Naima Morelli



Daylight dystopia

In our worse dystopian imagination, brought to fruition by filmmakers and artists, we imagine the cities of the future being an endless continuation of buildings and city lights, from the steamy Metropolis to – moving to the ‘80s – the cities of Ghost in The Shell, or Neon Tokyo from Akira. Asian mega-cities provided a good model in this respect. The urban landscape of Blade Runner for example was inspired by a particular part of Kwaloon, also known as the Walled City. This was an area of incredible density, a human anthill, picturesque and inhuman at the same time. In 1994, Kwaloon was demolished. Visitors eager to see the ruins of this mythical place will instead find a park with gardens, floral walks, ponds and pavilions. The future was not as we imagined, if not only for the lack of flying cars which many of us lamented, but also because it doesn’t look as evil as we thought. Then came the daylight dystopia. As a child, I remember approaching this slightly less suffocating concept in the Disney PK comics. This was a superhero series of Donald Duck set in a futuristic future. In a particular episode, PK travelled to the future to find that instead of the tower he operated from – the Ducklair tower created by a tech genius – there was a garden. Our beloved flying cars came in handy in that comic in order to reach the heights of that vertical city, whose buildings have gardens on top, another idea which is being implemented in the green architectural world. An idea that has been developed by many architectural firms reimagining the future of the urban landscape as we will see. The palaces of the old city will be pillars, or comprised into other buildings, and of course we have plenty of examples of this as well. The final look of this city is a green aspirational environment which will preserve history and won’t look as dingy and ugly as we imagined dystopian cities to be.

The concept of the garden in postcolonial Singapore is the opposite to the western conception of parks, as it has been developing from the industrial revolution on. In this ideal Singaporean garden city, a smart city – nature and technology cooperate. However, we might ask ourselves, with which kind of nature we are interacting with. What we are looking at when we are looking at the greenery around us. Are these few leaves only functional to a mindset which use nature without respecting it? Is this nature still bent to profit? Or are these positive signs of a more balanced relationship between human and nature?


Historical relationship between city and garden

The way the relationship between urban space and natural space has developed in the Western world is radically different from what happened in Asia. Though we have very different cultural models in different times that mark these interactions, we can see some distinct modus operandi. We can only try to do a quick, general overview here to get our bearings, and then starting to understand where Singapore is coming from in this regard.

For Asia, the first example that comes to mind as a society promoting a seamless integration of nature inside the city – and even in people’s homes – is Japan. Here, nature is continuously invited to take part in a dialogue, and not be kept at bay as something “other”. In Taoism, there is a similar conception of nature: it is not considered as something hostile which is separate from humans, but rather humans are seen as part of it. Indeed, if we think of traditional Malay villages and the civilisations in Southeast Asia, we never have anything resembling the massive, often clogged up cities of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

In the western world, art has always documented the evolving relationship between the urban space and the natural space. It was in the Renaissance that architects started fantasising about ideal cities, and we see it appearing slowly in the paintings of Giotto, Lorenzo Lotto and Pinturicchio. That is how the idea of perspective make its entrée. Around the same time, you also had depictions like the famous Primavera by Botticelli, presenting lush gardens inhabited by divine creatures. Historically, the garden holds a value of space for wisdom, as opposed to mindless work. Strong in our mind is the image of Aristotelian thinkers strolling in Greek luscious gardens.

The culture of the garden is present in many different western cultures, and it assumes very different features. Whereas the French and the Italian garden hold an almost architectural and very well planned idea of progression of thought and strolling, the English garden left room for a more unkempt conception, where nature could grow in a wilder way. Here, the ghost of the forest and the uncontrolled came out again.
However, in paintings from the Reinassance until the early 1800s, nature and architecture were never presented in a mutual relationship, if not in depictions where the architecture was the ruins. Only on the ruins of the civilisations the nature could take over, and with it also pastors and Gods from Roman and Greek mythology. However, there was no stark contrast: in Renaissance times, the city was seen as perfection. In industrial times, the city becomes intrinsically inharmonious.

