THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT IS FROM THE SKYPE CHAT BETWEEN CHU HAO PEI, MELANIE CHUA, AND JOVIAN LIM ON 1 DECEMBER 2017. THIS CONVERSATION DISCUSSES THE ARTIST’S FIRST VENTURES INTO THE INTERVENTIONS OF THE STATE IN NATURE, HIS RESIDENCY IN PHNOM PEHN AND HOW THESE EXPERIENCES SHAPED HIS PERCEPTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT IN SINGAPORE.
[On the background and nature of his works] I have always been interested and influenced by environmental issues starting from my university days where I volunteered for the NGO’s Ground-Up Initiative. For my graduation project, I was also looking at the interventions and conflicts between nature and urban development in the context of the MacRitchie Reservoir and the cross island MRT line which was at the time being proposed for construction. The project was considered successful in terms of raising awareness.
[On the MacRitchie Reservoir project he was involved in] Yes, the MacRitchie project was pretty much my first “art project” in a way, we dealt with issues like the intervention of the state, and my starting point was concerning the environmental and nature issues. So with the MacRitchie project, I collated information that nature groups had shared with me. The project was primarily done to raise awareness and it was even featured in Straits Times by a journalist. Although the project could be seen as an installation, I would say that the “activist” aspects of it was what made the project successful.
In 2016, when I was still doing an mentorship at Gillman Barracks, I wanted to propose a research and archiving platform at the lab beside the main exhibition space. I had information that I have collated, the newspaper articles that were documented, news features and also many reports from the environmental assessment’s side. I later added the more “art” aspects along with the documentation of my own installation. Earlier this year, Drama Box did a pop-up theatre with a sense of social engagement. Basically, it was situated around Singapore in locations that are at stake (flea markets, cemeteries, nature reserves, etc) due to the construction of new MRT routes and stations. The participants were engaged to vote and negotiate on which sites should be demolished to make way for the new MRT station. Themes like those are very relevant to my own work (MacRitchie Reservoir), and it is pretty much my starting point into archiving, researching and looking at current issues. The nature group’s stance was to not have the MRT line cut across the MacRitchie Reservoir with the alternative solution of going around it instead. The latter solution would however cost an additional $32,000,000 while causing displacement of people. So the reality of the displacement of the residents around the area was a disturbing turning point for me.
[On the topic of activism and diplomatic solutions] The project was produced in 2015 but I have already started the exploration in 2012-2014. In 2014, I decided to work on the MacRitchie project as I have always been fascinated by themes concerning nature and its environments. There were 2 things that stood out to me — Cultural Heritage and Environment. Of course, I’ve worked more closely with environmental groups and its people which resulted in the development of the MacRitchie project. I am at a crossroad regarding the MacRitchie project because of the displacement issue. Personally, I felt that I couldn’t really offer a solution to the issue but I had a notion that getting the point-of-view from both sides (the views of the Government/supporters of the construction of the MRT line and the views of those who oppose the construction) might be an ideal way to approach this situation. However, there is only so much that I can do and it was slowly creeping into the lines of activism which I was very wary of. I want to portray myself as an artist, but that isn’t saying that I am opposed to activism. I want it to be made clear that while I am helping the activists in some sense, I do not want to be at the frontline of it. I have the impression that activists are very aggressive and vocal about their stance which I do not agree with as a proper way of convincing people to support the cause. Issues like these requires the messaged to be conveyed to the public in order for them to buy into your ideas and to turn the tide around. I definitely believe that there are much more diplomatic ways, like art, to convince people and for raising awareness. So that was pretty much the very start.
[On the “Tree Ordination Rituals” he had observed in Cambodia] When I was at the residency at Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Sa Sa Art Projects. I came across an interesting movement, that started in the 1980s by a Thai Monastery, called the “tree ordination ritual” which referred to the tying of monk’s robe around the trees as a religious and political effort to raise awareness. The ritual was interesting to me as I have seen them performed during my trip to Thailand. During the residency, I was staying in the White Building which was under threat of takeover by the government for redevelopment. The situation became quite a political topic because about half the residents refused to move out. The building itself is of significant historical value to the artistic community of the building. In trying to come up with a solution to the issue of the conflicts between the people in conservation and development, I started experimenting with the concept of the monk’s robe ordination and focusing on preserving the community of the White Building. I had the idea of wrapping the building in the monk’s robe as an installation, an act which would require the blessings and validation of the monks and the village chief. In the process, I had interviews done with the monks who had experience with the tree ordination rituals and I invited them to do the ordination for my installation. However, the monks declined my invitation and were reluctant to perform the ordination as they felt that it was too politically sensitive to get involved in as they would likely get into trouble with the authorities given the political context at that moment in time.
