Magazine article Artforum International

Floating World: Pauline J. Yao on Charles Lim's "Sea State," 2005-

Magazine article Artforum International

Floating World: Pauline J. Yao on Charles Lim's "Sea State," 2005-

Article excerpt

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 Sejahat still 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 l(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.

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. …

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