Berny Tan, Navigating the Space Between Reason and Feeling

Eva Heisler

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The diagram is a tool with which to move through the world, or an object with which to think. In the hands of Singaporean artist Berny Tan, the diagram is also an object with which to journal, to map experiences with favorite books, or to navigate multilingual conversations with family. 

The work Mother Tongue (2013–14) is based on a conversation in which Tan’s mother served as translator between Tan, who spoke English, and her grandmother, who spoke in the Southern Chinese dialect Henghua. Tan’s inquiry into her “linguistic landscape” consists of sixteen diagrams annotated with handwritten notes. The pie charts, bar graphs, and timelines are drawn in pencil and watercolor, their contours sketchy and tentative, as if the artist’s collection of data was in the process of revision or dispersal. Likewise, Study of Conversational Patterns in Phone Calls to My Grandmother (2014) charts the “nodes” in three recorded conversations with the artist’s grandmother. Push pins and embroidery threads map a network of questions, anecdotes, and advice. The threads cast shadows, so each line, each attempt to track connections or detours, is doubled—a constellation both virtual and material.

Tan has also moved beyond the themes of cultural/linguistic identity to engage with literature, her diagrammatic strategies becoming even more open and abstract as she moves from exploring experiences of spoken language to experiences of reading and writing. For example, Tan’s encounters with the puzzling structure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities inspired her installation “ . . . the invisible reasons which make cities live . . . .” Calvino has described his novel as “a network in which one can follow multiple routes and draw multiple, ramified conclusions.” Tan, immersing herself in Calvino’s network, approached the novel as a “data set.” As she put it, “By obsessively mapping the novel’s underlying systems, I propose alternative ways of reading and interpreting the information contained within its pages, each diagram a new encounter with Calvino’s enigmatic universe.”

As with her idiosyncratic and diaristic diagrams, Tan’s embroideries probe and brood, analyze and obsess. In the recent installation Thought Lines (2017–18), each of the twenty embroideries represents a thought pattern with which the artist has struggled. The embroidered surfaces—abstract, dense, repetitive—register an obsessive labor that acts out dysfunctional mental processes. Looking at images of these embroideries dangling from a gallery’s ceiling, I was reminded of Emily Dickinson’s line “I saw no way – The Heavens were stitched.” Each of the embroideries is a long-winded argument with oneself, absurd and compelling.

In this interview, Tan shares how she navigates the space between emotional terrain and rational/systematic visual languages. She also discusses the challenge of examining thought processes through rule-based embroidery, her creative engagement with literature, and her explorations of language and identity.

—Eva Heisler


I’d like to begin with Thought Lines (2017–18). In this installation, twenty embroidery hoops hang from the ceiling. The hoop would have served as a tool during the working process but, in the installation, it functions as a frame. Nonetheless, the viewer sees both the front and the back of each work. I am interested in the tension between finished product and process. Could you say more about the role of the hoop in Thought Lines?

The nature of embroidery, in which the cloth must be stretched taut in order to properly stitch into it, makes the hoop an integral part of the process. It is not uncommon for the embroidery hoop to be used as a frame in finished embroideries; after all, it’s a ready-made means of displaying the piece. But I think there’s this point where the hoop definitively turns into a static frame—for example, when the back is sealed up and the piece is hung on a wall, to be seen only from the front. The Thought Lines studies are very much about the obsessive labor that goes into the act of stitching, rather than the pattern or image that is created on the surface. So, they had to occupy that space between hoop and frame, and therefore between process and product. One aspect of that was to freeze the embroidery in the state it was in while I was working on it, with the back entirely exposed. Most of the suggested techniques of framing embroideries within hoops require the backs to be covered to some extent, but here I simply cut the excess cloth down to the edge of the hoop.

In a sense, I feel that exposing the backs of my embroideries is to reveal the work to its fullest extent. The interplay between front and back is something unique to the medium, and the hoop allows me to present that. It’s not just that the threads on the back hold together the threads on the front, or that it’s a negative space to a positive space—they form a continuity; embedded within is the narrative of the labor that went into each study. Each study was created according to self-devised sets of rules, emphasizing repetitive motion rather than image-making; the back is not just an incidental by-product but a necessary part of the execution of the rules. It must be shown.

