Ang Song Nian’s latest solo exhibition at DECK seems particularly appropriate within the context of Singapore, the self-styled Garden City, whose extensive greenery was born not of some respectful consideration for nature, but rather political and economic considerations of greater immediacy. Of course, control and influence don’t just flow in one direction—hence the term “topping from the bottom.” This feedback loop consisting of the engineered environment’s influence over its erstwhile engineers is the central focus of the show: a suitable subject, it would seem, for an artist who suffers from ataxophobia (fear of disorder or chaos).
Ang’s works find themselves dispersed amongst DECK’S interconnected cargo containers, the industrial ephemerality and maze-like structure of which lends a surprisingly appropriate backdrop to the works—the surfaces creak and shift ever so slightly as one wends through the branching paths of the exhibition. As a whole, the show takes as its point of departure a particular plant tended by Ang’s father, known locally as the iron tree (Dracaena fragrans “Massangeana”). As part of his father’s personal garden on their apartment’s balcony—a dense profusion of potted plants and associated décor Ang refers to as “the forest”—it seems to represent the influence his father’s private horticultural pastime has exerted on his practice.
Paradoxically, this may be the last element of the show the viewer encounters, tucked away on the uppermost gallery: the plant itself, a short explanatory text, and a life-size print of his father’s garden stand in stark contrast to the space’s plain surroundings. A chamber of spartan contemplation, if you will, to consider the influence of Ang’s past on this body of work.
The highlight of the show is How the Forest Follows Me Around (2015), a wall-to-wall installation of 800 potted iron tree saplings. Arrayed in a pyramidal, rectilinear formation, the installation creates tension between the chaos of organic growth and development’s tendency to impose order on the world. Regardless of the sheer order of the pots’ arrangement, the plants do not all stand entirely straight up, with the additional variation in their leaves and branches lending more subtle disorder to the overall pattern.
This theme is also explored in the other series on show, particularly the miniature photography of The Perfect Pattern (2015), in which tiny, artificial potted plants are set amidst a landscape of otherwise identical plants—a counterpoint to the photographed landscape of As It Grows Older & Wiser (2015). Overall, “A Tree With Too Many Branches” provides a relatable lens through which the viewer can come to grips with the broader, contested notion of the anthropocene, both through Singapore the Garden City—with its the reputation for disciplined utilitarianism—as a landscape of control, and Ang’s upbringing and personal experience of ataxophobia.