#14 by Pey Chuan Tan

Words and thoughts by Berny Tan, regarding her solo presentation at I_S_L_A_N_D_S
... the invisible reasons which make cities live... (15 May–19 June, 2018)


Berny Tan (b. 1990) is a Singaporean artist, curator, writer and occasional designer. She previously worked as Assistant Curator for OH! Open House, a non-profit that explores Singapore’s cultural geography through art. Her art practice interweaves embroidery, drawing, installation, graphic design and writing – fundamentally exploring the tensions in her attempts to systematise intangible, emotional experiences.

... the invisible reasons which make cities live... is Berny's exploration of the underlying structure in Italo Calvino's novel, Invisible Cities. The installation exudes a cool brevity and collectedness, something that can only be achieved after careful planning, and several rounds of trial and error. We invited Berny to share some (less structured) thoughts on this project, as well as the personal dynamics of reading and interpretation.  

Berny Tan,  “… the invisible reasons which make cities live…” , 2018, digital print on paper, pins, pearl cotton thread, yarn, stickers, dimensions variable. Installation view at  I_S_L_A_N_D_S .

Berny Tan, “… the invisible reasons which make cities live…”, 2018, digital print on paper, pins, pearl cotton thread, yarn, stickers, dimensions variable. Installation view at I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

Describing a book as “life-changing” is a dramatic declaration. It suggests that the act of reading the book in question shifted the very foundations of one’s existence. However, the books I consider life-changing did not, in fact, alter the course of my life. Rather, I would say they gave my life a sense of form – by articulating ideas with an unprecedented depth, describing feelings with an intense accuracy, and imagining new worlds with an enthusiastic wonder. During the time spent immersed in a life-changing book, everything seems to make sense. The foundations of my existence do not shift, but they feel much stronger, steadier, now that some part of it – whether reality or dream – has been put into words.

Invisible Cities has never felt that way for me.


I am reading Invisible Cities for what must be the eleventh or twelfth time in my life. A majority of those times occurred in the last few weeks, in preparation for this project, as I mined the book for quotes and patterns and revelations. But the first time I read it must have been eight or nine years ago. My junior college art teacher had lent me an old copy of his – a grey-and-blue hardcover edition, its dust jacket long gone. I can’t remember exactly how he described the book, but I remember preparing for my mind to be blown.

It wasn’t. Instead, my mind was twisted, rearranged, befogged. I recognised the novel’s unusual brilliance, but overall the text felt opaque, despite moments of luminescence. Perhaps reading it even made me feel ignorant, and a little resentful of being made to feel ignorant – especially since the prose, though dense in parts, is not particularly difficult to understand. Each section felt as if it hinted at something larger or deeper than itself, and I wasn’t sure what that larger or deeper thing was.

Nevertheless, the book stayed with me, though for a long time I didn’t even own a copy. I thought the existing cover designs were too ugly or simple or unreflective of the text. Every bookstore I visited, I searched for Italo Calvino’s works, hoping to find a copy with a cover that felt right, and always failing. On the way, I picked up other books by Calvino, and in fact enjoyed a couple of them – such as If on a winter’s night a traveler – far more than Invisible Cities.

Cover art for  Invisible Cities  by Peter Mendelsund, created for a reissue of Calvino’s works from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Cover art for Invisible Cities by Peter Mendelsund, created for a reissue of Calvino’s works from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I finally bought my first copy of the novel last year, having found a cover that met my pointless aesthetic standards. I reread it, and though it felt more illuminating than my first encounter, that frustrating opacity lingered. Even now, after the eleventh or twelfth reading, after having read four academic papers about it (including a 200-page one about mathematics in the novel), I still find it confusing and uncomfortable, just as much as I find it beautiful and ingenious.

More than ever, I yearn to understand the book in its entirety. All these years I could never shake the feeling that I just needed to find the right method, or methods, to access it. Yes, reading Invisible Cities is uncomfortable, but it is a discomfort that hypnotises me, that I am intent on unpacking, even if there’s a whiff of impossibility about the task.



