Introduction: Land

Dr. Charles Merewether

DOI: 10.33671/ISS01MER

LAND continues to be an issue. It has never stopped being a subject of concern. And yet, arguably its present condition and future has become increasingly fragile, even precarious, under the pressure of development. The scale and rapidity of current urban growth and industrialisation has profoundly impacted the land and its ability to provide sustainable natural resources of food and water. At the same time, the exploration and transformation, if not destruction, of the land has exposed its history, as if laid bare in the moment prior to its disappearance. The coincidence of such forces has encouraged greater exploration and research of its history, both in its telling and as a point around which to defend its existing value.

This is the first volume in a series to be published under the title ISSUE. The journal comes into being as the publication aligned with the annual project Tropical Lab, hosted by LASALLE College of the Arts and led by artist Milenko Prvacki. Now in its sixth year, Tropical Lab has been organized as a workshop in which up to 30 postgraduate student artists from around the world come to LASALLE for two weeks. During that time, they are introduced to Singapore with visits across the country, talks, lectures and workshops. As part of the workshop, they are asked to make a work of art that is then exhibited in a special exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which is part of and located at LASALLE.

The sixth edition of Tropical Lab in August 2012 was devoted to the subject of land. Lawrence Chin offers a reflective review of this edition entitled ‘Land(scope) or what is there to see?’ Chin muses over a number of works and associate seminars to cast some skepticism about the regime of visibility and knowledge production tacit to the act of looking.

This first volume of ISSUE seeks to gather a range of practices, much of which are the result of intensive research, The majority of the articles are image-based, offering different practices in the region as well as reaching out to other parallel objects in Europe and the Middle East. At face value, we may be inclined to link some of these practices to those of Land Art as it developed in the United Kingdom and North America in the late sixties and seventies. But while there are links that can be drawn, the differences are equally valuable. Most significantly perhaps, the current forms of exploration of the land are grounded on considerable research of the subject, that is, not strictly on the realisation of the artwork. In such terms, this research basis makes them more ‘’work in progress, that is, we might add, as forms of artistic report.

Following this review, ISSUE offers an interview with Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker who is best known for a subject-matter that addresses highly extreme states of experience through both fiction and documentary practices. The idea of archaeology is inherent to Herzog’s filming of recently discovered Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet caves in Southern France. In a certain sense this project may be viewed as integral to land archaeology insofar as it seeks to document if not recover the layers and remnants of the past. This has also become integral to Jananne Al-Ani’s work with mapping, examining historical aerial surveys in the Middle East, discovering both traces of the past and a disembodied vantage-point of human life to produce a modern science of cartography based on what can no longer be seen.

Likewise, an archaeology of the land is essential to the ongoing practice of artists in the region. From Al-Ani, we look at the current artistic practice of the Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai. As the artist notes, an amateur historian told him of the Lan Fang Republic that had been founded by the Hakka Chinese in West Borneo in 1777 and had lasted till 1884. Choy travelled to West Borneo, to the descendants of a people who once lived there, and began his project of unearthing objects and evidence of a past time – the beginnings of research that would eventually take him into the archives of the region held far afield in the Netherlands. As a counterpoint to this project, Debbie Ding brings us back to Singapore to ask what constitutes the country’s identity, what makes up its fragmented, often disparate history, what the archive reveals but, equally, what the geography of the country tells us. As she says, Singapore is “the missing artifact”,. The idea of the missing artifact resonates with the subject of story-telling that the artist Nigel Helyer has developed over the past several years. This story-telling recounts the nomadic and fluid histories of the sea and river-beds and the visual and sonic environments they have created.

In light of such questions, both the work of Zhao Renhui and Charles Lim bear a timely reminder of the fate of Singapore in its physical constitution. Zhao looks at an island no longer recognisable for the absence of mountains, its past mythic, almost a fiction. Alternately, Lim has researched the current edges of Singapore with regard to its land mass. In the process, he has uncovered the project whereby sand is dredged from neighboring countries (not owned by Singapore) in order to extend its land. The work of Lim has been remarked on in a powerfully lucid text by the historian Paul Rae, who points out that through this process of ‘reclamation’, by 2030 the island would have increased by 25% of its land mass at independence in 1965. He writes of the importance of the sea to the land, an importance that has sublimated by an overriding ideological impulse towards nationbuilding. The concept of nation-building’ is tacit to the Four Rivers project which tells of the fate of South Korean rivers and a history being lost through their inundation and control by the building of dams. Similarly, the indigenous peoples of Australia articulate their concept of land through different cultural forms of narration that have nothing to do with the idea of nation-building. Rachel Swain relates how indigenous theatre and performance work have developed powerful discourses around the land – discourses that refute those of the Western art historical notions of the land and landscape.

ISSUE ends with a recent project by Andreas Schlegel and Vladimir Todorovic who went to Mongolia on a field trip. They were interested in what could and could not be captured by information technologies. They left Mongolia recognising the impossibility of ‘capturing’ the land; returning home, they transformed their digital images into a three-dimensional simulacra of tourist memorabilia, which was then shown in a museum.

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