SeptFest 2015: Robert Zhao takes on The Substation’s famous banyan tree

Exhibition kicks of the 25th anniversary edition of the arts centre’s annual festival
Published: 4:16 AM, August 31, 2015
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SINGAPORE — Last year, when artist Robert Zhao Renhui was invited to hold a solo show for The Substation’s annual festival this year, he had no idea what he wanted to do.

So he went camping for inspiration.

The result is the ongoing exhibition The Tree That Fell, the first show under SeptFest 2015, which is also the arts centre’s 25th anniversary edition. It comprises remnants of the famous Malayan banyan tree behind the former Substation Garden, which is now Timbre.

Zhao had spent a few nights under the trees behind The Substation. And in a Buddha-under-the-tree moment of enlightenment, if you will, he decided to take on the trees after eventually finding out that these were scheduled to be cleared away in August 2014 for the ongoing construction by the Singapore Management University.

Around 15 to 20 trees were felled, ranging from banyan to tembusu to rain tree varieties. But the iconic banyan tree that encroached on the art space’s walls was spared after a campaign to relocate it.

Zhao was one of a handful of artists, including Lucy Davis and film-maker Tan Pin Pin, who documented the process. But he took it a step further, collecting some of the pieces of wood, not only from the transplanted banyan, but also from the other trees that didn’t make it, too. Storing them at a tent at The Substation, he later discovered these were infested by wood-eating powderpost beetles, which were leaving a powder-like residue.

“I found the powder material very interesting,” he said. “And I learnt it takes a few years for the beetles to reduce (wood) to powder.”

The tension between this slow natural process and the swift destruction of flora by man lies at the crux of The Tree That Fell (the title of which coincidentally links with the title of his first show as a solo artist, If a tree falls in the forest, which was also held at The Substation in 2009.)

At the centre of the gallery space are two vitrines that form a dialogue with each other.

How To Make A Tree Disappear As Intended I features a straight 3.91m root from The Substation banyan tree. It’s peppered with holes and inhabited by the beetles, and nature will be taking its course throughout the show.

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