The Third Object and its Power to Transform the Mundane

As some of you may know, I’m in Arizona now for two consecutive conferences. The Fiancée couldn’t come along with me, so she got me to bring Piglet, and to take interesting photos of Piglet doing things while I’m in Arizona – all for the fun of amusing her while I’m away.

It seems like this is becoming a tradition for us. Last year, I went to China and did the same thing. A few months back, The Fiancée went to Hong Kong and did likewise.

Here are some photos of Piglet travelling to the United States. (I have something very interesting to say after the photos, so stay tuned!)

Piglet is ready to fly! As you can see, Piglet is a Citizen of Singapore!
Piglet reading the safety information card. Safety first!
Piglet fights jet lag with coffee!
Piglet looking out the window, saying: “The sky is so blue and beautiful. But I wished it were pink like me!”
What’s this? Pretzels on the plane? Piglet is pleased!
This little Piglet goes, “Om nom nom,” all the way to Arizona

Isn’t Piglet cute?

Anyway, what’s interesting about these photos is that Piglet functions as a “Third Object,” which mediates the content of the picture to the viewer, either to make things interesting (as in the examples above), or to function as a short-cut (or metaphor) to facilitate explanation without having to digress into a long story. (The first and second objects refer to the subject (viewer) and the object of interest in the photo.)

I could easily take photos of all these things without Piglet, and you’d be left with boring images of a passport, safety information card, remote control, seatbelt, and food. Without Piglet, those objects will be mundane, boring, uninteresting. You may look at it once, but you’ll forget about it. You probably wouldn’t be interested enough to find out what’s going on with the picture.

(Of course, I could stand in there and have photos of myself with those things, but then it would seem like I’m a narcissistic selfie freak. But of course, I’m not as cute or interesting as Piglet, so I’ll blend in with the rest of the mundane boring things, and the pictures will remain boring.)

Piglet’s presence in these images above mediates a certain significance and value to the viewer. Piglet – as the Third Object – effectively makes you want to stop and look at the passport. Sure, it’s a passport, but it’s a Piglet with a passport. You’re curiosity is piqued (pardon the pun). You want to know why Piglet is holding the passport, and why that passport is significant at all. In fact, it probably compelled you to read the captions as you want to make sense of it.  And though the images and captions revolved around my travel, Piglet – as the third object – mediates that and suddenly makes my boring 24 hour flight appear as though it was a fun-filled adventure of a pig in the air.

I have effectively communicated my boring 24-hour journey to you in a way that is exciting.

That’s the power of the Third Object, the power of Piglet.

But this particular soft toy of Piglet has another interesting dimension. As you can see, Piglet has no mouth. Though Piglet has eyebrows, these brows are very subtle. It increases the efficacy of Piglet as the Third Object.


Because characters without any mouth or eyebrows cannot effectively convey any particular emotion. This emptiness allows the viewer to impose his/her own emotions onto such characters, thus adding a richer dimension to the character. Hello Kitty is a famous example as to why it’s so popular. People can relate with Hello Kitty because she has no mouth, no eyebrows. And so it seems that Hello Kitty is always feeling what you are feeling. She can relate to you, sympathise with you, and in many ways, understand what you are going through.

Something similar is happening here with Piglet. The lack of a mouth and the non-obvious eyebrows allow the viewer to impose their own emotions onto Piglet. As the mediating Third Object, the viewer doesn’t just see a passport or a packet of peanuts, but the viewer also perceives the added dimension of emotion. Piglet looks excited, Piglet looks happy, etc. Whatever expressions or feelings you are perceiving Piglet to have – all that is coming from you – and that’s only possible because Piglet has no expression!

It’s very Buddhist, by the way. Because something is empty, it can be filled with everything.

This is why many people have commented that Piglet is so expressive in these photos. Great job Piglet! Great job!

So yes, that’s the power of the Third Object. Why not give it a try? It’ll certainly make your photos look very interesting.

Complexity Science and Chinese Philosophy

I’m currently involved in a project that is attempting to bridge Complexity Science with Chinese Philosophy. I’m really excited about it!

