SEA STATE 3: INVERSION (detail), 2014, 3D sand print of the inverted seabed of Singapore, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Navigating the Unseen

An Interview with Charles Lim and Shabbir Hussain Mustafa

Singapore Italy
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In oceanography, the condition of a large natural body of water is called a “sea state.” According to the height, period and power of waves, the surface of the sea is categorized in ten levels, ranging from “0 (calm)” to “9 (phenomenal).” This classification system is the central motif that Charles Lim has used over the last decade in his film- and data-based projects, which look at the biological and political contours of Singapore, simultaneously revealing the ominous presences of authority and history that preside over them. 

Already a noted Singaporean filmmaker—and, much earlier in his life, an Olympic sailor—Lim is representing Singapore at the 56th Venice Biennale. Curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa from the National Gallery Singapore, the pavilion features the culmination of Lim’s “Sea State” series. His practice, which is informed by field research and experimentation, as well as by photography and film, brings to light Singapore’s ecology—and perhaps a certain sense of national identity—which has been nearly forgotten by the public due to the country’s aggressive land development and its industrial use of its surrounding waters. In March, ArtAsiaPacific spoke with Lim and Mustafa—already at work installing in the Arsenale—about the Singapore Pavilion. 

Why did you decide to expand on your project “Sea State” for the Singapore Pavilion, rather than create a new work?

Charles Lim: “Sea State” represents the place that I am in currently, which is the state of Singapore. Along with being a reference to a system used to determine the condition of the sea, the idea behind the project is that, as an artist, I’m interested in looking at the sea. I wanted to create a situation where I can work with the sea in a more intimate way. 

Shabbir Hussain Mustafa: I think in the case of why we chose to expand on “Sea State” for the Venice Biennale, it reflected the connection between Venice as a historical sea state and Singapore as a burgeoning one, since the 19th century. But this is a coincidental connection. “Sea State” is a body of work that Charles has been developing since about 2004. 

The story of this series began with Sea State 1, which was developed in 2005 and was subtitled “Inside Outside.” This work in particular adopted a kind of system. Charles had traveled around the territorial boundaries of Singapore and took photographs of objects he found there, creating a position in which he was both on the inside looking out and from the outside looking in, to try to unravel what exactly are these borders, and to think about what constitutes a “sea state.”

SEA STATE 1: INSIDE OUTSIDE, 2004–05, 84 sets of paired photographs, two framed marine charts, one VHF radio set, dimensions variable, presented in “The Singapore Show: Future Proof” at the Singapore Art Museum, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Singapore Art Museum.

How did you come to collaborate with each other on the proposal for the Singapore Pavilion?

CL: I did an earlier project with Mustafa called In Search of Raffles’ Light (2013–14), which took about two years to complete and was commissioned by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum. When we started, it was not actually related to the “Sea State” project, but in certain ways I pushed it into becoming part of that body of work. I had been introduced to a collection of texts that was put together by the artist Fiona Tan—who worked at the National Archives of Singapore and was also the co-curator of the project. She had collected archival materials, such as newspaper clippings and related text, on this particular island off of Singapore called Pulau Satumu [meaning, “One Tree Island”]. This is where the Raffles Lighthouse is located and is also the southernmost point of Singapore’s territorial waters. 

When I looked through some of the texts, I became a bit suspicious, in a way. All the newspaper clippings refer to the lighthouse as this very romantic space, far-off in the sea. I had also been looking at advertisements for the navy, and shipping companies. They, too, tended to exaggerate this idea of the sea as a romantic place. I find it strange that corporations and the military are the ones who are pushing this notion. So I told Mustafa, “Let’s go to the lighthouse and see for ourselves what exactly it does.”

We then spent quite a lot of our time trying to gain access into the lighthouse—visitors are restricted—and we never got onto the actual island. We did, however, gain access to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore’s buoy maintenance area, where the navigation aids and markers are brought in and cleaned. Inside, we also discovered a lot of interesting things and, ultimately, In Search of Raffles’ Light became a way of looking at these objects.

SHM: The objects that we found in the buoy maintenance warehouse were from the now-defunct Maritime Museum, which was located on one of Singapore’s most famous offshore islands called Pulau Blakang Mati, or Sentosa. It’s a familiar resort spot for many tourists. In Search of Raffles’ Light is a play on the Raffles Lighthouse and, while it questions the romanticization of the sea, it also looks into the specific infrastructures that exist within it. 

When Ahmad Mashadi, the director of the NUS Museum, and I were thinking of which artist to collaborate with for this project, we saw Charles as a very natural choice. This can be tied back to Charles’s older work, Sea State 1. In that work there is an image of the Raffles Lighthouse, which served as a poetic entry point to begin thinking with Charles in terms of how we would present or even “curate” the sea. This is something that Charles and I have grappled with in our discussions regarding the Venice Biennale as well. How does one get away from the romanticized idea of the sea? But when it came to the Raffles Lighthouse itself, we never actually got there. 

