Here in tiny, land-scarce Singapore, it comes as no surprise that nature’s often had to take a backseat to the demands of progress and development. Even as campaigns to save the Green Corridor and Bukit Brown make it plain that not everybody’s on board with the idea of replacing natural areas with highways and shopping malls, there’s precious little left of nature on the island. What does remain often ends up aggressively manicured, presenting not so much nature as some carefully orchestrated interpretation of nature, filtered through very human expectations and perspectives. Zen Teh’s first solo exhibition in Singapore, ‘Calls for a New Natural Order,’ examines, among other things, this curiously dysfunctional relationship with nature. It’s a relationship that could be compared, if we’re being uncharitable, to anime-obsessed shut-ins who become bizarrely attached to purely fictional characters.
Which is not to say that Teh’s photography can be boiled down to some nostalgic pursuit of images of an authentic, unspoiled nature – of lushly rugged landscapes to be contemplated at our leisure in a comfortably air-conditioned gallery. Hers is a rather more critical eye, questioning our relationship with nature and the landscape in three very distinct bodies of work from the past four years.
The series 'The Imperative Landscape,’ for instance, is built on dense, large-scale images of Chiang Rai forests, discarding the usual landscape format for less conventional shapes – a circle with a hole in the middle, a notched triangle, and what might well be a reference to the yoni symbol. Rendered in a subdued monochrome with a glossy diasec finish, these dramatic forms suggest both a confrontational graphic sensibility and a concern with sacred geometry – nature not as some passive ground to be built over, but an active, primal force, one which provides the foundations of our myths and symbols.
Though the show is largely one of photographs, there are influences beyond that of photography itself – most notably, painting, and particularly that of traditional Chinese painting. Teh’s 'Unknowing’ series and 'Singapore Landscape Painting’ are both printed on scrolls of hand-made paper, horizontally and vertically respectively. It’s a gesture that verges on affectation, particularly in the case of 'Singapore Landscape Painting,’ which requires you to carefully – almost tediously – manhandle the scroll to take in the whole image. The physical investment involved in viewing lushly verdant scenes of sameness seems to function as commentary in itself, on our endless vistas of cookie cutter flats and malls.
Composed as they are of photo-composites of various natural scenes in Singapore – ranging from familiar parks and reserves to other, less identifiable fragments of landscape – the two series suggest a relationship with nature founded, on some level, on some sense of limitless editability. An approach to the natural world that has something in common with Spotify’s systems of musical recommendation, or the filter bubbles quietly imposed on us by Google’s monitoring of our internet search habits.
At the same time, the compositing of these photographs to suggest landscapes wholly strange to our own experiences of Singapore suggests a touch of deception or concealment through collation, lending a touch of disquiet and unease to these otherwise lushly beautiful images. Far from simply indulging our taste for contemplating nature from afar, the show hints at some sort of complicity and instability, disrupting our settled gaze.
Calls for a New Natural Order runs until Aug 10, 12 to 7 pm Tue to Sat, 1 to 5 pm Sundays, at 2902 Gallery, #02-02 222 Queen Street, Singapore 188550. Closed on Mondays and public holidays. Free admission.
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