Sou Fujimoto and the Serpentine Gallery pavilion

first look

A couple weeks ago I was in London to visit family. Now, for some people this might be extra stressful, but my family are cool and I love them. My cousin, who’s just graduated from Newcastle Uni, is extra into modern art, so we did this whole museum crawl of exciting places that she’d read up on beforehand.

I really don’t get modern art all that often; the Serpentine Gallery had some rather odd things. This one, in particular, was quite unfathomable:

rock on top of another

Called (wait for it) ‘Rock on top of another rock’, by Fischli/Weiss, the description just had a few too many long words in it for something that simple. Hmm. Yes. Maybe I was missing something in my uncultured barbarian state.

pram

But then there was this absolutely awesome pavilion by Sou Fujimoto, which made everything ok. So fun to climb around on and interact with. Was it ‘indoors’ or ‘outdoors’? A manmade artificial structure, or something much more natural and organic? Amazing how you could create your own experience of the structure, from above, within, different angles, and in your own head.

There were lots of people there just hanging out and enjoying the experience. Also helped by the fact that there was a Fortnum and Mason cafe inside the pavilion.

people basking

people coming in

Determined that my summer shall include more weird and wonderful things like this!

Have a weird and wonderful weekend, everyone.

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breaking the habit

two habits, to be precise – one’s facebook, and the other alcohol. these will probably be temporary departures. the first is because i need to buckle down and get my arse started on packing. i don’t think i’ll be packing the island of singapore over to boston, but i should start early, because – 1) how much i pack over may not be up to my discretion, since my parents will be traveling with me, and they might connive otherwise; 2) you never know what horrible surprises might be sprung upon you at the last minute, and it’s always good to leave yourself some breathing space; and 3) i’m planning to pack some magic cards over and i need to decide which binder and which decks i’m gonna bring over. now that i’ve been off facebook for, admittedly, only 2 days, i’m finding myself with so much more time to fawn over magic cards/ read gaddis or chabon or igarashi/ exercise… much to my merriment i have confirmed the existence of life beyond hitting facebook and showing other people you have a life. not sure how long this is going to last, and i have told some people i will come back to facebook once i get used to boston, but there you go.

the second habit – you know substance abuse? some people might say i’m the most incorrigible alcoholic they know, but i think that’s still not enough to say with certainty that i’m a drinker to the point of abuse… but i think, if i don’t check myself, i’ll find myself there someday. if you keep to your measure that’s all good, but sometimes i find myself drinking just for the sake of it, at first seeking a high, but after that seeking nothing except the drowsy release that transmogrifies my guilt into a laughing subconscious and leaves me utterly damned when i next come to my senses.

that has to go. when i first started (cue the laughter – i don’t know when that is), it was partially because of me being fundamentally uncomfortable socialising. i know that sounds like a stretch since i talk loudest and longest at social events, but it’s dutch courage, really. alcohol is what i go to when i want bravado, wit and the silliness to kill silences with one trite or stupid comment or another. and of course, if it’s all of us drinking, it’s the good ol’ social lubricant theory. alcohol made conversation that much more fun. we could pretend not to care if someone made a silly comment, or we could pretend our comment was not silly, through the hazy camaraderie we could laugh about something up to a point. and at home, if still drunk, i could write, stare at the result, and say ‘it’s not bad’, and hit the post button before it was too late to redeem myself. but now, alcohol as the stream of my consciousness is a raging, surging river. it’s capsized the boat, it stops me cold, it cuts my arguments into shreds, it reduces my words to primal sounds. i try to make new conversation and fail, and so i fall back on my old yarns, about moscow and japan when i’m in singapore, and about tohoku and singapore when i’m in tokyo. it’s slick if you’ve heard it for the first time. after all, those stories go through telling and retelling, and after a while they’re polished beyond recognition. but nowhere in that kind of conversation do you see a lucid mind; it’s just bobbing about with what is the mental equivalent of a life float. and when you do try to muster some kind of conversation, most likely in response to something interesting you hear from your friends, you can’t rise to the occasion. it’s just a lack of knowledge and a slow instinct lending itself to awkward responses, and you save the situation by launching into your spiel again.

