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Look-See: Connecting with Life through Chok Si Xuan’s VINES

Standing across from Sultan Gate Park amidst the usual urban hustle and bustle in the scorching tropical heat, I can understand how one might easily overlook what Singaporean tech-artist Chok Si Xuan wants us to deliberately notice. In fact, when I first visited the work, I walked straight past it in my absentminded rush to arrive. And this oversight is precisely what is questioned in Chok’s newest work VINES (2024) for the OH! Kampong Gelam Art Walk, organised by OH! Open House. As a sculptor and installation artist, Chok explores how technological and physiological systems interact and relate to each other. Through VINES she re-introduces us to our surroundings via the use of technology, drawing attention to our overlooking or “un-seeing.” 

Installation view of Chok Si Xuan’s VINES (2024). Image courtesy of Chok Si Xuan.

Observing the archaeological remains of what used to be Pondok Java, a cultural lodging for the Javanese community until its final demolition in 2003, I feel firstly … confusion. What are we actually looking at, or for? I let my eyes wander across the site and spot a solar panel, the work’s power system, wedged within a mix of botanical and construction debris. It is too glossy to fully blend into the earthy chaos of what was once the extensive prop root system of a Banyan tree, now keeping the fragments of Pondok Java’s gate intact. Once my eyes have adjusted to the landslide of earth interspersed with cut trunks, broken concrete slabs, and sprouting weeds, I start to see. 

Installation view of VINES. Images by author unless stated otherwise.

What I took to be just another metal scrap is actually the stealthy steel structure of Chok’s  work. Now that I know what I am looking for, I can see it everywhere. Weaving in and out  of the rubble in a mimicry of aerial Banyan tree roots, VINES forms an arterial network between the ruins of Pondok Java’s two gate posts. I move closer to inspect where the steel lines lead, visually tracing the coiled electrical wire wrapping around the structure, the occasional critter scuttling about, and the intermittent welding scars where the metal branches off into more extensions. Just above a scar I make out one of the work’s coin-sized atomiser plates, releasing a curling stream of water vapour into the ambient surroundings, accompanied by the soft hissing sound of water becoming air.  

Wires in VINES.
An atomiser plate lets off water vapour. Image courtesy of Chok Si Xuan.

Who of us has been confronted with a bare atomiser plate lately? It is actually a common component in the humidifiers and diffusers we encounter on a daily basis. Chok’s work re-contextualises these technological elements for us, inviting us to re-discover the  everyday. It is easy to attribute value to artworks based on aesthetics that we’re used to. After all, familiarity offers the comfort of the known. When a work such as VINES challenges us with its unfamiliar appearance and complexity, it allows us to form new pathways for understanding, feeling, and seeing not only art, but also life. It might initially confuse us. Or disorient us. Or even frustrate us. But in the process of questioning what we see, how we feel, or even why we are having such strong reactions, we discover the world and ourselves. And this is where the work begins. Encouraging us to enjoy our perplexity as we gradually address and dismantle it.

An atomiser plate used in VINES

As my eyes dart back and forth between the vapour intervals of the dispersed atomisers, I also take in the entire scene before me, focusing on the micro and macro scales VINES evokes. The work makes me pause. Take time for the act of seeing. Not only the work itself, but its surrounding context and commotion. The interconnection of ants, vines, people, communities, buildings, clouds, the environment. I see not only what is in front of me now, but what remains of what used to be, and what might become in the future. I find myself entangled within a larger picture of time and place. Returning to the initial question of what I am actually looking at, or for, Chok’s work suggests that what we might all be seeking is to actually see. 

VINES in its Kampong Gelam site.
VINES in its Kampong Gelam site. Image courtesy of Chok Si Xuan.

(Author’s Note: When I went back to visit the site a day later, I was shocked to find it fenced in by construction barriers. Pondok Java’s right gate post had already been converted into a pile of broken bricks, with construction workers further dismantling history into mineral  fragments. Chok’s work was nowhere to be seen. When I talked to the artist about this incident, she mentioned that there had been communication errors between different parties as to the site’s demolition date. The accidental or purposeful removal of artwork happens relatively frequently within the arts—but less frequent is the removal of the site itself. Faced with this significant alteration, Chok re-installed VINES, adapting it to its new circumstances. Re-bending, re-wiring, re-seeing the site. Indeed, this incident underlines just how interconnected we truly are. It shows us how we can relate to crumbled stones, phantom communities, and ideas of progress in new ways, once we begin to look for them.)


OH! Kampong Gelam: “Palimpsest” art walks take place on weekends till 12 May 2024, with tickets at $35 per person (bundle and student discounts apply). Find out more at, and book tickets via Klook.

Header image: Installation view of VINES.

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