When I first heard about “Complexity Science”, I was quite puzzled. What on earth is that? Well, complexity science is a relatively new field in the sciences that attempts to study complex systems and phenomena from a non-reductionist manner. It acknowledges that many things are not as simple as a linear, one-cause to one-effect, kind of picture, and attempts to study phenomena in its complexity, as something that is embedded and therefore, related to many other complex processes.

The standard reductionist approach in the sciences are incapable of allowing us to really understand what is going on because such an approach abstracts – takes the subject out of its context – and studies the subject in isolation. This is a huge problem. Certain phenomena arise only because a variety of conditions happen to be in a particular way at that point in time. If you were to tweak just one of these conditions, another type of phenomenon would arise (or maybe even nothing at all). And to complicate matters further, some of these conditions are inter-dependent on each other and on other complex conditions as well.

It is therefore not so easy as to simply change one or two conditions in order to get the desired effect.

Thus far, much of science has been studying such complexities from a reductionist approach. But the linear casual findings are strictly limited to the subject (and experimenters) operating under a fixed set of conditions. Such theories are incapable of saying (or for that matter, predicting) anything more about the subject in a different set of conditions. And hence the need for the study of complexity to try to resolve these issues.

Though this field is still relatively new, attempts have already been made at trying to study complex systems and their phenomena in the fields of physics, engineering, life science, economics, sociology and psychology.

So… How does Chinese Philosophy come into play here?

The problem that science encounters with the study of complexity is this: as a discipline that is deeply rooted in a Western philosophical framework, which is too firmly grounded in the concepts of linear causality and truth as an abstract universal, research in complexity cannot help but tend towards the very problems of reductionism that it is trying very hard to stay away from.

The Chinese philosophical framework, on the other hand, has been comfortable with complexity. In fact, the kind of proto-science that the Chinese has had for thousands of years, has been operating on the very model of complexity itself, with minimal reduction required (or even none at all). The concept of how everything is contextual, inter-dependent and inter-related to everything else has been present even before Confucius, and it has been the very framework by which ancient Chinese thinkers, both the philosophers and naturalists, have been operating on for a long time. It is certainly not essential or primary for such philosophers and naturalists to study phenomena in an abstracted manner. No, rather, their approach has been to study phenomena as they are: embedded within larger complex systems.

But perhaps what allows the Chinese to engage in complexity well is that since the earliest of times, they have acknowledged their proto-scientific abilities as a craft – an art that must be cultivated over a long period of time. For example, in Chinese medicine, the medical theories are many, complex, and inter-related. But what allows the physician to properly diagnose and treat his patients is the fact that the physician has mastered the art of dealing with complexity, of understanding how each factor is related to every other factor, how changing one factor affects many others, and how to counter-balance the unintended effects that arise when doing just one thing, while at the same time seeing the patient and his/her illness in the context of his/her environment. And for that matter, how to deal with one or many factors in order to get results in one or many other areas.

The physician regards the patient as a patient in the context of his environment, family, work, life, etc. Illness is a phenomenon that arises due to a combination of several factors, and thus treatment is not simply in terms of administering A to cure B. Rather, because every action results in several other effects (that also have an effect on other aspects of the body), the physician prescribes several remedies – each ingredient or method with its own effects, some of which are meant to counter-act the unintended effects due to other ingredients/methods, some of which are meant to counter-act with the external environment in which the patient is embedded in, and the rest of which are meant to deal directly with the problem.

The ability to understand and manage such a level of complexity is itself, an art/craft/skill.

Of course, science as an art/craft/skill has always been present in the Western tradition of science. But, perhaps because of the primacy of truth and reason above other things in the Western tradition, science as a craft is rarely talked about in modern science. The focus has been on scientific principles, theories, laws, and methods: as if the ability to diagnose problems, hypothesize or perform successful experiments would fall nicely into place once the scientist understands these things well. But if we were to take all things being equal, what makes one scientist better than another would really fall upon the scientist’s art/craft to hypothesize, craft the experiment, and even to do it. It takes years of laboratory experience to slowly and silently acquire such skills, but little is said about it, as if these skills were unimportant. But at the heart of these skills is the ability to balance complex situations in such a way as to acquire a fixed and constant environment for which the subject operates. This is the focus that is often forgotten.

