Riding the wave of climate issues

Artists use their works to explore and highlight environmental themes, approaching them in an evocative and poetic manner

In a dark room in Marina Barrage is a bright, claustrophobic sculpture visitors can walk into.

It is a slightly unsettling installation. Low, resonant music pulsates in the background. Some parts might recall the tentacles of a sea monster.

But scariest of all is the fact that the sculpture is made from 18,000 plastic cups that were disposed of at 23 hawker centres in Singapore over just 1 1/2 days.

It is on display as part of Plastikophobia, a showcase that runs at the Sustainable Singapore Gallery at Marina Barrage till April 18.

"We thought it was interesting to highlight how many takeaway cups were used in a dine-in setting," says Canadian artist and photographer Benjamin Von Wong, 32, who created the installation with social impact strategist Laura Francois and Singapore-based Imaginator Studios.

"There is a really high number of single-use plastic cups used in Singapore, for a country that is known for being very clean," says Von Wong, adding that the work should make viewers feel uneasy. His photos on the theme of marine plastic pollution are also on display.

Plastikophobia's launch a fortnight ago was particularly timely. The year 2019 has been dubbed Singapore's Year Towards Zero Waste, a year-long campaign that aims to raise awareness of waste issues.

We thought it was interesting to highlight how many takeaway cups were used in a dine-in setting... There is a really high number of single-use plastic cups used in Singapore, for a country that is known for being very clean.

ARTIST AND PHOTOGRAPHER BENJAMIN VON WONG, on an art installation made of 18,000 disposed plastic cups

A series of public consultations will contribute towards a Zero Waste Masterplan, which will be unveiled later this year and outline strategies the Government will implement in the next few years.

On the arts front, there has been a wave of events exploring environmental issues. These range from art exhibitions to theatre productions.

The NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Singapore has also made the environment a focus of its various activities from 2017 to next year. It will hold an exhibition on climate change in late 2020.

NTU CCA Singapore's deputy director for curatorial programmes Khim Ong says: "Artists and their work are able to approach topics from a very different perspective, highlighting and investigating questions that are multi-layered and not so black and white."

Environmental and climate issues, for example, can be addressed "in ways that are evocative, tangible, thought-provoking and sometimes poetic, as opposed to a didactic and informational tone".

The environmental theme is also seeping into some theatre works.

Pangdemonium's Dragonflies, shown at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) two years ago, explored the issue of climate change.

And The Necessary Stage's production The Year Of No Return, commissioned for next year's Sifa, has a title that suggests how failing to curb carbon emissions by 2020 will lead to the rise of global temperatures past the point of no return.

Last year, artist Zai Tang, 34, started a series called Escape Velocity, made of field recordings of wildlife-rich locations in Singapore under threat from urbanisation.

His second work in the series, installed under the West Coast Highway last year, was a composition of slowed-down field recordings from Bukit Brown, MacRitchie and the Rail Corridor. The sounds of birds, insects and macaques were augmented, at times in a rather uncanny way, and heard against a visual backdrop of abstract animations.

"This approach was a means of exploring what happens if we ditch the idea of nature as other," says Tang, who created the animation with artist and animator Simon Ball.

Listening, Tang adds, could encourage people "to step outside of our human-centred selves... allowing the chance for a more interconnected sense of co-existence to emerge".

Some artworks at the recent MeshMinds exhibition at the ArtScience Museum used technology to jolt people into awareness.

The Mount That Keeps Growing, by arts collective DPLMT, looks like a beautiful goddess flanked by sea waves. But on closer inspection, viewers realise that the artwork is made up of images of aluminium cans, plastic bottles and other forms of waste - which come to life with the help of augmented reality.

Changing attitudes on environmental issues with art

But what sort of impact does art have?

"Every effort to change the world for the better matters," says Patrick Flores, artistic director of the upcoming Singapore Biennale, which runs from Nov 22 to March 22 next year, and has the hopeful-sounding title Every Step In The Right Direction.

Tang, whose installation at the Biennale will focus on the upcoming Mandai eco-resort development, adds: "I hope people encountering my work will discover something about their aural sensibilities. From here, the way they attune to the world through listening may shift into a deeper state of awareness.

"These subtle affects and sensitivities can make a big difference over time."

Veteran sculptor Han Sai Por, 75, also hopes governments will take heed.

She began her ongoing Black Forest series of installations in 2011, in response to the forest fires in Sumatra and the haze it produced.

On the issue of forest loss, Han, a Cultural Medallion recipient, says: "Governments in South-east Asia and the region need to help one another to control the (number of) trees being chopped down."

Sculptor Han Sai Por began her Black Forest installations (above) in response to the forest fires in Sumatra. The Mount That Keeps Growing by arts collective DPLMT. (Above) A photo of a mermaid surrounded by plastic bottles by Benjamin Von Wong is pa
Sculptor Han Sai Por began her Black Forest installations in response to the forest fires in Sumatra.

Dr Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an assistant professor of social sciences (environmental studies) at Yale-NUS College, says well-known authors and artists should engage environmental issues in their work, bringing these issues to audiences who might not consciously choose to engage with them.

"Any kind of cultural influencer, whether it's a radio deejay or a film-maker on Singapore TV, I think there's a need to bring these messages beyond the choir. That's something any form of art can do."

He adds: "I'm someone who appreciates art for art's sake. That said, we are in a very perilous moment in human history. At this point, any fiction that hopes to be realistic has to engage climate change.

"Or else, it's fantasy, or historical fiction."

Climate fiction - literature that focuses explicitly on climate change - has exploded in the last decade. But does it persuade readers to take action against climate change?

Not necessarily, even though it does remind concerned readers of the severity of the problem, suggests a recent study by Dr Schneider-Mayerson that was published in the Environmental Humanities journal last year. It surveyed 161 American readers of 19 works of climate fiction.

Some respondents reported feeling "helpless" and "depressed" when they read books with bleak narratives. Such strong negative emotions "could prove counterproductive to efforts at environmental engagement or persuasion", the assistant professor wrote.

He tells The Straits Times: "While I found that awareness is very important, I don't know if awareness is really the problem. I think part of the problem is people don't really know what to do."

Whether it is film, fiction or art, he says, rather than painting dystopian tales about how we are treating the planet, "what we need is to paint futures that are not pie-in-the-sky, but that show us responding in an appropriately determined and resilient way to the problems we face today".

Von Wong hopes his installation will be a "fun" way to continue the conversation about plastic waste and get people more aware about the plastic they use in their daily lives.

"I think people feel demoralised, because they are a really small part of the problem and can't solve it. But one bottle a day for your whole life is 30,000 bottles. It all adds up... it starts with yourself."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2019, with the headline 'Riding the wave of climate issues'. Subscribe