Yiou Wang (2021). “Form Follows Fiction – Narrative Drawings of Pictorial Profusion,” in Proceedings of EAEA15: Envisioning Architectural Narrative, ed. Danilo Di Mascio, University of Huddersfield, 1-3 Sept. 2021. Huddersfield, UK.
Architecture’s potential of narrating complexities and paradoxes lies in drawings of pictorial profusion, a contemporary graphic narrative characterized by an aesthetics of profusion. Independent of the traditional architectural images whose purpose is to represent the primary design object of a 3-D architecture, pictorial profusion is ambiguous in typology and methodology, often narrating the “unpresentable” dimensions of buildings, city, and people with an intellectual inquiry and visual sensations. As interstitial drawings between hypersensitivities to the mundane and imagination, archetypal works of pictorial profusion tell multiple narratives synchronously to uncover indeterminate present, document non-architect-centric past, and propose speculative futures. This article analyzes works by Drawing Architecture Studio, Eric Wong, and Chris Ware in the dimensions of viewpoint multiplicities, temporal multiplicities, assemblage, and figuration, ubiquitously manifesting pluralism and paradoxes between referentiality and reflexivity, as well as between narrative and description. Constructive in the method of production, these images demonstrate thorough intentionality in the defining features of pictorial profusion: non-Euclidean space, non-linear time, decentralized composition, and heterogeneity of content. Space, which is subject to time and subjective perception, appears plural in direct association with the human as agent of the narrative progression.
The origin of this concept is the essay “the Myth of the Other” by Zhang Longxi. The Other is created in a relative sense. It is the culture, nation or civilization different from which one identifies with. Foucault remarks observantly that one’s way of sensing and judging is so deeply rooted in the collective history to which one belongs that one ceases to be conscious of that. But he also states, in contradiction, that one enjoy art and music of many different cultures and historical periods with “equal preparedness for understanding.” However, if certain non-innate appreciative abilities are so deeply rooted in one’s cultural and historical upbringing, then one cannot possibly epistemologically treat different artifacts with the same readiness. Those phenomena that no one would question in a certain group in a certain period, those tacit puns that no one would hesitate to respond with a knowing laugh, may not be received with the same degree of understanding when presented to members of another group, because they don’t share the local, deeply wired, subconscious knowledge with them, and without information or immersive experience, may not know what to associate those phenomena or puns with. The epistemological preparedness is unequal — this is where Otherness manifests itself.
– Name: A Digital Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities)
After the West and the East met, just as people are always curious about those far away places, different people, and various extremities, Renaissance bourgeoisie in Europe went through a frenzy of collecting specimens of flora and fauna from all over the world. Every upper-class family owned a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” as a way of collecting, archiving, and flaunting their curiosity for knowledge, desire for treasure, and vanity. But most of all, it is the early modern man’s attempt at probing Otherness, even by an object or a few, or just a scrap.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is an archive of Otherness. It sets up an angle, and mediates the relation between the looker and the looked, between the here and there, in which the cabinet as a piece of furniture becomes situated in the cultural zone of familiarity which the owner identifies with, and places the collection of objects in the cabinet somewhere that’s distant, as the looked. There ought to be a cabinet, as a symbol not only of ownership, but of distance. The Westerners hunted many exotic animals to extinction by the frenzy of the Cabinet of Curiosities, competing who was it to proudly claim the largest, longest, most beautiful or strangest creature in their Cabinet. Before animal protection and environmental awareness came to be, the Cabinet of Curiosities induced plenty of dark trades and vicious effects on ecology and colonialization. The Eighteenth Century’s enthusiasts for the Cabinet of Curiosities were unaware of the mediating effects of the Cabinet.
On my trip to and during my stay in the Domain of Unexpected Beneficence, I will also carry a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” but with the awareness of its mediation of Otherness. I want to bring with me a thing to collect, study, and commemorate the finds of the Domain and to document my own thoughts and emotions that arise from them, but due to the historical scar left by the Cabinet of Curiosities, I will only collect a digital picture, text, and model for each find. Therefore, I propose to include the Digital Cabinet in my carrier.