and so drinking – it’s got to give, at least for now (i can hear some of my closest friends sniggering in the background – ‘how long will that be? last you did it it didn’t last a week’. well, i don’t know – for as long as it takes for me to get used to the idea of drinking a beer or two and stopping there, without getting irritated or thirsty or both). one day i will go, bottle in hand, to the ball game, or i’ll be nursing it in the company of good friends, and i won’t feel the need to spend half my time spinning the latest yarn and the other half gulping liquid fire. i’ll be at ease with myself. mightn’t be comfortable with the fact that i’m still prone to silly gaffes and stupid responses, but you know, won’t feel the need to atone for it. perhaps facebook and alcohol share something in that they’re stages for me to do my song-and-dance routine, a smile and a wave, a retiring behind the curtains only to come out again seeking the next encore. that’s probably an intensely stupid analogy. but the message remains the same: i’m breaking the habit.

dear Warwick graduand

warwick graduation

Dear Warwick graduand,

I’m glad that the sun has been shining for your graduation this week. That’ll sure look nice in those photos. I hope you’ve had a good time and not too much trouble keeping your family happy.

Just as an ‘oldy mouldy’ who’s seen a few Warwick graduations – fourteen, to be precise – come and go, I wonder if you might allow me, for an instant, to burst into all this Bubble hubbub, to burst your bubble.

I would like to invite you to identify who, or what, receives the honour from your graduation ceremony. There are two time-honoured ways of recognising what humanity values – the diary (time) and the wallet (money).

Let us think – you have spent the last three, maybe four, years of your life learning the ways of the world on this campus, examining some of the foundational theories of your academic discipline, and hopefully making some lifelong friends and not getting too drunk or high along the way. This has been, without a doubt, a formative period in your life. And you are emerging from it – you, with all your gifts and genius and weirdness and just distinctive individual interesting humanness – to a ceremony that allows you to walk across a stage for 30 seconds. Wearing basically the same outer costume as everyone else in your department (compulsory or else you cannot walk across the stage), identified only as ‘a degree holder in your subject’, and distinguished only from the other people walking on before and after you by the hierarchy of your degree classifications on your certificates. Hmm.

Let us think – someone has paid tens of thousands of pounds for your university education. Someone, somewhere, has worked really hard to generate enough of a surplus over and above the costs of survival, that you could be here. You yourself maybe, like many of my friends, have had to work part-time to keep yourself here. It has also cost your parents quite a bit to be present today (and astronomically more, if they’ve travelled from abroad) – look at that nice frock mum is wearing. And now that they are here, guess what? It costs yet more for you to be part of the 30-second walk across the stage in the right costume. Those flowers and balloons are not free. If your department is having a celebratory event, it also comes with a price tag. Hmm.

I am not saying that you should not have fun. I am not saying that you should not smile in those sun-drenched photos and be happy and have a great day. What I am saying is, understand that the flows of time and money on your graduation day are not really being directed by the University towards your honour – not very much, anyway.

What I am saying is, the universities across this country, indeed the world, convert the natural curiosity of young adults and the love that their parents have for them into large flows of time and money that shore up the university system. I am not saying that it is the universities’ fault either; that just seems to be the system, and indeed as far as Warwick goes, it’s a brilliant university to have spent three years at. Also, I know, I know, you have the day to get on with, and you’re not going to change the system today. But perhaps we should ask – as we pause to take off those high heels and apply plasters in between camera flashes – what exactly is it that we are shoring up? What are we celebrating and honouring? And perhaps more importantly, what should we really be celebrating and honouring instead?

Here are some suggestions.

1. You made it – many people don’t. Celebrate that somehow, partly through your own effort but very largely not, today the sun is shining and you are on a campus savouring this particular moment in your life. What a gift. Why should you be so lucky?

Please do NOT celebrate the fact that you, by your supreme human effort, have successfully climbed to the top of a very slippery pile, which usually involves desensitisation to your own values, and are looking smugly downward at all the other bodies that you have stepped on. Gross.

2. Your ‘framily’ – these are your friends and family who really, really do care about you. That flatmate who held your hair back when you were throwing up over the toilet. Your long-suffering parents who kept phoning you even when you weren’t really interested. Please, celebrate that you have them. Celebrate them.

