Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Visual Arts

Insights: Sa Sa Art Projects

Featuring the works of six artists from Cambodia and Singapore


Published: 27 Oct 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Bearing shared interests in changing landscapes, especially the impacts and implications of human intervention on our environments, Shaking Land and Water brings together the works of six artists from Cambodia and Singapore. The exhibition’s title takes its cue from the work of participating artist Sao Sreymao, with the motion of "shaking" as evocative of movement, instability, change, as well as a means to unsettle perceptions and assumptions. These sentiments undergird all the artworks in the show that traverse land, watery and littoral zones to examine and navigate the tenuous dynamics between human, nature and urban development.   

Installation view of <em>Shaking Land and Water</em>.

Centred around dialogue and discussion, each artist in the exhibition had a conversation partner—Eng with Toramae, Prak and Syahrul, Sao with Zarina—to share experiences, insights and explore issues that resonate across their practices. The artworks presented in the exhibition were developed through this exploration in artistic exchange.  

This exhibition is co-curated with Sa Sa Art Projects, an artist-run space embracing diverse, experimental and critical contemporary art practices. Founded in 2010, the activities of the Phnom Penh-based initiative endeavours to address Cambodia’s lack of infrastructure for contemporary art engagement and education.  

Prak Dalin

Repetition and patterns are consistent in this series of works presented in the exhibition and heighten the rhythms and sequences in your sculptural forms. I understand that you are inspired by scaffolding in construction. Could you share your interest in this?  

When I look at scaffolding structures, it makes me think about the process of constructing support: the connection from one line to one line to form something and create strength.

I have always been interested in structure, not because I am an architect, but because I am just really fascinated by the forms, movement of lines, and the joining of each line. I look at these forms until I feel they have a language, and I translate that language into my artistic expression.

The works I created for this exhibition are centred around lines and shapes to create meaning and comprise the language I invented from my emotional reaction. 

Also, scaffolding and construction structures are facets that appear in my environment. Growing up in a developing city, I witnessed the processes of urban change, and I became interested in buildings surrounded by scaffolding and those under construction. These unfinished buildings made me think about the internal structure and what lies beneath that is unseen. 

The repetition in my work is not only for duplicating a form. By combining the same pieces together, I also want to emphasise quantity. I want to draw attention to a group of people, a community or a village and how when something happens, it does not just impact one individual but also has collective consequences.  

From left: Installation view of <em>Possess</em> and <em>Glimpse</em>, Prak Dalin, 2022.

At the same time, repetition forms a pattern. What I see in these arrangements is a recurrent way of living. Naturally, we also consciously and unconsciously live in a pattern. Two of my works for this show, Glimpse and Possess, consist of tiny steel pieces fixed in a formation. These small steel parts appear like they are stuck and inside a grid. In creating the work in this manner, I want to question the types of entrenched patterns in our society we unconsciously follow.  

In the works you also consciously chose to contrast the steel with wood. In doing so, what were you looking to express? 

I used wood and steel because these two materials represent differences in character, condition, sense and place; I wanted to see the reaction when I brought these two mediums together. For me, steel is synonymous with current industrial developments as I watch my city Phnom Penh change following new construction developments. Wood connects me to old memories of land before this large-scale construction and development began. In the past, I lived in a wooden house and in my village, our homes are predominantly constructed from wood. Today, however, mainly low-income people live in wooden houses. By juxtaposing these two materials, I wanted to allude to creating connections and interactions between two different places and conditions. 

In my five works for the exhibition, wood appears calmly beneath the steel. The works endeavour to portray a new construction built over the land. With the contrast in colour—dark red and rustic black—and texture, I want to draw a distinction between man-made and nature as well as highlight the impact of development on nature and life. 

Syahrul Anuar

Could you elaborate on the connections between sand, construction, our expanding vertical and lateral environments, as well as the relationship between this material and computational/digital realms explored in the only constant is an asymptotic landscape?

As I have a background in photography, I am interested in unpacking what a landscape means beyond an image and what it signifies to those who live in it. In the context of living in Singapore, I think it is difficult to comprehend the terrains of our landscape because of its malleability: for instance, a master plan is envisioned and relayed every few years as we constantly try to reach a state of terminal development.

