Exploring fantastical forests

Donna Ong’s work (above) is a study of the tropical forest through time.
Donna Ong’s work (above) is a study of the tropical forest through time. PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

A fantastical forest comes alive in artist Donna Ong's new installation, My Forest Has No Name.

The Straits Times got a look while the work was still in progress at her studio in Goodman Arts Centre.

She is putting the finishing touches to her second solo exhibition in Singapore, held from Saturday till Feb 28 at the centre.

In the studio, there are tables filled with green plants, statues of tigers, monkeys and "natives" as imagined by colonial artists - items which she says bring to life "my most kitsch work to date".

  • VIEW IT / MY FOREST HAS NO NAME BY DONNA ONG

  • WHERE: Fost Gallery, Gillman Barracks, 1 Lock Road

    WHEN: Saturday to Feb 28, 11am to 7pm (Tuesday
    to Saturday), 11am to 6pm (Sunday). Closed on Monday

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.fostgallery.com

An oriental carpet will complete the look in the gallery space. Many elements of her artwork, such as the reworking of antique prints and text, are part of her show.

Ong, 37, calls it a study "of our fascination with the tropical forest through time". In tracing the dramatic and idyllic portrayals of forests from colonial times, she is bringing attention to the real and the imagined. "I'm sure when a lot of adventurers reached the forest, it was nothing like what they saw in the picture," she says, pulling out one of the lush green images painted by an unknown artist.

She has been showing a lot of her work centred on such representations of the colonial past in group and museum shows. Her last solo was with an Italian gallery in 2013.

Last year, she won the Prudential Eye Award in the installation category. Her 2014 and 2015 works - The Forest Speaks Back I and Letters From The Forest (II) - were part of the Singapore Art Museum's After Utopia exhibition. She also did a residency in Germany.

To complete work for this solo, she detached herself from the world digitally. "There is no other way to finish all this work. I've been doing work about the forest and wanted to see it in one exhibition. A solo gives you the chance to see the whole tapestry of what you are investigating as an artist," she says.

Even in its unfinished state, her new work is beautifully arranged for the interview and photo shoot, showing her immense attention to details. Even objects that are to be placed in a sandbox in the gallery are carefully stored in one corner.

Her work has been exhibited at home and abroad, including the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006), the Kuandu Biennale, Taipei (2008), Jakarta Biennale (2009) and the 11th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (2008).

She is known to transform found objects into dream-like narratives and her latest work promises to be no different, as she continues her exploration of "the image of the garden as a symbol of paradise."


Deepika Shetty

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Exploring fantastical forests'. Print Edition | Subscribe