If you are hoping that your 30-second moment of glory on the stage will produce this magic rush of approval and affirmation, and wishing that your awkward teenage brother and decrepit grandmother weren’t here, then have I got news for you. You are probably not going to finish your life rich and famous, but you can finish your life with lorryloads of framily. Public approval and affirmation will not make you feel deeply loved. Framily, although it is slow-burn and sometimes induces feelings of going crazy, will.

3. Uni Veritas – universities were originally started as a place for scholars to find the ‘one Truth’, the ‘Uni Veritas’, and to learn to live by it. Now, I happen to think that the original ‘one Truth’ that these places were set up for people to find is completely valid, because Jesus is the only thing (Person) that has ever made my world cohere. But this is not really about that, not directly anyway. The point is, celebrate the discoveries that you have made over the last three or four years as to how you want to live your life. Celebrate that you have certain values, which move you to live for things that are bigger than yourself. Celebrate your choices made consistent with those values, especially when you were tempted to sell out. Celebrate those times when you chose courage and fought fear. Celebrate your in this manner becoming more fully alive and human.

In other words, today, please don’t celebrate the university system, and please don’t celebrate yourself instead of that system. Celebrate your good fortune (‘God’, if you like), your community, and your ability to sell out your life for something much bigger than yourself.

Grace and peace, and sunshiney photos xx

jettison

i’ve done so many things over the past week, and – perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s just laziness and a lack of practice – i’m not sure where to start, or how to organise all these thoughts into a coherent passage. after helping out at the direct schools admissions of hc, and then going to rj to help mfa with their scholarship fair booth… it’s only fair to feel old, out of your depth, etc. told the kids at hc i was ‘two times your age plus alpha’, and, after telling the rj students i graduated eight years ago, ended up fielding endless questions about ‘[my] job at mfa’ and how it’s like ‘to work in a country other than singapore’. found them flabbergasted when i described how i’m still waiting to do my masters, but hey, that’s life. i remember clumping anyone above j3 status into the rank of ‘supersenior’ back when i was in jc. only natural that i should fall victim to this same instinct my juniors have clearly inherited.

but there are things i want to say, about how smart they are, how eloquent they are, how endearing they are. there’s nothing bad to say – there’s empathy in abundance, i think, beyond the brilliance that sometimes forms a wall of light, that obscures both the individual and the individual’s ability to penetrate the world around him. but all these things that i want to say have to be said later because i can’t find the words for them, at least not now. perhaps before i leave for boston there will be a piece. i hope it’s worth the effort.

so, i have to resort to the usual cheat. here’s a poem by tony hoagland, called ‘jet’.

Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like booster rockets falling back to Earth

and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,

and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, usually constricted neck.

And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and then the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though

no one really hears. We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.

Wednesday Links

Interesting people:

Ellen Page: ‘Why are people so reluctant to say they’re feminists?’ | Film | The Guardian .

Ibrahim el-Salahi: from Sudanese prison to Tate Modern show | Art and design | The Guardian .

I’ve been thinking a lot about post-colonialism and Singapore, and how we really haven’t developed a post-colonial discourse in South East Asia. It’s almost like we’ve given everything up for the sake of moving forward, including looking critically back at our own past. But now, I’m looking at things and really really questioning if it isn’t really because of the past that we have the inequalities, the rifts, the cracks in our societies today. The British moulded our society to their benefit, and we’ve never really looked at that and been like, okay, this is what we need to do now to actually try and make it an even playing field. Because it’s still the Malay, the Chinese dialect, the South Indian people who are supposedly doing worse in schools, who can’t seem to be as employable, as wanted, as Singaporean as the Baba, the English-speaking, the culturally more Western segments of our society.

Hunger for justice

This Ramadan, I will pray for the men of Guantanamo Bay.

Guantánamo hunger strike: US to force-feed detainees during Ramadan | World news | guardian.co.uk .

Obama urged to halt Ramadan force-feeding at Guantánamo | World news | The Guardian .

When Yasiin Bey was force-fed Guantánamo Bay-style – eyewitness account | World news | The Guardian .

The above video of Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) being forcefed is really awful, just a warning.

Why we are hunger-striking in solidarity with Guantánamo’s detainees | Clive Stafford Smith | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk .

(Also, Wednesday is sorry, again.)