Five Trees Make a Forest has recently opened at the NUS Museum and brings to the public artistic approaches in the portrayal of tropical landscapes. The exhibition combines Donna Ong’s collection of antique lithographs with NUS Museum’s selected nineteenth-century watercolors made by Charles Dyce, as well as Ong’s installation that gives the name to the show.
As in many contemporary art exhibitions, the theme and research behind the show is much more complex and dense than the exhibition itself displays. In questioning the way artists have been representing landscapes since the nineteenth century, Five Trees Make a Forest invites us to reflect upon artistic choices and its role as truthful documentation through history.
Ong’s installation is a modern interpretation of the nineteenth-century dichotomy between reality and representation that the entire exhibition reflects upon. In her installation, she follows instructions on a children’s book on how to create a forest. Using paper cutouts she builds a scale model of a forest, following the book’s premise that using a few different types of trees/plants, you would be able to ‘make’ a forest. According to Ong, ‘the instructions are so easy and straightforward that even a kid can follow’ and that somehow made an impact on her and can be related to her research for ‘texts and visual examples from a variety of sources which exemplify or are informed by such conventions [stereotypes]’.
Reflecting on these rules and guidelines on how to represent tropical landscapes the exhibition recollects a time when information was not as pervasive as it is today; therefore, it was necessary to trust artistic representations as accurate. After all, these artists were the ones on-site, representing the landscape. They were the eyes of the public in the nineteenth century, and their works were reproduced in books and maps, being mainly accessible to elite. Evidently, a lot got lost in this process of ‘translation’ making the boundaries between reality and representation fuzzier, although not always questioned. As mentioned by Simone Shu-Yeng Chung in the exhibition’s catalogue “…Such intended misalignments with the source inevitably cast doubts into the validity of the paintings as accurate records of the past.”
The exhibition is placed in the middle of the museum’s archaeological collection, working almost like a little oasis amid all the historical artifacts. Although small, the show needs time to be fully absorbed and the viewer needs to be willing to discover the clues that relate one artwork with another. If given a chance to be looked at and appreciated, the works in the exhibition will unfold interesting curiosities, such as the little numbers floating in the lithographs that try to organize and categorize the ‘forest,’ almost as an attempt to systematize the natural chaos. Another example is in the Charles Dyce watercolors that, if looked at carefully, one will be able to find micro scale human figures within, which give to the landscape a sense of grandeur.
In presenting these colonial views, the exhibition reminded me of the novel Baudolino (2002) by the late Umberto Eco. In the book, the manipulative central character says: ‘Yes, I know, it’s not the truth, but in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges.’ However, in the case of Five Trees Make a Forest, Donna Ong is not only offering a critique of these colonial views, but she is also inviting us to acknowledge these little truths, to be able to reflect more critically on the potential and stereotypical greater truth that emerged.
Five Trees Make a Forest
11 March – 4 September 2016
Christine Veras is a maker who enjoys experiencing and creating art, devices and texts. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. on ‘Animated Installations’ at the School of Art, Design and Media in NTU.