There are three types of people classified with regards to their ways to treating the Other. The first type of people worship the Other. Once they travel to a new land or place, see architecture and social customs that are different from what they identify with, they are as subsumed in awe as a pious connoisseur in Renaissance standing in front of the largest alligator skull in his friend’s Cabinet of Curiosities. These people tend to copy the elements of the Other, especially, as I am most concerned, in the way of architecture. The second type of people condescend upon the Other. They self-identify as coming from a more advanced civilization and dismiss the tangible and intangible culture of the Other as primitive and need to be enlightened. They tend to “offer help” to the Other. I, with my Digital Cabinet, am the third type that looks at the Other eye to eye, with respect, dignity, an open mind and intellectual curiosity. This intellectual curiosity is not material in that I do not desire to possess parts of the Other. All I need is a Digital Cabinet that would help me collect, document, and archive my finds in the form of digital images so that I stay clear of relics.
After all, the reason why I travel to the Domain of Unexpected Beneficence — similar to the reason why I travel at all — is to break the boundary between the Other and the Self. Too often we tend to accentuate our differences, as Borges formulates his view on Otherness, and I completely agree with Borges that we should venture into the Other, not because we want to possess the Other, but totally the opposite, because only through immersion in different peoples, cultures, and civilizations that we could gradually open up our provincial understanding, cease to indulge in our single-sided narratives of the Other, and desensitize ourselves from the shocks produced by the differences from our deep-rooted ways of appreciation.
The garden mazes and labyrinths existent today are pleasurable structures, innocuous relics from a foregone time, with their recreational duty so pure that an interest in them would be associated with childlike propensities. The fear for the labyrinth only existed in the deep past, from the fantasized conjecture of its criminal nature intertwined with our anxiety. In Greek mythology, the king Minos of Crete commissioned the most prominent architect of the country, Daedalus, to build the most intricate structure in the world to permanently imprison the cursed monster Minotaur. Daedalus built a labyrinth to which any person who entered could never find the way out. It was a black hole. The lost would wander forever, doomed in the fatalistic prophecy of the encounter with a human-feeding monster. At that time, Crete, the regional dominance, demanded its subservient state Athens to send Athenian youths to the labyrinth to feed Minotaur each year. The tribute continued until the heroic Theseus successfully slayed the monster and navigated his way out the impossible labyrinth with the help of a thread offered by Crete’s princess Ariadne.
The key notion of Ariadne’s thread was the distinction between one path and many pathways. The modern consensus on the difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze is multicursive and the labyrinth unicursive, the labyrinth of Minotaur was multicursive, or people would escape just by reversing their direction and following along the single pathway whereby they have entered. Without the thread, any mortal darer of the labyrinth would find himself lost at the intersection of multiple pathways whose progressions couldn’t be seen through and such uniquely human myopia renders him mad. The explorer is myopic; God is omniscient. The labyrinth’s function is to entangle, to confuse, to arrest the explorer’s ability to discern truth from fallacy. Everyone is rendered myopic except the architect. In a way, this architect is omniscient just as God is. The implication is that for a totalitarian monarch to secure his absolute power the architect must be put to death. Indeed, architects in the ancient empires were killed for the cryptic labyrinthine structures they made. Built in 208 BC, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was an intricate and complex underground network of cryptic chambers and pathways designed and constructed by the master architects of the time to defend it against tomb raiders. Unbeknownst to the architects and workers, once the mausoleum was near completion, every one of them was buried alive inside the underground maze of their own ingenuity. The secret of navigating out would never surface.
