The artist and curator of the Singapore Pavilion reveal the intensive research behind “SEA STATE”.

The Singapore Pavilion returned to the Venice Biennale in 2015, after missing the 55th edition of the prestigious event. Art Radar spoke with Singaporean artist Charles Lim and National Art Gallery curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa about the 2015 project.

Installation view of "SEA STATE" by Charles Lim Yi Yong, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo credit: National Arts Council.

Installation view of “SEA STATE” by Charles Lim Yi Yong, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Image courtesy National Arts Council.

After being absent from the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, Singapore signed a twenty-year lease on its new Pavilion at the Arsenale, launched at the 56th edition of the biennial art event with an exhibition entitled “SEA STATE”. The Pavilion is a close collaboration between Singaporean artist Charles Lim Yi Yong and National Art Gallery Senior Curator Shabbir Mustafa Hussain.

The Pavilion serves as a culmination of Lim’s “SEA STATE” project initiated in 2005, which takes as its metaphor the World Meteorological Organisation’s code for describing sea conditions – ranging from calm and moderate to phenomenal.

Lim graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, London with a BA in Fine Art in 2001. Works from “SEA STATE” have been exhibited at important events such as Manifesta 7 (2008), the Shanghai Biennale (2008) and the Singapore Biennale (2011). His moving image works have been screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Tribeca Film Festival and the Edinburgh Film Festival, and his 2011 short film All The Lines Flow Out premiered at the 68th Venice Film Festival, winning a Special Mention – the first award ever won there by a Singaporean production.

Mustafa is Senior Curator at the National Art Gallery, Singapore, where he researches art from Singapore and Southeast Asia. He was formerly Curator (South-Southeast Asia) at the National University of Singapore Museum (NUS Museum).

Art Radar spoke with Lim and Mustafa to find out more about the artist’s background, his conceptual interests and the rich investigations behind the work at the Singapore Pavilion.

Curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa (left) and artist Charles Lim (right) on a research trip in the sea around Singapore. Image courtesy National Arts Council.

Curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa (left) and artist Charles Lim (right) on a research trip in the sea around Singapore. Image courtesy National Arts Council.

Charles, you were an Olympic sailor before and represented Singapore at the Olympic Games. How has your experience as a sailor influenced and inspired your work as an artist?

CL: I guess it just informed me. I was sailing before I went to art school. Actually, I think I spent most of my life in the water, more than on land in a sense. My perspective was kind of biased towards water for quite a long time. Sailing gave me a chance to travel quite a lot, because when you are training and qualifying for the Olympics you need to go for all these races and they are all over the world. It’s a strange situation, because you are representing your country and you see other people representing their country. It was kind of a circus and it was always the same people that I was seeing, so I knew them all quite well. And then we were moving around competing.

When you are sailing in different places, the wind has a different kind of effect. That was quite interesting for me. In some places the wind speed can be the same, but the effect it has on your sails is different, due to density of the air and all sorts of things.

And then it [sailing] has also influenced my aesthetics, because when you are sailing you are trying to locate something that is invisible, which is basically the wind, so it’s quite important to know what the wind is doing and form a relationship with the wind which is always changing direction and strength. Wind is generally invisible to the human eye, so you need to develop ways to try to locate it by looking at the effect it has on the water, the feeling it has on your body. Quite a lot of sailors cut their hair quite short, so their skin becomes more sensitive to the wind. And even smell… when there is a storm coming, you can smell the increased humidity or you can even taste it.

So all this has informed my aesthetics and my body tends to operate in that way. Like words stand alone on their own but they kind of support each other.

SHM: In many ways, when we enter the Singapore Pavilion, one of the artworks entitled SEA STATE 6: Capsize (2015), alludes to this idea of the body acting as a measure of the sea. We see Charles continuously capsizing a sailing boat, a recurring metaphor in the pavilion, highlighting to us that not only is there a sort of osmosis between water and body, but there is a massive discussion that we are yet to have about the sea – what lies underwater? Its infrastructures, its cables, its materiality. A poetic, but also foundational call to not seek the sea as a surface of the sublime where one may project all of one’s desires onto, but to look at it for what it is – active but also industrialised, concretised, politicised and militarised.