CL: No, they wouldn’t give us access. Apparently there is a museum in the lighthouse, and we wanted to see it, but it was closed off for security reasons.

SEA STATE 1: INSIDE OUTSIDE (detail), 2004–05, 84 sets of paired photographs, two framed marine charts, one VHF radio set, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.

Did your working together previously on the project In Search of Raffles’ Light contribute to the conceptualization of the Singapore Pavilion?

SHM: Charles’s project for the Singapore Pavilion, in many ways, is driven by a certain rigor—in terms of the process itself. There have been things that we have discovered along the way as well, but it’s slightly different from In Search of Raffles’ Light—partly because the project for Venice is also seen as the culmination of the components of the “Sea State” series, which will be considered complete, in a sense. When we display the whole series in Venice, certain parts of the individual “Sea State” works will be finalized. I think Charles always had the vision to complete the series with all ten components, but it was simply a matter of funding at times. When the opportunity for the Singapore Pavilion came about, we thought it was the ideal site to present and develop a larger version of the whole project.

“Sea State” has been previously presented in the form of videos, photography, performances and sculptural works. What form will it take at the Singapore Pavilion?

SHM: I can tell you that it will be quite the “Charles Lim project,” in the sense that you will see numerous mediums at play. I think the rigor with which Charles envisions and develops a lot of his works will become increasingly apparent. The media will be all filmic, which is, if I may say, Charles’s preferred medium. Most of it will be film, though there will also be objects—which Charles and I have recently come to refer to as “prepared objects.”

Model of Horsburgh Lighthouse, found on February 5, 2013, at Buoy Maintenance Depot, Pulau Brani, Singapore. Installation view of “In Search of Raffles Light : An Art Project with Charles Lim” at NUS Museum, Singapore, 2013–14. Courtesy NUS Museum.

For Charles, these nautical and hydrographic charts act as critical tools that can be used in the attempt to shatter the naturalized and taken-for-granted appearance of objects and their relations. He has described his process of rethinking the chart to me as a “preparation”—a term he borrows from John Cage, who altered the manner in which a piano was meant to operate by adding objects onto the instrument’s strings, which led to a series of unanticipated permutations. The chart with its preparation, then, holds out the promise of its own dissolution. It is made to connect with underlying structures, only to transform itself. This relates almost directly with “Sea State,” as the project seeks to invert how we view the sea.

CL: Although I am not working directly with the history of Venice itself, the Singapore Pavilion’s location is also close to the water. You can see it from within the space itself.

SHM: This is interesting and I think this is a very important gesture on the part of the National Arts Council of Singapore, which has taken up a space in the Arsenale this year. It’s critical because, in addition to our own curated section, there will also be other national pavilions located in the vicinity of the Singapore Pavilion. Our immediate neighbor, for example, is Turkey. So in many ways, the experience of being in Venice is already in the visitors’ minds by the time they reach us. 

Fragment of a panoramic view of Pulau Brani, Singapore, found on February 21, 2013, at the Republic of Singapore Navy Museum. Installation view of “In Search of Raffles Light : An Art Project with Charles Lim” at NUS Museum, Singapore, 2013–14. Courtesy NUS Museum.

The artist’s handwritten film script based on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 24/1807 of 1973, a correspondence relating to the formal proposal for Singapore Maritime Museum and a Royal Navy submarine from the United Kingdom to locate the positions of British ships sunk in the Java Sea in order that relics might be salvaged for exhibits. Installation view of “In Search of Raffles Light : An Art Project with Charles Lim” at NUS Museum, Singapore, 2013–14. Courtesy NUS Museum.

Singapore withdrew its participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale, which resulted in the local art community organizing a petition to reinstate the Singapore Pavilion for this year’s edition. Charles, you were among the more than 200 people who signed the petition. How did you feel when it was announced that Singapore would be returning to Venice this year, and that you were chosen to represent it?

CL: When the Singapore Pavilion was reinstated I didn’t really feel anything, actually. When my selection was announced I was of course happy, but cautiously happy. For most artists, when they do their first—or only—Venice Biennale project, the process requires a lot of effort to work with the country, company or organization funding the project. We’re actually fortunate as artists in Singapore, in the sense that when we practice art we are often funded by the state, even if in a very loose manner. We get the money and do what we do. But, of course, when you do a Venice project the budget blows up to be very big.

SHM: And there’s still negotiating and finding the right balance between the commissioner’s expectations and the artist’s approach, among other things.

I think it’s great that Singapore decided to return to the Venice Biennale, because it is an amazing opportunity for artists to present work among their peers and to be seen by an international audience.