There are two primary objectives to this project to bridge complexity science with Chinese Philosophy:

(1) To develop a lexicon (based, hopefully on the language of existing complexity theory) that can bridge modern (complexity) science with other cultures (perhaps Chinese thought as the initial starting point). When I say, “home,” for example, people from different cultures may have different conceptions of what counts as a home, and yet there is still a basic understanding common to all these various conceptions that allow these people to still effectively communicate with one another. This is the kind of lexicon that we are looking to develop – a common language that can bridge East and West, as well as to bridge modern science and other philosophical/cultural frameworks so as to shed new light on potentially new approaches to the study of complexity.

More importantly, this lexicon is meant to be action-guiding. It is meant to prescribe how research in complexity should be undertaken: its methods, assumptions, goals, ideals, etc., but in a way broad enough to give researchers the room to freely explore and proceed as they deem fit. Yet, just specific enough to guide and instruct researchers on new means and practices (inspired/borrowed from other philosophical/cultural frameworks, starting with Chinese philosophy) to study and manage complexity and complex phenomena in a non-reductionist manner.

(2) To document practices/exercises/methods useful for developing the very art/craft/skill necessary for dealing with complexity from a modern scientific approach, drawing ideas and inspiration from a Chinese perspective (philosophical/medicinal/proto-scientific). The art/craft/skill of dealing with complexity is one that will probably be taught and cultivated in ways similar to martial arts or even the training of physicians of Chinese medicine. It is a kind of training that will teach the researcher, first of all, how to think and perceive phenomena in a non-reductionist manner, and how to weigh several inter-related, inter-dependent factors at the same time when attempting to analyse or theorise on complex systems.

On the surface, this objective may sound like an attempt at developing a martial arts school for complexity researchers. But really, what this objective aims to do is to draw light on the importance of cultivating a high degree of ability in scientific research/experimentation as an art/craft/skill, as this aspect is often neglected. In addition to drawing inspiration from a Chinese perspective, we should also aim at collecting the best practices from complexity researchers, who from their own experience have already developed some kind of art/craft/skill at handling such complexities. These practices (from both East and West) should then be promoted among other complexity researchers as means for forming in them the ability to perceive and analyse complex systems from a non-reductionist manner.

In this way, the second objective links us back to the first objective. For in the end, the practices/exercises/methods that are documented should use the common lexicon that will be able to best guide researchers from across cultures.

This is a really exciting project. I wonder how far we can go with this.

A Study of Chinese Landscape Art – Snow in the Early Spring at Guanshan (關山春雪圖) by Kuo Hsi (郭熙)


Introduction: The Need for Hermeneutics

Let me begin with a true story. When I first went to Australia, a friend (male) who stayed there brought me around Sydney. When we arrived at a shopping mall, he asked, “Would you like to buy some thongs?”

I was shocked!

“Why on earth would I ever want to buy thongs?” I asked.

“Well, don’t you need it when you go to the beach?”

“What’s wrong with you? Why do I need to wear thongs to the beach?! I’m a guy for crying out loud!”

At that point, my friend realised that we both understood the word, “thongs”, very differently.

For most people in Singapore, “thongs” refer to bikinis.

But for the Australians, “thongs” refer to slippers.

Though we belong to the same era, the 21st century, we belong to two different cultures, and we thus have different conceptions and understandings of the same thing.

Hence, the importance of hermeneutics: the art of interpretation.

When it comes to interpretation (of art, literature, a speech, or a movie), it is necessary that we interpret the subject in the right context.

There is a tendency to take it for granted that people of different cultures and eras see the world the same way that we do. The issue of interpretation may not be a major issue in the past because culture back then did not change as rapidly as the culture of today.

As we have learnt from the earlier story, the same word has different meanings in different cultures. And so, what more can we expect if we were to attempt to interpret Chinese landscape art, which is not only from a different culture, but also from a different era?