In the past six years of my art practice, I have completed a number of projects based on literature – more specifically, how the systems within a given text frame my experience as a reader, or how the systems I impose on the process of reading change my understanding of the text. For every single one of these projects, including this one on Invisible Cities, I have felt an underlying sense of futility. As much as I try to reflect on the text, as much as I try to find new ways of making connections with and within the text, there is always something fundamentally unknowable about it.

This is something with which I know I will always struggle – how to surrender to the unknowable, the uncertain, the undefined. Though Invisible Cities is intensely structured, though Calvino was obsessively deliberate in his language, the book possesses nebulous mysteries that I know I may never fully solve.

And so, here I am, filtering Invisible Cities through diagrams and notebooks and spreadsheets, seeking to comprehend something not fully comprehensible. Perhaps, years in the future, I will read this book for the thirty-eighth time and realise that I can finally call it a “life-changing” book, the way I’ve defined that term for myself at the very start of this short essay. Until then, I reserve a niche for it in my mind, a special place for this unresolvable thing.

(29 April 2018)

#10 by Pey Chuan Tan

An interview with Ben Loong, on the topic of medium and material in his solo presentation at I_S_L_A_N_D_S
"Aggregate" (24 February – 31 March, 2018)


Ben Loong works in the medium of painting and sculpture and explores networks that underlie human communication. Following a fascination with geography and the natural world, his current Terra Blanca series examines geographical and geological phenomena, and considers it in a contemporary context. Working primarily with drywall plaster, these works engage with the industrial, inviting the viewer to question the value of our physical world.

With "Aggregate" these material investigations are taken a step further. Base materials with an original and specific function are appropriated and reassembled according to new processes and decisions here. Objects are not defined by their inherent properties; rather, their conceivable value is shaped by the chance and contingencies of placement and consumption. 


We’ve been following your Terra Blanca series for some time now and what’s most interesting is how it touches upon contemporary aspects of art and labour. In using plaster, a base construction material as the foundation of your abstract compositions, your work speaks to ideologies of art production and cultural hierarchy, as well as the role of the artist within the creative economy. What’s your take on this?

This series is about exploring these themes through a very deliberate working process, using the same materials, gestures, and tools as a construction worker would use to build a wall, but instead producing an art object. When I started experimenting with plaster as a medium, I saw it for the connection to the relationship with my father, him being the one who first exposed me to the material, showing me how to patch a chip in a wall at a young age.

Ben Loong, Grout, 2016, resinated drywall plaster on canvas, 40 x 30 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Later on while working at a gallery, I observed how workers built new exhibition walls for displaying fine art, and applied their techniques and processes to my work. They knew which tools worked best for flat surfaces, acute corners, obtuse corners, and which methods were best for joining seams and concealing holes. The flow between blue collar and blue chip fascinated me, and I admired the workmanship. So, I wanted this construction and materiality to show in my work.

Short documentary by the artist, which follows a day in the life of a construction worker in Singapore.

“Aggregate” is a lot more experiential and physical than your past works. It activates the exhibition site as a museological display for the viewer to ponder the representation and construction of material culture. Could you tell us more about how you envisioned this project in order to create dialogue between object and audience, and what considerations came into play as you developed the idea and put together the pieces (literally or otherwise)?

My immediate response to the space and the area around it was to work towards a display of mock precious stones, sold by a fictional jewellery manufacturer, dealing more with advertising and visual merchandising. The stones were sculpted out of polyethylene foam, a packing material used to protect more valuable objects during shipping and transportation, and then finished with plaster and resin. The objects were more deliberate and symmetrical in form, and questioned material value from a consumerist angle.

After further discussion, it developed into this imagined rock specimen exhibit, very much like the display in a natural history museum, and the foam forms became more organic and varied.