Charle Lim, 'SEA STATE 6: phase 1', 2015, single channel HD digital video, c. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charle Lim, ‘SEA STATE 6: Phase 1’, 2015, single channel HD digital video, c. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Between representing Singapore as a sportsman, and representing Singapore as an artist now, are there any similarities?

CL: Not really, I was very young then. And when you are young, you kind of believe in the national narrative better. I was quite nationalistic when I was younger and now I think it’s quite embarrassing!

In a sense, the state is funding this project [the pavilion] and they have their own agenda, and I guess I have my own too. And the Venice Biennale, especially for national pavilions, is a very odd situation for artists, happening once in your life, where the state and the artists kind of meet at the same point. So it’s quite interesting being in Venice, there are all these national anxieties of the pavilions. But for smaller nations it is less of an issue.

We [Singapore] are less significant on the world stage and also, in a sense, culturally insignificant. Some museums would say that, actually. Of course I don’t think like that. But it’s interesting as it gives us a chance, not only from an artistic but also a curatorial perspective, like working with Mustafa. And Mustafa is actually not Singaporean!

It gives you the chance to craft your own way in which the work is presented. Because normally, when you show in places like Documenta or other international biennales, the curators will have an idea of who you are and kind of just plug you in, like an artist that was put in an ethnological museum. And then if you have anything that you are showing anywhere in curated shows, the stress, the urge of the curator is to make your representation of your [cultural] situation become even stronger. But as artists, working in our glocal situation, we don’t operate like that actually.

SHM: The national pavilion is a curious manifestation that continues to survive and dare I say, even thrive in Venice. With each new edition, we have more nation-states signing up to participate. As Charles mentioned, the national pavilion allows the artist and the nation to meet in this context, a conversation is initiated, and I am constantly reminded of the conversation that the Singapore artist Lim Tzay Cheun initiated as part of the 2005 Singapore Pavilion in Venice.

The project was titled Mike and was premised upon bringing one of Singapore’s recent icons/public sculptures – the Merlion – to Venice. The artist did not succeed in convincing the Singapore Tourism Board to move the Merlion. But looking at the project retrospectively, what it did do is force the nation-state to recognise the artist as a figure with agency, requirements and demands. This is my reading of that moment. There have been other such instances in Singapore art history, but this is one of the most recent.

Charle Lim, 'SEA STATE 3: inversion' (production render, detail), 2015, 3-D nylon polymer print; 900 x 598 x 62 mm. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charle Lim, ‘SEA STATE 3: inversion’ (production render, detail), 2015, 3-D nylon polymer print; 900 x 598 x 62 mm. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

You started SEA STATE in 2005. Before that, what were your main concerns and interests in your artistic practice and how do they tie in with the concepts of the “Sea State” project?

CL: I founded a group with two other people, called Tien Wei Woon was running this artist space called Post-Museum in Singapore and the other person, Melvin Phua, is a scientist. And the three of us were doing projects in net art, it was an internet art collective. Our focus was to make projects to play on and stress the idea of the relationship between the virtuality of the internet and its physical infrastructure. When I say physical infrastructure, it’s things like the undersea cable, the server farms, the power that runs it and all the [physical] elements that allow it to operate.

We started in the 1990s and at that point in time I think the way the internet was advertised, it was seen as an ephemeral thing which had no body, it was de-politicised: no issues of race or gender. And the idea was that it had no body. And actually, in a way, the people that make technology want you to think that it’s magic, but it’s ubiquitous.

In 1999 the internet stopped for one day in Singapore. I was really surprised and I did some research and found out that the undersea cable had broken. They gave three reasons for why it broke: one, there was an earthquake in the sea, second, a ship’s anchor dragged the cable, and third, sharks bit the cable.

So I found it quite interesting that they were finding these humorous, ridiculous stories for why my virtual experience was interrupted. We were doing quite a lot of projects like that. Then we stopped. We never did the project about the cable in the sea and I was intending to do a project on it, as I was doing some research on it too. And when I was doing research, I found that there were similar issues with the idea of the sea and the internet.