The way we perceive and understand the various elements may differ. If we are interested in an authentic interpretation, if we are interested in knowing how the Chinese then understood the work of art, we will thus need to (figuratively) re-focus our lenses, so that we may be able to look at it with the same interpretive lens as the Chinese in that culture and era.

Taken out of context, we can still derive an interpretation. But what I hope to do, in addition to providing an interpretation, is to help you to appreciate Chinese landscape art the same way as the artists and lovers of art then, had appreciated it.

Cultural-Historical Points

What do we know about art in the Song (宋) Dynasty?

In that period, Taoist philosophy (not the same as the Taoist religion) greatly influenced art. It was the influence of Taoist philosophy that inspired many artists to paint nature rather than people.

But what is the Tao (道)?

Take a look at this photograph. Is it beautiful?


Now, try to express that beauty in words. Are you able to do so?

In the words of the Chinese poet, T’ao Ch’ien (陶潛), when we are faced with the beauty of nature:

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.


T’ao Ch’ien (陶潛), Drinking Wine (飲酒)

From the Tao Te Ching (道德經), we are told:

The way that can be spoken of is not The Way. The name that can be named is not The Name.


Lao Tzu (老子), Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.1

And elsewhere:

There was something formless yet complete that existed before heaven and earth, without sound, without substance, dependent on nothing, unchanging, all-pervading, unfailing. One may think of it as the mother of all things under heaven. Its true name I do not know. Tao is the by-name that I give it.


Lao Tzu (老子), Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.25

When we come face to face with nature and its beauty, we experience something wonderful, something mystical. It’s a real experience, and yet, we are not able to properly define it. That is the Tao (道).

And it is this Tao (道) that was central in Chinese painting, especially in the Song (宋) Dynasty, and it affected the creative imagination, the creator and the created, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the non-human. It affected the subject matter and even its interpretation. So much so that in the Song (宋) Dynasty, the aim of the painter was to capture not just the outer appearance of a subject, but its inner essence as well – it’s energy, life, force, and spirit. In short, the painter tries to capture the Tao (道) in his artwork.

But why landscape art?

Back then, it was the view that the good man has a deep need to cultivate his mind, to nourish in himself his original nature in its simplicity. For someone who lives in the world, nature alone permits man to return to that oneness.

For many of us who live in the city, we can identify with that. Every day, we are faced with the non-stop hustle and bustle of activity. To just take a step back and take a stroll in a garden or forest, we find ourselves refreshed, renewed. What do we find when we are having that nice relaxing stroll in the park?

Peace. Serenity. Harmony.

Away from the city, Man finds himself in harmony with nature. No one is the master nor is any one the slave. Both Man and nature meet each other on equal terms. For the Chinese, real communion (oneness) can only exist between equals.

And so, the living representation of a landscape may give the mind the necessary means of escape, and provides one with a chance to commune with nature despite his inability to be there physically.

These principles are true for most painters in the Song (宋) Dynasty. From the writings of Kuo Hsi (郭熙), the painter of the art work we will be looking at today, we can be certain that he subscribes to all these as the foundational elements in his works.


1_202716_1I would like to focus mainly on the role of space and time in this painting. We live in the confines of space and time. Our thoughts are mostly structured in terms of space and time. When we look at art, we look at it in a particular space and in a particular moment in time.

But when it comes to paintings, people often think of space as being two-dimensional, though sometimes creating a feel of it being three-dimensional. And unless an art-work takes on the form of a narrative, the concept of time does not seem to apply.

And yet, in Chinese landscape art, the artist tries to situate the viewer within space and time.

With reference to this particular painting, I would like to show how Chinese landscape art tries to create a sense of traversing a three-dimensional space, while simultaneously embodying the movement of time in a non-narrative still image. After which, I hope to be your guide, and bring you through this beautiful landscape, and at the same time to experience the progression of space and time in a painting like this. I hope that in the process, you may also be able to commune with nature and come face to face with the Tao (道).

Formal Properties

This painting, entitled, “Snow in the Early Spring at Guanshan” (關山春雪圖), is painted on silk, measuring 197.1cm by 51.2cm.

