Man at His Best

Fiction: Seven Vistas From Izumi's Dreamscape

In partnership with the Singapore Literature Prize, we took local fiction stories and interpreted them as movie posters. Here's a short story written by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé.

BY Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé | Dec 29, 2017 | Books

Photographs by Ronald Leong. Styling by Eugene Lim. Art direction by Priscilla Wong.


What would local fiction stories look like if they were adapted for the big screen? Esquire partnered with the Singapore Literature Prize to interpret four authors and their fiction stories into movie posters. Starring actors Shane Mardjuki, Michelle Goh and a special appearance by the frontman of Stopgap, Adin Kindermann, there’s a psychological thriller, a romantic comedy, fantasy and horror. Here’s a short story by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé.




It is just before midnight. The night sky looks like Malevich’s Black Circle. Except for an inversion of it, where the stone-coloured canvas is the greige of the moon. It is 11:11pm—the numerological certainty is not lost, with such recurrence—the exact time when Izumi Andreas Lim knows he will fall into a certain liminality. Somewhere between trance and daydream. His therapist calls it a hallucination, something he surmised from reading reams of poetry Izumi wrote over four months. It’s all part of a larger mental picture, Izumi reiterates, a series of vague impressions not to be read too closely, for fear of an accidental overreading or misreading. Both acts can be presumptuous and callous, even if from such interpretive excess, there may ensue a kind of sweet liberation. For the artist, that is. For the one trying to create something out of nothing. To make up his theory of nothingness, Izumi has trapped himself in a series of paintings. This is not a metaphor or strange allegory. This is not a stab at an absurdist or existentialist sensibility. This is not André Breton trying to draw Freud into every surrealist human relation. There are no relations to speak of here, no cloying sentiment of what it means to connect. Izumi is consciously alone in this, he understands. His life will not walk out of these frames, out the wooden angles to trek a different destiny. Nothing is uttered in this remote place; no dialogue makes it to the canvas. Nothing exists in quotation marks, none of that sort of approximation or owned speech. Nothing is the centre from which all else emanates. Within this emanation is the vast drop into more nothingness, and what a vast abyss this falling will vanish into.

The Rooftop Dwellers

There is one special roof in Nicolas de Staël’s The Roofs. It is a ready slate of black, so brackish a swamp as if a portal to somewhere else. It has a red outline, to say this is where there's fire and energy, this is where there’s life beyond this terrifying pedantry. There are other black roofs as well, all hiding their inhabitants in shadows. When the shadows fall back, into the light, the faces emerge, the way emotions surface when there’s heartbreak and aching grief. In the grey square is housed the Centre Georges Pompidou, as if such big buildings could reduce themselves into mere installation, mere fabric and construct. Even such a reduction seems banal, the way one attends to minutiae, and attempts to express their intense beauty. There is no intense beauty, there is no lyric in the madness. The actual rooftop dwellers in Phnom Penh knew this well. There was no water or electricity where they lived. The walls were made of cardboard. When it rained, the walls got soaked through, and needed to be replaced. The rainwater was precious drinking water, not to be used for washing or bathing. Izumi is standing on one of those roofs, looking out into the rain. It is raining hard, and the rain has obscured the setting sun. The sun should be a flaming orange or pink, but in these times, it has waned into a familiar yellow, that of sallow skin.    

The Isle of Aporia

The Isle of Aporia does not exist, but it looks like Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead. The tall conifers rise like stone arrowheads, pointing to a truncated sky. Look at the three doorways with red thresholds, as if a choice had to be made. The white building on the left, white as alabaster, with no windows to let in the light. The lack of a pier for the boatman and his new passengers; but look at the tiny sandbank, how close the sea is. The waves softly lap against pebbled beach, and by high tide—if there’s high tide in these parts of the world—there is no more beach, no more space for a walk, only the cliff that rises into the clouds. These are the same clouds in the other painting. Böcklin also painted Ulysses and Calypso in 1882, and that dark cave hiding itself in the side of the mountain, like a mouth of black. It seemed deceptively shallow, how Calypso lit up in the evening sun, her nakedness and forlorn face. Ulysses is but a blue silhouette against a grey sky, his back turned to us. We, the viewers filled with wanderlust, have never mattered, it seems. Ulysses seems to be deep in thought, or ready to say something; but nothing makes it to utterance. He is thinking of how the rocks got there, in the world where there has never been a beginning or ending. He is thinking how Böcklin’s Island of the Dead could house itself in this dark cave.

The Garden Confessional

No one knows where the rock garden is. The rock garden that Izumi goes to when he wants to escape, that is. Izumi wears the same ensemble every time he comes here. There’s the black dinner jacket over a white tee; the real absurdity is the bouffant burst of cloth from waist down. It could be sarong pants or pantaloons or a ballgown, for all Izumi cared. Minimalists have taken over the space, conscientiously doing little to add to it. Donald Judd has built a low table of white pine, and placed it in a corner. Frank Stella has made a shed to house the table. It is perfect for the occasional tea ceremony, as if the ritual was necessary in an abandoned place like this. In the Netherlands, the Heemtuin has a white installation by the lake. It looks like a large ‘C’ on its side, its opening inhaling the earth. Or it looks like a large vase, the thin tree’s canopy bursting out of the neck. This Love Tree, as it is called in English, is known as the Judas Tree in Dutch. Ulysses and Calypso have seated themselves within the white installation. The seats are small, just enough for two people to sit opposite each other, face to face. That kind of close proximity is disconcerting, even for two lovers. The installation has become a temporary confessional, and Ulysses and Calypso have promised to be totally honest. One must demand honesty even in such guarded and sacred spaces. One must be exacting, and ask for the truth, even when one lives in the comfort of intimacy, where there needs to be no hiding of well-kept secrets.