The internet is this thing that is invisible, and then you have these running structures and systems, so I am interested in systems in a sense. And those are the things that politicise the space, the net. And for the sea, we tend to see the sea as a sublime space where we can find god, and if you look at the advertising for corporate companies and the military, they tend to use these tropes, like the heroic company that is going out to conquer the sea because it’s so dangerous.

And then with artists, I realised that these tropes were being repeated. It’s so seductive, when you look at water and the sea and it can seduce you not to think or explore new ways to look at it. It’s so seductive just to look at it, that it doesn’t allow you to approach the water in a two way relationship. The sea is so complex, so many things are going on, it confounds us, so when we face it we think “I’d better not to deal with it, because I might die!”

We have come to the point that it’s dangerous that we tend to think of the sea as an infinite space, and through my interviews with scientists and the land reclamation project the same thing was told to me… we are pulling our sand from the sea, so to them it’s infinite in a sense.

So there could be an ecological angle to the project, but I think it’s not useful as there are a lot of agencies who are dealing with this aspect of things. What we are trying to do is to turn it back and say: why are we still doing this, is there any other way of looking at the sea?

SHM: In the “SEA STATE” volume that we published in conjunction with the pavilion, we have this interview with a figure who was associated with the securing of data for sand deposits around Southeast Asia. Charles titles this conversation “Sand Man”.

Sometimes he is also called the “inarticulate sand man”, for he consented to the interview because he felt that the story of sand needed to be told to the “younger” generation with some urgency. In the interview he describes how he went about scientifically surveying the sand, how he was apprehended by different authorities for not having the right sorts of permits and so forth. But one point remains significant: he continues to operate under the assumption that an inherently finite resource such as sand can be made to appear limitless. This is fascinating, and the pavilion seeks to ask this question too. Are we at a stage of a different geo-logic?

Installation view of "SEA STATE" by Charles Lim Yi Yong, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo credit: National Arts Council.

Installation view of “SEA STATE” by Charles Lim Yi Yong, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo credit: National Arts Council.

What is the meaning of “sea state”?

CL: If you do a google search, there is this meteorological measurement like the height of the waves in the sea. The sea is a very changing space, when it’s calm it’s flat, and then when the wind is blowing, suddenly the waves come up. So they need a way to measure, so they can tell us: now Sea State is 0 so it’s calm, and 9 is ridiculously dangerous, beyond a hurricane.

So it [the project title] has a double meaning. One is the literal Sea State, and the other is ‘sea state’ as in nation. The project is looking at Singapore, but actually I am using Singapore as a test model to develop new tools to look at the sea.

And through doing this project, I found that much like Venice, most of Singapore’s power is in the water and the people who are living in the centre, they operate in a different layer, in a way, which is independent to the ‘sea state’.

SHM: I think that the artwork SEA STATE 8: The Grid would be a great reference towards understanding how Charles perceives SEA STATE as a project. Charles brought up this question of being interested in systems and the chart is one such gesture through which he also realises this. For Charles, the chart acts as a critical tool that can be used in the attempt to shatter the natural appearance of objects and their relations.

He has described this process of rethinking the chart as a “preparation”, a term he borrows from John Cage when he altered the manner in which the piano was meant to operate by the inclusion of objects on its strings leading to a series of (un)anticipated permutations. The chart, and its preparation, then, holds out the promise of its own dissolution as it is made to connect with its underlying structures only to transform itself, and in doing so, marks the end of the chart as a specialised activity and function as part of a world that can tell us adequate truths. Preparing the chart as a critical, or potentially critical, tool allows Charles a very eclectic range of references.

Charle Lim, 'SEA STATE 8: THE GRID' (detail), 2014, prepared GSP1 chart, published by Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (2014). Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charle Lim, ‘SEA STATE 8: The Grid’ (detail), 2014, prepared GSP1 chart, published by Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (2014). Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

How and when did the project Sea State originate back in 2005? Could you tell me about the overall themes and ideas underlying the project?

CL: The first project I wanted to do was the “SEA-ME-WE-3”, which was about the undersea cable and which I think I will do now after Venice. What happens is that the people who pay for the cable to be laid down in the sea say that they need to shoot footage of the cable being laid. So somewhere in the world there are tapes and tapes of very boring footage of the cable being laid. And I find this process very interesting – it’s like proof that it’s there in a space that is kind of invisible.

