Installation view of CHARLES LIM’s SEA STATE 9: proclamation garden, 2019, more than 30 lesser-known plant species gathered from reclaimed areas, dimensions variable, at Ng Teng Fong Roof Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, 2019. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

Whose Land? Examining Claims to Sand and Memory

Also available in:  Chinese

Land reclamation is a fact of life in Singapore. For decades, the country has been one of the world’s largest importers of sand, maintaining a rhetoric and practice of expansion that began almost as soon as the British first laid claim to the island in 1819. Following its independence from the British in 1965, Singapore’s land reclamation has persisted as policymakers continue to view the city-state’s small land area as a limitation on urban development and, subsequently, economic, political, and cultural growth. The island has increased its size by 25 percent to 725 square kilometers since British colonization, and, under current plans, will have another 41 square kilometers by 2030. The act of reclaiming land has, in this way, become a symbol of the continuing colonial logic that underpins the development of the island. 

The ramifications of this development are often framed in terms of damage to Singapore’s native ecological diversity, particularly the loss of over 90 percent of its mangroves. However, the drive for expansion has also had impacts elsewhere. In the previous decade, the sand that Singapore used for its land reclamation projects was primarily dredged from rivers in Cambodia, changing the course of these rivers’ flow and threatening ecosystems. Singapore-based artist Charles Lim examines the life within and on this imported land in SEA STATE 9: proclamation garden (2019). For the installation, Lim replaced the original ornamental landscaping in the National Gallery Singapore’s roof garden with 30 species of plants foraged from reclaimed areas. By focusing on these plants—lesser-known species from other states that thrive on newly Singaporean plots—Lim draws attention to the life that was disrupted and that then re-emerged at the edge of the island. Place matters here, as this life is implanted in a state cultural institution, housed in buildings that were the British-colonial-era Supreme Court and City Hall. The floras, in displacing the Gallery’s decorative landscaping, prevent the site from becoming a fully developed postcolonial property. They unsettle neat settler-colonizer tropes, revealing layers to the narrative of colonization in Singapore. 

In his 1986 book Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, environmental historian Alfred W. Crosby posits that the key to the success of European colonization was the restructuring of native wildlife. Lim’s work inverts this logic, suggesting a process where land is first successfully (re)claimed, and wildlife is then restructured, not as an active process but as a by-product of urban development. The land from which Lim has foraged these plants has been transplanted recently enough to be marked by an ecology different from that of more developed parts of the country. While this land might have contained various roots and seeds, the clearing of the land of all its naturally occurring life—whether indigenous or foreign—for future building projects is the final act of claiming it as Singaporean.

Where Lim’s work preserves the ecological memory of sand that was once foreign, Zarina Muhammad’s site-specific performance not Terra Nullius (2018) invokes a spiritual and cultural memory of the land. The concept of terra nullius—nobody’s land—was commonly invoked by settlers to justify their colonization of other territories. Zarina relates this concept to the performance site, using a folk practice that originated prior to colonization. Audiences were invited to take part in a Javanese merti ritual (merti means to take care of or maintain) by creating an offering for whomever they wished to remember. For Zarina, the ghosts to acknowledge were the comfort women formerly imprisoned at the performance site, a school building that was temporarily converted into quarters for comfort women during the Japanese wartime occupation of Singapore. Audiences were then invited to place their offerings of flowers and fruits at the bases of the school’s trees. The performance draws from multiple layers of history, from World War II to the folk spirits that occupied the island in pre-colonial times, and the current life on the land. 

Similarly, Zarina’s later installation Pragmatic Prayers for the Kala at the Threshold (2018) at the Singapore Art Museum speculates on the “forgotten figures and the historical spectres” that moved through Singapore’s early coastline. Divided into three sections representing the hills, land, and sea of Singapore, anchored to three historical sites along Singapore’s 1830s coastline, the work comprises a variety of objects that reflect and respond to each section, such as effigies made by visitors to Zarina’s studio. These participants were prompted to make visible their personal guardians or guardians of the land. Zarina acknowledges the multiple presences, myths, and narratives connected to place, affected by each person’s lived reality and personal history. Through both Pragmatic Prayers and not Terra Nullius, Zarina asks audiences to consider that the land not only has history, but that this history crosses multiple planes of the real and spiritual. The land, then, encompasses a breadth of cultural tradition and myth that has been erased by colonization and the continuing remaking of the land. Such a consideration forces a move, in the artist’s words, “beyond the points of forgetting between the pre-colonial and post-colonial.”

Installation view of DEBBIE DING’s Sand Weight, from Soil Works, 2018, residual granite soil, LED strip, stepper motors, acrylic, aluminum profiles, micro-controller, miscellaneous electronic components, CCTV camera with varifocal lens and projection, dimensions variable, at “President’s Young Talents,” Singapore Art Museum, 2018. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Perhaps the space beyond these points of forgetting lies solidly in the present. In Singapore, narratives of urban development drive both the colonial-era and continuing erasure of spiritual memory and the project of land reclamation. The in-between of sand and land is soil—as imported sand settles into its identity as reclaimed land, it acquires biomatter and other materials, becoming soil. Debbie Ding’s installation Soil Works (2018), comprised of five works, invites close examinations of this substance, zooming in on its liminality. In one work, Soil Columns, Ding creates four Winogradsky columns of soil excavated from sites that are ostensibly public spaces but that are rarely traversed by Singaporeans, such as those underneath bridges and at the edges of expressways. Different colonies of bacteria grow in the soil over time, causing the samples to change in color throughout the exhibition, and resulting in four distinct columns. Using this scientific method of studying soil, Ding reveals the microbial variations in the soil taken from parts of the island that have apparently been forgotten. The implication is that there is, right now, life in the land, and furthermore, that this life is diverse. The frequent displacement of this life’s medium—the soil—due to development projects also results in the displacement of the life itself. Land therefore never becomes a non-living object, even after the displacement of old ways of life—including spiritual beliefs and myths—and new forms of life such as the plants that grow on reclaimed land. Every act of development is at least a little bit jarring and disruptive to the life in the land. In this way, modern urban development reiterates the precarity of indigenous life under colonialism.

Behind colonization is the belief that land can just be taken and claimed. In Sandweight, another work in Soil Works, Ding projects a closed-circuit image of a box of soil being turned repeatedly by a motor. The landscape disintegrates before the viewer’s eyes before being replaced again, all in the span of seconds. Like Lim and Zarina in their projects, Ding lays bare the conceit behind land development in Singapore—that Singapore’s relationship to its land is driven by parallel notions of changing and “claiming.” The land, despite being postcolonial, is not yet decolonized, and the histories created on it are always susceptible to being diminished and then forgotten.

CHENG MUN CHANG is the winner of ArtAsiaPacific’s third annual Young Writers Contest. She is a Singapore-based writer and researcher.

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Opera Gallery Artspace Silverlens 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art