The embroideries of Thought Lines are quite beautiful, and they have material integrity quite apart from their rule-based framework, but the rules—you also refer to them as instructions—are quite moving once one realizes the psychological motivations.

Using the set of instructions below, could you talk about how this represents thought patterns? I am not asking you to reveal personal information—I am just curious about the relationship of thought pattern to stitching pattern. 

Start date: 22 November 2017
End date: 22 November 2017
Time spent: 5 hours
1. Sew repeatedly from the edge of the hoop to the centre of the fabric, with stitches lined as close together as possible along the circumference.
2. Attempt to stitch into the same centre spot each time; when it becomes too difficult to pierce through, find the closest possible alternative.

This study started as a meditation on the act of overthinking. Here, I keep attempting to enter the same point from every possible direction, resulting in an accumulation of thread in the center of the surface. It very quickly became difficult to force the needle through that accumulation, and yet I forced myself to keep going, to “find the closest possible alternative.” I was contemplating how, in the overthinking of an issue, one runs through all these possible scenarios, solutions, projections, explanations, expectations. The process is exhausting, but it cannot be exhausted—there’s always something else, some other way to look at it. And you know that you’re doing it to yourself, but you can’t seem to help it. Everything is in your mind, of course, and soon the issue itself takes on far more than its own weight. The idea of how these thoughts amass into a “weight” or burden is something I explore further in Study #6. Rather than stitching the threads from the circumference then into the center of the fabric, I secured loose threads along the circumference, then gathered them into a giant knot. As a result, #2 and #6 have similar forms, but each has its own nuance.

I understand that the rules were written down after you began stitching and, thus, the rules are based on observations of your mind at a given moment. This means the rules are not followed, but they themselves arrive as a result of behavior—do I have this right? Can you talk about how you arrived at (or discovered) these rules? What is your investment in the written rules?

Since each study directly or indirectly explores some kind of obsessive or anxious thought mechanism, such as overthinking or the desire for perfection, I had to translate that into some kind of systematic gesture before beginning to stitch. So, I had already devised the rules in my mind before I began stitching, and would execute them accordingly. I chose to write them down after I finished each embroidery, partly because doing the actual stitching helps me better express the process, and partly because I may have had to adjust them for logistical reasons. They were never changed in order to make things easier for me, but perhaps I needed to strengthen the concept, or factor in certain qualities of the thread that only revealed themselves in the process. In essence, I was extremely invested in following the rules as much as possible. They were just not formally articulated on paper until after I completed each study.

However, while the rules are an important part of the work to me, it’s also just as important that I make it an optional part of the viewer’s interaction with the work. Rather than presenting them as wall text, they were printed in individual booklets that viewers could choose to read or not, and if they did read them, they could choose whether to do that in tandem with looking at the embroideries or after having already seen the work. I didn’t want my commitment to representing the process to dictate the experience. It couldn’t be too much like a textbook; the viewer should be given the space to alternate between modes of interaction.

Artists often use instructions, constraints, or other conceptual procedures in an effort to resist the clichés of expression or to subvert narrative impulses, yet your notes suggest your rules stand in for, or serve as metaphors of, psychic processes. How do you see your work in relation to other constraint-based practices? This question is another way of asking about the parallels between thinking/feeling and acts of stitching that exhaust a given system.

My use of such constraints is still a form of resisting clichés and narratives, which in this case is the dominance of image-making in embroidery practices—whether in traditional crafts or in the rise of feminist, politically-driven embroidery in the last hundred years or so. I am looking at how the act of stitching itself, rather than an image, might illustrate—or as you said, become a metaphor for—the way my brain functions (or malfunctions). In my mind, I do situate this part of my practice not so much with other embroidery artists but rather in relation to figures such as Sol LeWitt (particularly his wall drawings and accompanying instructions), Agnes Martin, Nasreen Mohamedi, On Kawara, Tehching Hsieh, and so on. I find their modes of presentation very pleasing on a visual level, in their density, complexity, and regularity. But I am also drawn to that intense obsession inherent in these very systematic and meticulous methodologies. I am looking at these formal strategies specifically as potential means to manifest my dysfunctional mental states, which might in some senses be read as chaotic and messy, and not systematic at all. Nonetheless, there is a kind of logic to it: the habitual picking of a scab, the ritualistic analyses of past events and possible futures, the formation of toxic behavioral patterns and defense mechanisms. My work exists in the complication of this false binary between the rational and the emotional.

