Singapore Art Week: A stay at The Forest Institute opened my eyes to nature

The Forest Institute can be visited till Feb 14 and offers a view of the secondary forest next door to Gillman Barracks. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

SINGAPORE - If art is that around which people put a frame, then a viewing deck on the doorstep of a forest may very well cast it in a new light.

These thoughts drift to mind one morning last week, as I sit on the balcony of a wooden longhouse in Gillman Barracks. The elevated installation, which sprang up during the just-concluded Singapore Art Week, but can still be visited till Feb 14, offers a view of the secondary forest next door.

I do not have to look far. On the forest's edge, barely a metre away, the yellow flowers of the simpoh ayer shrub are abuzz with carpenter bees. A yellow-vented bulbul, pink-necked green pigeon and a squirrel hide among its leaves.

This shrub, whose flowers last for a day, is a common sight in Singapore, but it takes an overnight stay in an art installation for me to notice it.

"When we are at Gillman, no one really looks at the forest. We know it is there, but we don't really look at it," says artist Robert Zhao, one of the people behind the project.

That statement sums up the average urbanite, but certainly does not apply to Zhao himself. The 38-year-old artist, known for his acclaimed body of work exploring the natural world, has been studying the nearby secondary forest for more than five years.

His latest artistic foray - conceptualised with architect Randy Chan and curated by John Tung - takes the form of a Borneo-style longhouse and a modern steel wing.

The structure houses a film with footage from the forest, objects collected from the forest and a Forest Observation Room for members of the public who want to stay overnight. Downstairs, a platform overlooks a gurgling stream, which Zhao says drains into the Berlayer Creek mangrove.

An overnight stay at the shelter gives visitors a taste of off-the-grid living. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

The Forest Institute, as the installation is called, is built above a sheltered walkway next to Carpark B.

Its aim? To celebrate the secondary forest, which is often overlooked, but home to what Zhao fondly describes as a "rojak" of native and non-native species - from the simpoh ayer and albizia to oil palms and more.

When I check into the forest observation room on Jan 19, it is past 5.30pm.

An overnight stay gives visitors a taste of off-the-grid living. The shelter, which can accommodate two adults and two children, is powered by a battery that lasts only six hours with the lights and fans running continuously.

Guests put up on foldable cot beds (sleeping bags are also provided) and cook their food in mess tins. Sustenance comes in the form of instant noodles, ready-meals, packet drinks and other foods with long shelf lives.

There is no toilet - the nearest is a two-minute walk down the road. Trash and unwashed cutlery are sealed in zipper bags in a bin to keep jungle ants and long-tailed macaques at bay.

"This is not a hotel," Tung says. "What we are giving you is a more comfortable space than a park bench to sit in, facing nature."

Before sunset, I spy a white-throated kingfisher and a greater racket-tailed drongo with the help of the binoculars and bird-watching books provided.

Also on the shelf are a dozen other intriguing titles, such as The Word For World Is Still Forest (2017) and Reverse Hallucinations In The Archipelago (2017). I manage to get through only one slim volume, Zhao's New Forest 1: A History Of Cows (2020).

The rustic architecture and view from the longhouse are enough to make you feel like you are elsewhere South-east Asia. PHOTO: ROBERT ZHAO

The Forest Institute is a curious place, neither of the city nor the forest but existing in a liminal space in between.

Its entrance faces the Masons restaurant and several art galleries. At night, the road is well-lit. Once you are in the longhouse, however, its rustic architecture and view of the dark forest are enough to make you feel, for a moment, like you are elsewhere in South-east Asia.

In this strange space, I find myself focusing on the present, keenly aware of the chorus of crickets and the gurgle of the stream.

The forest becomes a natural air-conditioner and it later gets too chilly to use a fan. I go to bed at 10pm, but the sound of human voices, footsteps and car engines - some as late as 3am - wake me up several times.

The Forest Institute also offers ticketed nature walks and photography workshops for the public, which are separate from the Forest Observation Room experience.

To give me a taste of what one of the nature walks might be like, Zhao meets me at 7am for a short ramble. The trek into the forest and back again takes about 40 minutes, but feels longer, thanks to the tangle of the undergrowth and the twists and turns in our journey - climbing over fallen trees, dodging low branches and tugging on the vines underfoot.