Ben Loong,    Aggregate   , found rock and mineral fragments, resin, plaster, gold leaf, PE foam, dimensions variable. Detail from installation view at  I_S_L_A_N_D_S , 24 February – 31 March 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and  I_S_L_A_N_D_S .

Ben Loong, Aggregate, found rock and mineral fragments, resin, plaster, gold leaf, PE foam, dimensions variable. Detail from installation view at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, 24 February – 31 March 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

Mixed in with these sculpted rocks, were "real" rock fragments collected from the estate around my studio in Bukit Merah. I was looking out for pieces that had broken off from pavements, kerbs, roads, humps - features of my urban landscape. I selected the ones with an interesting form or story, brought them back to my studio, washed them, and grouped them together loosely based on type, such as decorative and landscaping rocks, road divider and hump fragments, road fragments, etc.

Your early work was significantly influenced by the arte povera movement from the 1960s and 70s, which was characterised by a range of unconventional processes and non-traditional, ‘everyday’ materials. Apart from plaster, you also work with a range of other industrial matter such as plywood, resin, and gold leaf. Describe the material and metaphorical qualities that drew you to them.

I've always been drawn to materials and objects that carry a bluecollar or working class spirit, and when I discovered the work of artists like Jannis Kounellis and Giovanni Anselmo, I really appreciated how their compositions could elevate object and material.


Ben Loong, Ant Mill, 2012, burlap, flour.

Image courtesy of the artist.


Ben Loong, Stick you, 2012, oil on canvas.

Image courtesy of the artist.


Ben Loong, Temple, 2012, timber, glazed ceramic, stockings, meat hooks, hemp, bandage, shellac.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Resin is used industrially to weatherproof pipes and ships, and gilding as a profession can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. There are practical benefits from using these materials, but I find these industrial qualities really resonate in the work.

Ben Loong,   Vug , 2017, resinated drywall plaster and gold leaf on canvas 36 x 25 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ben Loong, Vug, 2017, resinated drywall plaster and gold leaf on canvas 36 x 25 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

There’s an improvisational, DIY sensibility in your process that most of us can identify with, and yet it’s apparent that the texture and finish of the works are very considered. How has your experience working as a gallery technician affected the way you approach art-making?

The two activities complement each other a lot. While working on a piece, I often have to stop and continue after a few days of work at the gallery, so there's an exposure to many different artists in between sessions in the studio. I'm also using the same materials and tools both as a technician and as an artist, and I am constantly learning new ways of using them.

So far, you’ve explored geographical and geological phenomena in your work, as a way to explore the value of the individual vis a vis the world at large. What are you keen to look into next?

Geographical and geological phenomena serves as a visual and thematic reference for my works, and I'm especially drawn to empirical nature of geography. There's still a lot more to tap into, but moving forward I would like to explore human geography and the relationship humans have with their physical landscape. The impact geographical factors have on shaping cultures and beliefs, migration, ways civilisations respond to their geographical situation.

What do you like to rock out to while working in the studio?

I'm a big music fan, but I find I'm most productive when listening to sports podcasts and punditry. I really like to listen to the hosts argue about really trivial issues –  it helps me to be more spontaneous and decisive with my work.


Thank you!

Ben Loong — https://www.benloongstudio.com

#9 by Pey Chuan Tan

Aggregate, our latest solo presentation at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, sees Ben Loong reimagining the exhibition site as vitrines of history and ethnography. Setting up a confrontation between industry and ecology, viewers find themselves in a liminal space of reflection where natural patterns are measured against societal precepts.

Click here to see the press release for Aggregate (24 February – 31 March, 2018).

#8 by Pey Chuan Tan

Christina J. Chua is a writer from Singapore. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the National University of Singapore in 2013. After years of living out of a suitcase, her affinities divided between the urban and the islands of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, she finally returned to root herself in Singapore in 2017.