Anti-narrative practices often seek to erase time, but you re-inscribe it by documenting the hours spent on a given work (anywhere from 3 to 36 hours), as if stitching were a way of inhabiting time. Can you talk about time, or the relationship of the temporal to the spatial, in the installation of Thought Lines?

The decision to reveal the amount of time spent on each piece is just one of a few strategies to modify the viewer’s habits of interaction, to and mitigate the impulse to look at each embroidery as just an immutable object. This strategy was a means of crystallizing the labor for the viewer, so it’s part of the same logic behind exposing the backs of the embroideries—revealing and preserving the process of making, and generating some kind of affect out of that. It’s also commonly asked how long it took me to complete a piece, so it satisfies that curiosity. But the time element specifically matters in this series because I wanted to give the viewer the space to empathize with the labor, and thus grasp, to put it simply, what it’s like to live in my head, whether they personally relate to it or not.

Temporality was also an important consideration in the way Thought Lines was installed in the space. I chose to hang the embroideries in a regular grid of five rows of four, in chronological order of the start dates of each piece. Of course, the viewer could still choose to interact with the pieces in whatever order they chose, but I wanted to replicate the development of the series as “faithfully” as I could. I avoided grouping any of the studies based on formal relationships, though I did explore similar aesthetic gestures in different studies. Instead, the viewer might encounter these similarities at opposite ends of the room, as if rediscovering or expanding on a past thought, just as I had done while I was formulating study after study.

Many of your works are diagrammatic and, like conventional diagrams, they spatialize data and aspects of structure and dissemination. Your works, though, are idiosyncratic, wayward forms of diagramming, such as the two early works in which you diagram family conversations and what you have described as your own “linguistic landscape.” I’d love to hear more about your process in conceiving and executing Study of Conversational Patterns in Phone Calls to My Grandmother and Mother Tongue. I am particularly interested in the relationship between the content of these works and your choice of method. 

Both of these works were created in response to being away from my home country, Singapore—I had been studying in New York for almost four years—and how that can shape one’s conception of one’s own identity. At the time, I was preoccupied with the connection between my identity and my language—and not just about speaking English or Mandarin or my grandmother’s Henghua dialect, but also about the way in which I spoke English with a different accent and slang in Singapore versus in America, and how the act of speaking affected me internally. Mother Tongue explored this based on a conversation I recorded with my mother and my grandmother, in which I asked my grandmother questions related to migration, language, and identity with my mother as translator. I interpreted different parts of this conversation through sixteen diagrams in pencil and watercolor. Study of Conversational Patterns in Phone Calls to My Grandmother was based on the repetitive nature of my weekly phone calls to my grandmother, in which she asked the same questions and gave the same advice over and over, and I always replied monosyllabically. I created a diagram out of thread and pins, with each length of thread representing the length of one conversation, winding through nodes corresponding to my grandmother’s usual questions (“Have you eaten?” “Is the weather bad?”).

At the time (2014), I was looking at how to navigate the space between rational (as represented by the visual language of diagrams) and emotional (my personal experiences). Not only was I using diagrams to represent qualitative rather than quantitative data sets, I was also rendering these diagrams by hand, in “softer” mediums that could easily be erased or taken apart. In places they were note-like, acknowledging their own uncertain, fragmentary nature, foregrounding my subjectivity. This complication of the rational/emotional binary was something I had been thinking about since I was seventeen because I felt I was creating work that was always leaning too far one way or the other, and it was not an authentic representation of the way that I personally was moving through the world. It’s still a strong undercurrent in my work today, although hopefully my ways of thinking and making have become more complex over the years.

Your work is also influenced by books, and by the experience of reading. For example, “ . . . the invisible reasons which make cities live . . . ” was inspired by Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities. Can you explain your process in diagramming this novel? You refer to the diagrams as “personal exercises in understanding” the novel. The work, then, is like a reading notebook?