Whether these developments will bring us more happiness or progress, I consider it marginal given the surmounting financial and ecological costs of such ambitious infrastructural and development projects. This idea is where the artwork's title draws credence from, the idea that we can only improve so much before diminishing returns; when and where do we stop?

One of the most fundamental drivers of economic growth is sand, and the fabrication of the landscape of Singapore is also a result of our manipulation of sand. It acts as a conduit for land reclamation and is integral to building construction. While probing into the built landscape and sand, further research led into the semiconductor and memory chip production industry. I discovered that one of the earliest but now defunct semiconductor firms, Fairchild Semiconductors set up shop here in the 1960s, fuelling Singapore's rapid economic growth. 

Presently, Singapore poses itself as a semiconductor hub of Southeast Asia. Interestingly, semiconductors and memory chips are produced from silicon extracted from sand, buttressing the orchestration of the digital experiences we are familiar with today. Like how sand expands our lateral and horizontal ambitions, the fabrication of semiconductors and memory chips is also a driver for economic growth, subsequently trickling down into the constant act of renovating and modelling landscapes which require sand. As such, I chose to express the moving-image video through digital and computational sensibilities (procedurally generated via heightmaps and accompanied by digitally manipulated soundscapes of Singapore) to replicate and further probe the built landscapes made possible through sand.  

Installation view of <em>the only constant is an asymptotic landscape</em>, Syahrul Anuar, 2022.

The finality of the work comes through two formwork benches, probing into what supports a built landscape physically or digital. A recurring keyword while developing the work was “support”. The benches draw attention to the formworking process where moulds are made on-site to build concrete support pillars or walls. Like the spectral figures behind the construction of a building—workers, engineers and the multiple stakeholders involved—formworking is rarely mentioned when a building rises. Through the benches I wanted to “support” the audience by transforming the formwork process into another form of a functional bench. 

For the video work, you chose to use the game engine (Unreal Engine 5) to develop the work. Why did you choose to work with this software for the work?

Throughout the research phase of creating the work, I gravitated and contemplated across myriad forms, ranging from sculpture to digital experiences like AR and VR. I was unsure how I wanted to navigate the materiality of sand without being too explicit. That was one of my key considerations and contemplations.  

I envisioned Esplanade as an oversized glass dome that sits on a reclaimed portion of Singapore while overlooking and forming part of the Marina Bay landscape⁠—also a result of land reclamation. The glass dome structure is also a result of our manipulation with sand, now existing spectrally in its architecture. This pulled the overall direction of the presentation that is site-specific without being either explicit or too self-referential. 

Detail of <em>the only constant is an asymptotic landscape</em>, Syahrul Anuar, 2022.

The gravitation towards Unreal Engine 5 thus felt very natural. Unreal Engine 5 and its heavy computational requirements allowed limitless possibilities of replicating a life-like quality. It allowed me to explore the concept of a landscape through an immediate intervention of collecting height maps of Singapore terraformed into different environments, ranging from sand dunes to a wire meshed landscape. Subtly, I re-enacted and role-played as a master planner in moulding a terrain easily editable via a game engine paralleling how the State seems to treat the landscape of Singapore. In any case, Unreal Engine 5 created a moment of self-reflexivity: by allowing the video essay legroom to explore its own existence as a digital format only made possible via sand. 

What was the collaborative process like between you and your conversation partner Park Dalin?

Although our collaboration did not result in a defined, singular work, much of the only constant is an asymptotic landscape draws from Dalin’s thoughts, generous sharing and her thoughtful impressions of the Cambodian landscape via her freelance practice as an architect. 

Throughout the past six months we shared images of our everyday lives while discussing our own interests and artmaking process, one of which was her site visits across the Cambodian ecosphere and landscape. Many of the images she sent, such as concrete foundations, rebar formations and unfinished homes, are just one of the few constellations of ideas and images subsumed within my work. In return, I sent many photos of Singapore: how we build and perform renovation. Along these conversations, complementary threads continued to resurface. 

Without the nuances and reflexivity of Dalin's sensibilities, the work would have taken quite a different form. Specifically, the formwork benches (came about) partly through the images she had sent, but also from my observations with the process of building the landscape.

Sao Sreymao

Recurring across the works presented are the form of the jar. Could you share more about the significance of the jar in Shaking Land? 