She survives her memories by writing a poem every day and cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude and generosity. While working on her debut novel on generational trauma, travel, and faith, Christina took some time to pen this personal response to Boedi Widjaja's presentation, "Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一)" (17 January–21 February 2018).

I sat close to the glowing cube with my chin in my hands, my eyes filling with tears, as a girl with
hair as black and straight as my own sang into my reflection. She offered me a melodic question:
When will I know my history? When will I know myself?

Her temples and pavilions, the rural land she traversed, the palace she attacked — these were the
features of the motherland I perceived. And although it was a caricature, a mere line drawing, it
seemed to be true. The television transposed my vision, and thus expanded it beyond the borders
of an island whose Chinese immigrants’ skins had tanned under the Pacific sun, as they worked
the sugarcane plantations. Here on my island, I knew that Chinatown was a place for Sunday dim
and the lonesome homeless with their shopping carts. I knew that my mother could still find
the ingredients she needed to cook teo chew porridge in a specialty supermarket of some
estranged Western nomenclature, Ranch 99. Here, I had memorised the songs that Disney had
strung together to voice a lowly replacement or substitution, or even a distant longing for what I
thought, was China.

Christina, as a child with her sisters, mother, and Grandma Ruth

Christina, as a child with her sisters, mother, and Grandma Ruth

My Beijing-born grandmother was given a Christian and Western name when she met my
grandfather, the third generation son of Cantonese immigrants to British Guiana. He named her
Ruth, and took it upon himself to redeem her along the lines of the Old Testament narrative. He
discipled her in the faith and taught her a meagre English. Ruth followed him south and away from
the capital, her home, pressured by the onslaught of the Red Army, all the way to Singapore.

I do not know her Mandarin name, and even my mother forgets it too. Perhaps, when wondering
about a girl named Mulan, I wanted to ask her the same questions. When I would fly from Hawaii to
Singapore for an annual visit, Grandma Ruth would only sit in front of another television screen,
staring blankly and battling dementia.

. . .

What, and who is China? How do we remember it, and them? Boedi Widjaja traces the outlines,
the trails of our collective diaspora that have otherwise been obscured in forgetfulness, or by the
gaps that inadvertently occur through cultural (mis)appropriation. His wuxia characters that were
first found in film stills now float in palimpsest under windowpanes, islands that they inhabit as thin
copies, delicate regenerations of our ancestors.

It was not a television drama, though the artist chooses to dramatise the force of migration. They
were thrown elsewhere, and through the dance and clash of swords that elevated them, they were
flung into these straits. We do not want their memories to sink. Even the outlines are important.

While I look for Ruth in Beijing, I think Widjaja looks for his own in Fujian. Their muttered names
are the rich, old alluvion that has washed up in cadence, in sketches and in melody on the shores
of our imagination.

#7 by Pey Chuan Tan

An interview with Boedi Widjaja, to accompany his solo presentation at I_S_L_A_N_D_S
Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一) (17 January–21 February, 2018)


Boedi Widjaja was born in Solo City, Indonesia, and now lives and works in Singapore. Trained as an architect, he spent his young adulthood in graphic design, and turned to art in his thirties. His works often connect diverse conceptual references through his own lived experience of migration, culture and aesthetics; and investigate into concerns regarding diaspora, hybridity, travel and isolation. The artistic outcomes are processual and conceptually-charged, and embrace multiple mediums ranging from drawings to installations, sound and live art.

Growing up in Indonesia as a young child, severed from cultural roots, the artist looked to wuxia (武侠) — martial arts — novels and movies as a way to connect with his Chinese ethnicity.  As a literary genre, wuxia established itself in Mainland China as a direct response to the May Fourth movement of 1919, calling for personal freedom and a break from Confucian values. Working around historical inconsistencies and genre-bending tropes, a more common structure in wuxia follows the protagonist’s progression from childhood to adulthood, much like a bildungsroman. And yet every so often, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred. You can’t help but notice the parallels here — the artist’s departure from Indonesia, and his subsequent migration to Singapore are very much inextricable from the political history of his homeland.