My first project is called Inside/Outside: I came up with this very simple rule by which I wanted to go around the border of Singapore and then if I found anything that’s floating along the border I would take an image, one from inside and one from outside. So I did that, partly because in Singapore there was a lot of self censorship going on, and so a lot of artists were afraid of doing work that was politicised. And Sea State is in a sense highly political, because what Singapore is doing in the sea is very politicised.

I remember that when I started the project, a lot of people were asking me if I was sure I wanted to do this, because I could get myself in trouble for pulling out all these things and issues. So I devised a strategy for my work where instead of trying to come out with a position, like a political position, what I did was execute a gesture. A very neutral gesture, through which these situations expand. As an artist, executing these ideas opens me up to new avenues. Sometimes it reconfirms what I saw or counters it. It’s like an experiment.

Charle Lim, 'SEA STATE 1: inside outside' (detail), 2004- 2005, 84 sets of paired photographs; 2 framed marine charts; 1 VHF radio set. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charle Lim, ‘SEA STATE 1: Inside/Outside’ (detail), 2004-2005, 84 sets of paired photographs; 2 framed marine charts; 1 VHF radio set. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

You said that what Singapore is doing is highly politicised. Could you tell me more about it?

CL: A lot of land reclamation projects. Singapore is very small, it’s grown 25 percent of its actual size. It’s based on the capitalist model that you need to grow to just survive, not to become rich. If you stop growing, you die.

Singapore therefore needs to expand physically to survive, to expand its population, have more factories, etc. So they started to do reclamation projects. Initially, the sand or the soil used was from our country. All the hills we had got flattened because of this and then at some point in time, in the 1980s I think, we began to take sand from outside Singapore. So the sand came from Indonesia, Malaysia… and there is an installation [in the pavilion], the sandman interview [mentioned above by Mustafa], where there is a person that actually did that and he recounts what he did.

We tried to do some research on reclamation and we couldn’t find much on what’s happened. I think it was 2008 when Indonesia banned the sale of sand to Singapore, and there were many court cases in the international court. There were two books that the attorney general’s chambers made: one was called Petrablanca, about a lighthouse, and then another one I think is called Land Reclamation. They are the lawyers for the state. The contention in both cases was against Malaysia. And this happened a few years ago.

But due to my observations actually, our neighbours have stopped complaining and now they are reclaiming themselves! So in Malaysia they have a land reclamation project and in Indonesia they also have been reclaiming.

SHM: Since 1965, Singapore has grown from 224.5 to 276.5 square miles through the movement of sand from various Southeast Asian origins to its outlying islands and coasts through land reclamation. Amongst its busy seaport traffic, one also observes the ever-present sand barges – it tugs along a super highway for sand, the very sand that claims not to have a history, ghosts and stories, but it does.

There is also another issue – this sand continues to move under the assumption that an inherently finite resource can be made to appear limitless. It is an alteration of the manner in which the state and what it governs may be imagined. It is reminiscent of another geo-logic: this newly reclaimed land is not inherited, but proclaimed for SEA STATE. This land, it is said, is without history; an unclear past but of critical contemporary presence; it may even be a fearless land, where the present is said to meet the imagination.

Charles has observed this process of land reclamation since the 1990s, but it was in 2005, after a residency in Chiang Mai, that he began to deliberate about how “Southeast Asia” may be considered as being made up of two water-based ecologies that eventually meet in the sea. There is a riverine Southeast Asia, composed of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, connected partly by the Mekong River; and island Southeast Asia, composed primarily of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and now Timor-Leste.

Whilst the division is something that historians of the region have grappled with since the 1960s, especially in light of the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (or ASEAN), Lim’s observation hints that Singapore’s newly reclaimed lands have a cross-border implication, as sand moves, shifts, and is secured, stored, compacted.

From left to right: Mr Sam Tan, artist Charles Lim, curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa and Deputy CEO National Arts Council Singapore, Paul Tan (also the Commissioner of the Singapore Pavilion). Image courtesy National Arts Council.

