Mulberry tree bark pounded out onto canvas, marble vessels re-imagined as fungi and bacteria, forest leaves sculpted from paper pulp—Han Sai Por’s works are populated by a menagerie that suggests we could look at nature as if it were art. Born in Singapore in 1943, the artist grew up in the Changi area, surrounded by hills, beaches, animals, birds, and overgrown greenery. For her, nature is the irrefutable, ultimate source of all things, including artistic expression.
Han’s current solo exhibition, “The Forest and Its Soul” (on view through May 22, 2022), opens with what looks like a slim floor lamp with a big head. Blue Fruit (2022), shown alongside an enigmatic handmade paper relief of mulberry leaves, serves as the prelude to the show’s theme of the spirit of nature.
Though Han is best known as a sculptor, her drawings of dark, terrifying forests, which include trees heated by flames and tangled woods of gnarled and twisted bushes, are compelling works of art in themselves. In the “Dark Forest” and “Inner Forest through the Artist’s Eyes” series (both 2022), the trees have mouths, and the forest seems to resound with cries of lamentation, mixed with the bellowing of opposing winds on which spirits of flowers, twigs, leaves, and stones are carried. Looking closer, Han’s emphasis on contour and the solidity of the forms—rendered in inky blacks and thick white highlights—gives these anthropomorphic trees a very sculptural quality.
Han’s sculptures often incorporate stone, though she has also worked with glass, metals, paper, and ice. Immersive installations such as 20 Tonnes (2002), Black Forest (2016), and Microorganisms Landscape (2022) are notable for their poignant references to the environment. The biomorphic combines with the geometric throughout “The Forest and Its Soul,” which presents a body of work born out of two residencies at STPI in 2013 and 2022. The main space features an array of nature-based forms intuitively carved in white marble, suggesting flower bulbs or the growth of plants and seedlings. In another room, the marble sculptures take on uncanny, strangely life-like forms. The “Seed” (2022), “Budding” (2019–22), and “Microorganisms” (2022) series, which reflect an intentionally quiet, reticent, and nuanced art, are poetic and meditative in mood.
Movement, flux, and the vitality of nature itself pervade the works in “The Forest and Its Soul.” The abstract photo intaglio Under the Wind (2022) suggests more than a cloud of pollen swirled by the wind; it also represents natural energy, transitoriness, and change. In the lithograph Dancing Waves (2022), Han’s rogue waves are formed by the accumulation of geometric structures; her subtle manipulation of tone makes one think about the rendering of three dimensions on a flat surface. The richly painted, paper-pulp sculptures in the “Dancing Leaves” (2022) series share a naïve treatment of details, and they are as enchanting as Han’s trees and seascapes. Han invites us to be in tune with our aesthetic sensibilities while also attending to the world around us. Like looking at nature as if it were art, this is an exercise that encourages us to look at the world in new ways.