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"Rethinking Singapore's Urban Landscape" - Artist Zen Teh : In Conversation


"Rethinking Singapore's Urban Landscape" - Artist Zen Teh : In Conversation
Exhibition view of "Garden State Palimpsest" at Alliance Française de Singapour. This exhibition is supported by Alliance Française de Singapour as a prize for Zen Teh, winner of '7th France-Singapore Photographic Arts Award'. Image courtesy of Zen Teh.

As an environmental artist, Zen Teh has long been interested in issues related to urbanization and human interaction with the natural landscape. Her most recent project, Garden State Palimpsest, was first shown in her solo exhibition, 'Vestiges: Tracing Urban-nature', at Société Générale Gallery, Alliance Française de Singapour in September 2017. The exhibition took place after she won the France + Singapore Photographic Arts Awards (FSPAA) for her series, The Imperative Landscape (2014). Teh developed that body of work during a residency in the mountainous city of Chiang Rai, Thailand. In The Imperative Landscape, Teh transposed images of Chiang Rai’s natural environment onto geometric cutouts. Both series were on view at Alliance Française de Singapour. There is a cohesive visual trajectory from The Imperative Landscape to Garden State Palimpsest, though the latter series was created using an arduous hand transfer and image-layering technique, as compared to computer printing in The Imperative Landscape. Furthermore, Garden State Palimpsest draws poignant references from Singapore’s lost natural environment. Inspired by the perpetual changes to Singapore’s geography, Teh’s Garden State Palimpsest not only brings into focus the spaces that have vanished, but the memories associated with those places that will fade as well, if we let them.

The Artling  sat down with Zen Teh to talk about her practice, how her personal history fed into the creation of Garden State Palimpsest, and the importance of cultivating environmental awareness among youths.

Exhibition view of "The Imperative Landscape".  Image courtesy of Zen Teh. 

What was it like creating "Garden State Palimpsest"? It appears to be a natural extension of "The Imperative Landscape".

The process [of creating Garden State Palimpsest] took a long time because it is a new way of working. It may seem, at first glance, that it is similar to what I have done before, but the workflow is slightly different. It’s the first time I’m working with found objects and I don’t have full control over the things that I will find. There was also a lot more research [into issues that are] close to my heart in Garden State Palimpsest.

I grew up in a Buddhist family and my mother is a strong believer. I am not religious, though I adopt practices and beliefs [from Buddhism] that I find peace in. When I was growing up, my mother often talked about letting nature take its course and she used to take us outdoors. When I was fourteen, I became a vegetarian and have been a vegetarian since then. Initially, I was influenced by my mother. My grandmother passed away and, out of filiality, my sisters and I took on a vegetarian diet for 90 days. It began as a religious practice, but then it started to impact me personally. I was a temperamental child, but it was the combination of the diet and artmaking that calmed me down. It brought me greater sensitivity to my surroundings and impacted how I related to my environment. [My beliefs remain] a key stimulus in how my work evolves, how I relate to the environment, and how I present situations to share with my audience.

"Garden State Palimpsest" by Zen Teh (2017), Photographic sculpture with image of mangroves and swamp inspired by the stories of kampong life of Mdm Jean Chua. She used to live in Kampong Taman Garden which is now a country club in Jurong, Singapore. Image courtesy of Zen Teh. 

Do you think your current relationship to the environment is different from when you were a teenager? Singapore’s physical landscape changes quickly.

It’s definitely changing faster. Whether it’s [developing] big buildings or [renovating] the pavement by one’s house, I see all that happening increasingly rapidly. I understand that it’s one of the ways to boost the economy, but I feel there is little consideration for the emotional impact on people.

Garden State Palimpsest was part of a collaboration with my sister, Nicole Teh, who is an architectural researcher at The Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Every year, Nicole comes back [to Singapore] and I tell her about all the things that have changed. It got us asking: why is there a need for [our environment to] keep changing? We researched and conducted interviews together. However, we responded to the gathered information in different ways: Nicole responded through the making of a series of architectural drawings that speculates Singapore in 2072, 250 years after the nation’s first land reclamation. On the other hand, I responded to the research through photographic sculptures.