From left to right: Mr Sam Tan, artist Charles Lim, curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa and Deputy CEO National Arts Council Singapore, Paul Tan (also the Commissioner of the Singapore Pavilion). Image courtesy National Arts Council.

How did you and Mustafa came to collaborate on the Venice Biennale pavilion? Have you worked together before?

CL: Yes, we worked together in the NUS Museum and we did this project called In Search of Raffles’ Light (PDF download), and that was interesting because I was very curious about why and when Singapore got disconnected from water. If you go to Singapore, it doesn’t feel like you are on an island, you don’t feel the ‘islandness’. And the reason for that is that people that live along the coast were relocated to the interior of Singapore in the 1970s.

We started off looking at the Raffles Lighthouse. Mustafa was showing me all sorts of things. Because museum people tend to work with the newspapers, he had stacks and stacks of them and when I came in and was reading them and researching, I became very suspicious of the material. There were all these articles about the lighthouse and the same headline was repeated over and over again. It was about the lighthouse and the loneliness of the lighthouse keeper in Singapore, and as a sailor, I knew that the lighthouse was not that lonely.

So I told him that we should source corporate companies that have storages to keep things and junk, and we went there. Then we went to the storage of the Navy Museum as well and other different places. We were basically looking for physical evidence to prove and test this story. We also planned to go out to the lighthouse itself.

And when we went to the buoy depot place, where they maintain buoys, we found the original Fresnel glass of the Raffles Lighthouse there. Then I researched through that more. And there were other things that we found, like lighthouse models, maps, all sorts of things. They were actually from the Maritime Museum (established in 1972 and closed in 2006) in the buoy depot, which was started by Eric R. Alfred, a curator. The interesting fact was that the Maritime Museum was started by a corporate company, the Port of Singapore Authority, who paid for it. So in a funny way, when he was working as a curator in the museum he was also an employee of the company.

It was this kind of strange situation where heritage becomes corporatised. Instead of a museum, it became more like a corporate communications department. The museum started exactly at the same time when the people started to be relocated from the islands, so the museum was almost a harbinger of the end of sea for Singaporeans. We interviewed him as well and there were interesting stories he told us. So Mustafa and I have had the experience of working with each other and I find him very interesting in his approach to showing art and curating.

SHM: I think the project In Search of Raffles’ Light was an interesting expression realised in conversation between artist, curator and host museum (which was the NUS Museum). We spent over two years just talking to people or collecting objects related to Singapore’s relationship with the sea. Often, we did not immediately know what the objects signified, and so we waited until they did.

The entire exhibition was an exercise in the dexterity of the artistic and curatorial, going into cultural grounds and spaces that had either not been ventured into yet, or had found themselves in a state of detritus and decay. Although we began with the simple premise of going to the Raffles Lighthouse, Singapore’s southernmost territorial marker, I must admit, we never actually got there!

Talking about particular works in the exhibition, how did you create the Sajahat maritime buoy? What did it entail and what is the significance of the work?

CL: Sajahat in Malay has a negative connotation. It means ‘evil’. In Singapore there are many islands with negative connotations. There is another island called Pulau Belakang Mati, which means “Island of Death Behind”. And then there is another called Pulau Hantu, ‘Ghost Island’. And one of the islands got renamed Pulau Keppel, which is actually the name of a corporate company. [“Pulau” means “island” in the Malay language.]

What happened was that Pulau Belakang Mati was a British Colony and the Brits tried to change its name to Sentosa Island, because of the original name’s negative connotation. In the 1970s or 1980s, the Singapore Tourism Board had a kind of competition for 500 dollars for re-naming Pulau Belakang Mati. And by looking through the newspaper records, we actually found that five people came up with the same name… highly suspicious!! They all came up with this name called ‘Sentosa’, which means ‘tranquil’. So Pulau Belakang Mati disappeared and became Sentosa. And then there was the evil island, Pulau Sajahat.

Detail of the barnacle growth on Charles Lim's 'SEA STATE 2: as evil disappears (Sajahat Buoy)', 2014, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo: C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia.

