National Gallery Singapore's roof garden is a living, breathing art project with plants from reclamation sites

Artist Charles Lim has been adding plants to the garden on the rooftop of the National Gallery Singapore in what he describes as an ongoing experiment.
Artist Charles Lim has been adding plants to the garden on the rooftop of the National Gallery Singapore in what he describes as an ongoing experiment.ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG

SINGAPORE - More than 30 plant species that thrive on land reclamation sites are now growing on the rooftop of the National Gallery Singapore.

This is part of a living, breathing art project by Charles Lim, who has been replacing the garden's hedges and ornamental plants with lesser-known species found in Changi, Tuas and the Southern Islands. Most have been transplanted from actual reclamation areas.

Lim, an award-winning film-maker, artist and former Olympic sailor, has been adding plants to the garden since January (2019) in what he describes as an ongoing experiment.

"We didn't know what would work. I'm just going to put the plants here, and if they survive, they survive, and if they don't, they don't," says the 46-year-old artist, who has spent about two decades documenting and studying Singapore's relationship with the sea.

Sea State 9: Proclamation Garden, which launches on Saturday (April 27) and runs till October, refers to the proclamation Singapore's president makes when reclaimed sites are officially declared as state lands. The project is part of the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden commission series.

"The area where the land reclamation is happening is in a kind of legal or nautical limbo - when you sail there, it's in neither land nor sea," says Lim, who displayed an earlier chapter of his Sea State project at the 2015 Venice Biennale. "The colour (on the charts) is the colour of the sea, but when you are a sailor and you approach that area, you are physically confronted with land."

Lim, who has visited reclamation sites, says these areas often have a lot of plants growing on them. After the proclamation is stamped and the land is handed over, he adds, the area is cleared "so it becomes like a tabula rasa. The plants are all destroyed. You see hills of compost after the proclamation date."

Among the plants featured in the rooftop project are the prickly sandbur (Cenchrus echinatus), parasitic seashore dodder (Cassytha filiformis), and giant sensitive tree (Mimosa pigra), a stout shrub whose stems can grow as tall as six metres.

Lim and senior curator Adele Tan consulted several experts, including botanist Veera Sekaran, founder of urban greening company Greenology, and botanist Boo Chih Min. Some of the original roof garden plants are also being held in an off-site nursery.

Nature, in keeping with the spirit of the project, has not played neatly into their curatorial design. Some plants such as tulsi (holy basil) have sprung up unannounced, Dr Tan says.


  • WHERE: Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery, Level 5, City Hall Wing, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Saturday (April 27) to Oct 27, all day



One plant they did transplant from reclaimed land is a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Lim, who says it may have sprouted after migrant workers discarded the seeds of dates they were eating, spotted the palm in an area known as Zorro Bun in Tuas.

"They name these areas," he says. "But when it actually becomes a place, all those stories will be erased... I feel they should be kept. The plants offer a kind of resistance."

The Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden commission series, now in its third edition, invites leading artists to present a site-specific work reflecting on South-east Asia's heritage and histories from a contemporary perspective. Past projects include a tearoom in a bamboo maze by US-based Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, and larger-than-life wooden puzzles by Vietnam-born Danish artist Danh Vo.

Reclaimed land is often nutrient-poor. Yet in its colonisation by pioneer plants - and the different stages of succession that follow - are an abundance of metaphors.

"A lot of the plants (in Singapore) were from somewhere else," Lim says, with a subtle nod to the topic of immigration in Singapore. "There were seeds in the sand when we imported the sand."

The project includes a visual essay, as well as a 30-minute podcast featuring specialists in botany, geography, land reclamation and constitutional and legal history. The latter will be available on the Gallery's website and the Gallery Explorer App.

Lim, who does not want to stick labels at the foot of each plant, feels that the podcast will allow for an experience that is not as didactic and "less filtered" .

He is now working on a rulebook on traditional kolek boat-racing, and another project responding to the Sunda Shelf - a continental shelf and southward extension of mainland Southeast Asia - and the water there, which is relatively shallow and warm.

The idea is to counter the anglo-centric way of looking at the sea through the lens of the sublime. In the Sunda Shelf area "people spend a lot of time in the water. The sea is a space with history," Lim says.

The artist adds that he wants to expand the Sea State project to look at the topic of reclamation in the wider region and not just in Singapore.

Curator Tan suggests that part of the thrill of the roof garden project comes from not knowing how exactly it will unfoldas it is constantly evolving.

"Every week will be different."