Charles Lim: SEA STATE

Read our feature on the Singaporean artist's multi-part project, showing at NTU CCA Singapore

By Mark Rappolt

SEA STATE 6: phase 1 (digital video still), 2015. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore SEA STATE 5: drift (rope sketch) (digital video still), 2012, single-channel HD digital video, 4 min 59 sec. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore SEA STATE 6: phase 1 (production still), 2014. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore

‘The Deadly Global War for Sand’, screamed the headline publicising a report by Vince Beiser in the March 2015 edition of Wired magazine. It documented the growth of illegal sand mining, the resultant ‘sand mafias’ and the violence that came with them in India and Southeast Asia. It also estimated that around two-dozen Indonesian islands have disappeared since 2005 because most of the sand that once constituted them now constitutes the island of Singapore. The citystate, which is the world’s largest sand importer (using it for both construction and land reclamation), had, according to a 2010 Global Witness report, physically grown by a whopping 130 square kilometres (adding 22 percent to its former size) in the 45 years since it achieved independence from Malaysia during the 1960s. It’s projected to grow half that again by 2030.

After air and water, sand is the natural resource most consumed by humans, Beiser points out. And sand mining is a $70-billion industry, with more than 40 billion tons consumed per year. The environmental consequences of all that (which include changes in water flows and contamination of fishing grounds) have in part led neighbouring countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, to ban or limit sand exports to the Lion City. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx and Engels famously declared in their Communist Manifesto (1848); in this part of the world it melts into Singapore.

Those Indonesian islands would most probably still have been around when Singaporean artist Charles Lim began his sprawling, nine-part SEA STATE (2005–15) project, incorporating photographs, videos, documentary material, maps, scans, interviews and sculpture, which will be exhibited in the Singapore Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. And if their disappearance since then is one more piece of evidence to support the proposed emergence of the geological Anthropocene – the epoch in which human activities alter the global ecosystem to the extent that the fate of human and natural systems is inextricably intertwined – then it’s fitting that one of the things that SEA STATE achieves is to document how the geography and ecology of Singapore is intricately linked to its less physical characteristics – its history, politics and psychology.

Although he is now known for his work as an artist (he graduated in fine art from London’s Central Saint Martins in 2001), Lim is a former professional sailor (who competed at the 1996 Summer Olympics and in the 2007 America’s Cup). In oceanography the sea state is a measure of the condition of the free surface of a large body of water, on a scale of one to nine (hence the phases of SEA STATE), or ‘calm’ to ‘phenomenal’. But the title of Lim’s work also brings to mind issues of community and governance, the former’s acceptance or lack of acceptance of the latter, and the latter’s use of legal, military and bureaucratic powers to maintain the integrity of the state. And, of course, Singapore is an island, and consequently its geopolitics are necessarily shaped by its relation to the sea around it. Although the sea is something that is often absent, Lim contends, from contemporary Singapore’s understanding of itself.

Water is often seen as a barricade. But in the tropics, the temperature of water is near to the temperature of our blood. Water is actually safe; it is a space where one may seek refuge in case of a storm

“The project is quite simple,” Lim says in a manner that somewhat downplays the many levels on which it might be received and interpreted. “I am inverting the way we look at water. Water is often seen as a barricade. Somehow, the dominant myth about it is that if you fall into the water, you only have 15 seconds – or something like that – to live, before hypothermia kicks in. But in the tropics, the temperature of water is near to the temperature of our blood. Water is actually safe; it is a space where one may seek refuge in case of a storm.”

The notion of barriers and barricades is something that has been a part of SEA STATE since the beginning. The first phase of the project, SEA STATE 1: inside\outside (2005), saw Lim documenting marker buoys and other floating objects (various detritus) on Singapore’s nautical port limits. Each object was photographed twice, from inside and outside the limits. As a group, these photographs of objects in apparently boundless water seem as much a record of the sea state (wave conditions) on the days of Lim’s expeditions as they do territorial markers of the authority of Singapore’s port. SEA STATE 4: line in the chart (2008) derives from an image of a sea wall, complete with a sign warning ‘No entry, restricted zone’ in three of the four official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) of Singapore, which Lim discovered at the northeast border of Singapore. When it was first exhibited that same year, as part of And the Difference is, at Singapore’s NUS Museum, Lim offered the winner of a lottery a trip to the barrier. (Intriguingly, one of the things that Lim’s research reveals is that the limits of Singapore’s sovereign waters, unmarked on maps, are much harder to trace than those of the port authority.)