Detail of the barnacle growth on Charles Lim’s ‘SEA STATE 2: As Evil Disappears (Sajahat Buoy)’, 2014, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo: C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia.

I had always wanted to do a work specifically on land reclamation, because all of the other works were about border, transgression, and then for this one I had been taking a lot of images of sand and dredging for a couple of years. I felt that this didn’t justify as an artwork just like this, as I was only documenting in a sense. Documentary can be very problematic. You are kind of repeating images that people see all the time. It doesn’t quite tell the story. If you see sand, you can even think of deserts, and dredging is everywhere actually.

So I felt I needed to find a poetic point to enter into this question of land reclamation in Singapore. Also a sort of conspiracy in a sense, to activate the mind of the viewer. Around 2002 and 2004, the island of Pulau Sajahat disappeared from the charts, so I went to look for this island. I found it: it was surrounded by sand. It just looked like a normal island to me, but it also looked like an oasis in the desert, in a sense. It definitely didn’t feel like an evil island to me! There was nothing strange going on.

And then going back to look at the charts, I realised that there also were two other elements that had disappeared. One was actually a buoy, and another was a piece of rock that was sticking out, which they called Pulau Sejahat Kechil – Kechil in Malay means ‘small’. And then I realised that the name Sajahat would probably be on the buoy, as the buoys have names actually printed on them. Then I went through this process of trying to find out what happened to the buoy. I went to the Maritime Port Authority and asked what happened to it, and they just said “it’s gone”. Because of reclamation, they did not know what happened to it.

They told me about the company that makes those buoys, so I went to them and they told me that it was specifically designed – site-specific. I asked them to make me a new one. We went to the site of the original buoy and sunk it around that area. We tend to think of these structures built in the water as permanent things, ever present in a sense – like the word ‘lighthouse’ has that connotation, or ‘buoy’ too, of reliability and steadfastness. But actually the reality of what happens to buoys is that when you put a buoy in the water, barnacles grow on it and eventually, if you don’t maintain it, they will sink the buoy and it’ll go down to the bottom of the sea.

Singapore actually has the fastest growing barnacles in the world, due to its water temperature, the tropic environment and this sort of thing. And maybe even land reclamation has its role in this, as when you are reclaiming land you are also changing the tidal conditions, you are making the water run faster, and if the water runs faster, the barnacles have more food to eat and grow.

We wanted to keep the buoy in the water for a year, but it was very difficult as the sea is very controlled, you can’t just do things – you have to go through the authorities and get permits and all that. So we did it illegally! And we only had the buoy in the water for four weeks. I thought the project was going to fail, and I’d just leave it there and not have the buoy for the project. But then I went to inspect it after four weeks and I was very surprised to see that the barnacles had already covered it. So this work highlights the situation in our area. This project is actually part of “SEA STATE 2” (PDF download), and it’s entitled as evil disappears. The evil is Sajahat, which disappeared [from the charts].

Installation view of 'SEA STATE 2: as evil disappears' (Sajahat Buoy), 2014, encrusted navigational buoy; diameter 1.6 x 5.1 m, in "SEA STATE" by Charles Lim Yi Yong, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo credit: National Arts Council.

Installation view of ‘SEA STATE 2: As Evil Disappears’ (Sajahat Buoy), 2014, encrusted navigational buoy; diameter 1.6 x 5.1 m, in “SEA STATE” by Charles Lim Yi Yong, Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo credit: National Arts Council.

SHM: Nowhere is this [the effects of land reclamation] more apparent than in the case of Pulau Sajahat, which disappeared in 2002 from the GSP1 hydrographic charts of Singapore together with its smaller companion Pulau Sajahat Kechil. Both islands became subsumed by Pulau Tekong as the land reclamation works on its southern and northwestern coasts intensified during the late 1990s.

Charles suggests this sensation: “It is as if after observing the process of land reclamation for a long time, I sort of knew that it would happen.” After the first exhibition of as evil disappears (2008-2015) at Manifesta7, the artist discovered that the Sajahat Buoy, a navigational marker, also disappeared from the charts. To fully unravel the gravitas of the “disappearance”, the artist undertook the rebuilding of the Sajahat Buoy in 2014 as part of the Singapore Pavilion in Venice.

