PRINT April 2015


Charles Lim, SEA STATE 5: drift (stay still now to move), 2012, digital video, color, sound, 7 minutes 19 seconds.

SOMETIME BETWEEN 2002 AND 2008, the small island known as Pulau Sejahat disappeared off the northeast coast of Singapore. The sea did not subsume it, but the one-hectare landmass was mysteriously wiped from all official nautical charts of Singapore’s territory at the directive of the nation’s Maritime and Port Authority. This was no mere oversight: The erasure actually reflected the results of a massive land-reclamation project, a strategic merging intended to increase the territory of the diminutive island city-state. Indeed, the area comprising Pulau Sejahatstill exists, but it is now surrounded by land instead of water.

The vanishing of Pulau Sejahat is one of the more surreal occurrences investigated by “SEA STATE,” 2005–, an ongoing series created by the Singaporean artist Charles Lim, to be featured in the Singapore pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. This multichaptered, manifold constellation of videos, photographs, found objects, audio recordings, nautical maps, and digital prints casts the sea as the lead character in the unfolding drama of Singapore’s maritime existence. While Singapore once relied almost exclusively on the ocean as a conduit for the trade of goods, it is increasingly involved in land-based industries that process the by-products of globalization—which continue to reach Singapore by freighter, arriving at what is still one of the five busiest ports in the world. In addition to a thriving financial sector, state-protected enterprises such as oil refining, landfill engineering, and waste processing are integral to the nation’s ascendance in today’s postindustrial economic landscape. No surprise, then, that Singapore has increased its landmass by nearly 25 percent since the 1960s and that—without a drop of crude deposits—it has become one of the world’s top three oil-refining centers. And the infrastructure required to store all this oil has practically produced an industry unto itself: Consider the subject of Lim’s next video in the “SEA STATE” series, scheduled to debut in Venice, SEA STATE 6: phase 1 (work in progress), named after the first portion of the 427-foot-deep Jurong Rock Caverns, currently under construction on Jurong Island (itself a man-made amalgamation of seven natural islets), which will soon become the first underground rock cave for oil storage in Southeast Asia. The role the sea plays in all of this is complex, to say the least; the ocean serves as both a lifeline to the country’s future economic stability and a site of unprecedented ecological destruction. The ongoing transformation of Singapore’s maritime domain registers, in other words, the effects of a powerful collision between political forces, territorial ambitions, and the physical geography of the natural environment. Sitting at the nexus of man-made and natural forces, unseen and seen factors, the sea is privy to a series of epic—though paradoxically often unnoticed—transformations that are made legible in Lim’s work.

“SEA STATE” refers to the state of the sea, the sea as (nation-) state, and, more obliquely, the state of SEA (as Southeast Asia is sometimes abbreviated), the reference to regional identity a nod to the old Indonesian saying that the sea unites and the land divides. And yet the sea is also fiercely contested territory, as current maritime disputes taking place in the South China Sea clearly attest. Distinctly different from the “high seas” that are synonymous with loose jurisdictions and borderless economies, the maritime regions bordering Singapore are in fact ruthlessly quartered, tightly administered, and closely watched by competing governments. In this respect—and as Lim would have us see it—the sea is at times indistinguishable from land.

Charles Lim, video medley for “SEA STATE,” Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2015.

Indeed, Lim—who had a career in professional sailing before attending art school (he competed in the 1996 Olympics representing Singapore, and on Team China in the 2007 America’s Cup)—is deeply familiar with the waters around his native Singapore and cognizant of the fact that the borders of sovereign nations extend beyond their coastlines. His exploration of the littoral zone of the Singapore Strait yielded the first chapter of the “SEA STATE” series, SEA STATE 1: inside outside, 2004–2005, a systematic visual documentation of the sundry buoy markers that denote the nation’s maritime boundary. Each was photographed from two perspectives: once looking back toward the city and once looking out into the vast ocean beyond. The images are always displayed in pairs, stretching across gallery walls like makeshift wallpaper and bringing to mind the typological grids of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The piece also includes a VHF radio receiver broadcasting live maritime chatter from ships communicating with the local port as they cruise in and out of the area. With SEA STATE 1, Lim reveals not only the arbitrary nature of nautical boundaries but their sheer porosity—freighters regularly transverse and occasionally skirt contested waters. Yet at the same time, the work also points to the ways in which such borders are always representations—appearing as lines on maps, as fences in the ground, and now, as buoys floating in the water.

