Vanishing Acts

Holly Yumeng Xie

Hero Image1 Holly Xie

Investigating the landscape of misanthropy, escapism and self-imposed exile I endeavour here the remembrance of the unacquainted while highlighting the geography of loss and contexts of isolation.

The first part of this thesis speculates on the issues surrounding disengagement and current environments of identity and anonymity through a Disappearance Clinic, where identity becomes commodity. Discarded identities of the disappeared are held in heavy canisters serving as patient files for archiving in an Antarctic island. The notion of vessel and artefact evoked is examined through reliquaries to demonstrate that containers are emblematic of not only preservation but also, devotion.

Part two investigates the landscape of solitude – an Archive for Discarded Identities on Deception Island serve to examine isolation through geographical remoteness, and reveries and remembrance of the disappeared.

Islands are a myriad of varying projections, the heterotopics of utopia and dystopia within the same topology. The proposed archive contends with the traditions of collection, organisation and systemisation affiliated with deep storage.

Deception Island tourists may partake in an Antarctic pilgrimage to the eighteen stations of the archive along the interior coastline of a submerged caldera. The stations mark out revealed and vanished sites read off the superimposition of historical maps where cartographic deceit, and misrepresentation reveal the intrigue of early expeditions of Antarctic discovery. Along the beach pilgrimage one would come across, for example, the Sea Foam Combs, the Snow Catcher, the Tea Tower, and the Shouting Stairs to “drown the wakeful anguish of the soul”. First, when the canisters are being carried and contemplated, there is an emphasis on emotional weight and burden, which is discussed through funeral rites and mourning customs. Canisters containing the detritus of discarded identities are deposited on the artificial floating Requiem in the middle of the vast watery theatre. Thereafter notions of weightlessness and unbearable lightness take effect. Experiences, activities and functions are divided in this way.

Casting drove my practice of design by making; refinement took the form of detailed graphite studies on layers of Mylar, encouraging opportunities for miscommunication.

This thesis proposes the state of isolation to be not one of absolute dislocation by geographical remoteness, rather an opportunity to engage in the dialogue between absence and presence, solid and void, lost and not found. 


Moliere’s seventeenth century comedy, The Misanthrope, provides this thesis with its origins of escape, misanthropy and desires to be lost.

Although the state of lost hopes for the eventuality and inevitability of being found, this thesis embodies the desire to disappear in the attempt to never be discovered. The pursuit of ‘lostness’, and the tectonics of disappearance, escape and detachment are explored through historical perceptions of misanthropy, the desirability of isolation, contemporary instigators for escape, and the question of identity.


Remembering, sifting, evaluating, and restoring are integral pillars to the reality of the archive. The routine of collecting provides reassurance for an unforeseeable future. This thesis seeks to further investigate the practice of archiving as a defence mechanism against the forgetfulness inflicted by the passing of time and reveal the vulnerabilities inherent in any attempts to preserve the remnants of life.  

Accumulation often extends beyond the confines of valuable collectables, and ordinary objects mirror hidden desires and objectives of the collector.

The destructive tendencies outlined by Freud and enhanced by Derrida suggest that perhaps the struggle for collecting, sorting and storing are fuelled by the assurance of inescapable loss. In view of this belief, objects chosen to partake in the archive are thus special, chosen, kept, and saved. However, all that is seemingly infinite become subsumed by the relentless passing of time. The practice of collection may thus be perceived as a melancholic acceptance of the impermanence of remembrance and identifies the archive as a contradictory site of concealment and expression. 

Holly Concept 1
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Practice: Casting

Inherent in the practice of casting are themes of disappearance, trace, lostness and archiving. Casting, and more importantly, the process of making, initiates a dialogue strong in material presence, engaging the tangible and tactile to interrogate the containment and occupation of space.

The explorative mould is a container, a hopeful vessel, the cast is an investigative tool rather than an end product, the intrigue lies not in the resultant solid but the richness of absence displayed. Quantities that had once been liquid are congealed into solids, inheriting qualities and remnant idiosyncrasies of its former habitat. The surface is thus the point of contact between cast and original, transmitting and detaching memories in the form of textures and residues.

Practice: Mapping

The two-dimensionality of maps trigger the ancients’ depiction of a flat earth, seemingly objective in their benign neutrality, they are in truth indicative of ever changing views on “the place and nature of the earth".Maps and myths are inextricably bound, for relentless desires to fix a world in flux, and the transference of information onto flat surfaces, widens the margin between an impression of the world and the very reality these documents aim to depict.

Mapping as a method of “gathering, working, reworking, assembling, relating, revealing, sifting and speculating” enables the discovery of new creative territories within the margins of reality and representation, past and present. Notation and mapping motivate architectural imagination.2

  1. Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn, Mapping: Ways of Representing the World (Harlow: Longman, 1997), 7.
  2. James Corner, “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention,” in Mappings, ed. Denis Cosgrove (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), 213.

Finished Product

A Disappearance Clinic is concealed in the anonymous density of the city. Here, escapism and ‘lostness’ are destinations for the dedicated misanthrope, disappearance packages are purchased and orchestrated over a series of consultations. Identity becomes commodity. This investigation serves to question the worth and place of identity in contemporary society.

Within the confines of this clinic, each client is assigned a canister, which perform the task of a patient file. Interviews and examinations are conducted to target specifics of individuality in preparation for the allocation of a new identity through an Escape Plan. Canisters left behind by the disappeared are transported to the archive.


The vast oceans of water that constitute the majority of the Antarctic landscape appear to maintain a temperamental relationship with the comparatively minuscule specks of land. The approach to Deception Island makes voyagers privy to the constant strife between water and land – a preparation for the melancholy journey to come.

The island Archive for Discarded Identities is an abstracted catalogue, where canisters deposited are accumulated over time in a ritualistic undertaking of memorialisation carried out by Antarctic tourists. 

The eighteen stations may be perceived as theatres or islands, small-scale platforms to transform vast territories, in this way they anticipate the occurrence of various emotions and contemplations to be steered by activities and landscape factors, they are containers to mourn and evoke memories, and stages for further imaginings. They stand silent and hopeful, against forgetting, temporarily immortalised by the unwavering archival impulse. 

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Critic's Text

The near-invisibile disfunctionality of social self-exclusion is reified on an Antarctic island which is itself a disconcerting combination of the geological sublime dotted with long-abandoned industrial whale-oil production sites. Holly Xie has responded to the new surreal scenario of European cruise boats ferrying tourists to the shore of this ocean crater lake to bathe in the hot water pools by the icy beach to imagine that ‘perfect strangers’ might engage with her eighteen way stations culminating in a kind of ‘floating inhumation’ ritual. 

Paralleling the human vanishing acts of those who have chosen to discard their natural identities Xie’s luxurious preparatory narratives explore vacant buildings and interiors on the verge of collapse where it is clear that much has happened but all is now silent. These scenes are both profoundly misanthropic, and exquisitely beautiful. Her own archetypal ‘stations’ are tiny, durable and precisely moulded memory theatres, exquisite fragments of an obscure and halting narrative, which can, only momentarily, shelter the enigmatically-sealed bronze memory capsules and those who undertake the arduous trek with them in hand … a procession along the water’s edge with the inconsequential evidence of others’ intentionally discarded identities. Each of the ‘stations’ is a precisely detailed artefact redefining the specifics of its topographic location and the emotional stage on the long circumambulation of the melancholic event.

— Michael Milojevic, supervisor