The assumption is that the original buoy is somewhere under the sea and is now encrusted with barnacles, for it sunk as the sea itself ceased to exist around it. Many queries remain: Is the supposition even sound to assume that the old buoy made its way to the bottom of the sea because the reclamation sand had burdened it so much that it had condemned itself to disappear? Could this theory be presented as a form of calculated uncertainty and deliberate conscious incompleteness to put forward a claim that the limits of this disappearance is the absolute end, but could be made to meet with the absolute beginning? If indeed the body of the old buoy has disappeared without a sign, could its newer reincarnation be self-sufficient and speak in its name alone?

What made Sajahat even more peculiar was its name, in Malay, “jahat” means “evil”, but may also be colloquially referred to as “naughty”. What is it, then, that has returned through Lim’s preparation? And if this re-emergence was to be seen through and presented within an exhibitionary context, what would we have left? What are we looking at? What demands can we make of it? At the time of writing, one thing remains certain – this re-emergence of the Sajahat Buoy offers it birth, but also evokes its death. The Buoy, old and less-old, is merged in a two-bodied image – what comes back was what died.

Charles Lim in front of 'SEA STATE 7: sandwich' at the Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Artist Charles Lim. Photo: Wee Li Lin.

Charles Lim in front of ‘SEA STATE 7: Sandwich’ at the Singapore Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Artist Charles Lim. Photo: Wee Li Lin.

There is a multichannel video installation, SEA STATE 7: Sandwich, that shows vertical strips of scenes, what is the work about and why did you choose to present it that way?

CL: I wanted to make a work that showed the process of land reclamation. As I told you, I had all this documentary footage of sand and reclamation, so I was pulling it out and thought it was all documentary or a photo show, in a sense. And the problem is that when we look at it, we tend to think “Oh, I’ve seen this before!”, and it becomes a trope actually. So what I did was use the photos and make them vertical, and squashed them all together.

Land reclamation, which is basically dropping sand in the water, is like abstract painting. There is something very abstract about it, about dropping sand in the water. There is something creationist about it, it’s human expression in a sense. So it reminded me of abstract painting, on a scale that is quite scary though.

Then I put all the images together. If you look at the video, the beginning is mud flat, the coast in Singapore is actually mud flats and mangrove swamps. So for modern people, seeing mangrove swamps is like seeing this non-productive space or maybe a space of disease, like mosquitoes, you are going to die if you go there! We had problems with inter-tidal spaces, places where when it’s high tide it’s water and low-tide is land, practically unusable. Spaces like that confound us. But for me, I see this as a productive space.

Then in sandwich you gradually see the sand being moved in, with the barges, you see the sand being dropped into the sea, you see the new land being fortified, with rocks and other things. It’s quite interesting…the people who live along the coast are foreign labour, and then you see the really wealthy people from Sentosa Cove, who are not Singaporeans. It’s the only place in Singapore where if you are a foreigner you can buy land: all reclaimed land, a place for the rich and famous I guess – it has all the mega yachts and things like that.

And then you have the super sandy beaches, which to me are a very western way of relating to the sea… sun tanning, building sand castles and all that. Because when people walk around in Singapore, they tend to avoid the sun actually.

Charles Lim, 'SEA STATE 7: sandwich', 2015, single-channel HD digital video, c. 5 min. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charles Lim, ‘SEA STATE 7: Sandwich’, 2015, single-channel HD digital video, c. 5 min. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

The idea of sandwich was the moving image. We don’t normally see it as spatial. We tend to throw in a narrative into the moving image. But through sandwich I was trying to devise a new way of looking at the sea, in a sense. I am cutting out the water, but in a way you are looking at the sea. You are looking at land, but actually that sand is from the sea. When they do land reclamation, they don’t take sand from the beach, they take it from the sea bed, they suck it out from there because that sand is suitable for land reclamation.

So the strategy [of the video work] is that we are looking at the sea, but it’s not the sea that you know actually. It’s not water.

The other thing has to do with painting, which has the power to become spatial. And I feel that with moving image, so far we have been using the narrative too much. We sit there and we think, “where does it begin and where is it going to end?” We have this kind of anxiety when we look at the moving image. So for Sandwich I was attempting to make it into something spatial – it’s looping, but the loop doesn’t have a beginning and an end.

