Sowing stories

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on April 25, 2019.
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Singapore has grown substantially over the years, not only in terms of population and urban development, but also physically through land reclamation. As a contribution to conversations on this intrinsic aspect of the country’s development, National Gallery Singapore has commissioned critically acclaimed artist Charles Lim Yi Yong to transform its Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden into a social space that facilitates deeper understanding of the complexity and intricacies of the reclamation landscape. Titled Sea State 9: proclamation garden, it is the Gallery’s first Roof Garden Commission by a Singapore artist, and also Lim’s first extensive foray into redesigning a physical space for his work.

 “The dynamics between the land and sea continue to inform my work on the SEA STATE series,” Lim says. “This latest installation further challenges me to share my inquiry into the multilayered reclamation history in unconventional ways, where the plants’ transplantation and adaptation to thrive in the roof garden reflect Singapore’s urban and coastal development. I hope that they will spark renewed interest in the environment around us, and enable visitors to gather fresh insights.”

From now until Oct 27, visitors will encounter over 30 lesser-known plant species that thrive in reclaimed areas around Singapore, including Changi, Tuas and the Southern Islands. The title of this living art installation references the act of proclamation made by the Presidents of Singapore over the past five decades, in which reclaimed sites are officially declared as state lands. For Lim, each proclamation sets in motion a chain of developmental changes that can quickly obscure other types of life, activities, knowledge and histories forming at the margins of Singapore, which are indexed by the plants found there.

Working with the Gallery’s senior curator Dr Adele Tan, and esteemed local botanical consultant Veera Sekaran, founder of the urban greening company Greenology, Lim has assembled an eclectic collection of plants that brings increased biodiversity to the landscaping of the Gallery’s roof garden. They are spread across the planter boxes around the rooftop and in a nursery at the heart of the garden that creates an open and welcoming environment for visitors to learn about these plants. The resulting work also serves as a microcosm of the thriving plant ecosystems found in newly reclaimed land areas, which are often perceived as barren.

Beyond encountering species expected to be found in coastal and mangrove areas near reclamation sites, visitors may further expand their botanical vocabulary with unusual plant varieties — the prickly Sandbur (Cenchrus Echinatus), the parasitic Seashore Dodder (Cassytha Filiformis) that survives by taking over a host tree, and even a Date Palm (Phoenix Dactylifera) that is thought to have propagated in the sand from a date seed that was discarded after consumption. The narratives generated by these plants express a metaphoric representation of Singapore’s journey as a City in a Garden, mirroring the country’s efforts to transform sea to land, and subsequently a city landscape through land reclamation.

In addition to allowing visitors access to unique and uncommon plant species, Sea State 9: proclamation garden also serves as a public platform that facilitates a dialogue on the larger issues brought up by the exhibition. Therefore, to complement the visitor experience, Lim has conceived a 30-minute podcast and visual essay. These will feature insights and anecdotes from various specialists in botany, geography, constitutional and legal history, and land reclamation, helping visitors paint a more vivid picture of the process of land reclamation and transformation over the years. This podcast will be hosted on the Gallery’s website and the Gallery Explorer App. A richly illustrated catalogue featuring full-colour profile images taken by the artist of the new plants at the roof garden will also be published to accompany the commission.

Admission to the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery is free. For more information, please visit: www.nationalgallery.sg/charleslimyiyong.