Book Focus: The Mountain Survey by Marvin Tang

Book Focus: The Mountain Survey by Marvin Tang

THING BOOKS [TB]: Hello Marvin! To start off, can you give us an introduction to your practice and the works you’ve done leading up to the point of The Mountain Survey?

MARVIN TANG [MT]: While working on my Final Year Project during my Bachelors, I was asked a question based on my research, “What’s so interesting about gardens?”. Since then, I feel like large part of my practice is a thesis exploring and rebutting this question.

When I first started doing research about Singapore and her garden narrative, I was very fascinated by how it is constructed, curated, and fabricated to fit this identity – it’s like a “Singapore brand”. This exists partially because we needed to bond everyone with a common identity and somehow gardens became this very unified persona.

That got me curious about our environment and how it came to be, how our landscapes have changed and modified across time to fit this branding, and how it perpetuated from our history as well. So a large part of my research and practice revolves around different phases in Singapore’s history and more recently looks at the future of our landscape in Singapore, while still attempting to maintain this “garden branding”.

From Stateland. [Photo credit: Marvin Tang]

One of the earlier works that kickstarted this exploration was Stateland. It addresses the way a small group of Singaporeans navigate around their own definition of gardens by creating gardens that were hidden in the forest. As I worked more with the book medium, I started documenting and compiling ways Singapore attempts to maintain its “garden branding” through works like, A Guide to Tree Planting and Wayside Trees which got its titles from actual books published by the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Singapore Science Centre respectively.


TB: How did the idea for [The Mountain Survey] come about?

MT: The Mountain Survey was made because I was thinking about the Xiao Guilin, which is near my home in Bukit Batok. I have been going there since I was young and I never really questioned why the place exists, or why it was transformed to look like this. I started looking into its history and learnt of its origins as a granite quarry and its transformation was very much aligned with the way that Singapore transformed over time. We saw how these quarries started as British enterprises and its granite would serve as the building blocks for our early flats and roads. However, by the 1980s these quarries were deemed expensive to gather granite from and it was decided they would be either filled up or transformed into the mountainous landscapes they are today.

From The Mountain Survey. [Photo credit: Marvin Tang]

I remember finding this particular quote where an observer hoped that one day people will just be able to look at the water and the quarry and feel a sense of escape from the urban environment. I feel like that is actually how it’s being used today. You visit these spaces and you do see people hanging out, having a picnic, or just staring at the rocks. And that became the kind of impulse for me to create The Mountain Survey, which really is a historical record of these mountains but also how it has transcended beyond that to become a fixture for people to relieve themselves from urbanisation.

The Mountain Survey started with archival images that I found from the National Archives of Singapore. They were these very grainy images of quarry stones and I realised that these granite quarries were very well documented, even in the early days. There were apparently films made at these quarry sites and they used it as a backdrop to depict foreign lands. I found it very interesting because granite tends to look very different on Black and White film, it comes off a bit grey and pale compared to the black soil around it. The approach I took to photographing these mountains was really based on these archival photographs that I found earlier and it serves as a visual reference to the documentation of these landscapes in the book.


TB: Is this the second edition?

MT: It was self-published initially but we put it as first edition because almost 60% of the book is new.


TB: How is this edition different from the previous one?

Installation views of The Mountain Survey. [Photo credit: Marvin Tang]

MT: The previous edition was designed on the occasion of the exhibition in 2015. A lot of the ideas came from the exhibition itself. Back then I knew I was going to create more images for this series, I just didn’t know how and I needed time to let the ideas seep in before I approach the images again. There were three parts to the story: the mountains, the surveyors (the people looking at the mountains), and finally the survey (the rocks and the artefacts). The survey was the smallest part of the book, but in this [new] edition it’s the one with the most number of images.

Both Gwendolyn [the designer] and myself really enjoy the 80s kind of guidebooks, which is where I got my inspiration from as well. She drew from the newspaper articles – the headlines and how they were designed, the typography, etc. She also added graphical maps, which is something she observed newspapers used a lot of in the past. That became our way of chaptering the book, which is by location as well as time; every new location features a new map.


TB: How did the publication support the exhibition back then?

MT: The exhibition was meant to be quite historical. It was purely images, hardly any text. Which is why the previous edition [of the book] separated the text from the images because that was how the exhibition carried the work. But in later editions [of the exhibition], I thought of how to combine the text with the show. It became these small little texts that were hidden at the corners of the wall that people can read and see the images, so that was the same approach I took with the book.


TB: What is it about photography and the form of the book that makes sense for your practice particularly?

A Guide to Tree Planting [Photo credit: Marvin Tang]

Wayside Trees [Photo credit: Marvin Tang]
MT: Photography has a strange claim to reality and I enjoy playing with its associations and its familiarity. I see books as an extension of this association and parody. I enjoy thinking about ways I could make a book that seems familiar but yet its content is completely unexpected. With exhibitions, you can experience it according to how you see fit, but with a book I can decide what you are going to see next, what text you will read and how much break you get from one page to another and I do enjoy that level of control.


TB: The Mountain Survey is part of A Different Reading by THEBOOKSHOW where an artist is paired with a designer. How much of the artistic control was shared between you and the designer?

MT: Because I have done the book before and I have structured it in a certain way, it gave me more reason to give the designer more control over the presentation of the narrative. I gave Gwendolyn the text and images and she reorganised it from her point of view. We had a look at it and decided what worked and what didn’t. She found little things that I didn’t notice and incorporated them into the design and chaptering of the book. Having more experience working with these images, I later on could support her in terms of how one image could lead to the next, how much breathing room I needed between the content – that’s where I came in a little bit more heavy-handed. But it was a lot of discussion in terms of how we could make the book look more like a guidebook.

Another big part of the A Different Reading project was the artists being very involved in the printing process. Also every designer comes in with a different kind of experience, so everyone is learning from one another.

The parameters of the project also really helped. A lot of times we don’t think about things like budget. But if we have to work within this fixed parameter, then we have to ask questions like: Will it be easily stocked in stores? Will the price point make it too inaccessible? As artists we become very over-indulgent with trying to squeeze every small part of the work into a book, but in reality, some things are just not publishable. The parameters help us understand what practical publishing is like.