This research installation consists of findings from Zhao’s extensive engagement with the history, botany, and zoology of the forest surrounding the Gillman Barracks art precinct for over five years. It was first presented and housed within a large-scale architectural art installation of the same name presented in 2022, conceptualised by Robert Zhao & architect Randy Chan, and curated by John Tung. Devoted to research on the secondary forest surrounding the Gillman Barracks precinct, the Institute—that intervenes into existing pedestrian infrastructure—is accompanied by several large-scale prints of fauna installed in its vicinity, exposing visitors to the different realities of the area.
The project draws inspiration from, and pays close attention to an ancient tributary of Berlayer Creek, that courses through the forested areas of the barracks within an earshot distance from the institute. Berlayer Creek, one of two remaining mangrove swamps located in the south of Mainland Singapore, possesses the longest history of urbanisation amongst all mangrove swamps in Singapore, having been occupied since the 1820s. Now a refuge for numerous species of migratory birds and other animals, the recognition of this humble stream running through the forests of Gillman Barracks as one of its tributaries—predating settlement, colonisation, and urbanisation—prompts an acute awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the perceived ‘ecological pockets’ that we encounter within our built environments.
As an ongoing study of the enmeshment and impact of human activities on surrounding ecologies, The Forest Institute emerges as an allegory of humanity’s limited understanding of our natural surroundings. Beyond offering a glimpse at the beauty and mysteries that nature has to offer, the artwork pre-empts us on what we stand to lose.