[On the disappearance of tree shrines in Singapore] I found out why I kept seeing figurines of Hindu and Buddhist deities by the sea on the beach – apparently it is a traditional Hindu ritual for people to dispose of the figurines into the sea. I’ve also noticed a lot of inland tree shrines, of which the sources I can’t identify yet. But a lot of these inland shrines can be Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist. It is a sort of trend – when people see these shrines appearing, they tend to do the same thing and dispose of their figurines the same way. This is how the statues accumulate. This is when the state intervenes, because there are too many. This is of course based on my own observations.
I noticed a bush of some sort in Geylang with these figurines all over the ground. I asked an auntie working at a Buddhist Association nearby about them, and she reckoned that people dispose of the statues there because of its’ proximity to the association. I guess the reason the statues were removed in Sembawang, where I lived, is because SLA (Singapore Land Authority) is always very sensitive with how their land is being used. There is constant surveillance of how the land is used.
I talked to the people around these areas – for instance in Sembawang, I talked to these uncles that I know that hang around these spots. As for verifying the Hindu practice, I asked my friends who are of the Hindu religion. As for the dumping of the statues, I interviewed a woman who works at the Buddhist Association in Geylang and even the police department.
Interestingly enough, I had a conversation with my mom about this. We used to have a Buddhist statue in our house but when my grandparents passed on, my mother decided to remove it. She shared with me that she disposed of it downstairs and left it by a tree. In Phnom Penh, I also discovered the same practice of dumping their religious statues around trees. This practice is quite consistent through Southeast Asia, but I want to focus on Singapore. I also wanted to look at the practices of displacing shrines.
NParks has a clause that says prohibits shrines. For SLA, there were never any mentions of shrines, altars, or religious objects. I had the crazy idea of staying at the tree shrine area until the workers come. It will be interesting to see what they do with these shrines and where it goes.
Another story I heard is that most of these workers who come and pick up the deities are Bangladeshi workers. This has got to do with their religion. Bangladeshis are usually of another religion, you see, and they are not affected by it. They are being hired and being paid to clear these statues. The Chinese bosses refuse to touch the statues, but the workers who don’t believe in the religion can dispose them with the ease of mind. The religious context plays a part. This is something that is yet to be proven and may not be the focus of the project.
[On partnering with other interested organisations and groups based in Singapore] For this project, I haven’t dealt with SLA directly, but I do uncover a lot of stories while talking to people who are on the ground. As of now I have not had any contact with any agencies. Earlier, I attended a conference about temples at the Asian Research Institute, that’s where I connected with some academics who are doing Chinese Studies and religious studies. The head of Chinese Studies at NUS, Kenneth Dean, showed us a map of all the Chinese temples in Singapore. They do very extensive research, mapping, and documentation. This is where I started to question myself – if I’m really interested in playing the role of the researcher. I realised that it’s not what I am interested in. What I am interested in is the transient nature of the tree shrine. The very act of deploying foreign labour to dispose of discarded statues.
They want a clean and sanitised version of nature. They don’t encourage any ground up initiatives, which is inclusive of spiritual movements. I didn’t want to do an epic project because for researchers, who have to deploy a lot of their students, all this information is very important and useful for me subsequently, but I feel that I feel that these stories that I’ve accumulated over the years are more important to me. The transient nature of these tree shrines interest me. For this project I enlisted the help of a friend, Lee Chang Ming, a photographer. It is also important that we exchange ideas and have conversations so that it’s not just me looking at one thing. Sometimes I lose sight of what’s outside when I am too indulged in a project.
[On his intended audience] For me, the intention is really to let the general public, people who have taken an interest in this but have not taken a step further and find out more. During my Substation mentorship programme, a lot of people came up to me and said that they’ve always noticed these statues lying around but didn’t know why they were where they were. This project is for the people who are interested in our heritage. It’s a very specific group of people which may not be a large audience.
[On his references and people of inspiration] Most of them, for myself, are academic projects, and Lucy Davis’s more recent work about the railway’s birds. She has a gesture of cutting out and showing the silhouette of it – while I am still trying to find my own way. This other artist who I think about a lot is Chua Chai Teck, who has worked on a similar work. He went around photographing makeshift shelters in Singapore. Knowing him and talking to him, he did a lot of underground research. It’s mostly Thai people who go into the jungles and set up this makeshift shelters. Through this he uncovered an alternative community within Singapore who seek refuge in these shelters.
One of the things I am struggling with now is finding the right medium to convey my message. Of course using photography is easiest to articulate this issue but I am exploring other options as well.