In Singapore, whether it’s the natural jungle or the urban jungle, we’re surrounded by architecture, where construction and design leads our interaction with the space around us. And at Singapore Art Week (SAW) 2022, two projects stand out as fascinating examinations of architecture through art: The Forest Institute by artist Robert Zhao and curator John Tung Zarch in collaboration with artist-architect Randy Chan (Zarch Collaboratives), as well as Liminal Matters by Studio Archipelago.
Open to the public on 14th January 2022 at 7 Lock Road, The Forest Institute (@theforestinstitute.sg) is a large-scale architectural art installation housing a research installation devoted to research on the secondary forest surrounding the Gillman Barracks precinct, where it has been built. The project draws inspiration from, and pays close attention to an ancient tributary of Berlayer Creek, that courses through the forested areas of the barracks within an earshot distance from the institute. Prompting an acute awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the perceived ‘ecological pockets’ that we encounter within our built environments, The Forest Institute offers a glimpse at the beauty and mysteries that nature has to offer, while pre-empting us on what we stand to lose.
“This has been a very significant endeavour and an insane project,” says curator John Tung. “It all started back in 2018 when I reached out to Robert Zhao, for his project Queen’s Own Hill and its Environs, commissioned and presented at the Singapore Biennale 2019. The work went on to become a Benesse Prize finalist, and now, we’re revisiting the research conducted when we had got this chance to produce a large scale artwork. Robert and I decided to build a museum, and approached Randy as one of the most established architects in Singapore.”
“One of the aspects of the forest we picked up while planning this was how we decided to build the Institute in front of the river,” he adds. “This forest is a secondary forest, but the river behind us ran for thousands of years. Even when the British colonised Singapore and concretised part of the river, it continues to function as tributary of Berlayer Creek, to Labrador Park running into the sea. What it highlights is how there are so many eco pockets in Singapore, these green systems in concrete jungle, and how they’re all interconnected, giving us deeper consideration to what the forest are doing, and the wide array of animals and other organisms in the forest as well.”
The Institute, accompanied by several large-scale prints of fauna—encountered and observed within the forested area—installed in its vicinity, exposes visitors to the different realities of the area. Drawing inspiration from Southeast Asian architecture, the design of the institute is reminiscent of the Bornean longhouse—one of the earliest forms of permanent structures for many cultures around the world—albeit with the incorporation of a contemporary steel wing, showcasing the juxtaposition between nature against the urban reality. “This juxtaposition of the Bornean longhouse and modern steel and glass skyscraper style we’re used to mirrors Singapore’s approach to heritage conservation of buildings, where we seek to repurpose while maintaining cultural function, but mostly via slapping steel wings onto them to reflect social circumstance,” says John.
Drawing attention to the forest that surrounds the concretised barracks, the elevated institute offers a unique vantage point to peer into the green yonder. This is done via the Forest Observation Room, a space providing a safe refuge for visitors to scrutinise the forest’s nocturnal inhabitants. “The architecture here intervenes in the natural landscape, and offers new vantage point to look at forest, not just at the ground level, but also makes you focus on what lies beyond the green,” says John. “We had to seek special permission to cut away part of barricades of Gillman Barracks to let people go beyond the demarcated barriers to get very close contact with the forest itself.”
“Essentially, what Robert wants to communicate is that even though it’s a secondary forest, that does not mean it is second best, but about giving it a second chance,” says John. “Part of the Barracks used to be in the forest itself, the Officer’s Mess, and the location where the last battle of Singapore was fought. You can see how the forest has accumulated over the years, and how there are parts of the original architecture overgrown and shattered by the growth. It’s a process of nature reclaiming all of these manmade structures, where a wide array of animals now calling it home, and all of this painstakingly recorded in this exhibition, including videos, and archival photos Robert has collected over the years from auctions and collectors.”
On the process of collaboration on the project, we spoke to Randy Chan of Zarch on his experience. “I came in providing the knowhow about the built form and how to incorporate the project into the environment,” says Randy. “We’ve gotten good support with regards to being given the time to build it, alongside the permits to actually build it, and it’s a very good opportunity to raise ideas of building in site context, and how to take all these environmental factors into consideration.”
“I think these days, we often forget how to make things simply, and sustainability comes second when we plan,” says Randy. It’s impressive how The Forest Institute is being powered through power banks, for example, and he hopes that through such a demonstration, it inspires other firms and projects to follow suit and attempt to be more sustainable or innovative with their construction. “People often underestimate the process part of architecture, where everyone wants to see the final product,” he adds.
So where does architecture fit into the world of art? On a more direct note, Zarch also happens to be the company that constructed local theatre company Wild Rice’s home at Funan, with similarities in the materiality in both The Forest Institute and the stage. It is projects like these that showcase how art and architecture often go hand in hand, and why the discipline has a place at SAW 2022. “A key part of our practice has always been about collaboration, and for this one, because I already knew both Robert and John from way back, it was easy to work together. I was particularly struck by how Robert talked about the forest in relation to the city, much like how I thought about the tension between nature and the urban, and was happy to be included. I was excited to come together and produce a work that provides discourse about art within and outside nature.”
Architecture also takes centrestage at Liminal Matters (@liminalmatters), an exhibition curated and organised by architecture collective Studio Archipelago, where the team has transformed the car park at Parklane Shopping Mall into an exhibition space. Supported by Zarch in this endeavour, Studio Archipelago aims to use Liminal Matters as a platform for greater exposure and appreciation of architectural models both as a tool and an artefact of beauty, bringing the exuberance and creativity of modelmaking to the fore for the public.
What resulted from this venture is testament to the perseverance and hunger of Archipelago to dream big and turn it into reality, almost guerrilla-like in how something comes out of nothing, to do a complete takeover of a space to bring an entire exhibition to life, raw in its ground-up style, but entirely sincere in its aims to show the world what they can do. To this end, one is left impressed by how much the studio wants to push forward the architecture industry in terms of design thinking and innovation.
Interested visitors can visit Liminal Matters on 15th January (opening night) for a lineup of events and performances. These programmes include “Death of the Model”, where “final models” of meant for photography are often rendered useless, and stuck in storage for future exhibitions. ‘Death of the Model’ attempts to perform the death of the models during the exhibition to complete this project – to alleviate his limited storage space, and to finally fulfil the transient quality of the project, leaving behind only the photographs as traces of its existence, and elevating the discipline of architecture to a hazy act fluctuating between dreams and reality. Members of the public are also free to visit the exhibition between 1pm-7pm (Thur-Fri) and 11am-6pm (Sat-Sun) until it closes on 6th February.
“Schools do so much, and I’m particularly grateful to how I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have the school 20 years ago,” says Randy, on his support for Liminal Matters. “I try to give back in any way I can, from teaching to supporting. And I believe that the architecture practice can never be at a standstill, and we must engage the new generation to share their thoughts and ideas; most of the time I find myself learning so much from them as well, such as about 3D printing! All in all, this idea of collaboration, it’s an art, and it’s about coming together to have a powwow, to have a conversation, and bring dreams such as The Forest Institute to life.”
The Forest Institute runs from 14th January to 14th February 2022 at 7 Lock Road, Gillman Barracks. Find out more about The Forest Institute here
Liminal Matters runs from 15th January to 6th February 2022 at Parklane Shopping Mall Level 8 Carpark.
Singapore Art Week 2022 runs from 14th to 23rd January 2022. For more information on SAW 2022 programmes, visit their website here.