The NLB@Woodlands is a regional library situated at the central-north section of Singapore. The library chose nature and ecology as its theme for décor and library programming, as the library is located in the north of Singapore, in the midst of large spaces of nature and near the Singapore Zoo, the Kranji and Seletar Reservoirs, and the Sungai Buloh Nature Park, also a bird sanctuary. [see http://www.ifla.org/VII/s8/annual/cr0102-sg.htm]
National Library Board had invited the National Heritage Board (NHB) to organise a series of exhibitions at the Woodlands site. The series of exhibitions organised by the museums of NHB are tasked to address aspects on the theme of nature. The first exhibition put together by the Singapore History Museum (May-Nov 2003) is an ethnographical presentation of containers and wares constructed using natural materials such as plant fibres. It reflects on human’s ingenuity in utilising the natural qualities of plant materials to create utilitarian objects involving different types of indigenous technology and design. This exhibition is being presented in two distinct areas within the library using wall displays and showcases, not dissimilar to presentation in museums.
The Singapore Art Museum will be organising NHB’s second exhibition at NLB@Woodlands. It will be an art exhibition, featuring works by contemporary artists. The exhibition will be conceived as a project involving the use of the library as a public space, taking into consideration the library’s physical spaces, their differentiated functions and library users. This exhibition will not attempt to create a gallery or a museum space within the library.
The exhibition acknowledges the nature and function of the library as a public space. Inherent in such public spaces is its physical structure and spatial organisation that addresses the objectives and needs of the library. The anatomy of the library is conceived to rationalise and organise contents, and aid processes in which these contents are accessed. Artworks are to be conceived as aesthetic/experiential elements that operate in a public space taking into consideration behavior and social patterns of a largely non-art public. A consideration of the exhibition site as a general public space also presents implications relating to public safety and sensibility.
The exhibition will attempt to present works that locate themselves within the context of the library as a public space, responding to the various elements of that given space including architecture, interior design and fixtures and contents including books and other materials. Artworks may be conceived as measured interventions into such spaces – on walls, glass screens, escalators, bookshelves, tables, chairs etc. Given that a library is a repository of pre-enlisted ideas and selection of knowledge, interventions may also occur on a conceptual level where artists may respond to ways in which knowledge is categorised, structured and presented in libraries, as well as the gaps identified.
‘Nature’ as theme
See Annex A. Artists are encouraged to interpret the theme in ways that befit their practice and concerns, either directly or obliquely.
Artists are invited to submit proposals based on the methodology described above.
All proposals will be taken into consideration. However, to facilitate conceptualisation and thinking process, the following category of projects may act as guide for artists. They are outlined in consideration of the anatomy of and social processes within the library. Proposals may be referenced to any one of the categories:
Project 1: Text/Graphics/Video
Identify surfaces where texts or graphics or video may function to interrupt the otherwise mundane experience of library users. Such surfaces may include the glass panels, walls or tables of the library.
Project 2: ‘Shelved’ works
Create a series of works that can be located on shelves of the library, producing elements that mingle with books/journals and as such address issues concerning knowledge and its categories, and the trafficking of ideas. They may include objects, materials (water, soil samples, garbage, what ever you may imagine), and artist books.
Project 3: Encased
Using showcases that are vacated by the previous exhibition, create objects that may conceptually correspond to the theme aided by the manner of the presentation. E.g. artists may consider the showcases as a metaphor of containment that problematise the question of real/imagined environments. Artists also may use the showcases to shift meanings of otherwise ordinary objects to respond to issues regarding nature and environment.
Project 4: Parasitic Library
Design a physical structure that will occupy a selected space in the library. This library-within-a-library will appropriate elements from the Woodlands library – books, videos, CDs, etc. – functioning as a parasitic organism that (re)configures ideas/ideologies through its selection of materials and presentations, creating a dialectical relationship with its host. As a project, it should involve artist’s continued participation in selecting the materials in manner that is coherent to his/her given conceptual concerns.
Project 5: Childproof
A significant group that uses the library is children. Create an interactive installation that may be sited in the children’s section of the library taking into account interests and behavioural patterns.
Artists/groups invited to submit proposals are listed in Annex B.
Artists are encouraged to view the spaces before submitting proposals. Please contact Mr. Bernard Loy, Project Manager, for arrangements.
Proposals are to be accompanied by the following descriptions:
List of materials
Proposed location and spatial requirements
Technical requirements (e.g. projectors)
Proposed events/programmes (optional)
Budgetary requirements (provide breakdown)
Proposals are to be received on or before 18 August 2003. Addressed to Bernard Loy, Project Manager, Singapore Art Museum, 71 Bras Basah Rd, Singapore 189555.
Works to be selected will be those that best address the theme and the curatorial methodology described above.
Selected proposals will receive a material grant of up to S$3,000 for the production and installation of the works, depending of their budgetary requirements and complexities.
Final placement of works will be determined by the curators of the exhibition, in consultation with artists and site owners.
Materials introduced to the site are subjected to the terms to be outlined by the site owners.
