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Visual Arts

Han Sai Por

A lifelong relationship with art and the environment


Published: 16 Oct 2019

I thought about Germany’s Black Forest, how it is so dense that light cannot penetrate the canopy to reach the undergrowth, that’s how it got the name “Black Forest”. But this Black Forest is different. It is not black because the trees are alive, it is black because the trees are dead, a result of having been chopped down, damaged, razed. Its “blackness” is a comment on man’s treatment of the environment. It evokes gravity, pessimism, disappointment.

Title of artwork: Seeds (1995)
Medium: Granite
On permanent display at the Esplanade Waterfront

Title of artwork: The Black Forest
Medium: Charcoal, bones, acrylic on canvas, pen on paper
Date: 8 Apr – 8 May 2011
Location: Jendela (Visual Arts Space)

Title of artwork: Harvest
Medium: Stainless steel
Date: 1 Aug 2015 – 3 Jan 2016
Location: Esplanade Concourse

Educated in the fine arts and landscape architecture, Han Sai Por has for decades tirelessly pursued an art practice remarkable for its strength of purpose, enduring vitality, and profound resonance with the natural environment.

While Han is a versatile artist whose body of work includes drawings, paintings and three-dimensional works made from various natural and man-made materials such as wood, paper, metal and glass, it is her nature-inspired, site-specific stone sculptures that, in Singapore and overseas, she is most celebrated for. Hewn from solid masses of stone into often organic, elemental forms, each one is a robust, unobtrusive presence in its site, communicating a silent empathy with the natural environment.

An example is Seeds, a series of four large granite sculptures permanently installed along Esplanade’s Waterfront. Seeds are a recurring subject matter for the sculptor. Symbolising the germination of the arts on fertile ground, these ones sit so gently on the site, they seem to have sprouted from the earth.

In Singapore, where the landscape undergoes change at a brutal pace and too often with scant regard for flora, fauna, heritage or the preservation of older, slower ways of life, Han’s works have particular resonance. Commissioned by Esplanade as a solo exhibition in Jendela in 2011, The Black Forest continued Han’s enduring theme of concern for the natural environment with a different approach. A singular work composed of a series of paintings, drawings and a central installation, The Black Forest marked the first time Han was showing her paintings primarily rather than her sculptures.

What they revealed was just as significant – a palpable shift in temperament. For while Han’s previous works have always been characterised by an intense quiet, the pieces in The Black Forest, although enveloped still by a sense of hush, exuded great disquiet.

They depicted skeletal remains and gnarled, twisting tree branches, roots and trunks in bleak landscapes of the mind painted in varying shades of black, with found materials such as stumps of wood and charcoal pieces rendered into an installation that contributed to the overall impression of a wasteland.

Yet, while The Black Forest offered the artist’s dark vision of the future and sought to raise visitors’ awareness of man’s ongoing degradation of the land, it did so without a trace of pedantry. Not simply ominous, it was mournful and poignant with its stark, epic feeling of devastation. This was a work distinguished by a deep and abiding sense of loss. Rooted in the artist’s love of the land, it was a work that ultimately spoke of love.

If The Black Forest was marked by an intense sobriety rooted in the artist’s concern for man’s degradation of the natural environment, Harvest – commissioned by Esplanade for Singapore’s 50th anniversary in 2015 – was a work of celebration and joy. An iridescent waterfall of birds and fish cascading over larger sculptures of plant matter, looming large on the steps of Esplanade’s Concourse, it expressed no bittersweet pathos about nature’s decline and conveyed no admonishment or sense of loss. Instead, it celebrated what we have in our imbalanced environment.

It offered up a mini tableau of nature’s little gifts, the ones that most commonly grace our urban landscape and yet which we most easily take for granted. Birds, fish, flower bulbs, stamen and seeds… these are all small natural entities, each one a fragment of the natural universe that Han always has as a reference point in her observations, thoughts and works. Yet being small, temporal and fragile, they are easily damaged and overlooked. With Harvest, Han sought to rectify this. She magnified each plant entity and massed the animals together – a flock of birds here, a school of fish there – transforming them into totems of nature which we could not help but notice.

Harvest also marked the first time Han was working with stainless steel mesh. Many of her sculptural works and installations possess density and mass – such as the giant granite forms of seeds in her Seeds series, her Black Forest installation whose burnt wood blocks, black and white drawings, and charcoal and “bone” pieces have a compact heaviness, and her Tropical Fruit series (2013) featuring compressed forms shaped from highly pigmented cotton paper and abacca paper pulp.

Yet Harvest, composed of many separate and intricate stainless steel mesh components, evoked little of that heft. In Han’s hands, the deceptively strong and stiff material that is stainless steel mesh was rendered light, translucent, delicate and fluid, so much so that a passer-by observing Han at work on Harvest asked if the birds and fish were made of organza.

I need to work with the environment and the material. Different environments and ideas require different materials. This venue (the Esplanade Concourse) …was not suitable for the use of stone. I decided I wanted to work with a light material. Also there was already a hanging structure in place and I could use that in my work for the suspension of some elements.

The sense of the primordial and the ageless that characterises Han’s often robustly planted work in stone and wood was reversed with Harvest. Instead, the selection of a material commonplace in modern industry today rooted the work in the here and now. Seen from afar, the multi-level installation was enveloped in a pale, winking, metallic glow; it was evanescent and ever-changing. Much of the work was suspended on filaments mid-air or seemingly scattered on the ground. The larger, freestanding sculptural pieces reflected light, shadows and passing images with their mirrored finish.

The work had a quality of transience that befitted the temporal nature of the site-specific installation. It reminded us that the natural entities represented are as temporal as they are precious. “The fish are food for us humans and yet they themselves need food in order to live,” said Han. Such is the cycle of life, the natural order of things.

Interestingly, there was a discernible reticence in Harvest. Although Han has worked with diverse media for gallery, studio and outdoor spaces, she is an artist with an unusual affinity for natural materials and the natural environment. It can be imagined that the processes such as welding, grinding and polishing required for the fabrication of the metal forms – in particular, the three large sculptural pieces – in Harvest were vastly contrary to the intense physicality and intimacy of Han’s previous work with stone which necessitated hammering, chiselling, carving and drilling. In fact, Han remarked that it was a work that required “blood more than sweat”; working with stainless steel mesh drew blood literally as the repeated cutting, shaping and folding of the stiff, sharp material into more than 500 fish, over 200 birds and many other irregular shapes hurt her hands.

The resultant Harvest was a subtle work that, while celebrating nature around us, was not without a shade of foreboding. Gently, it showed us that while nature is still among us, we need to safeguard it so that it can continue to survive in our midst. If we cared to give it quiet attention amid the busy-ness of its site, Harvest rewarded us amply. We saw that when we stop to consider nature around us, even the smallest and most seemingly insignificant natural things can teach us about our environment and our inescapable link to the larger universe.

Read more about Han Sai Por on TributeSG

Read Han Sai Por's interviews with Natalie Foo
Visual Arts at Esplanade

Commissioned, curated and thematically developed by our Visual Arts team, Esplanade's quarterly exhibitions feature established and emerging artists whose contemporary Asian artistic expressions not only chronicle the issues and sentiments of the region, but also offer vital insight into the complexities of our changing cultural landscapes and identities. These shorts essays and interviews act as complementary material to the exhibitions, allowing for a richer and fuller perspective on the artists and their practice.

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