Yes, you could say that “ . . . the invisible reasons which make cities live . . . ” functions as a set of notes, or perhaps suggestions of alternative ways to read the book. Invisible Cities has been interpreted by so many artists, but the tendency is to visualize Calvino’s descriptions of his fifty-five fictional cities. What I wanted to do was look at the systems and approaches with which he constructed the book. At the core of this project is this personal desire to understand the text, rather than to represent its content. As a result, the diagrams are still situated in the realm of proposals and sketches, acknowledging the perpetual gaps in my own comprehension of the text.

My starting point was a paper entitled “Invisible Mathematics in Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili” by Ileana Moreno-Viqueira, which a professor of mine from my undergraduate years had sent me when he heard I was embarking on this project. This was very helpful in giving me ideas on how to visualize the mathematical structure of Invisible Cities. I then started this ritual of reading and rereading the book, and using Google Sheets to create tables that charted the different patterns I was discerning in the book, whether it was in terms of form or content. I was also writing a lot of notes and sketching out ideas for organizing the information. Essentially, I was treating the book as a data set, but at the same time trying to find ways of looking at the data that went beyond simply quantifying elements—for example, by considering the changes in tone or perspective in each description of a city. The final diagrams grew out of this intensive “reading” process.

After A Lover’s Discourse was an installation that engaged with Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Your relationship to Barthes’ text evolved over time, and you have described this work, After A Lover’s Discourse, as a break-up letter. Would you say more about, as you put it, “treating the text itself as a ‘loved being’”?

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments is one of my favorite books, and it has helped me articulate a lot of complicated emotions that I’ve had over the years. The feelings that I had when I first read the book were so intense, that I think I began fetishizing it as a kind of life-changing experience. Of course, the second time I read it, it couldn’t possibly change my life again. So there was this strange disappointment; I felt like I was reading a ghost of the book because the feelings just weren’t as strong. That was when I wrote the piece I called a “break-up letter” to the book, which formed one half of After A Lover’s Discourse. In effect, my relationship with the book had simply started changing, becoming more multifaceted. Returning to the book again after writing that letter, with a new set of life experiences, gave it more depth. In a way, it mirrored the structure of the book, in which Barthes re-approaches the theme of desire again and again, and, as a result, represents it more fully in its complexity.

Would you talk about the importance of reading to your work, not just particular books but the experience of reading?

One quote from A Lover’s Discourse that has always stayed with me is this: “Yet to hide a passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, that is the active paradox I must resolve: at one and the same time it must be known and not known: I want you to know that I don’t show my feelings: that is the message I address to the other.” At first, I honestly just took it at face value, relating it very literally to my personal experiences. But in the seven years since I first read the book, I keep returning to this quote, and now I see it in relation to my art practice—the kind of tension and ambiguity that I hope to maintain in my work, the back and forth between revealing and withholding.

That really encapsulates the importance of reading, and by extension writing, for me, as someone whose practice is rooted in personal subjectivity: I am seeking to broaden and deepen, clarify and complicate my understanding of the world, and through that my understanding of myself. And it’s not just about that basic act of reading, it’s also about contemplating why I read the texts that I do, why I connect with certain concepts or genres or turns of phrase and not others, why one sentence can make sense on such a primordial level as to generate this catharsis within me. All this can find its way into my practice somehow, even if it only crystallizes years later.

With After A Lover’s Discourse, I am fascinated by how you combine diagrammatic methods, sculpture, and site-specific installation. The three-dimensional diagram was placed across from an elevator door on which another text, a love letter of sorts, was mounted. As you put it in another interview, “The inevitable opening and closing of the door rendered the text difficult to read in one sitting; like a fading emotion or a memory, it comes and goes.”

Would you say more about your interest in space, and how you are working with both temporal experience (as in the experience of reading) and the spatial (both in terms of the spatialization of data and the viewer’s encounters with your work in specific locations)?