The other issue is resolution. With Sandwich you can walk far away and see it as a whole, and when you get closer it offers new information to you, so you see more as you are coming closer. Normally, with moving image when you get closer the image doesn’t operate that way.

I also got sick of the dark space, sitting in a dark space with a projector. Also, your body disappears in the dark space and you are afraid to move around because you might bump into something or someone, so you are forced to sit down, and you don’t walk and watch and look.

Painters, when they paint, they don’t sit down, they paint from any direction, so it’s so interesting because it is being looked at by the maker at so many levels. As a viewer, you can have that same kind of experience. So with Sandwich I was trying to have that approach.

Charle Lim, 'SEA STATE 6: capsize', 2015, single channel HD digital video, c. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charle Lim, ‘SEA STATE 6: Capsize’, 2015, single channel HD digital video, c. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

There is a video work, SEA STATE 6: Capsize, which Mustafa mentioned before, where you are struggling with a boat in the water, constantly capsizing. Could you tell me more about it?

CL: One of the reasons for this work is that I went in a cave under the sea, so I wanted to give an image and feeling of that. When you are in a cave, you can’t actually tell that you are under the sea, it just looks like a cave with a lot of water. I felt like a needed to create a kind of totem for the viewer to kind of locate themselves. So I am using the boat as a totem. Capsizing has a mediation of above and under, above and under.

Another personal reason for creating this work is that in sailing, capsizing is a very sinful thing to do. A lot of sailors don’t even practice capsizing. If you capsize in a race, it’s over for you. When I was doing this work, I was asking a lot of my sailor friends, who are still racing, to do it. But all of them flat refused, “No way, I will never do that! I don’t want people to see me capsizing.” So in the end I had to do it.

It shows the idea that when you are in a cave, this empty space is actually part of the sea. Gives you a different perspective.

Then there is also another work called Drift, it has a figure drifting in the sea for seven hours. Capsize is also of a long duration: I am in the water for extended periods of time. This idea of the body being in the water for extended periods of time without a wet suit, without any protection – I’m just wearing shorts and a t-shirt – highlights a condition that is unique to our region in a sense, it’s seen as equatorial.

In the West, I think they tend to see the sea as sublime, as a space that is an obstacle, a place where you find god, and there are many good reasons for it. One good reason is that when you fall in the water, you normally have only 15 minutes to live before you get hypothermia, so Europeans build up all these narratives of the sea being dangerous.

But my relationship with water is very different. In Singapore and in a lot of equatorial regions, the temperature of the sea is the same as your internal body temperature. It’s similar to your blood in a sense. When there is a storm that comes, sailors and fishermen fill their boat with water and immerse their bodies in water, because the sea water is warmer than the air temperature during a storm.

So this work also opens up new ways of looking at water.

Charles Lim, 'SEA STATE 6: phase 1', 2015, single channel HD digital video, c. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist & Future Perfect, Singapore.

Charles Lim, ‘SEA STATE 6: Phase 1’, 2015, single channel HD digital video, c. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist & Future Perfect, Singapore.

Is there any particular message you want to give audiences through “SEA STATE”?

CL: I guess there are two messages: one is water temperature and body temperature. The situation is different in equatorial regions. We can be in the water for longer periods of time.

We also have come to a point where the sea has been corporatised, by shipping companies, the military and the navy. And when you see the way in which they communicate and represent the sea through their advertisements, they tend to use this trope of the sublime. They are using the same tropes as artists actually. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to show the sea as seductive, which I am guilty of doing at times too. But I think we actually need to find new ways of looking at and representing the sea.

Now that the Singapore Pavilion is complete, is “SEA STATE” also complete or will you be continuing the project?

CL: I think it’s complete. There is actually a project that is called SEA STATE 8: Sea Book, which starts from SEA STATE, but eventually will break out beyond it. I think I have come to the point where I have exhausted Singapore and I’d like to explore other places.

My work is very much informed by Alan Sekula. He is the Bresson of art, in a sense, and I think that his approach opens up new avenues.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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