bodiless dragon

The Bodiless Dragon

This project took form between 1994~98 and was published in a book with the collaboration of five established Singaporean writers and Trevor Smith, Curator at the Art gallery of W. Australia.

The Bodiless Dragon

Trevor Smith
Curator at the Art Gallery of Western Australia

With a landmass of only 646 square kilometers, Singapore is indeed a "bodiless dragon." With no resource-rich hinterland to provide it with material wealth, the rapid development of its urban landscape and economy has instead been built on flows of people, capital and products for the global economy. Over the last four years, Lucas Jodogne has been engaged in producing The Bodiless Dragon, a group of photographs which in some measure provide a sense of the scale and impact of this rapid, organised and massive development. Rather than mirror this dynamic and constantly changing physical environment in his working method however, Jodogne works slowly and methodically. His chosen tool is a cumbersome 5" x 7" view camera where it is necessary to work out as many of the variables as possible in advance of the photo shoot where he must wait for the other, uncontrollable, variables to coalesce into a photograph which, as he has said "tells its own story."

These photographs are clearly not documentary images in the photojournalistic tradition of the single, transparent moment. Instead, "The Bodiless Dragon" lies at the intersection of two 'maps': firstly, the urban landscape which is undergoing a massive, rapid, and organised transformation or re-mapping, secondly, the 'map' of classical European landscape composition techniques which structure the composition of the photographs. The impact of these photographs and their hallucinatory quality does not lie in external events but in the moire pattern produced in the overlay of these two systems.

Both 'maps' emerge out of a process of planning and structured development. Yet the rapidity of the morphological transformation of Singapore's urban landscape, with its satellite towns, massive infrastructure projects, and carefully contrived displays of 'nature', sits at odds with a compositional structure that has been more or less constant for centuries. Jodogne exploits this disjunction to magnify how the speed and scale of the landscape's transformation leaves earlier markers of community or nature in new and uncertain relationships to the urban environment.

Andre’ Loeckx comments on the way in which Jodogne's photographs of Antwerp from 1991 - 94 pictured a landscape that was also conflicted. His description of being caught between a culture of place with its markers of memory and identity and a networked environment which does "not know places, only routes, terminals and addresses." (p. 22) strongly prefigures Jodogne's concerns in The Bodiless Dragon. It is indeed difficult to get a coherent sense of scale, location, or place in many of these photographs. We know where we are looking but we don't know precisely what we are seeing. Signs of human activity are everywhere, yet actual people only rarely appear in these photographs.

One of the photographs, for instance, is that of a temple taken from an elevated vantage point. Its spatial relationship to the surrounding parks and high rise buildings is emphasised by the aerial perspective. Smoke from the temple offerings is seen rising and mingling into the atmospheric haze, the 'sfumato' unifying the photographic composition. Yet, the temple's worn textured exterior - evidence of passing time and continuous use - is jarring against the newness and unarticulated quality of the buildings that surround it.

Temples, as with churches and mosques, are important meeting places and in past times were often the focus of a town plan. Yet, this one seems somehow displaced, out of scale, out of time with its surroundings. It was not surprising when Jodogne revealed that it was a seafarer's temple and the buildings that now surround it are all built on reclaimed land. As he chooses not to provide such detailed contextual information in exhibitions of his work however, the composition of the photograph must be capable of articulating the photographer's 'point of view'. The picture must "tell its own story."

The coupling of aerial perspective with a strong use of diagonals brings a sense of spatial recession to the photograph. Only a brief break in the high rise buildings allows our eyes to gaze to the horizon which is, however, shrouded in smog. Such a play of visual recession is like a dream or a distant memory of the sea with its vast unfettered horizon line. The structure of the photograph provides the information, albeit at the level of allegory, that the landscape can no longer offer.

Another photograph shows us a shopping centre in one of Singapore's satellite towns. The flank of the shopping centre dominates the right half of the image and is painted with a tromp l'oeil New Zealand landscape. Set up in its forecourt is a model farm. In the foreground and recessing into the distance to the left is a belt of impossibly pure monocultural green, as artificial as the model farm and the tromp l'oeil landscape. The strained opposition between the 'natural' green belt and the 'built environment' of the shopping mall and office blocks is sharply underlined by the road which runs along the edge of the shopping centre as if to provide a full stop to the edge of the city. Where the temple photograph used spatial techniques to create a desire for the vanishing point, this one frustrates it by framing and composing its subject in such a way that the various registers of nature and the play of the tromp l'oeil are sutured into a relationship that offers few clear markers of scale.

Looking at the way that nature and representations of nature are so tightly controlled in this image I am reminded of something that Jeff Wall wrote in his consideration of the work of Rodney Graham:

Set in this iron opposition to nature, no city can make itself green enough to paint over the grey glint of calculation. Our lovely tree-lined malls and avenues, the Schlossgartens of capitalist democracy, insinuate a negative ecology. The ensembles of oaks and elms are ranked like colonial troops and, in their resigned elegance, teach the citizens to respect the central plan." (Jeff Wall, "Into the Forest: Two sketches for studies of Rodney Graham's work," Rodney Graham, (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1988), p.. 15)

While Singapore is not famous for its oaks and elms, it is easy to see how Wall's formulation of the use of 'nature' in the urban environment can be applied in this context.

In the colder European climate, the survival of nature in the urban environment is hard won while in Singapore's tropical heat, the control of nature is the difficult part. The photograph of the bottle storage depot on a building site takes us to the heart of development on a massive scale. Crates mimic blocks mimic buildings in a strong sense of spatial recession from foreground to middle ground to background. Yet here, in the midst of all this change and transformation we have the clearest indication yet of untamed nature in the vines that are snaking their way over the stockpiled bottles, unfettered by the logic of the city even as it's streets are being laid out. The clarity of the compositional structure distills massive amounts of information from this small eruption of nature.

The meeting of the photographic and urban maps in The Bodiless Dragon hovers at the brink of hallucination. These photographic visions however are not a celebration of fantasy, futurism or hyper reality. Instead, they are strongly memorial, using compositional strategies to make palpable the tensions that the urban landscape struggles to repress.