A text by Shubigi Rao in response to artworks by Tuan Mami, Maryanto and Cole Sternberg.
Cole Sternberga most impressive manifestation of world building, 2019 Mixed media on linen
203 x 193 cm
We think of land, whether scape or mass, as fixed, plottable, and firmly tethered to our Earth. We think of land as thing, not phase. But our planet is a microcosm of densely packed time, holding in its strata every accident, incident, upheaval, motion, and collision.
Current continents were once islands, vast floating landmasses breaking apart, Pangea becoming Gondwanaland, the latter becoming India, pushing smaller unfortunate island strings out of its way, on its inexorable drift northwards to ram into Asia.
The scar of that prehistoric collision is the Himalayas, which is where I grew up and where I found my first ammonite. Imprint, fossil of a prehistoric marine animal carried on that remorseless migration, 50 million years ago, marooned 3000 metres above sea level.
The summit of Everest, the highest point on Earth, is composed of marine corals and limestone. The tectonic plates are still moving, and they were what triggered the deadly explosion of Krakatoa, which in turn sent its dust to circumnavigate the globe. Volcanic eruptions destroy in an instant, as they did in this case.
Cole Sternbergtheir silence was audible, 2021
I remember reading about it as a child, being fascinated with its annihilation in 1883. Too young to fully comprehend the dreadful loss of life, I was captivated instead by the factoids that accompanied it, like the way its explosions were heard halfway around the world. That weather patterns were disrupted by clouds of dust, ash that orbited the globe, and that the shock waves circled the planet seven times. That spectacular sunsets were visible all around the Earth for a year, and in the British Isles, those sunsets would be captured by landscape painters.
Cole Sternbergthe sphere of activity that is really congenial, 2021
Charles Darwin recognised that in the Tahitian reefs, and wrote his first scientific treatise on it. But before him was Johann Reinhold Forster, who a century earlier recognised that the atoll rings that lay just below the surface of the ocean, visible and fragile, were built solely of tiny animalcules, coral and other calcareous creatures that lay their foundations on the ocean floor, miniscule organisms growing in rings as bulwark against the ocean, tenaciously growing in layer upon layer, endeavouring for millennia to reach the light.
- Cole Sternberg, Ocean Reveries
The highest mountains on earth were once shoreline. The Great Barrier Reef is mountain, submerged. Chiri mo tsumoreba yama tonaru. Even dust, piled up, becomes a mountain.
If the geology of a landscape is compressed time, then its creatures are the offspring of migration and place. Breeding on its surface are the peculiar offshoots of its self-containment in space, bombarded by cosmic radiation, and whatever stray embryonic pods the wind and waves, deposits of guano and even a spade may bring.
In a book from my childhood I read an account by Sir John Hooker where, leading an exploring party on “a lonely uninhabited land at the other side off the world” they found some common English chickweed. Following the patches of the plant, they came upon a mound covered in it. The mound was the grave of an English sailor who had died at sea, and Hooker realized that the chickweed seeds had probably been carried across vast oceans, and transplanted by the gravedigger’s spade. Whether teeming or barren the animated inhabitants of a landscape are as much a product of its anomalous inner geography, its latitude and the ceaseless transplanting of dispersed seeds, carried on the waves and the wind, on the soles of shoes and blades of spades, radiation both cosmic and terrestrial.
MaryantoSand Miner Bivouac, 2021 Scratching, acrylic on canvas
200 x 100 cm
Every one of us born after the 1950s, the age of intensive nuclear testing, carries in our bodies the memory of those tests. During the eight-year period between 1955 to 1963, atomic bomb tests resulted in a doubling of carbon-14 in our atmosphere, to be absorbed by the soil, then into plants, on into animals and humans, becoming quite ironically, a way to map our modern Achilles heel. Every single tree, everywhere on this planet, that existed in 1954 carries a ‘spike’, a memory of atomic bombs. There is no inviolable landscape. The inner landscape of our planet is essentially a fission reactor, slowly releasing radioactive isotopes, the energy from it slow decay keeping its core molten, sustaining all life. This dense globe holds within it the knowledge of progression of all life, extinct and extant. It is totality hot-housed, a blip in the immensity of time, an oddity floating in immeasurable space.
“In the continuum of landscape, mountains are discontinuity -- culminating in high points, natural barriers, unearthly earth.”
The general instability of or planet is reflected in the mutability of landscapes, rendering them risky propositions, even when deemed to be of strategic importance. “Every [North Korean] artist at some time in their life paints two mountains”, – Mount Paekdu, homeland of the Korean revolution, and Mount Kumgangsan, which overlaps North and South Korea, symbol of schism and sameness. The territorial claims of nations can find easy scapegoats in even rocky outcrops barely large enough to hold a flag-wielding human. We creep closer to our enemies with our reclamations and reshaping of shorelines, foreign sand and soil suffocating coral reefs that never emerged to make it to island status, terraforming the sea into temporary submission. Ours is the story of terrestrial warring with the planet, gouging it with our quarrels and quarries, as restless, shiftless and mutable as our landscapes.
All lands are in flux, and this is evident in our attempts to map them. No site is measurable with absolute certainty, politically, geographically and cartographically speaking. From the earliest maps that charted the vanities and yearnings of its cartographers and empires, to the failure of our familiar Mercator’s map to measure continents with comparative accuracy, all atlases are poor attempts to fix, to pin down the shape-shifting landscape. The Mercator projection may depict rhumb lines and equatorial masses with fair accuracy, though it distorts greatly as we move towards the poles. The Gall-Peters map is more accurate, with Peters going so far as to label the Mercator projection a form of “cartographic imperialism”. However even the Gall-Peters map fails at distance fidelity. Currently no known map can accurately preserve distance and size uniformly, and so all our projections, our plots and plans, our charts and cartographies are ultimately futile, leaving us with only the poetic and the painted.