You mentioned that you and Nicole conducted interviews. Who were the people you selected for the interviews and was there a methodology to your selection?

The selection was based on the interviewees’ age groups, the locations in which they stayed, and the types of life activities [they engaged in]. We chose kampong residents who moved to Housing Development Board (HDB) apartments and are still living in Singapore, because they are the best testament to the changes in residential spaces. We also chose people who are active in society—people who are working and are in touch with the community. We also [took into consideration] the location [of the kampongs], because we wanted to understand how different types of environments [changed over time]. We chose residents who lived by the mangroves, the sea, etc., and could provide descriptions of those places. I couldn’t find all of those spaces. Mangroves were easier [to find], but not the specific mangroves that the interviewees talked about. River streams were particularly hard to find.

"Garden State Palimpsest" by Zen Teh (2017), Photographic sculpture with image of mangroves and swamp inspired by the stories of kampong life of Mdm Jean Chua. Image courtesy of Zen Teh. 

What was most striking about the people you spoke to in the interviews?

When [the interviewees] talked about their experiences, they were descriptive to a shocking level. The extent of their details was almost photographic. I was impressed by their strong connections to [their environments]. I brought my mother back to the plot of land where she used to stay. We found it when she recognized two mango trees that her family planted. When she first realized that [this was the site of her home], she broke down in tears. She recalled the memories that she had in that space and the dogs that she used to have. She remembered her dog chasing the lorry that had all their things in it [when she moved]. She later learned that her dog was shot because it was untagged.

These are the memories of people who lived in the space and interacted with the objects and animals, of the people who built their lives there. Visiting the physical site of my mother's kampong home made her accounts more tangible and real. I felt more connected to her accounts. The history of our kampongs can seem surreal due to our physical detachment from such living spaces today. The visit allowed me to imagine with greater clarity what [living in a kampong] could have been like.

"Garden State Palimpsest" by Zen Teh (2017), Photograph on found marble slab based on stories of Mdm Jenny Ng who used to live in Kampong Cantik, Bukit Timah, Singapore. Kampong Cantik was located close to Bukit Timah Hill. It took her 40 years (until this project) to realize that this area was not developed as part of the Bukit Timah Expressway, information she was told when she was evicted from this kampong. Image courtesy of Zen Teh. 

You and I are both disconnected from the kampong for the reasons you mentioned. Are you nostalgic for that lifestyle, even though you (nor I) have experienced it before?

There is a level of nostalgia [that transcends] my personal feelings of displacement. When my mother describes her experiences [living in a kampong], there is an excitement in her tone. I often ask myself, “how does she have such a strong connection with a space?” That’s one of the key things that I think about. She is my mother and I want to relate to her accounts. Photographing and recreating scenes of the natural environment was one way of gaining cognitive and physical understanding.

The fact that [the final photographic sculptures] required digital compositing is a testament to the changes to our land. The kampong is the past. We still have Pulau Ubin but it is not within our daily reach. On the contrary, stories [about kampong life] are very much alive because the people who tell these stories are still alive. If we don’t ask about these stories or share them, we forget and move on.

Zen Teh, "Garden State Palimpsest" (2017), Photographic sculpture with image of swamp forest, inspired by the stories of kampong life of Mr Loh Ah Back. Image courtesy Zen Teh. 

Through your exhibition 'Vestiges', I became more aware of what our society lost as a result of rapid urbanization. It is important to be aware of how our environment has developed but I also think it’s vital to translate this awareness into positive and lasting change. I want to ask you about education practices as you also teach. What do you think is the value of education as an environmental artist?

As a teacher you have the ability to shape and influence the younger generation to take notice of issues that are important. It is easy to ignore them. But I’ve found that the projects I’ve crafted for students have made them more aware of the environment, not just of nature but also of their surroundings. It’s hard to say what they will take away beyond my lessons, but at least I’ve planted a seed. My teaching encourages awareness of the environment that goes beyond photography. I’m pleased to see it take shape. 



Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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