Notice how there is a cliff at the bottom. Kuo Hsi (郭熙) painted it to give the viewer the illusion of standing at the edge of a cliff to admire the scenery before him. Keeping in mind that this painting is about two metres tall, Kuo Hsi (郭熙) invites us, the viewer, to first situate ourselves there and to admire the rest of the painting with him.

Look away and now, look back at the picture again. What is the first thing that captures your attention? It will be the sky. Kuo Hsi (郭熙) cleverly painted it to contrast it from the rest of the snow-covered mountains.

This would be the first thing in which we have been invited to look at and contemplate (默觀 moguan). Its Chinese meaning is very deep. 默 (mo) refers to being silent and still. 觀 (guan) refers to studying, observing, and at the same time, refers to looking with one’s eyes. These two words come together to form a beautiful understanding of contemplation: To contemplate is to be still and silently study and observe the Tao (道).

Let us return to the painting. The darkness of the sky sets the mood for us. On a cloudy day, or even at night, if one were to be by himself in such a setting, one naturally gets a sense of the serenity. There is no else but me, and I am as such, led into a contemplative mood.

Notice how Kuo Hsi (郭熙) first gives us a sense of vastness by darkening the sky, so as to contrast the snow-covered mountains. Had the sky been the same colour as the mountains, the immense ridges would not stand out, nor would we be able to perceive the dark area at the top, and the area of white at the bottom. This creates the impression that what is before us is an immense space of sky and mountains. Despite the thin narrow frame of the artwork, what is before us is a landscape both far and wide.

Having thus admired the sky, we lower our gaze down to the tall mountain peaks that decorate the distant space (backdrop) of the scenery before us.

Notice how these peaks have been painted with smooth brush strokes, with angles that are not so sharp. The tension-free strokes of Kuo Hsi (郭熙), creates a calming effect. In the early Spring, where the snow has not yet melted away, all is but calm. Life has not sprung into its full bloom, and so the activity of nature has not reached its peak.

Let us now lower our gaze just a little. Notice how in the region just above the trees and the peaks (in the distant space), and the region between the trees above the houses and the presiding hill behind it, there is what seems to be a white mist.

This technique is known as “atmospheric perspective”. It is a method Kuo Hsi (郭熙) used to create the illusion of space and distance by depicting objects in progressively lighter tone as they recede into the depths. These areas of mists obscure the top of trees and increase the sense of height by masking the bases of these cliffs. Look very carefully at the painting and you would notice that the bases of the hills are absent. As such, we are left to imagine just how high up in the heavens we are, as we picture ourselves moving around in the landscape.

Let us lower our gaze once more, now focusing on the presiding hill that is crowned with the lush vegetation on its top, and just in front of it at the bottom, a hut, designed rather simplistically. Notice how the simplicity of the hut contrasts with the complexity of the lush vegetation that surrounds it, both around and above. And below the hut, we find a stream of water flowing down a small waterfall, into the murmuring river.

Notice how all these “activity” converges around the hut. Notice how this activity adds life to the still serenity of the entire painting. And notice how the hut contrasts with its surroundings by displaying a kind of stillness. This stillness dissipates the surrounding tension. Even in the midst of the serenity and activity of nature, Man is still quite capable of achieving that contemplative serenity within him. He remains a person unperturbed by his surrounding.

This hut is the only presence of human activity in the painting. This is significant on several levels. Human activity is depicted to draw the viewer to a new awareness of the relationship which one has with nature.

But what is this new awareness of the relationship about?

Just as how we find trees and rocks in nature, the hut is made up of trees and rocks (soil included). Earlier I spoke about how Man seeks communion with nature. Here, we see the hut surrounded by nature and its activity, and yet the hut does not stand out like a sore thumb. Here we see that Man is one with nature. Man complements nature, and is in turn, complemented by nature.

The Symbolic Meaning

So far, I have said very little about space and almost nothing about time. How then do these elements come into play?

As I had mentioned earlier, the purpose of Chinese landscape art is to invite the viewer to roam around freely in the landscape as a way of experiencing and communing with nature.

