberating and constraining, seemingly abundant and yet hotly contested. When featuring abandoned places, I am less stirring nostalgia than examining how space works: What is “historic value”? Who decides? What is fundamental to the organic whole and what is superfluous? I find it interesting that “national” buildings in Singapore are especially vulnerable to makeover, compared to places like London where lobby groups for urban conservation are aplenty and active. When concocting buildings from thin air, I am defending fiction’s key role in steering us from ill-informed delusions and towards alternative situations.

Karmastica Republic (from the digital print series “Second-Hand City”) depicts a Godzilla-like creature gorging on buildings. As it consumes the structures, it starts turning building-like, and eventually transforming into a piece of zoomorphic architecture, its very bones becoming substructure—pushing the adage “you are what you eat” to its logical end.

Unless we are in the business of planning, building, acquiring, revamping, or destroying structures, we don’t usually give floor plans much thought. As anatomical indicators of how space is organised, floor plans are most useful in times of crisis: an overhaul or disagreement, insurgence or escape. Being the penetrating view from above, a floor plan embodies a curious mix of revelation and nonchalance, natural and supernatural: it is the common view of birds, God (if there were one), or Google Earth trotters, with roofs removed. Previously visual reference, the floor plan recently became the subject matter in the ongoing painting series “Dwelling” (2012-). I imagine that, at some point in a distant future, civilisations after us will discover and study these painted skeletons of spaces and imagine how we once lived, thought, and felt.

What happens to buildings when humans go extinct? The photographic series “After Humans” imagines that icons like Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty will inevitably collapse, reduced to fossil fragments of their component parts. I see my architecturally themed art as relics of humans’ systematic admiration, fear, use, adaptation, and modification of nature. My ongoing body of work is an architectural autobiography-in-the-making of the earth, especially the chapter on human existence: neither humans nor their creations are immune to the forces of nature. Every architectural system is a relic-to-be.


Michael Lee

Michael Lee is an artist, curator, and publisher based in Berlin and Singapore. He researches urban memory and fiction, especially the contexts and implications of loss. He transforms his observations into objects, diagrams, situations, curations, and texts.

He has staged solo exhibitions at Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), Hanart TZ Gallery (Hong Kong), Baba House (Singapore), and Alliance Francaise de Singapour (Singapore). His group exhibitions include the 3rd Kuandu Biennale 2012, the 2nd Asia Triennial Manchester 2011, the 8th Shanghai Biennale 2010, the 2005 World Exposition (Singapore Pavilion), and the International Film & Video Association Film Award & Festival 1997 (co-winner, experimental category).

His curatorial projects include Between, Beside, Beyond: Daniel Libeskind's Reflections and Key Works, 1989-2014 (Singapore Art Museum, 2007), and his editorial projects include Who Cares: 16 Essays on Curating in Asia (coedited with Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya, published by Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong), and Preoccupations: Things Artists Do Anyway (coedited with Cornelia Erdmann, published by laiyan projects and Studio Bibliothèque, Hong Kong).

His accolades include the APBF Signature Art Prize 2011 (People's Choice Award), conferred by the Singapore Art Museum, and the Young Artist Award (Visual Arts) 2005, conferred by the National Arts Council in Singapore.

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