Curator Siuli Tan
“My practice is centered around looking at our relationship with nature, and often these scenarios are quite complex. They highlight certain aspects of the environment and society, and how it informs and affects daily life. Often, working with other collaborators plays an important role in expanding my understanding and drawing out the larger implications of these issues beyond what we may see on the surface, or what I can perceive as an individual.” ~ Zen Teh
Zen Teh (b. 1988, Singapore) is an artist and educator interested in man’s relationship with the natural world. Her art practice is shaped by her proficiency in photography and painting, alongside her continual interdisciplinary investigation into urbanization, and the impact of human interaction with the natural landscape. Often working alongside researchers from adjacent fields such as geology, urban studies and environmental science, Teh’s artworks reflect a multiplicity of perspectives whilst retaining a poetics of form.
Land & Water at Warin Lab Contemporary is a two-part presentation of Zen Teh’s practice. The exhibition takes its title from a Chinese term for landscape, ie, “shan shui” – literally ‘mountain’ (symbolizing land) and ‘water’. Shan shui is also the name of a genre of traditional Chinese painting, depicting vistas of mountains and rivers. These two features are crucial components of this art form, which expresses humanity’s relationship with the world at large, as well as philosophical concepts.
‘Land and water’ aptly encapsulates the main trajectories of Teh’s practice and research interests over the course of her artistic career. An early work, Singapore Landscape Painting (2012) illustrates the beginnings of Teh’s approach. Taking the form of a traditional Chinese handscroll, the work composites photographic images of Singapore’s natural reserves, and presents them as misty landscapes in the tradition of shan shui painting. To take in the expanse of the landscape in its entirety, one must painstakingly unroll the scroll to reveal the image. The work is ambiguous and thought-provoking in form, enfolding commentaries on the constructed or artificial nature of landscapes and other ‘green spaces’ in Singapore’s dense urban environment, as well as a sense of such natural idylls belonging to a distant past, only to be encountered as a form of nostalgic pleasure in the unfolding of a scroll that mimics a historical artefact.
Singapore Landscape Painting (2012). Image courtesy the artist.
The Imperative Landscape (2014), developed during Teh’s residency in the mountainous city of Chiang Rai, Thailand, continues this artistic approach but adopts a different tenor. Teh photographed the dense forests at the peripheries of Chiang Rai, itself a rapidly expanding city, and collaged these images onto acrylic panels. With this body of work, Teh eschewed the conventional landscape format of presentation for her vistas, opting instead to frame them within large geometric shapes reminiscent of sacred geometry. This, coupled with the stark monochromatic palette of her imagery, endows The Imperative Landscape with a primeval quality, drawing viewers into the depths of the dense, mysterious forests, and suggesting a perspective of nature not as passive ground to be razed and built over, but as a powerful foundation and repository of cultural beliefs and spiritual traditions.
Microcosm (2023), developed specially for this presentation at Warin Lab, is a companion series to The Imperative Landscape, continuing the interests and narratives explored in the larger-scale works, enclosed within smaller, more intimate ‘worldings’.
Exhibition view of The Imperative Landscape. Image courtesy the artist.
While many of Teh’s projects focus on land masses, water is always present, in terms of the evidence of erosion caused by large-scale clearing of land, as well as the corporate-led exploitation of this natural resource, which often upsets the equilibrium of the natural order and ways of life in the region. These include environmental disasters such as flooding or landslides, as well as deeper psychological scars resulting from the removal of a community’s traditional way of subsistence on the land, and the agency of the people. This was most clearly illustrated during the artist’s research-residency in Bandung, Indonesia, where she witnessed the clearing of land on the site of an ancient caldera, and the attendant issues brought about by relentless urbanization and gentrification. As such, land and water are inextricable, and reveal countless narratives about our precarious relationship with the natural world.
Zen Teh in Bandung, Indonesia. Image courtesy the artist.
Encapsulating this related research trajectory of Teh’s practice, Warin Lab Contemporary will present an installation titled Mirror of Water, originally commissioned by the Esplanade (Singapore) in 2019. Mirror of Water captures the effects of pollution in a prismatic body of water, and documents the effects of this pollution on the wider ecosystem. The work arose from the artist’s chance observation of the beauty of light reflecting off the water’s surface in a canal. However, Teh came to realise that this was a hint of oil residues floating on the surface of the water – a sign of water pollution. The artist then embarked on research together with an environmental scientist from the National University of Singapore, leading to her realization of the wider, far-reaching effects of this pollution, on the health of mangrove forests and coastal ecosystems in Singapore. Evocative and otherworldly, Mirror of Water is a layered commentary on urban and environmental issues, combining a poetics of form with interdisciplinary research and documentation.
Mirror of Water (2019). Image courtesy the artist.
Collectively, Land and Water reflects Teh’s approach towards artmaking and raising environmental awareness. The collaging and abstraction employed in her image-making reflects “the complexities of these encounters and research”; their visual poetry, as opposed to pure documentary ‘reportage’, offers an invitation to viewers to “engage with the work through their imagination”. In the artist’s words:
“In my practice, it’s always important that it comes in on a human level. It’s very easy to talk about environmental or political issues by crunching numbers, but what do they actually mean to people like you and I? So my approach seeks to prompt viewers to respond to my works in their own ways…these points of personal connections can hopefully activate some level of positive response or actions towards these issues”.
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