In SEA STATE 8: The Grid (2014), Lim took a nautical ‘GSP1’ chart, published that same year by Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, and split it into two – one showing the original landmass, and one showing land that had been reclaimed, and the sea around it. The whole reveals a grid system developed for Singapore by oceanographer (and trained artist) Wilson Chua, chief hydrographer of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, which divides the ocean (and some of what used to be the ocean but is now land) into one-kilometre squares in order to enable the Port Authority to track shipping. It’s a system that is unique to Singapore (given its simplicity and effectiveness, Chua is unsure why that is the case), and in that respect, could be said to form a part of its identity.

Like many of the phases of Lim’s project, the artworks in SEA STATE 8 are accompanied by interviews (collected as SEABOOK, an archive of ‘materials, anecdotes and memories that unravels Singapore’s relationship with the sea’, shown in part at Singapore’s National Library earlier this year), many of which reveal the sea as a site of myth and legend as much as of history and geopolitics. In an interview, Chua reveals that according to local Malays, the Sisters Islands (to the south of Singapore Island) are supposed to come together at high tide and separate at low tide, that the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are unconcerned that part of the grid covers their territory and that the British dumped a lot of unused bombs into the sea before abandoning Singapore to the Japanese during the Second World War. ‘They found over 200 bombs on the Indonesian side,’ Chua recalls. Taking that a step further, Shabbir Hussain Mustafa – curator of Lim’s pavilion and in effect a co-researcher on the project – recalls an incident in 1993 when a four-year-old boy visited reclaimed land near Changi; the sand had been moved from somewhere near Bantam and contained within it an unexploded bomb. The boy died.

In February 2015, as part of the SEA STATE project, Lim interviewed Foo Say Juan (published in the SEA STATE catalogue as ‘Sand Man’), who worked as a sand surveyor in Singapore during the 1990s. The former surveyor reveals that the area around Bantam was a dumping ground for ordnance recovered from the seabed. ‘The dumping area is always indicated on the charts,’ he says reassuringly. ‘So you can dump anything there?’ Lim asks.

‘Correct.’

‘Are there a lot of things in the dumping area now?’

‘I have no idea, because we would just drop the object and be off.’ […]

‘So the dumping ground is not in Singapore?’

‘No. It is around the area that we are surveying. Depending on where the location is.’

‘Is it on the charts produced by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore?’

‘No. Because we cannot bring the item back to Singapore,’ the surveyor concludes in a manner that serves to further highlight both Singapore’s curious relation to the sea and some of the obfuscations and contradictions inherent in the way it seeks to own and possess it.

Reviewing the various phases of SEA STATE, there’s an inescapable sense that one of the threads running through it is an account of the sea as a site of labour

Reviewing the various phases of SEA STATE, there’s an inescapable sense that one of the threads running through it is an account of the sea as a site of labour: Lim’s labour of research, and the labour put into mapping, excavating, barricading, defining, owning and utilising the sea as a resource. SEA STATE 6: phase 1 (2015), for example, is a film that records Lim’s expedition to the Jurong Rock Caverns, Southeast Asia’s first underground liquid hydrocarbon storage facility, located 130 metres beneath the Banyan Basin on Jurong Island. In phase 1 (completed this year), 1.8 million cubic metres of undersea rock was excavated in order to create space to hold around 1.47 million cubic metres of oil storage tanks.