The labyrinth and the maze are both centripetal in the way they are repetitive. A round plate looks the same from the center whichever direction the gaze is fixed, disabling human’s visuospatial perception. But when you are located away from the center of the circle, distance measurement becomes meaningful. The mechanism with which the maze confines people is that it always put the explorer at its center, psychologically and experientially. The repetition of structure in the maze and the repetition of turns in the labyrinth appear as the numerous exit points on a circle’s circumference. Having too many choices is the same as having no choice. In Borges’s allegorical story Two Kings and Two Labyrinths, the antithesis of a complex built labyrinth, the desert, powerfully symbolizes this frustration. Whichever direction the confined king looks is infinite uniformity; wherever he moves, he is at the center. He eventually dies in the labyrinth, although there is no labyrinth. He cannot escape the center, although there is no circle. This allegory hints at the architecture we build on a spectrum of complexity: the most intricate structure that human can achieve and the simplest structure both evoke the long-lost, ancient fear for labyrinthine non-consciousness. Both ultimate deliberation and ultimate randomness are labyrinths, and everything built in real life is in between two labyrinths of opposite but convergent natures.
The fear for labyrinths and mazes is long since abandoned, and gone with it is perhaps the obsession with the repetitive loop-like sublimity. Duality has become the leading mode of thought in Western, Christian civilizations. Christianity is monotheistic. One end of the game is Heaven, and the other end is Hell. The Gothic spires endeavoring to reach Heaven are the remnants of the biblical Tower of Babel, embodying human’s bipolar mindset of the high and the low, and a desire to intersect with the divine. The labyrinth ceased to evoke awe or fear for its convoluted centripetal forces, and the upcast eye adopts a new sublimity formed by the Heaven-Hell divide. Such a philosophy underlies the phenomenon that the subjectively perceived center of a landscape is not necessarily its geometric center, but usually the building of vertical dominance, especially when this structure is a church. The labyrinth had religious and symbolic significance only in the pre-Christian period, and finds little relevance in the Christian admiration for soaring verticality derived from the Heaven-Hell duality. The enigmatic fatalism that one will always arrive at the identical place doesn’t contain this duality.
In the spirituality of Christian-based cultures, the labyrinth is irrelevant. Terracotta artist Jacques Kaufman built an indoor installation consisting of an undulating pathway that rises from the floor to an exit on the ceiling, a symbol for human’s journey from Hell to Heaven. This is a wonderful architectural translation of the duality concept. The labyrinth is only relevant to people who don’t regard the church with any spiritual associations. Contrary to the duality, the Oriental myths are usually characterized by a non-bipolar, loop relationship between cosmic elements, forces, morals, and states of existence. For instance, the ancient Indian fable collection Panchatantra documented a classical paradigm of circular worships. In the myth, the Sun was thought to be the most powerful in the Universe, but he is overcome by the Cloud; the Cloud is more powerful than the Sun, but even he is overcome by the Wind; the Wind is overcome by the Mountain; the Mountain is overcome by the small mice, who are considered inferior to the Sun. In the mutually generative and mutually conquering relationships, each part is the center of the whole chain, and starting from any place you will eventually return to the same place – it relates to the unraveling of a labyrinth. The centripetal labyrinth was found in physical form, including one in Gedimedu over 2000 years of age, and the serpentine coil on which Vishnu sits. In cultures that relate to a convoluted, non-dual sublimity, monuments rarely exhibit great verticality.
The maze and the labyrinth symbolize the journey in search of consciousness. As a common practice in recreational corn mazes, the “destination” where people can climb stairs to an elevated viewing platform reward the seekers with omniscience that is transient. Soon the explorers, in navigating their way out, will again be submerged in myopic pains of repetitions, lest their memory of the structure viewed from above can sustain for a long while. Bjarke Ingels built a centripetal maze in Washington D.C. that reversed the practice of elevating the “destination,” but lowered the walls surrounding the center of the maze. The same effect of omniscience is achieved. Compared to the sudden enlightenment in the destination of the corn maze, the Bjarke Ingels maze makes this transition from the non-conscious to the conscious state more gradual, with more visual information of the structure revealed at locations closer to the center. The contemporary survival of mazes and labyrinths are the ones that emphasize the process in which consciousness is attained through physical movement and the enigmatic pleasure from it. The original labyrinth of confinement continues its crime in reminiscence of an archaic past.