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We speak with John Lim, founder of This Humid House (THH), a botanical design studio based in Singapore, about considerations of the local and sustainability, and the power of collective intuition in the studio’s dynamic creative practice. The studio aims to develop a contemporary design language expressed through plants and flowers that is attuned to the climate, geography, history and people of Singapore. This interview takes place in conjunction with the exhibition Sayang-sayang at the Esplanade Concourse.
There is a strong notion of the local in Sayang-sayang–in terms of the subject matter of the iconic batik sarong buai and also the decision to work with plants native to or found in Singapore. Could you share more about the interest in the local in THH’s practice?
The local is at the core of our practice. It is really the reason for our founding as a studio. I grew up around plants and my grandfather was a consummate gardener. There was such a disconnect when my interest in floral design grew as I simply could not relate to the roses, hydrangeas and stylistic cues that were being imported wholesale from other countries into Singapore. I thought there was a real opportunity to use our local plants and flowers more intentionally, as a way for an audience here to feel seen. For Sayang-sayang, we attempted to achieve this by way of colloquial signifiers such as palm leaves, batik and sarong rockers.
How did the Concourse space and the context of an arts centre shape the conceptualisation and narrative of the work?
The space dictated that we design the artwork to be viewed from all angles without favouring any one approach to the piece. We also wanted to create something that is aligned with the mission of the Esplanade as a cultural institution–something that is visually inspiring and which also has educational and cultural components.
In this installation, leaves are attached to automated mechanisms to simulate the movement of the sarong cradles. What influenced the decision to introduce a performative aspect to the installation?
Rhetorically, why not? Movement is always a seductive idea! As a studio situated in the tropics, the movement we strive to capture in our static work comes from a place of almost feverish exuberance. This movement is also a kind of gestural dynamism. I would say physical movement is a very sequential progression of these interests. We have previously explored movement in rotating installations, but we have been keeping this very particular spring-action movement of the sarong rocker in our back pocket for the right moment!
For Sayang-sayang, THH worked closely with the National Parks Board to sustainably harvest leaves from palm trees found around Singapore. What influenced the choice of working with palm leaves for this exhibition? How important is sustainability as a consideration when developing and executing your projects?
We take every opportunity to highlight the good work of the National Parks Board. We are spoiled to have some of the most amazing varieties of palm trees at our doorstep! The scale of palm leaves is not immediately evident when viewed outdoors. This installation was truly the best excuse to flaunt the majesty of palm leaves by bringing them indoors.
We are aware that many practices within the floristry and landscaping industries are not environmentally sustainable and we have taken an inventory of the ways in which we are able to reduce our environmental impact–from growing our own material and sourcing for materials regionally, to avoiding the use of floral foam which is a non-biodegradable product of petroleum.
Collaboration is a core aspect of THH’s practice. Could you give us insight to how the working process usually unfolds?
Our collaborative process is a bit of a mystery to us as well. It is non-linear and different every time. I think our practice is most accurately described as some sort of collective intuition! We encourage an open sharing of hunches and even the slightest inklings. It could be a feeling about anything–whether it is a space, provocation, mood, idea or ingredient. We would check by manner of consensus. We are most successful when we do not overthink things and when we are able to feel the direction of the prevailing wind.
Are there any artists, designers, creatives or people who have inspired or made an impact on your work?
We cast a very wide net when it comes to inspiration. Our greatest debt is to Nature from whom we owe all our amazing material and spend the most time observing, mimicking and subverting. We approach a lot of our work sculpturally and draw heavily from the tradition of sculpture, from propaganda statues to John Chamberlain, whose work is similarly dynamic. We find painting especially helpful in developing a language for colour, and dance for describing gesture and movement. As a studio focused on contemporary expression, we are attuned to the aesthetics and conversations around contemporary art practices. Some artists who have influenced our recent work are Sarah Sze, Robert Zhao, Julie Mehretu, William Forsythe and Nabilah Nordin.
THH’s practice rests at the intersection of horticulture, design and art. How do these different disciplines shape the studio’s creative language?
The intersection of horticulture, design and art is such a grey area, and I might muddy that even further by adding culture and commerce into the mix. What we are fundamentally trying to do is develop a language using plants and flowers that feels contemporary. We ask ourselves: how do we put together living materials in a way that is fresh and relevant today?
Sayang-sayang is on view now at Esplanade Concourse, from 18 Sep – 29 Nov 2020. Click here for more information.