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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Meanwhile, How To Make A Tree Disappear As Intended II forms the counterpoint: A huge mound comprising 150kg worth of sawdust, it was the result of Zhao painstakingly sanding down the pieces of wood he had collected. Using sandpaper (and later, a sanding machine), he had reduced his pile of wood into powder, mimicking the beetles’ efforts on a larger scale — but by unnatural means.

Two other pieces round up the show: A lightbox photograph of what remains of the transplanted banyan tree, which is currently in a holding pen. The work had been a part of another recent exhibition he took part in called Singapore, Very Old Tree.

There’s also A Guide To Tree Planting, comprising pages of a book that highlighted the process of transplanting a tree in one day. As in some of Zhao’s deadpan works, he appropriated a similarly titled book published in the 1980s by the Parks And Recreation Department, the predecessor National Parks Board. Tweaking the text, he used his documentation photos of The Substation banyan tree’s transplanting process and presents these in reverse — showing the workers planting the tree instead of removing it.

The act of transplanting trees, including for purposes of saving these, evokes different emotions in people, Zhao said. “A lot of people get emotional about it, a lot of people were happy (with the transplanting of Substation’s iconic tree).”

At the same time, Zhao also wonders to what extent does the act actually serve a purpose, particularly for a tree species as naturally wild-growing like the banyan. He pointed out that that for many transplanted banyan trees, growth is controlled by putting cement all around it.

Citing the present state of The Substation banyan tree, a sorry-looking version of its original that’s stuck in tree limbo, he pointed out how its original grandeur is lost. The act of transplanting “becomes a gesture that says we love nature but it’s also somewhat very pathetic,” Zhao said. “Transplanting a banyan tree sounds absurd.”

But it’s not as if the presence of the famous tree is completely gone at The Substation. Zhao pointed out how remnants of its roots still stubbornly cling to the walls of Timbre.

Just like how the arts centre has now been around for 25 years, it would seem you can’t really keep a good tree down. MAYO MARTIN

The Tree That Fell runs until Sept 27 at The Substation Gallery. For more info on SeptFest2015,visit

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