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What Lies Between: Zen Teh on Interdisciplinary Collaborations and Spaces for Imagination

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On a rainy Saturday morning, I stumble into artist Zen Teh’s Telok Kurau studio. Scattered around the studio are volcanic rocks, marble fragments, aluminium sheets, wood offcuts; test prints and sample materials which hang from the ceiling; books and printed academic papers that spill out of her bookshelf. Despite the abundance of objects, an airy wind floats through the large windows of her studio – there’s a laidback and breezy casualness to our encounter as we chat over a pot of hot genmaicha tea.

Although it’s the first time I’m meeting her, she’s by no means a newcomer to the art scene – in fact the multidisciplinary artist has just been conferred the Young Artist Award, Singapore’s highest award for young art practitioners aged 35 years and below. It’s a recognition of her hard work and artistic practice, and in such a context, our meeting seems almost overdue.

Over the past decade, Zen’s works have taken on forms as various as manipulated photo-composites to multi-sensory installations and interdisciplinary collaborations with scientists. Despite the range of mediums she employs, it’s pretty easy to identify one of Zen’s works – they have a strong visual sensibility and often harness images of natural landscapes juxtaposed with the materiality of sculptural forms. They simultaneously draw your gaze into their depths yet elude superficial scrutiny. And most importantly, perhaps, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface that meets the eye.

Singapore Landscape Painting (2012) coalesces shots of various nature reserves in Singapore in the style of a Song Dynasty landscape painting – a commentary on the illusion of the ‘natural’.

I took this opportunity to learn more about Zen’s approach to artistic research, her interest in interdisciplinary collaborations (and its struggles!) and what drives her to keep making art.

Congratulations on receiving the Young Artist Award! Perhaps I can start by asking you about your journey as an artist – very generally, how did you get started?  

Since young, I’ve always been really interested in the visual qualities of our surroundings, and a bit of a karang guni (rubbish collector) because of it. Initially my family members would be like, “aiyah, why you pick this up?” For example, just last night I picked up a remnant of a roof from a temple that’s just in front of my house which is being torn down.

I think quite a lot of my practice is centred around materials – the significance that they possess to me personally as well as their connotations, associations and functions in society. I juxtapose this with images in order to draw out certain questions and complexities about the issues I seek to address.

For example, the interplay between photographs of contested forests and volcanic rocks embedded with thousands of years of history opens up my investigation into the history and rapid urbanisation of a site in Indonesia.

As you know, artistic research is often rigorous, process-driven and there’s usually a long period of development. At the same time, the outcome is often open-ended and takes on various expressions. I’m curious to find out, what does a research-based artistic practice mean to you?

Research-based practice, to me, is one in which the research must be able to shape or affect the decision-making process of the artistic exploration. Otherwise, you are creating research to justify your work. Which comes first? And what roles do the research approach, process, and outcomes play in affecting the artwork?

A research-based practice, for me in the past five or six years, has also been about collaborating with friends from different disciplines. My practice is centred around looking at our relationship with nature. And often these scenarios are quite complex. They highlight certain aspects of the environment and society, and how it informs and affects daily life. Often, working with other collaborators plays an important role in expanding my understanding and drawing out the larger implications of these issues beyond what we may see on the surface, or what I can perceive as an individual.

For example, I worked with Dr Chua Siew Chin from NUS for Mirror of Water (2019), where the stimulus was my personal encounter with oil pollution along a canal – not a fully scientific starting point. But it triggered a response from her perspective as a freshwater biologist to better understand the far-ranging effects of water pollution.

Zen Teh’s Mirror of Water (2019) at the Esplanade Jendela Gallery is an installation comprising of photographic sculptures and a single-channel video of oil deposits swirling in water. Mirror of Water was made in collaboration with ecologist Dr Chua Siew Chin of National University of Singapore (NUS), investigating the ecological implications of water pollution in Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist.

On the topic of collaboration, you’ve worked with scientists on multiple occasions – most recently, with Dr Ching Jianhong from Duke-NUS for A Familiar Forest (2021-22). Why is working in an interdisciplinary manner important to you, and what struggles did you face in the process?

Actually, interdisciplinary practice is part of my current ongoing research for my Master of Arts (Research) at NTU. Through this, I’m looking at the process and complexities of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the idea of a living inquiry. We tend to create segregations, such as the divide between art and science – but in fact they’re actually quite similar, and can even have complementary relationships. So in my research, I’m working on developing approaches for learning and interdisciplinary collaborations, which I find arise from my practice and personal struggles as an educator.

