Revisit Singapore’s Natural History in an Enchanting World of Flora and Fauna

Written By Renee Poh

28th Feb 2017

Category: Feature

In a modern city-state like ours, nature often sadly takes the backseat against a skyline of towering, glitzy buildings. Thankfully, visitors can rediscover Singapore’s lost landscapes re-interpreted in a contemporary way at the National Museum’s revamped Glass Rotunda.

Story of the Forest is a new permanent installation by Japanese digital art collective teamLab, the same group who brought us the visually arresting Future World exhibition at the Art Science Museum.

Museum director Angelita Teo hopes it will interest visitors in the Museum’s prized William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, of which 69 drawings come to life in a majestic rainforest.  

She says: “We were concerned about how to represent the collection in a more interesting way to get people excited. It’s an interesting experience because teamLab is using an existing collection to present a Malayan jungle in the early 1800s.”

And just what can you see in this jungle?

Visitors enter Story of the Forest through the upper rotunda, where a digital constellation of flora such as the hibiscus cascades endlessly from the top of the 15m-high dome ceiling in a dreamlike universe.

Exhibition view of Story of the Forest. Photo: ArtHop.

As they journey through a descending spiral 170-metre passage, mousedeer bound playfully through the trees, birds and butterflies flit past, and creatures from snakes to the cloudy leopard can be spotted crawling along the forest floor.  

Exhibition view of Story of the Forest. Photo: ArtHop.

When visitors reach the Lower Rotunda, they can watch the palmyra palm or lotus flower bloom before their eyes. These movements are triggered by sensors, which also cause native fruits such as the durian and rambutan to fall from the trees.

Exhibition view of Story of the Forest. Photo: ArtHop.

Founder of teamLab Toshiyuki Inoko describes it as the most challenging digital artwork installation created by the collective to date, due to the massive size and scale of the Glass Rotunda making it difficult to create seamless projections.

The Museum’s Assistant Curator Iman Ismail also recommends visitors to download the Story of the Forest mobile application to enhance their experience. Similar to Pokemon Go, they can go on “hunts” to capture the different flora and fauna they see. The photos will then provide descriptions of the actual illustrations from the Farquhar Collection.

Ms Teo adds that up to 40 pieces from the Collection of 477 drawings are displayed at any one time on a rotational basis.

“It resonates with not just Singaporeans but also foreign visitors, and Story of the Forest allows a lot more exposure of the works.”

Crowds will surely be able to appreciate the installation’s myriad of Instagram opportunities here, but hopefully the dazzling display will also encourage them to dig deeper to uncover the inspiration behind the animations.

Singapore, Very Old Tree

Located here is also an exhibition visitors might find familiar. Singapore, Very Old Tree by renowned local photographer Robert Zhao Renhui was first commissioned as part of the Singapore Memory Project and also shown at Art Stage earlier this year.

Zhao also sought inspiration from archival works—namely one of the oldest postcards in the National Archives which depicts an unspecified tree dated 1904.

Though the National Museum has acquired the set of 30 images from the project, only 17 are on display as lightboxes in this exhibition.

One of these trees, a massive banyan located behind the Substation, was uprooted in 2014 to make way for the construction of a new Singapore Management University building.

But it resonated so much with artists, administrators, and arts-goers as the site for many years of events and performances that several of them grafted parts of it to grow into saplings. This notion of the Substation as a nurturing ground for the art scene was also highlighted in a plant installation titled Soil by co-creators photographer Tan Ngiap Heng and cross-disciplinary artist Lim Chin Huat earlier this year.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Singapore, Very Old Tree. Photo: ArtHop.

Another is the Monkey God Tree in Jurong West Street 42, an African mahogany that had a part of its bark scraped off in a car accident, revealing the interpreted outlines of two monkeys on its trunk in 2007.

It sparked a frenzy and made news headlines, with devotees flocking from all over Singapore to offer prayers for good luck and even lottery wins to what they believed to be a manifestation of the Taoist Monkey God, or the Hindu deity Hanuman—an event perhaps unique to multicultural Singapore.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Singapore, Very Old Tree. Photo: ArtHop.

On his part, Zhao hopes the exhibit will spark conversations and stories about home and belonging.

“Trees are breathing markers of history and are monuments that embody a special meaning in the nation’s collective and individual experiences.”

Glass Rotunda: Story of the Forest and Singapore, Very Old Tree at the National Museum of Singapore is free for Singaporeans and PRs. More information here.

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