For me, it is important to not only see the jar as just an object but also consider its significance in capturing ways of life and living conditions. In Cambodia, large jars are used to keep houses on the water afloat: air is trapped in the jars as they are turned upside down and placed under these domestic structures. With urbanisation and development, many people have been evicted from their floating homes to land. Correspondingly, many of these large jars become unusable and are left to deteriorate in the sun. 

Detail of <em>Jar</em>, Sao Sreymao, 2022.

Turning to selected images from Shaking Land, could you elaborate on what you were showing in these works? 

These photographs reveal the impact of development on the land, especially in communities, villages and residences. For example, in one of the images, I captured the creek right in front of my house and how human activity has affected trees and historic buildings. The photographs of Phnom Penh relate to land disputes, city expansion, and the removal of lakes, canals, and rivers. The Tonle Sap photographs involve people's eviction from their lovely homes. These changes raise many questions for me. 

Zarina Muhammad

Centred around a video essay, Breathing in Unbreathable Circumstances is part of an ongoing body of work that examines your deliberations about place, history and changing environments in connection with physical and spiritual landscapes. In the video, water bodies are likened to a beating heart, and simultaneously surface the intimate connections between breathing and cardiac systems. Could you elaborate on this interest in circulatory and respiratory systems, and the connections you drew with flora, micro-fauna, marine life and creaturely companions that interweave the work?

This work does draw significantly from an ongoing long-term collaborative research project looking into environmental and eco-cultural histories. Through this work, I have spent a lot of time thinking about varying modes of wayfinding, polysensoriality and navigating different realms of knowledge. In particular, I wanted to pay attention to wisdoms and lessons that we can humbly learn from non-human animals and the places we inhabit, pass through and take up space.  

Any space we occupy will inevitably be a site brimming with layers and layers of histories, bearing imprints of violence, legacies of trauma, survival, and thriving life across human, non-human and more-than-human worlds. As such, how can we begin to perceive land and water as an animated, breathing, sometimes choking, moving and guiding entity? 

In a lot of my works, I am interested in ways we can be more attentive to the cumulative nature of stories and knowledge systems connected to place, histories and the creaturely—often elusive unseen beings and microfauna inhabiting the sites I am exploring. I took some of the shots in the video essay during pre-dawn intertidal walks or along shorelines accessible only by kayak. There is a much-welcomed respite and suspension from the shrillness of humanness when you’re crouched and scrunched close to the watery sifting sandy ground to meet wise and queer kin from other worlds. These creaturely forms often possess autotomising and regenerative powers as well as circulatory, respiratory and sensory-auditory systems we mere humans can only dream of.  For this work, I was especially interested in intertidal creatures like the acorn worm. This mud, sand-eating, detritus-feeding marine worm can be found in abundance on Cyrene Reef: a submerged reef flat ringed by petrochemical plants on Jurong Island and Pulau Bukom and only emerges during the monthly low tide.

<em>Breathing in Unbreathable Circumstances</em>, Zarina Muhammad, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

Scientists have proposed that the acorn worms are some of human’s closest invertebrate kin with whom we share 70% of our genome and whose gill slits have lent themselves to shaping the human pharynx. Although acorn worms and the human lineage diverged 570 million years ago, I like the idea that we share these commonalities with living organisms that largely go unnoticed and are deemed insignificant in our humancentric worlds.  

Adding another layer to the presented work in the exhibition is the exchanges and conversations between you and Sreymao. These discussions informed the developed artwork and are surfaced in the chosen presentation method of a visual conversation by placing your video, and her photographs alongside other objects and images in dialogue. Could you share why you both decided to conceive the work in such a manner? 

I am deeply grateful to have Sreymao as a conversation partner during the development of this exhibition. Sreymao and I only met for the first time in-person during the exhibition installation! However, when we were introduced virtually several months ago, we immediately found intersecting points of resonance and curiosities connected to our respective practice and long-term research. Topics that unfolded as conversation points in the months leading up to the exhibition include jars, vessels, disappearing communities, songs and stories on watery pathways and riverine arteries, grief and displacement, the politics of inhabitation by human, non-human and all sentient as well as the colour and scent of water and land.