In the 1800s, at the wake of the Industrial Revolution, we had another split in the cultural world with regards to the relationship with nature. On one hand we had Russeau, who invented the figure of the “Bonne Savant”, the noble savage, a simple, pure creature that lives in harmony with nature. Along with him, Thoreau escaping civilisation and Emerson. At the same time, the impressionists brought their aisle out in the open as well, “en plein air.” On the other hand, we had the “maudit” tradition which rejected nature, from Baudelaire to Rimbaud. It is true that he first uses nature in its lyrical imaginary (unforgettable is his “forest of symbols”). It is also true that the latter wrote beautiful words about the blithe of walking in the fields. At the same time, the figure of the artist of the intellectual as someone who finds his only refuge in the dark alley of a city and in brothels has been perpetuated for centuries.

There was of course a dramatically different conception for the human being behind the idea of the city between the Industrial Revolution and during the Renaissance. The city of the Renaissance supported an idea of humanism. The human intelligence was at the centre and his intellect could fashion the world around him for godlike perfection. With the Industrial Revolution, this idea changes dramatically, as production and profit became the key values. The human being couldn’t follow the natural flow of time anymore, but was slave to the rhythms of the industry. In this vision, nature, parks and gardens were seen as an antidote to the hustle-bustle, smog and soul-crashing rhythms of the city. There was a soothing space both from social and environmental pollution. A space where you could be Walden, just the time of your lunchbreak or at the weekends. Green was leisure, whereas the city was work. And work and industrialisation were bad.

In many cities in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, this dichotomy is still valid. Modernism exacerbated this tendency. Both Le Crobusier and the Bauhaus had an antipathy towards greenery. In the ‘20s, landscape design disappeared and green space was seen as a mere demarcation between buildings. However, in the modern conception of the smart city, urban planners and renovators are trying to move away from it, from a new, fluid conception.

Nature is after all just a name. It is a concept which belongs very much to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. As we saw with the concept of bureaucracy, we start naming things when we perceive them as separate from us. Again, we go back to the fish who doesn’t know that what he’s swimming in is water, so it won’t call what’s around him water. We started naming that ensemble of fauna, flora nature when we started our cities grew a part from it. When we thought that the human was something separate from it.

It was again the British who brought this mentality to Singapore. In the Christian framework they inhabited, the man was bound to rule over nature. Long gone were the days of the Greek who saw the human creature – the mortal, as they’d often define him – as only one of many other species. The one animal most alienated from his own instincts, and yet most capable of abstraction. As Italian philosopher Umberto Galimberti reminds us that back in ancient Greek times, a question asked by tragedies like Prometheus Bound was if the technique was stronger than nature. “No,” would answer the Gods, “technique will never be stronger than nature.” Centuries after, this is perhaps not the case anymore. In Singapore in particular, it is not the Saturday who is made for the man, but the man who is made for the Saturday. In other words, it is not the technique that serves the man, but the man that serves the technique.

We are in a time where we can’t think ourselves out of the rational, scientific method. For most people, it is nonsense. The scientific method has after all served us so well. It has cured us of disease, gotten us on planes and created a framework to understand our reality better, giving us the power to control it. As Paul Simon sang in Boy in The Bubble: “These are the days of miracle and wonder/ This is the long distance call / The way the camera follows us in slow-mo / The way we look to us all /The way we look to a distant constellation /That’s dying in a corner of the sky”. As the lyrics point out, we have also learned to be weary of positivism. What the hell, this is no eighteenth century! While science, positivism and exploration are real wonders that give us joy and allow us to invent meaning – and again, there is nothing wrong with inventing it instead of waiting of hoping for it to be there already. At the same time, we have to be vigilant about where this is bringing us, and where this ethos, brought to extreme consequences and becoming the default mode of an entire culture of productivity, is leading us. Where it is leading us is towards a non-contradictory efficiency which can’t deal with the unexpected and is generally guided – as the time goes – by profit-led ethics. This is certainly the case with Singapore.

