I was drawn to Singaporean photographer Erica Lai’s atmospheric photographs that pose questions about territory, ownership, surveillance and place. Lai is a photography lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine arts in Singapore and her work is often concerned with spatial tensions that emerge from the developing and expanding city, alongside concurrent concerns around land and ownership of various spaces. 

Sharmila Wood (SW): What is your preferred medium and why?
Erica Lai (EL): I am trained as a painter, but have been working with photography for the bulk of my practice. I started out by being attracted to the immediacy of the medium, both pictorially and in process. By this, I mean that the photographic image can be understood in a very democratic way; but it is also incredibly veiled. The process of looking at and making of a painting- is to me, like a courtship of sorts. But a photograph lends itself to be understood twice – once, immediately for what appears, and the second for what it suggests.

SW: Can you tell me how your projects examine spatial territories and ownership?
EL: My projects review places that are deemed safe and secure - these range from ornamental greenery to tourist destinations. The nature of these spaces compels individuals to act in a territorial manner, either as a measure for safeguarding, or restriction. The spaces themselves are sometimes defined by the very act of territorial reclamation. In the project "The Observatory", I photographed viewing towers in tourist locations around the world. These towers essentially dictate an 'ideal' vantage point from which a place is to be visualised many times over; an incarnation of the controlled gaze. What appears as an extension of armchair tourism also suggests that this phenomena stems from desires of personal reclamation and power. Where once the human figure served to emphasise the expanse of the landscape before him/ her; at the viewing tower - safety barriers and seeing devices such as binoculars, now reduce the landscape to a mere spectacle, a sight for consumption. The viewer (of the photographs) is placed before a scene whose spatial dimension is on the verge of collapsing into flat abstraction. The view is gone, and the act of surveillance and proximity takes over, as the viewer sees nothing beyond the binoculars and railings that protect and define their experience. This loss of historical and geographical bearings (the locations are not revealed) accentuates the complex politics behind how a view is constructed and directed.

"The Gardens" project is a play on the term Garden City - a successful campaign from the 1970's tourism bureau to attract foreign investors to Singapore. Greenery exists everywhere in Singapore; however there lies a degree of moderation regarding how one may experience the natural landscape here, and a constant negotiation between feelings of unity with nature, and a sense of isolation from it. I photographed the tiny strips of roadside foliage that line our highways and main streets, and they are depicted in ways that reference compositionally and tonally- the Flemish landscape paintings from the 1700s. In these photographs, the landscapes appear untainted and stretch on endlessly. But in reality, these territories are mere ideological placeholders that span no more than 100 metres, before public housing and subway tracks emerge.

SW: What do you consider as the tensions between nature and man in Singapore?
EL: Singapore has a tense relationship with nature, as many land-strapped cities do. But I suppose the difference is that nature is a significant part of our national identity and branding. It is also clear to anyone who visits, that greenery is everywhere here. We had even reclaimed land to create a garden where plants from all over the world, temperate or otherwise, can grow and be on show all year round. However, the nature that Singaporeans understand and enjoy are simply gardens – complete with bins that empty out miraculously every night, and clear signs with rules of usage. Ask a local, and they will tell you that few will venture into the few truly unpruned pockets of nature in the outskirts of this city. These areas of nature are rarely mentioned, and if so, only in the evening news when vice or murderous activities were reported to have occurred. These spaces are thought of as dangerous, unpredictable, illegal harbours.

SW: Is it possible for you to tell me about how you've worked in a participatory way for The Old Man and The Sea project? Will you work collaboratively in the future, and how does it change your approach to making artwork?
EL: In “Old Man and the Sea”, I worked with about a hundred students (aged 13-15) from four middle schools that are built entirely on reclaimed parcels of land around Singapore. My initial interest was to examine how these young people – at their ideologically-formative stage in their lives, understood or interacted with the ‘imaginary’ land that they stand on every day.   I was interested in how they can ponder and imagine the futures of these reclamation activities – the constant extension into other territories (because enough is never enough). In an eight month period, we went through site visits to study the history of reclamation in Singapore, held creative writing workshops that referenced Hemingway’s novel of the same name, photographed at the peripheries of the island, and also made individualised glass terrariums based on the stories they invented. Before framing the final prints, the students were also invited to inscribe their stories by hand on their portraits. I currently have plans to carry this work onwards with other communities, specifically in smaller cities/ townships with territorial complexities.

Erica Lai, The Viewing Tower, The Observatory Series,  SIPF, Creative Commons 

Erica Lai, The Viewing Tower, The Observatory Series,  SIPF, Creative Commons