Charles Lim Yi Yong Maps Singapore's Reclaimed Lands
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Prior to pursuing art, Singaporean artist Charles Lim Yi Yong was a professional sailor, representing Singapore in the 1996 Summer Olympics and China in the 2007 America's Cup.
This background feeds into the artist's exhibition Staggered Observations of a Coast at STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery (17 December 2021–6 February 2022), which presents visual observations of cloud, water, and land formations that Lim recorded while sailing along Singapore's east coast for around half a year.
Lim's method of 'staggered observations'—in which changes are recorded over a period of time—exposes the invisible nuances and complexities of Singapore's relationship with its shores and territories.
Varying in differing intensities of process, Lim's resulting prints, all created as part of his STPI residency in the institution's dedicated Creative Workshop, visually reflect these changes.
The 13 black monotype prints in 'Staggered Observations' (2021) express the feathery edges of clouds from a distance through the erasure of ink, while the 28 collagraphs in 'Zone of Convergence' (2021) feature blue-tinted prints of painterly swirls and strokes mimicking cloud formations and patterns by etching.
Lim uses a more intensive process for the aquatint HLL (2021), a multi-tonal and stark gestural image of a cloud and its rainfall over the sea, in which acid had to be used to treat the plate before printing.
The material expression of Lim's staggered observations of nature's changeable phenomena extends to the long-term project SEA STATE, which investigates invisible maritime infrastructures. Through several coastal expeditions, Lim explored Singapore's outlying islets, barges, lighthouses, and sewages, bringing back a plethora of documentation exposing the tricky relationship between humanity and nature.
Departing from his award-winning experimental short film All Lines Flow Out (2011) exploring Singapore's drainage system, the project expanded into a collection of artefacts and archival materials—such as maps, a buoy, and an interview with a sand surveyor and sailing coach—presented at Singapore's Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Through this research, Lim turned to document Singapore's water border markers, physical sea walls, and petrochemical support systems in SEA STATE 1: inside outside (2005), SEA STATE 4: line in the chart (2008), and SEA STATE 6 (2015), respectively.
By SEA STATE 9: proclamation (2019), Lim's investigation had expanded to Singapore's land reclamation on coastal waters.
At STPI, Lim continues this trajectory. Scattered across the gallery's walls and columns is Lim's fragmented screenprint on paper and magnetic rubber sheets reflecting a nautical map. Lim's use of magnetic rubber sheets gives the illusion that these pieces can be freely moved and rearranged to form SEA STATE 8: the grid, whatever whenever wherever (2021).
With one piece on the gallery's column reflecting the 'nation state' and numerous smaller, fragmented pieces spread on the facing wall reflecting the 'sea state', Lim draws attention to Singapore's extended territories. These fragmented and nebulous jigsaw-like pieces call into question the conception of the island-state as singular, unified country, whether in terms of identity or territory.
These uneasy foundations form the basis of Lim's work, which uncovers tensions and frictions that feed into the construction of Singapore as a 21st-century nation state...
On the wall across from SEA STATE 8: the grid, whatever whenever wherever (2021) is the series 'SEA STATE 9: Pulau' (2021). Made from handmade laser-cut paper, the series takes a satirical approach in addressing Singapore's penchant for creating new landforms by merging existing ones through land reclamation.
Arranged as a set of six maps of artificial islands, each piece appears like a collage of several landforms stacked atop each other and overlaid with a grid structure. These pieces, while differing in shape and size, appear almost uniform in colour, implying a faceless quality to these combined islands.
Individually titled with long-winded names such as SEA STATE 9: Pulau Satuasviewdamartekongmarinajurongcovebranibaratchangilautekongs ajahatsenanghantupunggolsebaraokeastsamalunbukomsento (2021), the series calls attention to the amalgamation and repurposing of islands and cultures by the state for capital.
One example is Jurong Island, which was created by combining seven offshore landforms in 2009. The islands comprising Jurong Island were once home to several small fishing villages that were relocated in the sixties to house oil refineries such as Esso and Mobil Oil.
Sentosa, Singapore's famous island resort, was also created by joining islands together.
Lim spent his childhood in a kampong, or village, by Changi Airport— built on mostly reclaimed land—where his family home overlooked works being done in the area. Hundreds of kampongs, graves, and rivers were destroyed for the project. When walking into the wooded area, 'the ground would be sand and not soil', he recalled.
These uneasy foundations form the basis of Lim's work, which uncovers tensions and frictions that feed into the construction of Singapore as a 21st-century nation state, with corporate goals that directly impact the territory's communities and its natural habitats.
By mapping the territory through the blurred distinctions between land and sea, Lim encourages viewers to decode the contexts in which they stand, and the often-overlooked structures that define, erase, and re-write them. —[O]