The Certainty / Entropy Series
The Certainty/Entropy series was produced specifically for my solo exhibition held at Hermes Singapore in 2014. I designed these four kinds of textiles, which were hand-woven by professional craftworkers in the textile museum called ‘Textile Laboratory’ in Tilburg, a southern region of the Netherlands. After then, I manually unravelled the fabrics thread by thread.
I had long dreamt about designing pieces of fabric myself. The reason for this is that it would highlight the paired notions of ‘disassembly and rebuilding,’ which are the conceptual pillars of my work.
These four types of fabrics have references to various cultures in different times, such as the 20th century Peranakan (the local culture of Singapore), 16th century Britain, Japan in the 8th century, and India in the 18th century. Parallel to that, I have also incorporated symbols found in our modern time, for example, the at-mark (@), copyright mark (©), biohazard mark (representing biological danger), organic food mark, radiation-warning symbol, and peace mark. These modern symbols are woven into the layer in which the past and modern signs are intertwined to weave a piece of fabric, and in the end, it was unravelled.
In January 2014, when I first visited Singapore in order to conduct a research for this project, I came across the local culture. Peranakan, as it is called, is an umbrella term for various aspects of the local culture in Singapore, which seem to refer to highly mixed culture born out of values and influences brought by wealthy Chinese immigrants, indigenous Malays and Indian dwellers. While Peranakan is known particularly for its fine beadwork, it seems that the term refers also to wider aspects of the local lifestyle including its distinctive colour schemes and architectural styles.
Singapore is a country where the influence of the 120-year British colonial history yet remains visible. For example, Peranakan beadwork and textiles exhibit a strong influence of British and Irish cultures. What is interesting is that while the compositions of the major textile patterns are noticeably Western, if one takes a close look, some surprising elements can be found in the patterns, such as pineapples, dragonflies and butterflies. Whilst such flying insects do not generally appear in the typical patterns of Western textiles, the tropical motifs are also incorporated in the design of Peranakan textiles. Therefore, when I saw the original piece of Peranakan fabric for the first time, it gave me a surprising reminder that its history is truly woven into the fabric.
Certainly, in regards to the fusion of cultures, indications of such hybridisation can be seen in various architectural designs around the world. However, Peranakan seems to be cheerfully adopting the culture of the coloniser despite being the colonised. The fact is that their rather gloomy history has been reflected well upon the design of local fabric in such light-hearted and delightful ways that it appeared to me quite refreshing. It may have been related to the rather relaxed and unrestrictive ways in which the British ruled the island before the Japanese invaded during the Second World War. After the encounter with the local textiles that embody its long history, I decided to incorporate Peranakan textile patterns into my new work. Simultaneously, I also began adopting other elements of traditional textile patterns with reference to the UK, India, and Japan, which all have been deeply involved in the history of Singapore.
Perhaps, modern symbols that I incorporated into the design of the fabric need more explanation. While we live in modern times being surrounded with various kinds of symbols, these symbols seem to carry multiple layers of meanings, and, in my view, they encompass even contradictions in some respect. For instance, the peace mark is supposed to be the symbol of peace, yet it has been subsumed under the logic of popular culture and even consumerism that entails exploitation. The copyright mark indicates that a particular intellectual property is copyrighted, creating a monopoly on the idea as a source of economic gains instead of democratising it. The biohazard mark warns environmental risks, often caused by humans themselves. And the bio mark (like JAS mark) shows that the product is organically grown, promoting organic farming, yet simultaneously functioning covertly as another marketing scheme. These varying symbols with subtle internal contradictions are probably derived from the survival instinct common to all humans, which seem to be related to our deep-seated desires for growth and even accumulation of wealth and power.
This realisation brought me to the question about underlying meanings of symbols and decorations in the ancient and pre-modern worlds. As we often see and read in books about textiles and decorative art, the meanings of decorations and embellishments in the ancient world were apparently fairly simple, and their explanation can usually fall into one of the three categories, such as prolific, fertility, and safety. Yet, I often wonder if their lives and desires were so simple as these three categories. Like us living in this modern age, I suppose they also had conflicting and contradictory desires that life often entails. As if illustrating this notion, for example, kings and rulers of the past made luxurious fabrics to display their wealth and power so ostentatiously. Their impulse and necessity to parade opulence were perhaps motivated, rather conversely, by the constant fear of losing their authority and status. It seems as if the more luxurious and elaborate their textiles and decorations became, the bigger the anxiety of kings was. In other words, what prompted such monumental projects may have been the very opposite of the opulence and luxuriousness so vividly visible to us today.
Another point to be mentioned is that while the degree of perfection of pre-modern ornaments is impressive, craftsmen and labour involved in those enterprises were easily killed if they refused to obey the orders of authorities, therefore there were serious tension and a sense of urgency, not comparable to the more mitigated degree of urgency that can be experienced in modern times. It is, therefore, possible to discern such degrees of urgency reflected on the perfection of the buildings and ornaments. Indeed, for them, it was a matter of life and death. Given the contradictory situation, it is difficult to say whether or not those ornaments and buildings were merely the reflections of the rulers’ simple desires to exhibit their wealth and power.
I have been examining the ancient, pre-modern and contemporary worlds through the media of textiles and their patterns. However, the issues of conflicting desires and the often-untold labour of slaves are universal and timeless for the humanity as a whole. Even though all craftsmen that designed and wove the fabrics I used in this project are long gone, I would like to continue thinking about them and perhaps even empathising with them. From the experience of conducting this research, I decided to interweave the threads of old fabrics and contemporary symbols in order to weave my own fabric.
And as the fabric was unravelled yet again by the hands of the author, such as myself, cultures of the past and the present started melting into one another. The end result eventually became the fabric of my own and perhaps even our time. And one day, someone finds it long after I am dead and may imagine the time that I have lived in. I like old tapestries and figurines displayed in museums and books, as they invite me into the worlds in which their authors lived and breathed.