Within my artistic practice, my interest in the spatial is not at the forefront of my mind. But if I am concerned with the ways in which the viewer will interact with my work, then I must consider how the viewer will encounter my work with their body. My practice deals with systems—systems that often already exist in the world or in the ways our minds work—and the conditions of the physical space constitute just another system to integrate into my practice, a system with which to work materially. Usually my engagement with space arises at the point where I am deciding on my modes of presentation: if given a particular space, how can I best situate my work within it, such that it becomes more layered, both experientially and conceptually?

My starting point for After A Lover’s Discourse was not the opposition between the wall and the elevator door, and I did not intend for half of the piece to be constantly interrupted by the intermittent closing and opening of the elevator door, but working with that space added a complexity to the work that it might not have achieved in a white cube. I liked that the added layer wasn’t something I had constructed for the work, but that the work could be malleable to the idiosyncrasies of the space, and made better for it. Similarly, for “ . . . the invisible reasons which make cities live . . . , I was working with an unconventional project space called I_S_L_A_N_D_S, which comprised eight display windows in the corridor of a shopping mall. Rather than trying to force a pre-existing system into the space, I used the characteristics of the space to structure my research and presentation format. I suppose I am considering how a viewer might “read” the space in addition to “reading” my work, just as one might find reading at a desk, in a coffee shop, or in bed to be suitable depending on one’s choice of reading material and one’s mood.

Also, in this work, as in others, you make considerable use of thread. Are you exploring the relationship between textiles and diagrams?  

I started using thread and pins to construct diagrams in After A Lover’s Discourse as well as Study of Conversational Patterns in Phone Calls to My Grandmother in 2014, because I wanted to have the diagrams enter this three-dimensional space. This was especially the case in After A Lover’s Discourse, where I wanted to show how often Roland Barthes referred to The Sorrows of Young Werther by building up a series of knotted threads along the length of one pin. There’s a physicality to the thread that makes the experience of the diagram more visceral. After all, I want the diagrams to depart from the purely systematic.

For various reasons, I abandoned this method for a few years until “ . . . the invisible reasons which make cities live . . . , which I created in 2018. I realized that the thread and pins afforded me the flexibility to construct and re-construct the diagrams as I installed the work, rather than having to commit to a specific presentation beforehand. It also really worked with the old polystyrene backing of the display cases in which the project was exhibited; it had the air of noticeboards and classrooms. I think, or hope, that these elements allow the diagrams to possess the fluidity of notes rather than the absolute certainty of fixed data sets. I don’t think I’m specifically exploring a relationship between textiles and diagrams, but rather I’m taking advantage of the conventional reading of textiles as something “warmer” and more human, in order to construct diagrams that are more open-ended and ambiguous.

What are you working on now?

I’m pursuing an M.A. in contemporary art theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, so I’m doing much more critical and theoretical work than I have been in a while. I was dabbling in embroidering text, and then I decided that, since I’m doing a lot of reading and writing for my studies, it would be a great time to focus on that aspect of my practice and see where this interweaving of the artistic and the academic takes me.

I am particularly interested in the conceptual and affective potential of juxtaposing the front and back of a stitched text. The back of a stitched text, by its own nature, looks like a kind of cryptic pseudolanguage, creating a sense that there is something to be read but which cannot be understood. Up until August, I had been creating simple text-based studies in a series I call Drafts for False Binaries, in which I’ve been embroidering seemingly opposing texts, or two halves of a phrase, on both sides of the fabric. As a result, paradoxical ideas uncomfortably coexist within the same frame, even if not legible at the same time, trapped in a feedback loop of text and subtext.

I’m now putting that on hold to explore a new series entitled Talismans for Disentanglement. I am playing with the form of the paper talisman, much like the ones my grandmother gives me as a good luck charm. Here I am looking at another dimension of the back of the stitched text, specifically how it can have a calligraphic quality, resembling the writings on a talisman when embroidered on a narrow piece of fabric. Each talisman will consist of a sentence that I compose as a reflection on certain personal issues—analyzing how my own behavior perpetuated an unhealthy situation, from which I have “disentangled” myself in a practical sense, but not quite yet in a mental or emotional sense. I find that stitching language can be very therapeutic, as if I am purging a thought over which I’ve been obsessing, so the talismans I’m creating are genuinely fulfilling that function of dispelling negativity while being an exercise in self-evaluation.