You mentioned that there was a shortage and/or lag in terms of the material that was coming into Indonesia. So in the 1980s, you could be watching wuxia films from the 1960s and 1970s, set in a timeless, pre-modern, mythical Chinese world. Growing up in Singapore during the 1990s also exposed you to a different set of Chinese culture. That’s a great deal of information (and time travel) to consolidate! How did you relate to it then, and now?

There was indeed a distinction between how I experienced Chinese culture in Indonesia and Singapore. In reference of a Chinese idiom, “to be away from one’s home in pursuit of scholarly honour or military duty” (书剑飘零) that speaks of being away from home, the former would be a sword and the latter, a book. I was born in Solo City (formerly Surakarta) during the New Order period. The period was known for its racialised socio-politics; Chinese culture was suppressed following the G30S event and the subsequent fall of Partai Komunis Indonesia (Communist Party of Indonesia) in 1965. Between the late 1970s and early 1980s however, Chinese cinema could still be found, and were accessible on VHS tapes in video rental shops (I later learnt they were pirated from Singapore). I was first introduced to wuxia films by my uncle who was a cinephile. He rented cartons of wuxia tapes and passed them to my family after he finished watching them. I didn’t understand Mandarin then but was quickly drawn to the action-packed world of wuxia — of fighting swordsmen who could levitate, their powerful sabres and earth-shattering inner energies. The experience was visceral — filled with violent actions, sound effects and dynamic movements.          

When my sister and I first came to Singapore in 1984, we stayed with a Singaporean couple who happened to be members of the local Chinese theatre scene. In contrast to watching wuxia films back home, pop culture was generally frowned upon in their house. I was instead ‘strongly encouraged’ to read literary classics such as Dream of The Red Chamber (红楼梦), Water Margin (水浒传), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义), and modern works such as Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q (阿Q正传). I was then a kid learning Mandarin and must have found the books too difficult and serious to read! The couple also brought us to Chinese theatre performances, an art form that drew much from literary works. Chinese language — mostly in its written and oral form — defined my experience of the culture in this period of time.  

Although the experiences were different, they both suggest an image of the Chinese diaspora’s imagining of their identity and feelings of nostalgia, as mediated through films and literature. It has been written about for example, that wuxia films made by studios in Hong Kong and Taiwan, were commercial products that catered to the overseas Chinese market and their longing for an imaginary China. In turn, my experience in Singapore was indirectly impacted by the raw emotions felt at the time by the locally educated Chinese population, post-merger of Nanyang University and University of Singapore.                 


Whereas in previous iterations of of Imaginary homeland, you shift between drawing and photography, here you have turned your focus toward film and literature. Could you tell us more about the Indonesian author, Asmaran S. Kho Ping Hoo and his serialised novels, which serve as the inspiration behind this work?

I got to know about Kho Ping Hoo a few years ago from my uncle (not the cinephile) when he bought me a few of KPH’s cersil series (cersil is an abbreviation of cerita silat in Bahasa Indonesia, which refers to martial arts novels). It was the books’ format that first caught my eye — each measured 10cm by 14cm, about 5mm thick, and printed on newsprint, they don’t look like your typical wuxia novel.

Later, i learnt that KPH was a popular (perhaps the most popular) cersil writer in Indonesia of his time. He was born in Sragen (which happened to be my mother’s hometown), and had taken on various jobs in different cities before establishing his reputation as a cersil writer in Tasikmalaya, a town near Jakarta, between 1958–1964. His life was marked by political chaos, enduring the Japanese invasion in 1942, the pro-independence battle of Surabaya in 1945, and in 1963, lost all he had in a racially motivated riot before moving to Solo City the year after.