Installation view of <em>Shaking Land + Breathing in Unbreathable Circumstances</em>, Sao Sreymao and Zarina Muhammad, 2022.

Through these conversations reflecting on the interdependencies between human activity and natural systems, we drew from the evident and less perceptible lines of connection between Cambodia and Singapore. We felt it made sense that the presented work should be presented as a visual conversation and co-authored as an assemblage of photographs, moving image, text, sound, scent and objects. We feel this is a constellation that remains unfinished, and we are hoping to continue working together to develop further iterations of this work.  

The text in the opening sequence of the video essays describes much of our process and flow of conversation over the months, most of which was led by being attentive and attuning ourselves to space, by instinct, intuition, chance and trust: 

We allow ourselves to be led by these subterranean and watery radial modes of traversing.  

We follow the rhythmic dilations thrumming beneath these pathways and movements, these peculiar habitats, these geopolitical contact zones, these coastlines that are products of human projects, these underworlds of worlds forcibly made habitable but only for a few.  

We listen to the patterns of breathing across water bodies, the lakes, the riverine and maritime arteries, the breathlessness across profitable stretches of water and tide lines, the gulps of air taken where the land shakes, is whittled down and transposed elsewhere. 

Across these unruly unsettled geographies, we are led by questions on ways to be attentive and attune oneself to the porosity of space, to the liquidity of terra, terror and territory. 

Eng Rithchandaneth

Scars explores the circumstances of Cambodia's water bodies and waterways due to development and urbanisation projects through the lotus leaf. What about the lotus leaf intrigued you? 

I chose the lotus leaf because it symbolises loyalty and truth, and the plant has numerous unique characteristics. For example, while the lotus is an aquatic plant, it can grow in mud. Moreover, lotuses from the roots to its flowers also have multiple benefits and are commonly used in Cambodian cuisine and in medicine.  

Today, we are witnesses to urban expansion, many of which (in Cambodia) begin from lakes, rice paddies and farms, threatening natural lives such as these lotuses. Such activities leave a lot of scars on our environment and are often illegal or are a violation of human rights.  

In your works, paper mache is a medium that you have often worked with. What draws you to this material?

I create paper mache from newspapers. I think that these papers are part of a collection of information. We live in a society of overloaded, chaotic and entangled information. It is confusing, and often it is almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. On the other hand, I like to recycle materials turning something discarded or no longer valued into something new. 

Juria Toramae

Becoming Pink expands on your ongoing interest in oceanic spaces and explores the intertwined relationship between conservation, environmental histories, memory and myth through the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. What was the starting point for your explorations into this marine mammal?

I became interested in the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin when local and international news published an investigative report on the dolphins held in captivity in the now defunct Underwater World on Sentosa in 2014. The news made me think about how captive facilities have served as a site of spectacle and conservation. The irony here is that while these dolphins are native to Singapore waters, they had to be imported into captivity for the purpose of conservation and awareness. Compared to conservation efforts in Hong Kong where it is still ongoing and in situ, the effort in Singapore was ex situ that is limited to an aquarium. 

Installation view of <em>Becoming Pink</em>, Juria Toramae, 2022.

With the ongoing coastal development, land reclamation, and other forms of environmental destructions, captivity for conservation is made justifiable as species extinction looms large on the horizon. Yet history shows that such an approach has not been sustainable. So, Becoming Pink is an invitation to rethink the ways we care about the rest of the nonhuman life through the lens of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. 

<em>Becoming Pink</em>, Juria Toramae, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

A large part of the work’s presentation was creating this immersive environment for the viewer. What were your considerations in presenting the work in this manner? Also, why did you choose to work with point cloud data in creating this work? 

The connection between sand extraction, land reclamation and the endangered dolphins led me to point cloud visualisation. The three-dimensional point clouds evoke sandscapes, silt and detritus which resonate with the low visibility of Singapore’s underwater. The point clouds also evoke a sense of emptiness and ethereality which feels right when I think about the dwindling marine biodiversity. The point clouds are also a good way to document the environment—though I wish the technology was more accessible earlier as I have only been able to learn it recently. Ultimately, I wanted to place the viewer in the middle of it all unknowingly where silt flows and bleached corals glow. 

Shaking Land and Water was presented at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 16 Sep 2022 – 2 Jan 2023. 

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