Connecting with the wilderness

Beyond Wilderness, a book by Chua Chye Teck (above), features black-and-white photographs of forests.
Beyond Wilderness, a book by Chua Chye Teck (above), features black-and-white photographs of forests.PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Beyond Wilderness, a book by Chua Chye Teck, features black-and-white photographs of forests (above).
Beyond Wilderness, a book by Chua Chye Teck, features black-and-white photographs of forests (above).PHOTO: CHUA CHYE TECK

Artist Chua Chye Teck has launched his first book of black-and-white photographs that documents the beauty of Singapore's forests

For two years, artist Chua Chye Teck hiked through Singapore's dwindling wilderness, photographing the way trees sprawl and intertwine to become forest.

Where the average person sees a mess of foliage, he sees art - something akin to a Jackson Pollock painting or cao shu, a rough style of Chinese calligraphy.

The 43-year-old has compiled 40 of these black-and-white photographs in his first book, Beyond Wilderness, which was launched last Thursday.

"There is a visual language to the wilderness that, just like English or Chinese, we have to learn to understand," he says.

"These are things we consider untidy, that we think should be more systematically organised. But this is the way nature organises itself."

  • BOOK IT/ NATIVE REVISIONS

  • WHERE: Gallery 1, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Lasalle College of the Arts, 1 McNally Street

    WHEN: Feb 10, 6.30 to 8.30pm (opening); Feb 11 to April 9, noon to 7pm (Tuesdays to Sundays); closed on Mondays and public holidays

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: http://bit.ly/2jn0JK6

Chua, who is single, began hiking two years ago so he could get more exercise, and was struck by how being in the forest sharpened one's senses.

He became attuned to the way light filtered through leaves and to the rare animals moving in the undergrowth - banded leaf monkeys, pangolins and a 60cm-long turtle that was stuck in the mud and had to be pushed to freedom.

He also began to observe the differences in the forests around Singapore, from the slender casuarina trees of Coney Island that appear pale and feathery when over- exposed on film, to the dark, sinuous lines of deeper forests tucked away in places such as Upper Peirce Reservoir.

Absorbed in the trees, he would often lose track of time.

Once, he got lost on a trail around MacRitchie Reservoir and found himself stumbling through pitch darkness after the sun set.

Fortunately, he was able to use the GPS on his phone to find the main road.

He received a $50,000 grant from the National Arts Council to support the creation of his book.

He will also be part of an exhibition, Native Revisions, at Lasalle's Institute of Contemporary Art, which will run from Feb 11 to April 9.

Chua does not want his work to be mistaken for nature photography. "A photographer would try to capture reality," he says.

Instead, his background as a sculptor means he is drawn not to landscapes but to lines and form.

"To me, the environment is like a material to be used to create fine art. It is something abstract, like the words you find to make poetry."

His work is a timely look at the difficult choices a country with limited land must make, given the Cross Island Line debate over whether a train tunnel should be built under Singapore's largest nature reserve.

"I wanted to capture the loss of place and memory, and the frustration of choice," he says.

"There is beauty in what we neglect for the sake of progress."

•Beyond Wilderness (Epigram Books, $52 after GST) is available at major bookstores and shop.epigrambooks.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Connecting with the wilderness'. Print Edition | Subscribe