Potted plants, boxed trees: Singaporean photographer Ang Song Nian explores our relationship with nature – video

The artist turns his lens on plants and trees to understand the paradoxical human need to be close to as well as control nature.

Ang Song Nian’s exhibition “As They Grow Older and Wiser” at Bangkok University (BU) Gallery last year showcased his new series of photographic works and installations. Art Radar takes a closer look at the young artist’s practice.

Ang Song Nian, 'Everything Can Be Measured,' 2016, "As We Grow Older and Wiser," 2016, installation view at BU Gallery, photography and installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and BU Gallery.

Ang Song Nian, ‘Everything Can Be Measured’, 2016, photography and installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and BU Gallery.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

 

Ang Song Nian’s works revolve around ideas of intervention by people in their surroundings, especially in urban settings. He often incorporates common subjects or objects in everyday life and activities in his works.

(Lack of) respect for trees

The exhibition “As They Grow Older and Wiser” at Bangkok University (BU) Gallery from 17 September to 29 October 2016 arose from the artist’s participation in the gallery’s artist-in-residence programme. The show comprised a central six-piece site-specific installation, Everything Can Be Measured (2016).

The six cubically shaped installation pieces are of the same size and dimensions, evoking a sense of uniformity and control. By applying this same form through each individual piece made of varying gardening equipment, Ang Song Nian (b. 1983) hinted at humans’ manipulation of the landscape to fit trees and plants into urban environment.

Ang Song Nian, 'As We Grow Older and Wiser,' 2016, photography and installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and BU Gallery.

Ang Song Nian, ‘As We Grow Older and Wiser’, 2016, photography and installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and BU Gallery.

In addition to Everything Can Be Measured, the exhibition also debuted Ang’s new photographic series As They Grow Older and Wiser (2016). Ang reproduced and re-contextualised this series for the Bangkok show with images taken from plant nurseries found in the Ongkharak district of Nakhon Nayok. The eight images of trees are shot at angles to convey the illusion of a natural forest. Nonetheless, details that betray evidence of man’s interference – bamboo sticks that kept the plant stable, pots that the trees were forced to grow from, ropes wrapped around the branches – were all cleverly left behind.

Click here to watch the video on YouTube

For the artist, these acts of human manipulation exhibit a lack of respect for nature, as he explains in the video interview with BU Gallery:

For me, unfortunately, the idea of just being able to move these trees around, I think, there’s this very big lack of respect […] Everything can be traded, everything can be controlled, and looking at the idea of a plant which is supposed to be found at a natural environment, we put it into a pot…

The artist also remembered how he was fascinated by the forest-like environment that the potted plants created during his childhood nursery trips with his father. Memories of these trips, according to the artist, now made him wonder about the extent humans went to in order to fool their own eyes and minds:

After we put it [the plants] into a pot, we mass produce them, and then we put them into landscaping and try to convince ourselves that everything we have arranged in front of our eyes is supposed to be natural.

Collecting nature

In another work, Sidewalk Easement, the artist looks at the way people place personal items or objects outside their houses. The project depicts how private and public spaces are blurred, and how these items also represent a notion of “self” being presented in the public space.

Click here to watch the video on YouTube

In a short interview video with PAUSE, Ang shared how he felt about man inserting personal presence in the public space:

The idea of collecting things is very interesting, as this, to me, is a form of portraiture. By looking at things we possess and the things we accumulate, this over time slowly reveals personal stories.

It should not be surprising that in various locations where this project is carried out, one could see slightly different types of items being placed outside houses. These items reflect a general state of reality about the people and the place. Over time, the items that people place outside their houses also change. However, one common type of objects that the artist saw more and more across various locations is potted plants.

In the same interview, Ang explained why there was more desire to be closer to nature in Singapore’s context:

We have a lot more houses that started to recreate this environment that the early Singaporeans used to experience in [the] early 1950s to 1970s, where they all stayed in villages we called “Kampong”, and back then Singaporeans had a lot of access to the [sic] nature.

As shown by “As They Grow Older and Wiser” at BU Gallery, Ang’s practice also questions man’s desire to control his environment. While this exhibition allowed viewers a fresh perspective into looking at the familiar, orderly, controlled potted plants in our surroundings as a manifestation of humans’ manipulation of nature, it also questioned who is being fooled into thinking that we could “recreate” nature.

Ang Song Nian, 'As We Grow Older and Wiser,' 2016, photography and installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and BU Gallery.

Ang Song Nian, ‘As We Grow Older and Wiser’, 2016, photography and installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and BU Gallery.

The fear of loss

It is, however, not without sympathy that the exhibition critiqued the lack of respect towards nature as man tried to “re-create” it. Being Singaporean, Ang Song Nian is someone who grew up in a man-made urban environment, which is also highly controlled and measured.

Though lamenting the loss of access to the “authentic” natural environment, Ang, a self-professed victim of ataxophobia, admits that order and cleanliness of the man-made city state is not just something he is used to, but also something he desires and would be fearful of losing. As Merlin Mann, American writer, blogger and broadcaster, once said:

If you want to learn what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph.

Apparently for Ang, the fear would be losing both the control over nature and the perpetual fascination with nature that he has cultivated in his nurseries.

Chinmiao Hsu

1605

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Related topics: Art Radar Institute, Certificate in Art Journalism and Writing 101, Courses, Singaporean artists, nature, photography, video, emerging artists, gallery shows, events in Bangkok

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