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MUR 003 | ROBERT ZHAO + JOHN TUNG || An Attempt at Exhausting a Tree [Mangrove]


The project "An Attempt at Exhausting a Tree (Mangrove)" examined a single mangrove tree, shifting from studying nature on a large scale to a detailed look at an individual tree and its vital role in a network of dependent organisms. 


The artists' goal, as suggested by its title, was exhaustive. However, instead of focusing on the economic value of exploiting timber for example, it aimed to uncover some of the ecological values using non-invasive methods. Starting with a methodology incorporating maps, photography, and documents, Robert and John undertook a rapid research and creative exploration of the mangrove. From Nagura bay to Ibaruma port, their comprehensive approach delved into various aspects of the mangrove, offering valuable insights and contributing to a deeper understanding of this unique ecosystem.


The choice to embark on the project at Ma Umi Residencies in Ishigaki – as opposed to starting the study within Singapore/Southeast Asia itself, where concentrations are higher, was based on the Ryukyu Islands' representation as the "closest outlier" in the plant's distribution range to the project's collaborating country. This choice was like commencing from a single starting point. The devotion of time, effort and resources to studying a single tree emphasised the interest in the individual, as opposed to the collective species.

The residency was also motivated by recent captivation in natural spaces within the increasingly urbanised landscapes of Asia. These spaces, considered "new wilderness," depict a complex coexistence of nature and concrete, the human impact on the ecosystems. John and Robert explored many areas where the boundaries between nature and urbanisation were unclear, along or under bridges, with pockets of wilderness that existed alongside man-made structures.


Installing remote motion and heat-sensing cameras triggered by movement enabled them to collect documentation without any human presence. Over the period of the residency, these cameras were tended to on a daily basis in order to review collected footage as well as equipment maintenance. After conducting various tests, they decided to focus on a small mangrove tree situated down the road, where it intersects with the stream from the Oura reservoir. They documented that this intertidal zone attracted a variety of wildlife, including insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals.

The highly sensitive cameras captures all phenomena related to the space, such as rain, fluttering leaves, animals in motion, or a moth flying at night. In this context, the process could compared to the tree documenting itself. Unlike the conventional methods through which humans measure ecological phenomena, the project was focused on a poetic approach rather than scientific measurement. It aimed to capture and share with our community the forest's rhythms, sensualities, and vitalities.

John Z. W. Tung, an independent curator and exhibition-maker, previously served as Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum from 2015 to 2020. During his tenure, he curated and co-curated 9 exhibitions, and also acted as co-curator for the Singapore Biennale 2016, ‘An Atlas of Mirrors’, and the Singapore Biennale 2019, ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’. Notably, three of the artwork commissions he curated for the biennales were finalists for the Benesse Prize, with one winning the prestigious award as an independent curator.


John has taken on various roles, such as Festival Curator for the 7th & 8th Singapore International Photography Festival in 2020 and 2022, Associate Curator for the Open House programme titled “For the House; Against the House” in 2021, 2022, and 2023, and the Curator of the inaugural exhibition that delves into the significance of the Singaporean artist initiative.

Robert Zhao, a Singaporean artist with an interdisciplinary approach, has gained global recognition for his exhibitions in international biennales and institutions. His artistic practice delves into the intricate connections between nature and culture. Over the last eight years, He has focused on the pressing subject of the Anthropocene within the Singaporean context, examining the significance of secondary forests as crucial spaces for rejuvenation and renewal. 


Some of his solo exhibitions include “Christmas Land, Naturally” at ShanghART, Singapore (2017), “The Nature Collector” at ShanghART, Shanghai (2015), “A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World” at Primo Marella Gallery, Milan (2014), “The Last Thing You See” at 2902 Gallery, Singapore (2014), and “Flies Prefer Yellow” at Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco (2014). Robert will represent the Singapore Pavilion at the 60th International Art Exhibition in 2024.

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