Sea You in Venice

Published on 28 April 2015

Singapore stories — themed on the sea — make their way to the 56th Venice Biennale.


The Venetians were seafaring merchants, traders and artists who explored worlds beyond their safe lagoons. Even back in 1596 England, William Shakespeare immortalised them in his classic play, The Merchant of Venice.

Venice — with its gondolas, intricate network of canals and picturesque bridges — is an iconic city built on lagoons and meandering waterways. Not unlike our little island in the sun: a historical fishing village and port city, shaped by the ebb and flow of the sea.

So it seems almost apt that the artistic work that will represent Singapore at the 56th Venice Biennale — a premier international contemporary art event — is themed after the sea.


Singapore’s entry, SEA STATE, is a nine-part project by visual artist and former Olympic sailor, Charles Lim.

As a professional sailor, Lim’s experience is rooted in an intimate engagement with the natural world. “As an artist, I wanted to create a situation where I could work with the sea in a more intimate way,” shares Lim, who graduated with a Fine Art degree at London’s Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in 2001.

Conceived in 2005, the project’s structure is inspired by the World Meteorological Organization’s code for measuring sea conditions, which categorises the varying states from calm to moderate to the phenomenal, on a scale of 0 to 9.

“From the inception of the work, I knew it would be 10 states, 0 to 9. I always wanted it to take some time to grow and expand,” Lim discloses, adding that SEA STATE comprises film, photography and archival material related to Singapore’s relationship with the sea.

In its 10-year evolution, SEA STATE has been widely exhibited in various forms to critical acclaim — from biennales in Shanghai (2008), Singapore (2011) and Osaka (2013) to international film festivals in Rotterdam, Tribeca and Edinburgh. Lim’s short film, All the Lines Flow Out, also premiered at the 68th Venice Film Festival, and garnered a Special Mention Award.

“For this Venice Biennale, I chose to expand on SEA STATE, partly based on the fact that there’s a connection between Venice as a historical sea state and Singapore as kind of a burgeoning one since the 19th century. It will be the culmination of this series,”
says Lim.

THROUGH THE LENS Visual artist and former Olympic sailor Charles Lim (above and below, right) has a deep passion for the sea. SEA STATE 6: capsize, 2015. Single-channel HD digital video, c.7min. PHOTO  Courtesy of the artist & Future Perfect, Singapore
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE What if we inverted our perceptions of land and sea in Singapore? SEA STATE 8: THE GRID (detail), 2014, prepared GSP1 chart, published by Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (2014).  PHOTO  Courtesy of the artist & Future Perfect, Singapore


Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, curator of the Singapore Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale and also a curator with the National Gallery Singapore, contextualises Lim’s work and its contribution to Singapore contemporary art.

“I see SEA STATE as one of the most significant body of works to come out from the recent Singapore art scene, not only because of its content, but also because it allows us to trace Charles’ maturing practice,” observes Shabbir. “My curatorial position is to present Charles not just within the recent history of Singapore art, but a much larger global art history.”

Dr Eugene Tan, Director of the National Gallery Singapore and co-chair of the commissioning panel set up by the National Arts Council, shares why Lim and Shabbir’s proposal was selected. “Their proposal explores issues such as the environment and territorial borders, and demonstrates how artists can speak to international audiences while engaging with issues that are specific and locally determined.

“As such, SEA STATE possesses the intellectual and artistic conditions for stimulating artistic discourse and interest in contemporary art practice in Singapore.”

MANY WAYS, ONE STORY  SEA STATE tells a compelling story of the sea in multimedia.  SEA STATE 6: phase 1, 2015. Single-channel HD digital video, c.7min.


2015 marks Singapore’s seventh participation in the Venice Biennale. The official launch of the Singapore Pavilion will take place on 6 May at the newly restored Sale d’Armi building at the Arsenale.

Visitors to the Pavilion can expect a multi-sensorial experience encompassing videos, maps, a buoy installation and a large-scale sculpture work called ‘Inversion’ based on the mapping of Singapore’s sea floor.

A volume of specially commissioned essays from writers such as Prasenjit Duara, Ute Meta Bauer, Kevin Chua and Anselm Franke will also be published in tandem with the exhibition.

In addition, the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore will hold a symposium entitled ‘The Geopolitical and the Biophysical: A Structured Conversation on Art and Southeast Asia in Context’ at Venice’s Palazzo Franchetti on 9 May.

Of course, the exhibition itself remains the highlight of the Singapore Pavilion. “The most challenging aspect of the installation is resisting the temptation to darken the space. We want to leave it ‘open’ so as to allow a discussion between Charles’ SEA STATE artworks and the space outside — that is, Venice the historical sea state,” Shabbir explains.

“The project hopes to maintain a certain level of dexterity, so that even without forcing explicit connections, Singapore and Venice will meet through the sea itself.”

The Venice Biennale runs from 9 May to 22 November in Venice, Italy. The Sea State exhibition will be back in Singapore at the end of 2016. For more on Lim’s body of work, visit

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