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Insights: Marvin Tang

Exploring the present and historical impacts of global plant movements through the Wardian case


Published: 10 Oct 2023

Time taken : >15mins

Presented in the group exhibition Evolving Currents at Jendela Visual Arts Space from 14 May to 4 September 2022, On Glazed Cases by Marvin Tang is a study of the Wardian case, a botanical artefact that served as a vehicle for exploration, economic development and mass migration across the globe. The Wardian case was developed in the early 19th century by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to monitor a butterfly’s life cycle in an enclosed environment. Although the experiment failed, it led to the discovery of a vessel ideal for growing and transporting flora. This artefact is widely regarded as the precursor to the terrarium and vivarium. In 1842, Ward published a monograph titled On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases that expounded on the benefits of using these cases in the transportation of botanical specimens.

Installation view of <em>On Glazed Cases</em>, Marvin Tang, 2022

Since its invention, this unassuming case has facilitated the movement and thievery of plants from various regions. During the colonial era, suitable plants were identified and cultivated in the hopes of generating profit. The Wardian case became a fulcrum that enabled the movement of cash crops like rubber and spices from across the globe to plantations in the colonies. Botany was harnessed for political and economic purposes.

Marvin Tang traces its history to investigate the social, economic and environmental impact of global plant movements and the ensuing displacement of human labour needed to sustain plantations. On Glazed Cases unravels the impact of the Wardian case since its arrival in Singapore. On display are three replica cases based on sketches from archival records, chronicling its varied usages throughout its storied history. The largest case was anchored onto ship decks for long voyages, the collapsible version was used in explorations where samples were collected and shipped, and the final case was documented in an American magazine and used to display orchids in homes. Accompanying these are two videos with text adapted from Ward’s writings on the cases which allude to Singapore’s relationship with botanical gardens, plantations and labour in the colonial era.

Abnatural ecology, a phenomenon where manmade environments are created to cultivate nature, is one of the concepts explored in the work. For Tang, the Wardian case is a fitting example of the abnatural and symbolic of Singapore’s complex relationship with nature. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew articulated the vision of making Singapore a “garden city” in 1967 by cultivating lush greenery and creating a liveable environment.1 The impact of this antecedent can still be seen in present-day permutations ranging from elaborately cultivated home gardens to the spectacular Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay. The Wardian case continues to shape Singapore’s natural history and landscape.

Interview with Marvin Tang

The Arrival: On Glazed Cases

The Wardian case has a storied history ever since it was created more than a century ago. What led to your interest in this artefact? How do you think the ideas behind this object continue to impact us presently?

The Wardian case often appeared in my research material when I was working on The Tree that Bleeds White Gold, a body of work that explored the rubber narrative in Brazil and Singapore. Many record books highlighted the integral role this botanical artefact served in the logistics that supported the trade and movement of plants across continents. While conducting my research, I came across a paper by Luke Keogh, a historian who was interested in the history of the Wardian case and who extensively explored the history and function of these wooden devices.

Detail of <em>The Tree that Bleeds White Gold</em>. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Wardian Case was not just a physical vessel to store and transport plants, it metaphorically became a culpable vehicle used as a means to exert power, control and cause trauma. While working on the aforementioned work, I began thinking about networks, migrations and labour that is often subverted in certain narratives particularly with regards to plant movement. This is something we are still learning about and understanding today.

While the Wardian Case does not carry the same significance in contemporary society, we continue to find hints of its existence today.  Today, we find new ingenious ways of introducing plants to the interior via terrariums, humidity-controlled allotment units and modified Ikea plant cases; a subtle resistance to urbanisation.

‘Abnatural ecology’ is an idea that is central to 'On Glazed Cases' and one which we have seen explored in your practice too. Could you shed light on this concept and how it manifests in your research for this project?

‘Abnatural ecology’ is a term introduced by author Jesse Oak Taylor as a way of thinking about “nature’s absence and its uncanny persistence”, a strand of thought which has resonance in this Anthropogenic age. He observes that nature is fluid and constantly in flux and therefore prone to adaptation. In his book The Sky of Our Manufacture, he describes how glasshouses are a literal representation of the abnatural, where plants could be extracted from nature and cultivated far from their native habitats and continue to thrive. This concept ties in with my fascination in the phenomenon and future of greening, particularly in a space where nature is being pushed out of its natural boundaries into lived spaces and urban constructs.

The Wardian cases presented in On Glazed Cases are objects of abnatural ecology, an invention created out of necessity in Britain in the Victorian era. It served as a backbone for the movement of plants and also protected plants cultivated in homes from the fumes generated by factories during the Industrial Revolution. One could see them as an alternative interior space that resisted the pressures of economic development. The cases made it possible for plants to thrive in glass structures in artificial climates far from their original native lands. I was interested in how they served both economic purposes and people’s psychological needs.

