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"A rose is a rose is a rose": Openness in Interpretation

Writer Hilary Yeo questions five interdisciplinary artists on closing the gap between their artistic motivations and their audience's interpretation.

SO-FAR studios

Audience members participate in a workshop by Zhiyi Cao and Chong Lii. Image courtesy, 2020.

Audience members participate in a workshop by Zhiyi Cao and Chong Lii. Image courtesy, 2020.

In 1913, Gertrude Stein wrote the line “a rose is a rose is a rose” into a poem she titled Sacred Emily [1]. It was clever, reductive and wonderfully malleable, both in language and in form. What Stein so effectively demonstrated in the essence of the phrase itself was a radical openness in meaning and perception; where the applications of its opening and closing become just as obscured as when they are conceived. Each iteration of “a rose” is not simply an illustration of its current definition, nor a concretisation of its previous meaning, but “a rose” is simultaneously a projection of the word’s limits in interpretation within the next “rose”. If Stein had only a limited number of definitions for the phrase, then the reader could potentially present an infinity of possible interpretations far exceeding Stein’s. Each “rose” could be conceived arbitrarily and in contrast; creating openness between what is truth, reality, perception or interpretation.

During Singapore Art Week, the art space Supernormal presented an attempt at interrogating the context of such an “openness” in the creation and interactions of art. The succinctly titled Open Workshop was a series aimed at kneading out “the body’s encounter and entanglement with systems… 2. Taken from Umberto Eco’s 1962 notion of “the open work” [3], where the traditional function of an artist was a constricting factor to art’s meaning, Open Workshop asserted that the potential of art is to stretch beyond a distinctly subjective experience. With each artist conducting “open” workshops to curate particular forms of interactions, the exhibition set out to liberate art from the confines of its framework, ultimately including the audience as an active part within the creation of a work. While each piece was conceptualised by the artists, they each carved out spaces of ambiguity, purposed for applied interactions that would fill the space with a perceived futurity. Definitive meanings as set out by the artists could then become dissolved, while the audience could turn into agents of closure to fill in those gaps. 

There were a total of five workshops conducted by five artists within the participatory programme of Open Workshop . All these iterations were framed in tandem with the others, affirming the limitless possibility of meanings across each work and the audience — just like in Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose”. But if Stein’s interpretation of “a rose” can be embodied and disembodied countless times, constructing immeasurable associations between Stein and the reader; therein lies the danger of interpretation within “openness” as well. As meanings get potentially realised in interaction, they can just as quickly become obliterated through applications of closure, creating values that are unwarranted or even chaotic. Is it then tolerable for an artist to regard their work as one removed from its original intent? I posed some questions to each Open Workshop artist in a bid to not only understand the unique processes and motivations in curating “openness”, but also to dissect the possibilities of interpretation once meaning has been applied in “closure” by their audience.

The Hot Purity of Mathematic Love/ TrustEquations=
{[IMPRINT]} x Compression∞Expansion [+]Wiggly [Luman]1.618[Memory] -/+[TIME/SPACE] [In/out]} by Joo Choon Lin

Hilary Yeo: Would you like to elaborate on the meanings behind the symbols in the title of your work?

Joo Choon Lin: The equations in the title appear like a formula, although it doesn’t work at all like scientific or mathematic formulae which produce rigid conclusions. The infinite flow and continuity of my title suggests otherwise — it works more like a question for my audience. I’m exploring a more playful way of making, rather than having concrete conclusions that lead to unnecessary resistance, preventing open possibilities and outcomes.

Joo Choon Lin, The Hot Purity of Mathematic Love/ TrustEquations

Joo Choon Lin, The Hot Purity of Mathematic Love/ TrustEquations= {[IMPRINT]} x Compression∞Expansion [+]Wiggly [Luman]1.618[Memory] -/+[TIME/SPACE] [In/out]} (Detail), 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

HY: How do you perceive your audience and their reception of your work? 

JCL: I see my audience as a mirror of myself. While observing participants during the workshop, I can reflect on how they experience material while exploring the work. Participants become receptive to what they are touching because they are picking up impressions, generating stimuli in the brain that excites cognitive activity. Clay is physical. You can throw it, rub against it, smell it and it can cause you to breathe differently, or even sweat, shifting experiences into another aspect of the brain. In these instances of pure play, we use a different form of intelligence to feel emotion more intuitively and less consciously.