Michael Lee Hong Hwee
Nature often inspires ambivalent feelings and thoughts. On the one hand, it is beautiful, true, nurturing and powerful. On the other, it could be deemed wild, destructive, chaotic or vulnerable. Across histories and cultures, humans have found ways to understand, cope with, exploit, and create through nature. The significant roles that nature plays in our lives are evident in as a recurring theme in contemporary culture. From David Attenborough’s documentaries (e.g., The Private Lives of Plants, 1995) to popular films on animals dead or alive (e.g., Jurassic Park, 1993; Finding Nemo, 2003) and natural calamities (e.g., Twister, 1996); from craze about the mysticism and magic in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings – the books and the films – to the invariable desire in many urban dwellers to retreat from the city to beach resorts and eco-tours; and our unquestioned trust in the ‘natural ingredients’ of consumer, esp. cosmetic, products – nature has always been a useful means to relate our selves with our environments.
The word ‘nature’ has varied meanings. It may denote an environment (e.g., the material world which surrounds humankind and exists independently of human activities; the elements of plants, animals and cosmic forces in the world) or a quality (e.g., the inherent character; the instinctual tendencies of a person, as in ‘human nature’). Its Latin origin, natura, literally meant ‘birth,’ affording it notions of femininity and maternity, as evident in such terms as ‘Mother Nature,’ and which has been organising our perception of nature along gendered lines.
Nature connotes an even longer list of associative meanings with respect to the arts. Artists have often drawn inspirations from nature, making amazing works of art in, on and with nature in a range of media: oil, ink, photography, stone, wood, even earth and other natural materials. The world’s first painting, if Western art historians were right, was created in nature: in the Lascaux caves of France. The association of natural elements with Western civilisation is evident in practices and artefacts ranging from Ra, the Egyptian Sun-God to the decorative capitals of Greek Corinthian columns; from the serpent of Genesis to the landscape paintings of the Renaissance masters, Romantics thru the Impressionists. Nature as a source of beauty is evident in Plato’s teachings, such as his argument that all things in nature are governed by numerical relations or by geometry. In his scheme, art as part of culture is seen as a mere imitation of nature, a poor copy of the truth. Aristotle overturned such a negative regard of ‘art as mimesis’, seeing art instead as superior to and complementary of nature. With the call for liberty and natural rights of humans along with the rise of Science during the 18th-century Enlightenment, nature is turned into an entity for objective study and to be harnessed for modern living. Concurrently Romantic thinkers began to champion a return of nature as a subject in the arts, the most influential of whom could well be Edmund Burke who urged artists to replicate nature’s sublime sense of concurrent fear and delight, thereby harnessing the emotional and subjective aspects of nature as a means to defend against or curb the artificiality of modern, esp. urban, culture. No time else, it seems, was nature rejected as vehemently as during the period of High Modernism between the start and middle of the 20th century, especially by artists of such Western art movements as Futurism, Constructivism and De Stijl, which exalted ‘machine’ rather than ‘nature’ aesthetics. Two notable exceptions were Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier who emphasised the importance of blending architectural design with the natural environments. The most recent shift of nature’s meanings began with the 60’s environmentalist movements, which partially inspired the land/earth art and eco-architecture often discussed today. In short, nature varies and shifts in meaning and form through the ages.
Can there be a new aesthetic synthesis in which traditional understandings of nature, intuitive experiences and scientific insights be mutually enriched? Does nature still have something to teach/tell us about art and life? Can art offer lessons on our understanding of nature, and ultimately, ourselves?
A quick survey of Singapore’s art history easily churns out a host of artists who engage with nature in one way or another. Our pioneer artists sought the truth and beauty of nature in their Bali expeditions, their experiences of which culminating in artworks that are commonly and collectively associated with as the Nanyang-Style. Aspects of nature – e.g., landscape, flowers, plants and birds – continues to be the de facto subject of Chinese ink painting, both in formative art training and sustained topic of aesthetic pursuit, even by contemporary artists like Henri Chen KeZhan, Tan Swie Hian and Chua Say Hua. Nature is also a recurrent theme for various local sculptors: Han Sai Por, Lim Soo Ngee and Baet Yeok Kuan, to name a few. By comparison, environmentalist artworks, such as those by Tang Da Wu, would seem far and between in Singapore’s context – perhaps because we have never been known to be particularly ‘green’ conscious in our daily lives anyway? The very recent group show Life from Earth at Utterly Art gallery (24 Apr – 4 May 2003) showcased works by ceramists (Alvin Leow . Angie Seah . Donald-Eric Lim, Paul Chay. Shirley Soh and Wee Hong-Ling) exploring their aesthetic imaginations through natural, organic forms. ‘Live’ animals (e.g., guppies) and actual plants (e.g., Shirley Soh) have also been sparingly and variously used as materials in art-making to address varied concerns ranging from nostalgia/sentimentalism for nature, mild environmentalism, or as mere adornment of artworks.
Contemporary artists and designers thus have no lack of examples of how art and nature have hitherto been dealt with in and outside of Singapore’s cultural history. They are invited and encouraged to respond to the theme, Inspired by Nature, by proposing artworks that connect to ‘nature’ in more ways than one: in terms of idea, concern, inspiration, process, medium and so on. They need to additionally take into account of the site: Their artworks should aspire to engage with the existing architectural structures, spaces and fixtures of the library as well as the interests and social behaviours of its users who are from different age groups and walks of life.