Being an environmental artist who lives in a fully urbanised island-state is a reality that nature-loving and plant-powered Zen Teh thrives off of. The 34-year-old credits her insatiable curiosity towards Mother Nature to turning vegetarian at age 14, but it’s clear that her courage to engage with the multiple disciplines which study her muse fuels her practice and the pursuit of further education. With a sense of ease and calm true to her name, Teh shares what it means to make art that explores science, the beauty of multidisciplinary collaborations and a still deepening relationship with the environment, moving forward.
ESQUIRE: How is it like making art with scientists?
ZEN TEH: It is very interesting. I feel like their brains are wired differently. Artists draw connections, reflect and ask critical questions about culture, emotion and society because we are trained to see different aspects of our being as interconnected. And many times the outcome of this is intangible. While the field of science is becoming more interdisciplinary, there are still hypotheses or outcomes scientists need to produce to get things like grants, so they prefer a more practical and targeted application.
When it comes to the interaction of art and science, I think my role is about helping scientists understand a way of working that does not, for instance, immediately lead to a new cure of a disease. I guess the term is ‘worlding’—the perception of the world and how we shape those perceptions through the way we tie and draw connections. It is not that their pragmatic approach is not good; it’s just that it works well within a certain context. Collaborations are conversations after all, and their specialised focus on environmental topics and niche observations help me dive deeper into my art making too.
ESQ: But how do you reconcile the differences in working style?
TEH: I guess it takes time to build synergy and trust. The core team for my upcoming collaborative work is made up of a curator, myself, an exhibition designer and three interns—two in architecture and one in fine art. And then, of course, Dr Ching [Jianhong], the scientist. (Laughs) It can be overwhelming, but the topic at hand and connecting with people from other fields help to balance this art-versus-science situation.
But when you think about interdisciplinary practices as a contamination of formal training or a person’s natural disposition towards working style, they would typically struggle. Slightly. So I think it is very important to find collaborators who are open-minded, even for the artist.
You cannot insist on your ways, because our worldview may lack in-depth as compared to how they understand things at the microscopic level. There are challenges, but those challenges can be seen as opportunities. It takes a lot to have these conversations, but we should not be afraid to throw things out there.
ESQ: The immersive exhibition A Familiar Forest is presented with many mediums as many of your other projects. Why is multimedia so prominent in your portfolio?
TEH: I typically don’t know what I am going to create until the project comes or until I know when I can respond to some of the findings of my research. So it all depends. A Familiar Forest called for multimedia and an interdisciplinary approach because the topic at hand was complex, and we knew that we wanted to allow people to understand through experience because it is dry to just read the science. (Laughs) Or in the arts, if you just put up a beautiful painting or something static for this work. Nothing against them; it is just harder to explain the messages behind them.
A student who frequents the [exhibition] every week shared that he spends hours a time there because he leaves feeling rejuvenated. The environmental historian we are working with for Infectious Collaborations also visited the space, and said that his breathing actually deepened after standing there for awhile. It is quite strange to feel soothed by an entirely constructed space where nothing is real—the images are of urban greenery, the ‘natural’ soundscape is made of artificial sounds, and the scent is entirely concocted. But this is how we get people to think critically; the art and science kind of meet through the experience that we provide for people. So not only should A Familiar Forest be soothing, it should also lead them to question and think about why it is so, most importantly raising their awareness of the environment.
ESQ : You deal with a lot of Singapore-centric topics in your work, but you have also done residencies in Chiang Rai and Bandung. How is making art overseas different?
TEH: There’s definitely a different energy; it is more lively. There is less red tape (laughs while sharing a knowing squint), more space and different stimuli to respond to. Production costs too. But the one thing that has been consistent throughout is being site-specific and research-based. I find it very important to allow different stimuli to activate different parts of my practice because only then can I evolve.
When I work at different scales, it pushes the complexity of not just the technical aspect of my work but also my understanding of different environmental issues. This in turn opens up different avenues of collaboration. These issues may be localised, but countries are demarcated by lines that don’t actually exist in the environment. The environment here is also the environment there, one and the same.
ESQ: Why did you decide to be both educator and artist at the same time?
TEH: I guess they are quite complementary, even when the system doesn’t think so. But I think it is getting better. Being an educator helps me to understand the concept of coexistence in different demographics, bouncing ideas off students and colleagues from different fields. It helps to continuously have ongoing dialogues. As an educator, the student is usually downloading stuff from you, but when you ask them questions, it in turn also lets you ask those questions to yourself. Let that reflection take place so you know which are the areas you want to find out about more.
It is also a joy to find out about these questions with students, especially when you see from their point of view. Because they are exposed to different things [and] have different backgrounds [as well as] worldviews—those are also really valuable. But I believe it isn’t just students that have a lot to share, different people have different points of view worth sharing too. Sometimes I will also talk to my mum about what she thinks about certain issues and I get fresh perspectives from her.
ESQ: Finally, what is one message that you want audiences to take away from your work?
TEH: Stay curious, and remember to think critically about yourself and your relationship with the world. We are constantly bombarded with information and distractions, and the pandemic is proof that things can evolve so quickly nowadays. So, I hope my work provides a space for people to slow down and reflect on how they impact the world as individuals—this impact is often larger than we think.
Infectious Collaborations by Zen Teh and Dr Ching Jianhong opens at Jurong Lake Gardens until 27 April 2022. More of Teh’s work can be found at here.