In these instances of pure play, we use a different form of intelligence to feel emotion more intuitively and less consciously.

workshop by Joo Choon Lin

Audience members participate in a workshop by Joo Choon Lin. Image courtesy, 2020.

Most of us understand intellect as a process of conscious thinking, partly due to the influence of western knowledge. In eastern practices like Zen [4], the significance of exercising cognition is not through conscious thinking; another intelligence is what is truly doing the work. This is how I have approached art.

Geofences by Teow Yue Han

HY: How have you considered form, shape and structure, as it relates to openness, in constructing your work?

Teow Yue Han: I was trying to think more liberally about form and structure, as the work I created exists more in the realm of the ”invisible” and unseen, therefore also occupying spaces that are more “open”. The forms that I am considering here are the entanglements of disruptive economies, data streams, geo-fencing efforts, migrant labour and sweat. Geofences is a piece that utilises the assemblage of ideas surrounding the failure of bike sharing in Singapore and the afterlife of the bikes, many of which were used by migrant workers from Bangladesh and India. I hope to speak about the congealed migrant labour, circulation and economies of movement as well.

HY: Most of the labour embodied in Geofences comes in an obvious form. What other interpretations of labour does your audience “close”?

Teow Yue Han, Geofences

Teow Yue Han, Geofences, 2020, Image courtesy

TYH: Some of the signs of labour in the work include the modifications made by the 6 participants in the “bike kitchen” [5], the hard labour of Ofo bike [6] collectors in compliance with geo-fencing efforts, the labour of filmmaking, and most importantly the invisible labour of migrant workers who searched, gathered, stripped and compressed discarded bikes. Perhaps the audiences who view this piece are able to embody some of these processes of labour, recalling their experiences while travelling around with these shared bikes. I want them to rethink their interactions with these objects as a sort of complicit politics behind the social kineaesthetic of these bikes.

Miss Q by Denise Yap

HY: Realities often get disrupted by chaotic interpretations. How did you subvert the construction of such  “openness” in your work?

Denise Yap: For me, openness is accessibility. For Open Workshop , I “opened” up and demystified the process of Miss Q by allowing the audience to understand how I applied sound in the work. 

But demystification is limited. Harmful or chaotic perceptions are inevitable when they become inseparable from naturalised reality. What do I mean by this? The argument against non-heterocentric families is their prevalence in nature. Homosexuality and polyamory do exist outside of the human species. Ecological study opens up possibilities to interpretation, releasing tight restrictions on the idea of “the natural”. And so, ecology has political dimensions.

Denise Yap, Miss Q, 2020

Denise Yap, Miss Q, 2020, Image courtesy

People now have an easier time differentiating between their mobile ringtones than the calls of a hawk or an osprey. We’ve become naturalised to see the man-made as something normal, whereas ecology pushes naturalisation into the unknown. The openness in my work stems from that.

We’ve become naturalised to see the man-made as something normal, whereas ecology pushes naturalisation into the unknown.

HY: In the current climate, the unpredictable “open” possibilities to futurity draws immense anxiety. Do you find that speculation mediates some of that anxiety?

DY: You are right — our future is unknown. It is a big void that I have only started thinking and writing about in small scenarios, drifting into methods of speculation. 

Though it may feel a little abstract and far off, inventing bigger narratives may be a method to combat heteronormativity. The vastness of language has afforded us the beauty of speculation. That’s where my practice resides. You wouldn’t think Miss Q is an orchid because an orchid like this has never existed, whereas the artwork’s speculation affirms an alternative kinship with a world where it can. So speculation in my practice is a way for me to feel like I can fully exist, or even begin to think of who I am. Likewise, Miss Q has moved through various stages of evolution — from being a gesture of formality, to an object of kinship, to where she is now, with solar panels as part of the effort towards renewable energy.

Live Creatives Show by Zhiyi Cao in collaboration with Chong Lii

HY: Live Creatives Show (LCS) looks and feels like reality TV. Would you consider it a part of that genre?

Zhiyi Cao: I’m not too concerned about categorisation, although “reality TV-inspired” is probably the most befitting description. The mimicry we engage with is not an attempt to devour or exercise mastery over this original format. But it is the conversation we yearn — a lack of control, a subjugation to the dictates of an environment and a contained spiral (both physically and temporally) within a safe test-site. The reality TV format came to fit the bill nicely but uncannily — with its surveillance tech, attenuation to reality, and its slightly contrived and absurd premises.

