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Art review: Charles Lim’s SEA STATE examines our oddly blase relationship with the sea

SINGAPORE — For a nation of island-dwellers, most of us tend not to have much of a relationship with the sea. It is there in the background — something to jog past, have barbecues beside and so on. But for artist and former Olympic sailor Charles Lim, this oddly impassive, even contrived relationship was one of the starting points for his ongoing decade-long project, SEA STATE, currently featured in an exhibition at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore at Gillman Barracks.

Art review: Charles Lim’s SEA STATE examines our oddly blase relationship with the sea

Charles Lim Yi Yong, SEA STATE, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, until July 10. Courtesy of NTU CCA Singapore.

SINGAPORE — For a nation of island-dwellers, most of us tend not to have much of a relationship with the sea. It is there in the background — something to jog past, have barbecues beside and so on. But for artist and former Olympic sailor Charles Lim, this oddly impassive, even contrived relationship was one of the starting points for his ongoing decade-long project, SEA STATE, currently featured in an exhibition at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore at Gillman Barracks.

It is the centre’s first major exhibition of a Singaporean artist, and it certainly looks the part of a landmark show. The entire exhibition is bathed in cool, diffuse light, yielding the peculiar, dream-like sensation of being adrift in space — and not casting much of a noticeable shadow. That same weightlessness extends to the artworks, giving them room to breathe while, at the same time, thrusting them into the forefront of your awareness.

Some of the most eye-catching works here are Lim’s characteristic videos on bezel-less plasma screens, a number of which are firmly anchored to the ceiling with heavy-duty, industrial-looking mounts. It is a nod to their previous installation at the Venice Biennale, as well as a secondary visual element that emphasises a somewhat industrial atmosphere suggestive of cleanrooms for precision manufacturing.

Unusually, the brightness here works in favour of the videos. As opposed to being individually placed in darkened rooms with seating, in which a single distance and position for the viewer is prescribed, Lim’s videos address the space with little constraint — different viewing angles and distances all yielding subtly different experiences.

While each video is an experience in its own right — and too complex to discuss in the span of this review — SEA STATE 6: Phase 1 deserves particular mention for the utterly bizarre scene of construction workers carrying a sailboat deep in the Jurong Rock Caverns.

Another focus of the exhibition — and another facet of our blase relationship with the sea — is that of land reclamation. After all, the sentiment “let’s dump barges of sand into the sea so we’ll have less sea” doesn’t suggest much interest in the sea. This particular habit of ours is referred to through the disappearance of Pulau Sajahat — evil, or naughty, island — and its associated buoy.

Based on the idea that the buoy now lies, forgotten, beneath the waves, Lim’s response was to construct a replica, have it submerged in the sea for a few weeks, and then display the hopelessly bio-fouled structure. Although the reek of its decay should have dissipated somewhat after some days in the sun, it is nigh impossible for the sea to recede from one’s thoughts when confronted by the buoy’s overabundant presence.

If the idea of rotting sea life is too off-putting, rest assured it isn’t actually located in the gallery proper, which is mercifully odourless and filled with more works than can be adequately discussed here. Another benefit of Lim’s exhibition is that, like the Joan Jonas show which preceded it, it is an iteration of a Venice Biennale presentation, which is handy for those of us without the wherewithal to visit the Italian city.

 

SEA STATE runs until July 10, noon to 7pm Tuesdays to Sundays and noon to 9pm on Fridays. Closed on Mondays. Located at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, 43 Malan Road. Admission is free.

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