The Forest Institute offers ticketed nature walks and photography workshops, separate from the Forest Observation Room experience. PHOTO: ROBERT ZHAO

Zhao helps me parse the language of the forest, pointing out the calls of the hill mynah, lineated barbet, critically endangered straw-headed bulbul and various other birds. We spot the nest of a changeable hawk eagle and tall albizia trees displaying what is known as crown shyness. This is when channel-like gaps appear in the forest canopy: social distancing for trees.

After our nature trek, we walk past a Singapore Art Week poster advertising an exhibition by Oh! Open House. "Art Is Dead When Derived From Nature," it reads, provocatively.

"Yeah, I don't know what to feel about that," Zhao says. "It made me think, but I didn't carry on with that train of thought."

There is another walk members of the public can take on their own - one which traces the stream upriver. Near its concrete banks, I spot an old brick from Alexandra Brickworks, exploded rubber seed pods and what appear to be ancient stone ruins. On closer inspection, I realise they are a bunch of mouldy sofas that somebody dumped in the forest.

Zhao regards the Gillman Barracks forest as a living archive, and himself as its archivist.

At the 2019 Singapore Biennale, he presented a cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from his research. The Forest Institute builds on that earlier project.

Some items in the current exhibition point to the history of the former British army barracks. One of the found objects, for instance, is an old tile from a swimming pool.

Among the other artefacts are bricks eroded by stream-water into pebbles, as well as a samsu vessel said to have once been filled with liquor from an illegal makeshift distillery.

Some artefacts in the exhibition point to the history of the former British army barracks. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

On a display table in the forest observation room, I spot an old-looking booklet titled Queen's Own Hill And Its Environs, ostensibly authored by Webb Gillman. I suspect this is one of Zhao's fabrications (he is, after all, the founder of the Institute of Critical Zoologists - a semi-fictitious, pseudo-scientific organisation that makes people question the authenticity of "facts").

Spending the night in a cabin by the forest is not everyone's cup of tea. While I am a bit sceptical at first, I later see the value in taking time to slow down and simply observe nature, which hides its secrets in plain sight.

What the observation room does is set the stage for a "close reading" of the forest - starting with the simpoh ayer and stream right under people's noses.

During the nature walk, it occurs to me that being able to recognise birds and plants might be a way for people to appreciate the forest better, rather than see it as simply an amorphous, unknowable mass of greenery.

You feel more connected to nature when you can look up at a flock of birds and recognise that they are, for example, Asian glossy starlings; or when you watch the rapid wing-beats and aerial glide of a bird and know you have seen a woodpecker.

Tung says the project is "a crusade against ignorance". Forests such as those in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve are not the only green spaces in Singapore, he adds. There are other less well-known spaces that are also "incredibly important and tell stories of our heritage and history".

According to the online resource OneMap, the forest next to Gillman Barracks sits on a parcel of land falling under the Housing and Development Board.

"We want people to be aware of what they stand to lose if one day this is going to be redeveloped," he adds.

The Forest Observation Room sets the stage for a "close reading" of the forest. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

Zhao's installation might seem straightforward at first glance, but it is rich with allusion. The longhouse, for instance, is constructed by a wayang stage builder. Here, it becomes a stage for artworks and a television screen that face an indifferent audience: the forest.

Then there is the symbolic significance of the simpoh ayer - a pioneering plant that is native to Singapore and colonises bare soil. How does this fit into wider academic discussions about decolonising the forest? What does this mean in the light of Gillman Barracks' colonial past?

Untangling all of this, I decide, will have to wait another day.

Before Zhao heads off, he tells me - paraphrasing the title of an article he read - that a secondary forest is "a second-chance, not second-best".

Educated, inspired and rejuvenated by my stay, I am inclined to agree.

  • The writer's stay was hosted by The Forest Institute.

The Forest Institute

Where: Gillman Barracks, 7 Lock Road (near Carpark B)

When: Till Feb 14, daily from 10am to 6pm, closed on public holidays and eve of public holidays (exhibition); till Feb 13, 5.30pm to 10am, Fridays and weekends (forest observation room)

Admission: $5, tickets available on-site; $25 (nature walks); $45 (photography workshop); $250 (forest observation room for two adults a night, with up to two children under the age of 12 at an additional cost of $50). Tickets include camping food and basic overnight amenities. Nature walks are fully booked, but more slots will be added in February.

Info: The Forest Institute's website

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.