Dive into Sea State

Sea State 1: inside\outside (2005, above), one of Singapore artist Charles Lim's works being shown at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.
Sea State 1: inside\outside (2005, above), one of Singapore artist Charles Lim's works being shown at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Sea State 1: inside\outside (2005), one of Singapore artist Charles Lim's (above) works being shown at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.
Sea State 1: inside\outside (2005), one of Singapore artist Charles Lim's (above) works being shown at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Artist Charles Lim invites viewers to plumb the depths of Singapore's relationship to water and the sea

Sea State, the ongoing, long-term project by Singapore artist Charles Lim, which showed at the prestigious Venice Biennale exhibition last year, has dropped anchor at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore in Gillman Barracks.

The body of work, begun in 2005, invites viewers to delve into Singapore's inextricable relationship with water - as a shroud of tropical humidity, as a territorial limit and as part of the collective (un)consciousness. It is named after the international meteorological code for measuring sea conditions, which ranges from zero for calm waters to nine for extreme phenomena.

Works take the form of videos, photographs, three-dimensional models and altered marine charts, and, with its homecoming, the project is presented in its most extensive iteration to date. The nine works exhibited in Venice are complemented by three additional works in this show, including Lim's award-winning film, All The Lines Flow Out (2011), a lyrical exploration of Singapore's drainage system.

Both shows were curated by the National Gallery Singapore's senior curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa.

Ms Ute Meta Bauer, 56, founding director of the centre, says: "It is crucial for us to show Charles' project because we are dedicated to showing international artists of high profile and Charles is exactly that."

Lim, 43, a former Olympic sailor who received a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from London's Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, has participated in major international art exhibitions including Manifesta, the European biennial of contemporary art, and documenta, a once in five years exhibition of modern and contemporary art in Kassel, Germany.

  • VIEW IT / CHARLES LIM YI YONG: SEA STATE

  • WHEN: Till July 10, noon to 7pm (Tuesday to Thursday and weekend), noon to 9pm ( Friday), closed on Monday

    WHERE: NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, 43 Malan Road, Gillman Barracks

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: For details of education and public programmes, go to ntu.ccasingapore.org

His long-term inquiry into how Singapore as a small island state and growing nation deals with its limited land mass, is especially important, says Ms Bauer. "The project can help us better navigate and maybe have an opinion about what is going on, because we are surrounded by this environment and we know so little.

"Often, when we talk about challenging modes of our time and understanding what is going on in this world, we look to science and the universities. But it may be difficult for us to understand because we are not experts.

"The arts have a different language that provides a point of entry into this complex situation to get a better understanding of what is going on."

The essential idea behind Sea State, says Lim, is to carry out a simple, naive gesture that in turn opens up the sea to further contemplation.

The first work in the project, Sea State 1: inside\outside (2005), recorded every floating object he came across as he circumnavigated Singapore's port limit. The objects, mostly marker buoys, were photographed from both sides of the maritime border and the two views are exhibited side by side. The work includes a chart on Singapore's port limit and a radio receiver broadcasting communication between ships and the port.

The rigorous documentation presents an orderly front, but it may stir up thoughts about the porous, slippery nature of the maritime border and the various ways it exists - as a well-defined line on a chart, but a largely invisible boundary in-person, relying on buoys to call attention to its presence.

Lim's practice is also informed by research methods such as poring over nautical charts and conducting interviews with maritime experts. The knowledge he gathers is then distilled through a poetic lens albeit one that resists romanticisation.

The 2014 work, Sea State 2: as evil disappears (Sajahat Buoy), came about after he realised, from studying nautical charts, that Pulau Sajahat, an islet north-east of Singapore whose name in Malay means "evil", had been removed from the charts since 2002 because it was subsumed by the neighbouring island, Pulau Tekong, through land reclamation. The navigational marker for the islet was lost along with the waters around it.

To make sense of the gravitas of the disappearance, he made a replica of the buoy, gave it a sea burial and allowed marine life to grow over it before resurfacing it. The elegiac yet candid gesture may bring to mind ways through which the sea is transformed, its power, to colonise, as well as the way people regard histories tied to land.

Explaining the approach and aesthetic of his work, which is borne through extended observation, Lim says: "It's kind of like sailing. As a sailor, even though you are sailing on water, your relationship is with the wind. You need to feel the wind and look out for how it forms ripples or waves on the water before you triangulate that information and arrive somewhere else."

This philosophy of allowing the surroundings to inform one's behaviour extends to the way the exhibition is set up here. The gallery is lit with flat, even lighting so that no one work or route through the gallery is privileged. Visitors are free to circulate along the perimeter where works are placed or tossed between works on opposite walls.

"It is, in my words, a playground set-up," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Dive into Sea State'. Print Edition | Subscribe