For two years, Singaporean artist Chua Chye Teck hiked through Singapore’s dwindling wilderness, photographing the way trees sprawl and intertwine to become forest.

Where the average person sees a mess of foliage, he sees art – something akin to a Jackson Pollock painting or cao shu, a rough style of Chinese calligraphy.

The 43-year-old has compiled 40 of these black-and-white photographs in his first book, Beyond Wilderness, which was launched recently.

“There is a visual language to the wilderness that, just like English or Chinese, we have to learn to understand,” he says.

“These are things we consider untidy, that we think should be more systematically organised. But this is the way nature organises itself.”

Chua, who is single, began hiking two years ago so he could get more exercise, and was struck by how being in the forest sharpened one’s senses.

He became attuned to the way light filtered through leaves and to the rare animals moving in the undergrowth – banded leaf monkeys, pangolins and a 60cm-long turtle that was stuck in the mud and had to be pushed to freedom.

He also began to observe the differences in the forests around Singapore, from the slender casuarina trees of Coney Island that appear pale and feathery when over- exposed on film, to the dark, sinuous lines of deeper forests tucked away in places such as Upper Peirce Reservoir.

str2_stwilderness_ma_3

Absorbed in the trees, he would often lose track of time.

Once, he got lost on a trail around MacRitchie Reservoir and found himself stumbling through pitch darkness after the sunset.

Fortunately, he was able to use the GPS on his phone to find the main road.

He received a S$50,000 (RM156,000) grant from the National Arts Council to support the creation of his book.

He will also be part of an exhibition, Native Revisions, at Lasalle’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Singapore, which will run from Feb 11 to April 9.

Chua does not want his work to be mistaken for nature photography. “A photographer would try to capture reality,” he says.

Instead, his background as a sculptor means he is drawn not to landscapes but to lines and form.

“To me, the environment is like a material to be used to create fine art. It is something abstract, like the words you find to make poetry.”

His work is a timely look at the difficult choices a country with limited land must make, given the Cross Island Line debate over whether a train tunnel should be built under Singapore’s largest nature reserve.

“I wanted to capture the loss of place and memory, and the frustration of choice,” he says.

“There is beauty in what we neglect for the sake of progress.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Olivia Ho