Let us begin traversing the painting.

As I mentioned earlier, when we first stand before this beautiful work of art, it is as if we are standing at the edge of a cliff, admiring the view before us. We begin our gaze of admiration from the top and move downwards, slowly, admiring every fine detail before us as a lover of nature would.

When our eyes have reached the hut, we re-position ourselves as if we are standing in the hut, peering out of the window to admire the vast scenery before us. Here and now, we are in the heart of nature, communing with nature as the elements converge into the middle space in which the hut occupies.

Eventually, we find a little walkway on the hill, towards the right, inviting us to leave the house and walk through that path. And so we walk. Notice that as you ascend that little hill, your gaze begins to rise higher and higher.

And so, slowly yet steadily, you ascend the path up the hill. And finally, you have reached the top of the presiding hill, on a sort of plateau, surrounded now by the lush greenery around you. And again, you pause to walk around and soak in the atmosphere, to soak in the beautiful scenery that stands before you, of the trees, of the mists separating you from the mountain peaks, and of the snow-covered mountain peaks.

No one else is with you. You are alone, but yet, you are not alone. Nature surrounds you and is your company and friend.

Now, look up. Admire those tall peaks that stand so solemnly as if deep in thought. Join them in their contemplation of nature. Raise your head a little higher now, and admire the rich blue sky. Peer into the heavens and, like a bird, let your gaze and your thoughts sore through the sky.

When you are done, you may now begin your slow descend of the hills and return back to the hut, and eventually back to the world.

Notice how, as I guided you through the landscape, you have experienced a sense of space and time?

Though the art work is still, notice how we have nonetheless moved through space by moving in and out, up and down the various portions of the landscape. Notice how we have also moved through time. Even though the painting is a still image, its individual parts come alive as we move through it, as if we were watching a video documentary of Guanshan Mountains. Or, better still, it is as if we had actually been there, walking in the midst of it, admiring its beautiful scenery, and communing with nature.

If you have tried your best to follow me on that journey, are you left in wonder? Are you amazed at its beauty? If so, are you able to express that beauty and wonder in words? Or does it fail you?

If words are not sufficient to express what you have experienced, you have come face to face with the Tao (道).


Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: Free Press, 1948), pp.16-29

George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959), 2nd ed, pp.3-22

James Cahill, Chinese Painting (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), pp.2-63

Nicole Vandier-Nicolas, Chinese Painting: An Expression of a Civilisation (New York: Rizzoli, 1983), Translated by Janet Seligman, pp.99-108.

“宋郭熙关山春雪图”, 百度百科, accessed 7 September 2010,

The Beauty of Chinese Art

The one thing I greatly admire in the two great chinese arts – calligraphy and martial arts – is the skill of applying pressure, and yet be relaxed at the same time.

To be forceful and yet relaxed? Doesn’t that seem like a contradiction?

Initially, yes. How can one be relaxed, yet be able to apply some amount of force? Being relaxed suggests that there is zero force/pressure that is intentionally applied.

That’s where the Chinese Arts come in and show that these two concepts are not contradictory but consistent! It is the skill of self-mastery – of knowing how much force to apply, and yet to be relaxed while doing so at the same time.

Not too much, and not too little, and yet enjoying every single moment of serenity that passes by.

Take calligraphy for example. To write well, one must hold the brush with just the right amount of pressure – too much or too little, and the results will be terrible. Yet, for most people who start out at it, it seems impossible to be relaxed while trying so hard to apply just the right amount of force on the brush. But the lack of this relaxation results in bad calligraphy as well. The hand becomes too stiff for fluidity of action in writing. It is only when one’s hand becomes relaxed while still applying just the right amount of pressure on the paper that beautiful calligraphy is produced.

This is something that I really hope to master. To know how much pressure/force to apply in everyday things, and yet be relaxed and calm so that there is fluidity in one’s motion and thinking, rather than stiffness due to tension.

It kind of reminds me of bamboo.

On one hand, it is stiff and hard, yet on the other hand, it is flexible. The bamboo knows very well when it needs to be firm, and when it needs to be flexible.