In this way, nature becomes a nice thing seen for its aesthetic value, or for its “cool factor” – think about the green city, and the investment return in marketing a city as eco – versus really re-integrating a mindset which put man in its place in nature. In order to do that, man should create an ethic – there is no other way we want to be compassionate and preserve what most of us would consider the “humanitarian values” – while also recognising that we can’t bend the matter. We spoke with the bureaucracy of the value-free ethic which is the current framework we are working in. Art – far from creating ethics of its own – informs us of the complexities of the real. It opens up to the folly of our experience, informs us that every object is ambiguous and open to contradiction. This is the great advantage that we gain with our frequent exposition to the artwork. We make our minds flexible. But there is a second function to the artwork that we can grasp if we look at art from a more sociological level. That of being a mirror – whether clean or broken – to the society which produced it.

Story of the Forest

With these spectacles, along with those of the viewer opened to be surprised, in 2016 I approached the new installation “The Story of the Forest” at the National Museum of Singapore by the Japanese group teamLab. The installation was composed by sixty-nine works from the William Farquhar Collection of National History Drawings, which were brought to life through a projected animation, a two-year collaboration between teamLab and the National Museum of Singapore. The building of the museum is – like the aforementioned National Gallery of Singapore – an old building around which a new structure was built, using the historical as a foundation for the new. The terrace of the first floor was covered by an additional structure which preserved the light, and from there I made my way through black curtains into the first space of the dome. And then it was bliss. In a space completely black, with no point of reference, I was inundated by a sea of petals falling from the sky like comets. I got my bearings and got on top of the bridge crossing the dome, and saw the petals falling down to the levels below. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed by a sense of beauty mixed with my personal memories. It evoked in me, memories of a black box decorated with flowers in my grandmother’s house and even more strongly, the time when I was a kid and I climbed a branch of the almond tree in spring, and made the petals rain on my little friend below.

At the same time, I was also weary in a way. You know, in the same way you’d approach someone who sounds very honest at times, but then every now and then drops something to an effect, and you start thinking they might be wanting to manipulate you or say the things that would gain your appreciation of them. Do you think I won’t notice? Do you think I’m so naïve by chance? Same feeling with this video-projection. What made me particularly suspicious was the fluo colours of the flower – too much like out of a video-game. For the same reason, I’m an old-schooler who never appreciated 3D cartoons. The colours are from a shopping mall sensitivity – akin to Euronics’ blue, like they would sell you a laundry machine, instead of a fantasy like, say, Mulan or Pocahontas.

I descended the stairs and there were more video projections, in fact they were running along the all circular stairs like a moving fresco. The colours were vivid and fluo, each level would present a different level of flora and fauna, a different time of the day. It was there in the theatre that the treachery made itself more and more apparent. All the best were living together in a very close space, without violence. A sort of Noah’s Arch. In my view, nature is also violence, and in this highly synthetic representation, there was none. And it dawned on me immediately that this was a precise representation of what Singapore set itself to achieve. Once again, the art was representing the aspiration. If we start imagining something, that means it can be possible. All the different animals tucked into a small space, living in harmony. Even those whose instincts will be predatory, and those who are bound by the natural circle to be eaten. Is it really human ethics that will make them live together? Or is it more of an artificial environment? And does it matter in the end what the means are to get to the aim, as Machiavelli would put it? These questions dawned on me as I walked the installation, feeling like I was just out from an amusement park – which by the way teamLab is thinking of building. This will make up for a culture of entertainment, not for a culture of questioning. As they said: “We hope to eventually create a teamLab amusement park where visitors can be immersed in large-scale art. But beyond that, we’d love to harness the power of digital art and construct an entirely new city. We want to change the relationship between the people inhabiting the same space.”

The exhibition also showed local star Robert Zhao Renhui with a project of an entirely different nature. Like many projects of the artist, the writing has a very important role. The work consisted of photographs of local Singaporeans with their favourite tree, talking about their relationship with it. The photographs were really plain, and the writing was abundant. This didactic work was radically different from the teamLab installation and demonstrated that, even if confronted with the same topic, contemporary art could take wildly different shapes.