KPH had started writing wuxia stories in order to attract readership for a literary magazine he founded during his time in Tasikmalaya. In contrast to some of his peers who also translated foreign wuxia stories, KPH’s oeuvre was mostly made up of original stories. He didn’t understand Mandarin and had supposedly relied on wuxia films (most likely subtitled in Bahasa Indonesia) as reference. An interesting time-based technique that he used was how a series would lead to another, with different characters who existed as sin tong (a transliteration of 神童 from Hokkien in Bahasa Indonesia) ‘growing up’ from childhood to adulthood across the different series. It has been speculated that his stories were partly autobiographical, as a way of describing his own wandering life amidst political chaos.       


Your practice revolves around the act of excavating memories, marking origins, and exploring personal narratives. This act of ‘tracing’ is nowhere seen as directly as it is here in your work, Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一). We’ve talked about how the Chinese term for ‘trace’ (描) could be implied in both writing and drawing. How do you apply this to the fiction and memories that you are attempting to place through this exercise?

Tracing an image by hand inevitably loses information of its reference but it also produces new modalities. Within a traced image lies the memory of its reference and the artist’s generative act. In a sense, the act of tracing embodies both imagination and recollection—the method suggesting a continuity of past and future, or of drawing a line across time. So far, the acts of tracing in my works are mostly of stones and with Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一), tracing became a way to contemplate the wuxia films, which similar to the Chinese diaspora’s memory of their ancestral origins, are based on both historical references and cultural invention.

Boedi Widjaja, "Imaginary homeland, kang ouw (一)," process image. Image courtesy of the artist.

Boedi Widjaja, "Imaginary homeland, kang ouw (一)," process image. Image courtesy of the artist.

The film stills—in no particular order—are traced with carbon paper, scanned, and then Xeroxed. We don’t get to see the pages of the traditional bound book that holds these drawings. Why did you choose these particular modes of image reproduction?

Interestingly, the Chinese phrase for video (录影) comprises of two words that could mean ‘copy/record’ and ‘image/film’ respectively. What I did in Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一) was to transpose (and transcribe), back-and-forth, my experience of wuxia in video and the printed book. In an abstract sense, the entire process could be seen as something that hovered between writing and filming. The tracing process was a tactile process that enabled me to viscerally connect with the flat, cinematic space of the stills.

By tracing only the images’ primary contours, the intent was to extract the action, movement and space of the film stills. In contrast, scanography and photocopy—flatbed photo techniques that responded to the flatness of the page—were used to place the book and the traces it contained, back into the floating world of images. While its pages were being scanned, the book was also at times physically shifted to introduce moments of disrupted space-time (akin to video edits) before the images were projected at a large scale using photocopy.

Boedi Widjaja,   Imaginary homeland, kang ouw (一)  , photocopies of scanned drawings, 150 x 195 cm. Installation view at  I_S_L_A_N_D_S , 17 January–21 February 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and  I_S_L_A_N_D_S .

Boedi Widjaja, Imaginary homeland, kang ouw (一), photocopies of scanned drawings, 150 x 195 cm. Installation view at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, 17 January–21 February 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

Bridging realms of space and time within a transitory passageway seems like an apt way to depict the subjective nature of memory. No longer contextually determined, the responsibility of assigning meaning to these images shifts from the original creators to the viewer, and circles back to you. What do you hope we will glean from this experience?  

There indeed seems to be a number of space-time wormholes here. The exhibition site—a passageway between two of the oldest malls in an ever-changing city—naturally suggests a space to contemplate one’s memories; in this case, memories of a film/literary genre that acts as a quasi-time machine to a highly imagined past, for a community who is coming to terms with the liminality of their cultural identity. For an exhibition along a passageway that is about the fluid, mediated space between film and memory, I don’t wish to tell the audience which way to look. Perhaps, they can try to look to both directions, at the same time.      


Thank you!

