Fear took hold of him. Gripping tightly to the lamp, he reeled, and looked round. The water was carrying his feet away, he was dizzy. He did not know which way to turn. The water was whirling , whirling, the whole black night was swooping in rings. He swayed uncertainly at the centre of all the attack, reeling in dismay. In his soul, he knew he would fall.(1)
A man drowns in “The Rainbow”, D. H. Lawrence’s censored saga of human emotion and perception. The cause of the man’s duress is a liquid leviathan, a rainstorm has forced an embankment to collapse and release a torrent of water, which sweeps him into oblivion. 21st century readers of this seminal text would pause and reflect upon contemporary tragedies, notably the effects of Hurricane Katrina in the United States and the earthquake in Sichuan, China. With the media being riddled with reports of natural disasters, global warming has become the ubiquitous culprit of contemporary times. Our fascination with nature-gone-bad is exemplified by the legion of Youtubers logging onto the internet seeking out the latest postings from global Storm Chasers. “Storm” not only reflects upon this condition, but also tempers the cult of disaster from becoming a depressive envelopment. The torrential downpours that seasonally drench Singapore and oftentimes, render its inhabitants immobile inspired its creator, who is a regular visitor to the city. Seo has conjured up a natural form, kaleidoscopic in composition, gigantic in dimension and highly visible as a metaphorical beacon. She has reconfigured the glass atrium originally designed to protect the Neo-Palladian/Renaissance façade from light and humidity. The effect the artist produces is of a harnessed leviathan interred within close proximity to a historical façade. Its presence causes a vertiginous moment.
"Storm” contains both the public and the museum within a seemingly volatile landscape. Nature assumes the role of a giant while the public becomes miniaturized. “Storm” is awesome, encompassing, panoramic and sublime. Its sheer size prompts the point of view of the museum visitor to travel backwards to a pre-modern era when collective opinion became usurped by individual experience. During that time, the predominance of the subjective came to fore as a reaction to the public realm, which was quickly becoming absorbed with the mechanized progression towards industrialization. The mind turned inward. It considered its own being while surveying the gigantism of nature dominated by man who had developed the capability of transforming environments into corporeal landscapes and the hideous into the gorgeous. “The gigantic becomes an explanation for the environment, a figure on the interface between the natural and the human. Hence our words for the landscape are often projections of an enormous body upon it: the mouth of the river, the foot-hills, the fingers of the lake, the heartlands, the elbow of the stream.”(2) In “Storm’s” case, its creator considered the symbolism of being in the eye of a storm, which is a place of contained calm and temporary appeasement. Seo does not often mention her pedagogical relationship to the medical profession and her interest in the mechanisms of the body. In her youth, she studied pre-med prior to switching to the academic route of earning a Masters of Fine Arts. This early influence consistently surfaces in her installational work as the absent body informs every physical space that she has been commissioned to work with. She interprets the experience of architectural form to be of a perceptual body moving through a greater corpus.(3) Seo conducted a comprehensive research of the National Singapore Museum site and its collections. She was particularly moved by the stories presented in the Singapore History Gallery. The drama of life is presented in a theatrical format with tableaus, murals and an audiovisual tour that commands the museum visitor’s senses. The gallery houses a vast collective memory. The artist’s encounter with such a massive archive caused her to consider how an aesthetic form could serve as an analogical corpus to the museum’s collections as well as offer the viewer a singular cogent space. She fabricated an architectural model of the atrium and, from that point of view of perceiving the space in miniature, decided to transform the atrium into a theatre.
Antonin Artaud has written about the alchemical characteristic of theatre and the medium’s ability to act as a double for reality.(4) The atrium once bathed in natural light and swathed in a grid pattern has been transformed into a voluptuous geometry. Not only does the image envelop the area it also serves as a backdrop for a constant flow of human traffic. A key theme in all of Seo’s installations is that of the prominence of the individual’s perception. She does this by creating spatial environments constructed solely for the purpose of enhancing meditative wandering and thwarting the constant attrition imposed upon daily life. “Storm” is not only a double of an actual storm, it responds to human imploring.
Vaguely she knew the huge powers of the world rolling and crashing together, darkly, clumsily, stupidly, yet colossal so that one brushed along almost as dust. Helpless, helpless, swirling like dust! Yet she wanted so hard to rebel, to rage, to fight. But with what?(5)
By utilizing a colorful curvaceous geometry, Seo’s storm appears rainbow-like rather than cyclonic. Unlike its natural counterpart, “Storm” does not obliterate. It operates as a curtain, protecting the miniaturized corpus and enabling individuals to inhabit a perceptual space. Museum visitors no longer feel as if they are simply navigating an institutional space, but instead are experiencing a visceral moment.
(1) See Lawrence, D.H., "The Rainbow" (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1915)
(2) See Stewart, Susan, "On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection" (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993)
(3) Interview with Artist in Seoul (February, 2008)
(4) See Antonin, Artaud, "The Theater and Its Double" (New York: Grove Press, 1958)
(5) See Lawrence, D.H., "The Rainbow" (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1915)
Exhibition Catalog Essay
National Museum of Singapore
Exhibition Catalog Essay
National Museum of Singapore