And yet there is also a sense in which Lim records the labour of the sea itself, articulating the water and what it contains and nurtures as an active force, rather than simply the passive victim of human exploitation. SEA STATE 5: drift (rope sketch) (2012) is a video of a rope floating on the notional sea border between Singapore and Malaysia, drifting on the sea currents. And those warm equatorial waters around Singapore are known to be particularly conducive to the rapid growth of barnacles (the US navy tests barnacle-resistant paint in the area). SEA STATE 3: adrift (2013) includes a found flotation device that had been colonised by barnacles; a similar, but larger scale work is due to be shown in Venice.

The origins of SEA STATE can in part be traced back to Lim’s earlier work alongside fellow artist Tien Woon Wei and scientist Melvin Phua in the collective tsunamii.net, whose Alpha project (2001–05, exhibited at Documenta 11) sought to materialise the generally invisible network of cables and servers that allow the Internet to function. Lim recalls an incident when an optical submarine telecommunications cable in the sea (SEA-ME-WE-3, which connects Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Western Europe) broke, leading to disruptions to Singapore’s Internet service. “I couldn’t check my email! I was quite frustrated and wanted to know what was going on!” he recalls.

Indeed, a large part of the SEA STATE project involves the accumulation of data gathered via investigative research, something in which Lim clearly delights. And while the project opens up to certain moral and political issues, particularly with regard to mankind’s relationship to nature and the environment, Lim is keen to point out that his work is intended to be an index of Singapore’s relationship to the sea, and not a judgement upon it. The cool, detached nature of Lim’s works provides a lot of their fascination, and more importantly their openness to viewers. There are no ‘Deadly Global War for Sand’-type headlines here. Although perhaps they are often unnecessary. “I do not dwell in moral positionalities,” Lim says. “Because how would I know I am right? I am also not concerned about projecting the future. Often conversations about truthseeking lead one into a conversation about the future. Especially in the state of Singapore, we are constantly saturated with ‘futures’ and talk about the future (its possibilities, demands and needs); this is so pervasive that sometimes we find ourselves talking about the future without even realising that we are doing so.”

“It so happens that water is not just in the sea; the Southeast Asian region, a space that sits smack in the middle of the tropics, has 99 percent humidity in its air.”

We live in a world of SEA-ME-WE-3S, of global interconnection, and while Lim’s project is ostensibly about the nature of his homeland, it is fascinating to think how it might resonate when it’s shown 10,000km away, in Venice, where perhaps a more general relation to current ideas of ecology and interconnectedness, between the natural and the artificial, between culture and environment, will come to the fore. ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,’ Marx and Engels continue in the Manifesto. ‘It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.’

“Do you want me to talk about humidity?” Lim asks at one point during our conversation. “It so happens that water is not just in the sea; the Southeast Asian region, a space that sits smack in the middle of the tropics, has 99 percent humidity in its air.” As much as Lim sees one of the key messages of his project to be an acknowledgement of the fact that “the sea is not infinite”, there’s a sense that SEA STATE is a project that could spread out indefinitely.

Perhaps too the project will reconfigure the traditional role of the sea in art, where often it becomes a cipher for beauty and sublimity (in recent times one might think of the works of an artist such as Bas Jan Ader). Where does Lim see such things in his own work?

“I have tried to answer this question in the past, without using the word ‘beauty’,” he replies. “Often, one encounters the approach that positions the sea as the sublime; it is at the sea that one finds the transcendental; that the sea is limitless; a flat space onto which one may project all of one’s desires. I feel this is quite dangerous. What has driven SEA STATE, right from the outset, has been this attempt to resist what I call the ‘romanticisation of the sea’. This tends to operate within many of my conversations about SEA STATE: one of the key impulses that drives the desire for sand (the primary medium of land reclamation in Singapore), for example, is this assumption that sand is limitless, because the sea is bottomless; but is it? I have this one work that I developed with my friend and fellow artist Takuji Kogo. It is based on a Navy recruitment advertisement I encountered in the Singapore subway – it told me: ‘You do not have to think about the sea anymore’. Imagine that? The sea is so fully corporatised and militarised that we do not even have to think about it anymore.” And yet visit Venice, this summer, and you will. 

SEA STATE will be presented at the NTU CCA Singapore from 30 April through 10 July 2016.


For more on SEA STATE see here.


This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.