CL: There’s one very important thing about the Biennale, especially for artists from Asia. Normally when they go to exhibit in Europe or America they get packaged as a group, and these types of regional shows have young artists that have not been operating in the West. They get pushed as a whole package, and when it’s done that way the audience in the West doesn’t get a full understanding of the artists’ works. I think the Venice Biennale provides an opportunity where the international audience is, in a way, “forced” to encounter the world on its own terms. In that way, the Venice Biennale is very important.

Charles, you have had a very unique experience in that you will have represented Singapore in both the Olympic Games, for sailing, and the Venice Biennale, for your art. As a personal experience, how is it similar—or different—representing Singapore as an athlete and as an artist?

CL: I was very young when I was in the Olympics. In some ways, I was a completely different person back then. Now that I look back on it, I’m quite embarrassed. As an athlete when you’re representing your country, you can get very psychologically narrow. It is a state called “shelling,” where one just focuses on the competition. I won’t say that I’m proud of it, but I’m grateful for the experience. When I was training for the Olympics, I had to compete internationally, so I used to drive around Europe with my sailing partner. We would go from harbor to harbor and experience different seas this way. 

In the Olympics, as an athlete you are very protected. As an artist, you are more exposed—not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing. I think it’s important that we’re all informal. What I mean is that the frameworks governing sports and art are different. In sports, there are predefined rules and prescribed protocols. You do not often challenge the rules. In visual arts, the framework is not so rigid. We do not accept the framework as is and challenge it more often than not.

IN SEARCH OF RAFFLESLIGHT, 2013, three-channel digital film, installed for “In Search of Raffles Light : An Art Project with Charles Lim” at NUS Museum, Singapore, 2013–14. Courtesy NUS Museum. 

Your work is based on your passion for and extensive research of the sea, and our relationship to it as a society. What aspect of the sea appeals to you the most? What keeps you coming back to it as a conceptual motif?

CL: When I was doing a project called tsunamii.net, while I was in art school, the topic of the sea came to me when I learned that a telecommunications cable located in the sea, called SEA-ME-WE-3, had broken down. This particular cable stretches across 39 landing points, from Okinawa [in Japan] to Jeddah [in Saudi Arabia] to parts of Germany, and is administered by Singtel, one of the largest telecommunications companies in Singapore. I’m interested in looking at systems and thinking about things that are, in a sense, invisible—like looking outside for the wind. To find wind you look at the ripples in the water. I am interested in this idea of having an intimate relationship with something that is invisible. 

In the tsunamii.net project, I was operating on the internet in an attempt to materialize its routes, by tracking my walking path from Kassel to a server located 500 kilometers away, using an online software—even though I couldn’t actually touch the pathway. At the same time, I know that there are cables in the sea that power the internet. The sea too operates, in a sense, invisibly. 

SHM: If you think about the recent debates about the internet, such as questions of data security, they were intimated in tsunamii.net all the way back in the early 2000s. Some works are before their time, and it takes a little while longer for art criticism and art history to catch up. But it’s just the way it is. 

Charles’s “Sea State” project is one among many other ideas that are trying to engage with this idea of data, regarding who has access to it and who doesn’t. That is something that is intimated in the pavilion. The question of “big data,” or metadata, is an ongoing debate right now globally—in terms of who gets to leak it, who gets to hold it and who gets to manipulate it.

SEA STATE 6: PHASE 1, 2014, production still of HD digital video with color and sound: approx. 6 min. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore. 

Curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa (left), and
artist Charles Lim (right), who is representing
Singapore at the 56th Venice Biennale.
Photo by Zephaniah Tan. Courtesy the artist and the National Arts Council, Singapore.

With “Sea State” approaching a culmination, do you have any other projects that you are currently working on, or will be working on in the near future? 

CL: I’m interested in finding out more on the optical submarine telecommunications cables within the sea. SEA-ME-WE 3 was the name of the cable that broke in the sea, which I touched upon in my tsunamii.net project. In 1999, this cable broke, which caused the internet to stop for a day, and I couldn’t check my email then. I was quite frustrated and wanted to know what was going on. The next day I found out that the cable in the sea had broken. The telecommunications company had contracted a separate, cable-laying company to put down the cable in the sea. The telecommunications company insisted that the people who laid the cable had a record of the broken cable. So somewhere there is an archive of this cable, and what I’m trying to do is to locate this archive. That’s a project I want to do, and I think that it is important in that it will link the tsunamii.net project to the “Sea State” project. In fact, this was one of the projects that we were thinking of proposing for the Singapore Pavilion.

If you are able to realize this project, what would you hope to achieve from it—other than retrieving the archive?

CL: My projects are not guided by achievement, targets or predefined conclusions. A lot of my work is related to how the process of making the work itself guides me.

What would you like the audience at Venice to take away from the Singapore Pavilion exhibition?

CL: That the sea is not infinite.