Singapore Biennale 2011: Office Orchitect by Michael Lee

Something I wrote for the Today paper, hence the informality (and the narrowed scope).

One thing about Michael Lee’s Office Orchitect is that it is adult-friendly.

I do not mean this in the systematic-instructions, 101-ways-to-know-art way. I mean it in an imagination-for-dummies way. Growing up means, in a sense, to turn our attention away from playpens and colourful balls and focus on the Real World Out There, to discard fairytales for newspapers and academic books. While it does make us aware of the mechanisms of our reality, for example why we should study hard in school and why the sky is blue, it suppresses our natural ability to imagine, to see beyond an object’s physical appearance to its limitless potential. What we gain in realism we sacrifice in imagination.

This is why Office Orchitect gives me a sense of immense gratification. The entire work is conjured up from Michael Lee’s imagination, and is based on a fictional persona named K.S Wong. From the elaborate creation of K.S Wong’s identity to the furnishing of the entire room to look like a secret underground office, the work is reminiscent of a child “playing house”.  The playfulness that goes into making the models peppered around the office is almost tangible: their whimsicality is enhanced by their aesthetically-appealing, and yet realistically impossible designs. In fact, Michael Lee has touted the process of creating this installation as “serious play”, akin to a child’s constructed dollhouse, or even a grand toy battle with miniature plastic soldiers and painted military tanks. The models on display are not working models set to be constructed in the near future; they are imaginative, fantastic toy models which serve as the playthings of a mad, brilliant architect.

The adult-friendliness comes from the complete sensory experience of being in such an imaginative, productive place. We are able to be physically within K.S Wong’s private Utopia simply by stepping through the door. There is no need for us to envisage his fantasy worlds: they have been birthed into reality with cuts of cardboard. We are able to admire his meticulousness in the neat finishing and his eye for detail, right down to the miniscule keyboards with their letters etched out. All the imaginative work has been done for us: we only need to admire the end products from the creative process.

Office Orchitect thus serves as a potent reminder of the potential great works brought about through liberal use of imagination: a talent gradually buried under the humdrum of modern life. The quaint, creative works elicit a sense of wonder and joy, emotions seldom evoked now simply due to the numerous practical details of life which obscure our line of vision. Office Orchitect is therefore, momentarily, more than just a made-up place in a non-existent architect’s life designed for the Singapore Biennale; it is a time-capsule of child-like freedom where even the wildest dreams are able to come true.

Rayne

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