HY: Was it a necessity for LCS to be based upon a fundamental reality in order to function?

Zhiyi Cao and Chong Lii, Live Creatives Show (Detail), 2020

Zhiyi Cao and Chong Lii, Live Creatives Show (Detail), 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.

Chong Lii: Representation may have felt inevitable during the show’s run, but that’s because we had strangers who were suddenly obligated to appear together on, off and behind the camera. They tended to rely on advancing platitudes to accelerate illusions of bonding and cooperation. A certain fatigue laces this sort of betrayal. I’d like to believe LCS exists within a rigor mortis in that it performs a past life…

Zhiyi Cao: I always think reality TV is like a warped mirror we hold up to ourselves as para-factual entertainment, where reality is lived as fiction, and mimicry is mutual and requited. The self-awareness we expect and dutifully receive creates a fissure — a parallel world steeped in the tropes of what an art world microcosm should be like, yet it is nothing like it at all. Perhaps it’s just the betrayal of that “fundamental reality” that we are actually seeking.

HY: What were the ethical risks such as stereotypes, social biases, and other possibly negative tropes of interpretation that you had to consider in filming LCS ?

Zhiyi Cao: There was an autonomy in the way our cast engaged with the nature of this shoot, but anyone understands the risk of having your sense of performativity interpreted under the scrutiny of the camera lens. That said, what we hate about a character is often what we relate to the most. As an artist, I am more intrigued by the tension and potential misinterpretation. But as a producer, I have to check in with the cast so it makes sense during the process in order to understand where they are at.

sifrmu by Bani Haykal

HY: Do you find that radical entanglements contribute to an openness in interpretation?

Bani Haykal: The kind of radical entanglement I’d like to imagine here is one that is premised around the act of not knowing. Identifying the ability “to know” as potentially tyrannical is also to say that a thing is impenetrable, for as long as it doesn’t impose itself upon anything, i.e. cause harm. But more essentially, radical entanglement is about trusting the relationship of a shared common environment. Its framework is where “liberation” can be built upon respecting the unknowable, not negating the possibility of decoding or decrypting unknowns as a means of expanding our shared relations.

HY: The “openness” within applications of text in today’s social climate potentially pose a threat to the freedom of interpretation. We think of platforms of Twitter and their users like Donald Trump. How do you see this in regards to your work?

BH: Text is a kind of blunt knife. It is ineffective in undressing meaning. Tweets get attention but are the murkiest representations of meaning because they do not yield to openness at all. They are immediate — an assertion of access to information. It’s an illusion of “openness” which is unhelpful in clarifying what we don’t already know. 

Sifrmu is a personal work about sharing an unknown. The Arab language is completely foreign to me. However, Jawi script — which borrows directly from Arabic — is an interface which allows me to gain literacy for an earlier form of written Malay. I wouldn’t say that sifrmu is about Arabic and Jawi relations, but I am interested in the biology of intimacy: how we connect to each other through our differences, and our capabilities of transformation and mutation.

Bani Haykal performing sifrmu.

Bani Haykal performing sifrmu. Image courtesy, 2020.

  • 1.

    Gertrude Stein was an American novelist, poet and playwright associated with the modernist movement. She wrote the poem “Sacred Emily” and popularised the phrase “a rose is a rose is a rose” in 1913.

  • 2.

    Taken from the “Open Workshop” catalogue written by Ang Kia Yee.

  • 3.

    Umberto Eco, “The Poetics of the Open Work,” in The Open Work (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 1-23.

  • 4.

    Zen is the radical practice of“objectless meditation”, a path of relinquishing all things, including the self.

  • 5.

    The Bike Liberation Kitchen is a project to liberate bikes from their corporate and bureaucratic shackles, for the usage of the communities based in and around Geylang.

  • 6.

    Ofo is a Beijing-based bicycle sharing company. Founded in 2014, the system is deckless and only requires a smartphone app to use, charges users an hourly rate to ride the shared bikes. It was rolled out in Singapore in 2017. In 2019, it was decommissioned as a service in the nation-state.

Artists and Contributors

Hilary Yeo

Hilary Yeo

Hilary Yeo is an artist and writer who is keen on exploring contingencies between vectors of gender, sexuality, race, class and culture. As part of her practice, she employs speculative approaches to her works as means to the articulation and agentic formation of the physical and social self.