Within Serra’s House of Cards

The author is writing about what it’s like to die. Is there a heaven; if there is a hell, what is it like? All the omniscient narrator will reveal is there is a white room after all, its six sides luminous and fluorescent. It’s a blinding light, not like the rusted metal walls of Richard Serra’s makeshift installation. One wall is at a slant, leaning against two other walls perpendicular to it. The slight opening is like a doorway into the isolated space. The space would be confining and claustrophobic, if not for the absence of a ceiling. There is no lid to take off these things, these installed realities. Each metal wall is a sheen of black, like Franz Fline’s Andrus, how the darkness represents both foreground and background. Each metal wall is a shade of black brick, as black as the area around Le Corbusier’s Red Bowl. The black wall behind the painting is as black as the oil on the century-old canvas. This black is the same black as Cy Twombly’s Rome (The Wall). Look at the nature of violence there, present in the history and the fiction. Look at how the violence has etched itself into the painting. Look at the scarring and slashing. Do you see the repetitions? Do you see the eternal enactments that never go away?



Malevich’s Composition With a Black Circle

When Kazimir Malevich painted Black Square, Izumi was there, sprawled on Calypso’s red robe. Izumi was naked, his muscle and bone creating beautiful angles in the noonday sun. The door was open, as were all the windows. It was Izumi’s linen that Malevich used as a medium. And all Malevich painted was that quad of the subconscious, its plane figure representative of Izumi’s body. It captured the soul beneath the flesh, beyond the frame. That’s what Malevich said, before he turned to El Lissitzky, who was making circles and triangles out of Rimbaud’s tapestry. Rimbaud’s tapestry was the fabric of Nerval’s linen. Nerval’s linen was the fabric of Verlaine’s tapestry. Verlaine’s tapestry was the fabric of Baudelaire’s linen, and all the symbols crashed into each other, as if in a resplendent display of colour and angst. Yet, the catachresis was but illusory, again another iteration. Yet, all that was left in the clanging of sound and image was a sense of loss, the kind of loss that comes with forever forgetting. All this, texts melding into other texts, created that stunning portrait of Man Ray, that singular photograph. Cracked, almost granular. How the rectangle was sliced into four neat pieces. How Man Ray still possessed those straight lips, those haunting eyes.

The Cubist’s Perceived Différance

A blackened vacuity is what happens with particular kinds of collage. This is a collage where things jostle. It is 1908 again, the air rich with the advent of a new century. There is despair too, how the vagaries of cruelty and greed have become apparent. Izumi has fled into Georges Braque’s tiny commune, what he calls the Houses at l’Estaque. It is yet another fabricated idyll. Here, there are art colonies, and found objects are to be found everywhere. Look at the moving images. Look at the street art, filling the negative space under the bridge. Look at the bridge where the Neo-Fauvists meet the Abstract Expressionists for lunch. Look at the Conceptual Artists, and what they’ve done with the suburbs. There’s also Manet and Moreau and Rodin and Boccioni and Hopper and Cézanne and Degas and Duchamp and Gauguin and Wagner and Munch and Mondrian and Magritte. The names are but names. The signifiers are but signifiers. Look at the deferral of meaning, and what elision has made slip. Look at the slippage, and how beautiful it all comes together. Even at death, even at the end of things. Even at the limits of art and language.

Living in the Void

Izumi has wandered into another room. This room is painted white, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. It is a matte platitude, not the glistening white the author saw in the afterlife. This is Yves Klein’s idea of negation and a non-committal thesis. He called this piece The Void. Iris Clert Gallery was bare, and barely touched. The gallery was its own exhibit, its own reified and rarefied space. There was a deliberate, purposeful erasure, and thereby a clear colouring of things. This was a transference of sorts, and there was a distinct musicality to this act and behaviour. That things had a right to belong; yet, with their disappearance, what is missed, who remembers? In the room, all emptied out for the viewing public, was a lone cabinet. The cabinet was simple, unadorned, nothing spectacular. It was painted white, like the Heemtuin installation. It was Klein’s attempt to pin down sensibility, that of the material, then pictorial. There is no picture in this narrative; there are images, yes, but no imagery. No sense of what the visual text might connote, no feeling that percolates. There is no rendering for the Lacanian eye, where black flattens everything. Into Izumi’s id, where there is the invariable, inevitable collapsing, as always, as is to be expected. This expectation is already an unnecessary progression and evolution. This expectation of more abstraction, the philosophical tenor that gives the story its stasis. The ideation that never moves past its stark shape and size—to accommodate a kind of movement. There is no kinesis. There is no going forward in this form of forms.




Expressly penned for Esquire by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, this micro-fiction sequence will appear in his upcoming collection.