Cole Sternberga dream of an adventurous route, 2021
Landscape painting then becomes a way to tether, to create a fixable frame in which the landscape is bounded, yet sublime, and is also appreciate-able. As a genre it is one of inheritability, where the real is not necessarily relevant, but the tradition of awe, sublimity, form, mass, lightness and reflection are paramount. It carries within it the burden of our grappling with the natural realm, the tempestuous and the tamed, the pastoral and the modern. Embedded within it are all the connotations of ownership – whether that of home, nation, or colonising souvenir. To see the landscape in the singular is to be aware of the racialist, ethnographic and anthropologic device employed when speculating upon the unfamiliar and unknown.
It is a reduction of the disorder and divergence of teeming, unruly life to a signifying specific as representation of the native, the observed, the other. But all our conquered lands eventually fall, and all the great monuments are but melancholic memorials of crumbled civilisations. Our lands are loams of dead cells, compost-heaps and graveyards. Every mountain, monument of man comes to dust.
Our described landscapes are dangerous, embodying all the markers of our identities, whether mapped, walled, plotted or painted. Every described landscape betrays our blindspots, our ideological entanglements and knotted roots, the vicious thickets of our jostling existence on a surface that is never ours. More than borrowed time, our species exists on borrowed lands, and though we bury deep that knowledge, instead laying our claims with deeds and records, songs, anthems, pledges and paintings, no land is truly ours, and we are of no land.
Words by Shubigi Rao, August 2018
Shubigi Rao (b. 1975, India) is an artist and writer who makes layered installations of books, etchings, drawings, pseudoscientific machines, metaphysical puzzles, video works, ideological board games, and archives. These often immersive and tongue-in-cheek works demonstrate her diverse interests in subjects such as archaeology, neuroscience, libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies, and natural history.
Shubigi Rao graduated from Delhi University, India, in 1996, with a BA (Hons) in English Literature, followed by a BA and MA in Fine Arts from LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Since 2014 she has been visiting public and private collections, libraries and archives globally for 'Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book', a decade-long film, book and visual art project about the history of book destruction, Her first book was shortlisted for the biennal Singapore Literature Prize 2018 (non-fiction).The second book from the series won hte SIngapore Literature Prize (nonfiction) in 2020. The first instalment of the project 'Written in the Margins', won the Juror's Choice Award at the APB Signature Art Prize 2018. She was included in the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial (2021-22), the 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2018), 10th Taipei Biennial (2016), 3rd Pune Biennale (2017), and the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008) . Rao will represent Singapore at the Singapore Pavilion in La Biennale di Venezia (Arte) in 2022. She is the Curator for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale South Asia's biggest visual arts event. She lives and works in Singapore.
Cole Sternberg is a conceptual artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. His practice contemplates humanity’s existential quandary: that of being hopelessly destructive, yet forever and inevitably linked with nature. Through varied media (including painting, sculpture, installation, performance, photography, film and writing), Sternberg positions the aspirations of humankind against the dominant and regenerative forces of the environment and the arbitration of time. For the artist, the conclusion is unavoidable.
His works are held by major collections throughout the world, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMoA), the American University Museum (AUM) and Deutsche Telekom. It has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Whitewall Magazine, Issue Magazine, Autre Magazine, Hercules, Denver Post, Miami New Times, LA Weekly, Art Ltd., Architectural Digest, Angeleno, Sleek, Metal Magazine, ArtNet, Cool Hunting, Santa Barbara Magazine, Huffington Post and Elephant.
Maryanto (b.1977, Indonesia) creates evocative, black and white paintings, drawings, and installations that undermine the romantic language of traditional landscape painting to examine socio-political structures in the physical spaces that he depicts. Through fable-like and theatrical settings, these landscapes are subjected to the whims of colonisers and capitalists through technological development, industrialisation, pollution of the land and exploitation of its natural resources.
Maryanto graduated from the Faculty of Fine Art, Indonesia Institute of the Art, Yogyakarta in 2005, and completed a residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2013. Maryanto has recently presented solo exhibitions at Yeo Workshop, Singapore (2017 and 2015); Art Basel Hong Kong, Discoveries Section (2016); the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam; ArtAffairs, Amsterdam; and Heden, Denhaag (2013).
Tuan Mami (b. 1981, Vietnam) is a multidisciplinary artist who creates installations, video works, as well as performances and conceptual situations. His meditative experiments, daringly performed in both public and private spaces, draw attention to his interests in observing and taking part in dynamics of human encounters. Mami also critiques elements of society and challenges its perceptions. Tuan Mami studied Graphic Design at the Hanoi Open University in 2002 and graduated from the Hanoi Fine Art University in 2006. He has recently completed residencies at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2016) and the Asia Culture Centre, Gwangju, South Korea (2015). Mami has recently presented solo exhibitions at the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2018); Framer Framed, Rotterdam, Netherlands; Heritage Space, Hanoi, Vietnam, (2017); Snail Night, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2016); Nha San Collective, Hanoi, Vietnam; Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, Chicago, USA; PØST, Los Angeles, USA (2013); Halle 6, Munich, Germany; and Hooyong Performing Arts Centre, Gangwondo, South Korea (2011).