“SEA STATE 2: as evil disappears,” a 2012 exhibition held at Future Perfect in Singapore, charted the curious fate of Pulau Sejahat through a series of Diasec prints, videos, 3-D-printed objects, and maps, using the island’s disappearance to confront, in miniature, both the vast reach of Singapore’s current land-reclamation projects and the hidden quirks of a local maritime geography embroiled in a morass of competing historical, political, and even moral claims. Indeed, the show’s title is a reference to the fact that the word jahat means “evil” in Malay (the island earned this moniker due to its historical status as a haven for pirates), a fact Lim cites to offer the possibility that the island’s disappearance was part of a grand government scheme to rid the territory of any lingering negative connotations. The work also explores the complex—even absurd—territorial negotiation that underpins the reclamation project: A sequence of photos of dredging vessels in operation reveals that the sand used to make the land now surrounding the former island has been sourced from Cambodia and transported to Singapore’s coastline via ocean barge. While the practical realities are a given—Singapore has money but not much coastline or territory; Cambodia has coastline and territory but not enough money—the inherent hierarchies revealed by this massive infrastructural exchange are still unsettling. Lim’s images of sea barges piled with sand point to another irony: The making of new land would not be attainable without water.

The entropic realm of maritime space comes to the fore in the two videos SEA STATE 5: drift (rope sketch) and SEA STATE 5: drift (stay still now to move), both 2012, in which meditative shots of the ocean’s waters highlight Lim’s exceptional talents as a cinematographer. The first work centers the camera on a rope floating in the Straits of Johor, the main waterway dividing Singapore and Malaysia. Starting out as a taut horizontal line, the rope quickly becomes a coiled jumble after just a few minutes in the swaying currents. The second piece shows the lone figure of a man floating in an open expanse of water. As the camera shifts and slowly pulls away, the man gradually recedes into the distance, his orange life preserver reduced to a bobbing speck against a multiplying azure background. In both videos, the sea is more than a backdrop; it is a mitigating force, its volatile surface and dynamic core capable of casting objects and human beings alike into oblivion.

Disordered, unpredictable, and powerful, the sea is, in a word, chaotic. That such chaos would register as unseemly to the Singapore authorities is no surprise. The ungovernable space of the sea has led to the sea’s own form of disappearance in the form of sophisticated drainage systems winding through the city, which are designed to carefully expunge seawater and banish it from view. Lim’s celebrated 2011 video All the Lines Flow Out is a haunting cinematic exploration of these subterranean structures, revealing the bizarre lengths to which this island nation goes in order to eliminate water and waste from its streets.

Ironically, Lim’s artistic affinity for all things nautical is rooted deep underground. If Allan Sekula’s epic Fish Story, 1989–95, explored the physical oceanic infrastructure of international economic exchange, aiming to show that the specter of immaterial globalization turned on the seemingly anachronistic movement of material goods and manual labor, Lim’s initial experiments similarly expose the tangible, analog underbelly of our supposedly all-encompassing digital existence. His early work included research into the SEA-ME-WE 3, a massive submarine optical telecommunications cable buried under the sea floor that connects the regions of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and western Europe, which was completed in late 2000 and is administered by Singtel, a telecommunications company owned by Singapore’s government. This study, in turn, opened the door to a series of investigations, including those of, a short-lived (2001–2005) three-person collective, whose international debut at Documenta 11 consisted of members walking from Kassel to Kiel, Germany (where the server running the exhibition’s website was housed), while pinging their progress to a GPS tracker to indicate their movements in real time. It was a prescient, albeit slightly clunky, attempt to reveal the ways in which the supposedly intangible space of the Internet is contingent not only on physical distances and objects rooted in time and space but also on geopolitical factors.

If a similar fascination with the complex interplay between actual geography, notions of immateriality and infinity, and political hierarchies underpins “SEA STATE,” this project is unfolding in a far more charged context. And though direct political protest is difficult, if not impossible, in notoriously censorious Singapore, “SEA STATE” is Lim’s way of holding up a mirror to the nation. But what is shown is often turned on its head—abstract boundaries become physical markers, political influences reflect forces of nature, and water becomes land. Perhaps this is the most fitting way to look at the swamp turned glistening urban center, a place where the sea, as well as land, can be made to disappear. Lim’s fractional vision is based on these antinomies as much as it is on the elasticity of its subject, one that is marked not only by what lies on the surface but also by what lies beneath.

A frequent contributor to Artforum, Pauline J. Yao is curator, visual art, at M+, the new museum for twentieth- and twenty-first-century visual culture being built in Hong Kong.