Boedi Widjaja — http://www.boediwidjaja.com



#6 by Pey Chuan Tan

Boedi Widjaja's solo presentation, "Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一)" coincided with Singapore Art Week 2018 (17–28 January) and the artist's commissioned project for State of Motion 2018 (12 January–11 February). It remains on view until 21 February 2018.

The 'Imaginary homeland' series stemmed from the artist’s experience as a migrant living out his ethnic homeland’s history through mass media images and the imaginary. In this current iteration, he contemplates the notion of home through the fictional ancient Chinese world of 'kang ouw' (江湖), often portrayed in martial arts films that the artist grew up with in the early 1980s.

Please take a look at the press release, here.

#5 by Pey Chuan Tan

Thoughts on exhibition-making in an alternative space

Gabriel Loy is an adjunct lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art and Director of Exhibitions at 1961 Projects, a contemporary art project space based in Singapore. He is interested in the materiality of archived documents, as well as the mechanisms of art practice and the community that surrounds it.

We invited Gabriel to share some of his impressions after visiting I_S_L_A_N_D_S to see "water /1" (10 December 2017 - 14 January 2018), a solo presentation by Vanessa Lim Shu Yi

Peninsula Shopping Centre has many traits that would qualify it as something of a cult destination. From obscene graphic t-shirts that come in every shade of black, one of the oldest skateboard shops in the country to guitars and cameras, I do believe I speak for many others when I say that the building holds a special place in my youth.

This time I am heading to meet the artist Vanessa Lim, who has an exhibition at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, a project space located in the corridor linking the mall to Excelsior Shopping Centre on the third floor. This small shopping centre is uncomplicated and easy to navigate, with a central escalator servicing five floors, including the basement. I climb the escalators and walk past an eclectic assortment of shops, a tailors, then a shop that sells spare camera parts, then another that sells guitar gear. Eventually I find the corridor, no longer than 4 metres long and 3 paces wide lined on either side with six double panelled glass display windows.

I am a little late and Vanessa is already there when I arrive. She introduces me to the space and the presentation, “water / 1.” It is uncluttered and feels natural in this unassuming space, transforming what were once display windows for a bridal shop into a small exhibition. In the windows are series of works, each mounted on wooden panels. In one window is Drowning By Numbers (2017). The piece is made up of three acrylic on canvas board paintings mounted on polyurethane foam, plaster blocks, a compass and fishing hooks. The paintings, a bird’s eye view of what seems like holiday makers sitting around bodies of water. Lim utilises scale objects in her paintings, miniature floats, people and shrubs, giving it the feel of an architectural model.

I read the exhibition write up pinned up in a smaller glass window to the side or the larger ones. “One under water,” Vanessa tells me. “I don’t think many people got the pun.” The coloured plaster that resembles artificial rock formations and the bright colours of her paintings share an orange overtone cast by the halogen lights, only serving to remind you that you are not in a white cube space.

#4 by Pey Chuan Tan

A brief interview with Vanessa Lim Shu Yi, on the occasion of her presentation at I_S_L_A_N_D_S
“water / 1” (10 December, 2017
14 January, 2018)


Vanessa Lim Shu Yi graduated from art school less than two years ago and has since developed an active profile in the local scene. In 2017, she completed a residency at Grey Projects, and participated in the Holland Village edition of OH! Open House. This year, the artist will continue investigating the way we interact with urban space and structures through the Concerned Citizen’s Programme, organized by The Substation.

"water / 1marks the first time that Vanessa has tackled an entire exhibition space on her own. Arranging small works into new configurations and directions, this presentation creates a draft of an entirely imagined site, situated within the passageway.

Here, she shares some thoughts on liquid, fiction, and survival tactics…


Your ideas always seem to stem from the spatial and emotional constructs surrounding water. On its own, water is a cleansing and strengthening force, and yet it can also be a mysterious, destructive element. What is your interest in this changeable substance, and how does it inform your practice?

