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Impact 0320: Integrating nature and the environment into art

Zen Teh · 15 January 2022
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I am Zen Teh, an environmental artist and educator who was awarded the 2021 Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council, Singapore. My art practice often reflects a critical view of the conditions in which we live in, questioning and imagining what it has been and what it could be.

My typical day begins with a simple breakfast at a local coffee shop. I travel primarily on a bicycle so that I can slow down and observe anything that catches my attention during the ride. I love to observe minute details of my surroundings, such as the light quality at different times of the day, as well as how people interact with others and the environment. In most cases, these details become points of questions that lead to a new piece of work. For example, Mirror of Water was a response to the water pollution that occurred in the canal in my neighbourhood.

Zen Teh works with sculpture, installation and photographic forms. 
Image courtesy: National Arts Council, Singapore
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“Mirror of Water”, commissioned installation work by Esplanade Singapore, Jendela Gallery, 2019, in consultation with Dr Chua Siew Chin, an ecologist. Image courtesy: The Esplanade, Singapore 

The water pollution was alarming to me, although many passers-by didn’t seem to notice or have much reaction to the situation at that time. I ran home immediately to pick up my camera to document the situation and called the relevant authorities. Later, I sought to understand more about the ecological implications of water pollution from an ecologist friend, which, along with my own response to it, formed the basis of Mirror of Water, one of my largest installations at The Esplanade in 2019.

Collaborating and working across disciplines have become an important aspect of my art practice, as they also spur my curiosity towards learning and living. I find joy when I am able to co-construct new ways of thinking meaningfully with other passionate individuals across diverse backgrounds. 

Through collaborative interdisciplinary work, I have found this tremendous sense of satisfaction in learning. After Monument series (2019) and A Familiar Forest (2021) for example, took a length of time, continuous effort and open discussions with collaborators on how we could achieve depth in integration – which is something that would have been difficult or almost impossible to achieve if I had continued on my own.

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Zen Teh with geologist, Rinaldi at the research site.
Image courtesy: Selasar Sunaryo Art Space

After Monument series (2019) was a body of 14 works accumulated from my artist residency of two months at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung, Indonesia. I worked closely with geologist Rinaldi Ikhram to research and investigate the largest construction site in Dago Pakar, Northern Bandung, by Dago Resort Group. 

My search uncovered a mesh of wicked problems surrounding the issues of land stewardship, economic growth and the sustainability of the residents’ living environment. A range of approaches across disciplines such as anthropology, history and urban-planning were adopted in the investigation of the issues at hand. The research was constantly examined and reflected through art making, with the use of local and natural resources found on site.

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Part of the small rock series, After Monument: Geological Traces 3.
Image courtesy: Selasar Sunaryo Art Space

In A Familiar Forest (2021), I recreated the experience of being in a local forest at night. Through engaging multiple senses such assight, sound and scent, I hope to communicate meaning or compel questions beyond a cognitive level – to share my understanding through physiological dimensions.

One of the installation work, After Monument: Aquifer of Time, presented at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space. 

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Image courtesy: Selasar Sunaryo Art Space
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A Familiar Forest (2021), an art and science multisensory art exhibition commissioned by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. A Familiar Forest at Lee Wee Nam Library, Nanyang Technological University, by Zen Teh, is made in collaboration with Dr Ching Jianhong (scientific consultant). Installation comprising of print on fabric, artificial soundscape, concocted scent. 
Image courtesy: Zen Teh

In fact, some visitors whom I met at the exhibition vividly shared with me their personal memories with nature and fond memories of communal activities such as hiking with their father or kampung living. Art seems to have the ability to trigger someone’s personal memories associated with nature. Nature as a subject is therefore not only about environmental sustainability, but is a subject that is deeply entrenched in our sense of self, community and culture. Nature can unite us as human beings, intercepting the labels or dividing qualities we may have framed ourselves with.

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