Detail of <em>On Glazed Cases</em>, Marvin Tang, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

Could you share more on the texts that you adapted and used in the videos in 'On Glazed Cases'?

The text from the video comes from the book On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases written by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, the inventor of the Wardian Case. I toyed with the idea of looking at old writings through the lens of our current understanding of ecological histories. By examining this book with the understanding of the Wardian Case’s impact of our modern landscapes and social histories, there is agency for us to contextualise and compare the author’s hope and aspirations with a reality that we experienced.

The video Chapter 1: On the Natural Conditions of Plants features text where the author described what plants need to survive juxtaposed with visuals of plants attempting to grow for a prolonged period of time within a Wardian Case. There is a certain naivety that is presented in the text, one that runs counter to the reality we have become familiar with. The Wardian Case received wonderful reviews by nurseries and botanical experts and succeeded in keeping plants alive across long commutes. However, it ironically has also become an object that caused damage and trauma to people and lands.

Detail of <em>On Glazed Cases</em>, Marvin Tang, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

Your work looks closely at our complex relationship with nature, especially when nature is co-opted to serve certain agendas. What insights do you think nature lends to broader conversations on political, cultural or economic matters?

Nature is still quite alien to me, and I feel we are a far cry from understanding its role in totality. But as a symbol, it transforms into a form of capital and at times a representation of power, vanity and identity. I am thinking about Taryn Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of Capital and Yee I-Lann’s YB Series where collections of flowers are unwitting participants in a performance of politics. In Singapore, nature is so intrinsic in our conversations about nationhood and identity because it is an integral part of our global branding as a ‘Garden City’.

Like all gardens, this Garden City is in constant need of maintenance. We are constantly searching for new ways to keep the city green while also negotiating the need to clear forested areas for the purposes of development. There is a precarious balancing act between having a genuine relationship built on coexistence with our natural environment and using it as a symbol on the global stage.

Installation view of <em>On Glazed Cases</em>, Marvin Tang, 2022.

Your practice is concerned with investigating historical narratives and you have applied your research to Singapore in your projects. Could you share on the importance of situating your research in a localised context?

I feel this provides a starting point to draw connections that emanate from a space I am familiar with. I feel it is important for me to think about my practice as a counter archive to narratives we are often familiar with. I get to situate the cause and effects of decisions made historically to Singapore and draw connections to what is happening globally, even those that may seem unrelated. Historian Edward Carr noted that historical events do not emerge from a singular instance, rather, we have to cast a wide net and look at psychology, politics and social conditions. There are multiple tangents of reality from a single historical event that is always worth pursuing and I find my practice sitting amongst these tangents that at times emerge from the most unexpected of relationships in Singapore.

'On Glazed Cases' builds upon ideas that are explored in 'The Colony' (2017 – present), more specifically the roles botanical institutes played in global politics and economics. How did the research develop and evolve over time and how did the ideas carry through from one body of research to the other?

In 2017, I began looking into the broader participants of Singapore’s greening campaign that started in the 1970s. The Singapore Botanic Gardens had a significant role in this transformation. I encountered Professor Timothy P. Bernard’s book Nature’s Colony: Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. His research into the history of our Botanic Gardens revealed its complex relationship with Singapore’s natural history since colonial times. This made me curious of the past and present roles of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Detail of <em>On Glazed Cases</em>, Marvin Tang, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

At the same time, I was heading to the United Kingdom to pursue my master’s degree and thought it was a perfect opportunity to pursue this train of thought. The Royal Botanic Gardens in London was where many botanic institutes originated from. It was during this time that I created The Colony Archive, an ongoing collection of artist postcards of a planetary garden created under the colonial gaze. 

I started examining how the British Empire profited from botanical explorations in its colonies and how rubber was one of the most important resources yielded from these endeavours.

This nicely tied in with my interest in Singapore’s relationship with the Royal Botanic Gardens. In the late 1880s the Singapore Botanic Gardens, under the leadership of its then-director Henry Nicholas Riley, was one of the key sites for Britain’s experimentation with rubber.

I developed an interest in the plant movement and the labour needed to sustain this global movement. This served as a spark for On Glazed Cases. Moving forward, I am interested in the human labour, migration and plantation culture that is briefly alluded to in my work. I am particularly interested in the issues of migration, plantation work and the formation of plantation communities. I would like to explore the impact mass migrations for plantation labour continue to have on histories, demographics and culture today.


On Glazed Cases was based on research done during Tang’s time as an Artist-in-Residence at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2020).

On Glazed Cases was presented in the exhibition Evolving Currents, on view at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 13 May – 4 Sep 2022.


1S’pore to become beautiful, clean city within three years, The Straits Times, 12 May 1967, 4.

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