My initial interest in water came from spending time in swimming pools, and examining the relationship we have to water in interior forms (water from the sink, shower, pools, tubs, etc) where our interaction with water is highly mediated either through structure/ architecture or material (chemicals). Water, being liquid itself is formless and very much defined by what contains it, and we are always trying to contain it. Naturally I began looking at water on a larger scale: oceans, rivers, lakes and the structures that negotiate the interaction of water with our coastlines. The relationship between water and a seawall and water and a breakwater are vastly different in quality for example. What happens when the structures that mediate our relationship to water fail us? How did we regulate our interaction with water before these structures were put in place? I’m interested in these tensions and how they can operate as metaphors for larger spatial and conceptual concerns. 


Let’s talk about some of the titles behind your individual pieces in water / 1. How do they inform the presentation as a whole?

Water has always been a potent site for fiction and the imagination. The titles make reference to 3 forms of water in fiction—film (Drowning by Numbers, Peter Greenaway), poetry (Going for Water, Robert Frost) and prose (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne). I hope the titles help provide an entry point into the work, which I have tried to position as fictional sites.

Detail from  Drowning by Numbers  (2017). Acrylic on canvas board, acrylic scale figure, architectural scale tiles, polyurethane foam, plaster with marble powder, plaster with paper pulp, fishing bait and hooks, plywood. 170 x 80 cm.   water / 1  , I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

Detail from Drowning by Numbers (2017). Acrylic on canvas board, acrylic scale figure, architectural scale tiles, polyurethane foam, plaster with marble powder, plaster with paper pulp, fishing bait and hooks, plywood. 170 x 80 cm. water / 1, I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

water / 1 addresses some of the boundaries, transitions, and gaps that occur when we look toward physical conditions of our built environment, how this defines our movement, and how we define our personal autonomy through this. What are some of the public spaces and urban designs that inform your inquiry, and how have you considered the site for this presentation?

Currently I’m looking at spaces that mediate water like jetties, bath houses, and various types of swimming pools like cantilever ones and indoor diving pools. I’ve begun looking more at structures that have the quality of a proxy / substitute / prop, and am interested in structures which our bodies can perform, such as fitness machines.

The work responds to the display format of the space. This shows through in terms of the idea of a “model”. There was also a really interesting abandoned wooden structure left in the tailor shop in front of the space, which acted as a catalyst that prompted the rest of the work. Sadly, it was removed before the actual show.


You’ve previously explored the relationships and dichotomies between materials and their purpose. For instance, you recreated commonly used swimming floats with very heavy materials that would sink, or transposed tactile profiles of specific places onto unexpected surfaces. In this presentation, these elements are merged with a deliberate flattening of planes and dimensions, as well as juxtapositions of scale which opens up to even more interpretations. How do you see this developing further?

I’m hoping to further develop the ideas grounded in fictional spaces and turn them into actual physical installations. I’ve latched on to the idea of the ‘prop’ or the ‘set’ and have tried pushing this further in a new installation work for RAID

Group show by artist organizers Daniel Chong and Zuklhairi Zulkiflee, featuring Ivan Ng, Tay Ining, Vanessa Lim, Jacqueline Sim, Pooja Kanade, and Nhawfal Juma’at. Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter, Singapore, 13 January3 February, 2018.


Here you’ve also incorporated a series of small, mixed media paintings that almost function like microcosms of unknown dreamscapes. The random placement of scale figures even suggests out-of-body experiences. What is the strangest place you have ever stumbled upon IRL?

The strangest place I’ve been to is the Sedlec Ossuary (bone cathedral) in the Czech Republic.

Sedlec Ossuary

I also found the Centre Pompidou to be quite a strange place.

Centre Pompidou

If you were stranded on a desert island, name three things you would bring and why.

A very large cactus - for water. Matches - for fire. Blanket - for sleeping.

Can you draw this island for us? 

Vanessa's Island

Thank you!

Vanessa Lim Shu Yi  http://syvlim.com/