Zen Teh’s A Familiar Forest #2 (2021), an experiential installation featuring synthetic sound of nature, synthetic scent of forest, and photographic prints on fabric. Runs from January 2021 – May 2022 at the Hygge Lee Wee Nam Library, Nanyang Technological University Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist.

The idea of interdisciplinary – there are so many jargon words out there, and their meaning shifts depending on which researcher writes about it. For example, the term ‘interdisciplinary’ versus ‘crossdisciplinary’, ‘transdisciplinary’ and so on. My first collaboration with Dr Ching from Duke-NUS – Sensing States: Healing Spaces (2015), part of The Substation’s Art and Science Open Call at ArtScience Museum – had its own struggles.

How do we meaningfully integrate art and science, and what would that mean? Quite often, art is either a tool for data representation, or science serves to justify a certain kind of art-making ­– such that one is subservient to the other. How do we then negotiate a deeper level of integration? That first collaboration actually functioned in a crossdisciplinary manner, in that the two disciplines were placed side by side to each other rather than influencing the creation of new insights. But looking back now, it marked the first collaboration which opened up my approach to working more extensively across disciplines.

As my collaboration with Dr Ching grew, we developed a better understanding of how each other works, and a shared idea of what integration should be across disciplines. This led to A Familiar Forest (2021-22), in which all the texts were co-written, and much of the decision-making was jointly made. So those negotiations shaped A Familiar Forest. In this work, you can’t easily separate the art from the science, so for us, it represents a strong integration at this juncture.

We’re currently developing ideas for a new work – we realised that although we might have had a successful collaboration before, it doesn’t mean the next one is going to be any easier. However, we’re on better ground now – we have some synergies of working, and we have the common understanding of the importance of art and science coming together in an integrated way, so that neither is subservient to the other.

Research materials from Zen’s residency in Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, Bandung in 2019, regarding the state of unchecked rapid development in Northern Bandung. During her residency, she worked with geologists and anthropologists on the ground, and interviewed historians and environmental groups.

I wanted to also speak a bit about the visual sensibility of your works, because even though the issues you tackle often stem from personal encounters or relate to the social and the human, your aesthetic choices tend toward strong geometric forms, minimalist and monochromatic expressions. Is there a reason why you favour these expressions?

For me, abstraction provides space for imagination. My photographs are abstracted because they are often layered collages that represent the complexities of these encounters and research. Because they are constructed, they also harness the imagination to prompt the viewer to work through these understandings.

I don’t want viewers to be closed off from that experience. Rather than the photographic element taking on the role of reportage, which evokes a different kind of engagement with viewers, I think that inviting people to engage with the work through their imagination can lead them to be more involved with the work.

In my practice, it’s always important that it comes in on a human level. It’s very easy to talk about environmental or political issues by crunching numbers, but what do they actually mean to people like you and I? So my approach seeks to prompt viewers to respond to my works in their own ways. It engages their emotions, their memories and their thoughts, and these points of personal connections can hopefully activate some level of positive response or actions towards these issues.

Zen Teh, Consciousness, from The Imperative Landscape (2014). Photographic sculpture in response to the state of the land in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Image courtesy of the artist.

Lastly, I’m sure you get this question a lot, but how do you juggle your art practice, working as an educator and doing your Masters in Research?

Yeah, it’s been challenging. It’s been almost 10 years that I’ve been teaching full-time – I only stopped my full-time teaching when I started my Masters. I’ve had to do a lot of convincing and negotiation. Say you’re a teacher and you’re an artist, your supervisor might ask, “So are you a teacher first, or an artist first?” And I say, “Does it matter?” Because aren’t these roles complementary in art education? As your art practice evolves, it should help your teaching. But there’s always this question of, so how do you divide your time? Do you do more teaching or more art? There’s this idea of seeing the practice as the other, which makes it tough to negotiate.

But I would make sense of this by understanding how everything feeds back into one another. I just take them holistically as experiences that shape me. I always try to find motivation – I’m generally a person who gets easily excited and always very curious. I often have a sketchbook with me and I’d jot random ideas as I’m walking, and these then become things I work on, and I would make sure to create milestones for myself. By milestones, I mean exhibition deadlines, deadlines for things to be submitted [laughs]. So that’s how I keep myself in check, and I enjoy that; I’ve been doing that for ten years and it works for me.

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If you’d like to bring home a piece of Zen’s art, our buddies at SEED The Art Space have a selection of her works available in our Christmas showcase this coming weekend!

Zen’s A Familiar Forest is on view until May 2022 at NTU’s Lee Wee Nam Library (50 Nanyang Avenue, North Spine 3, Level 5).

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

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