Monica Ursina Jäger, Shifting Topographies, 2018

Shifting Topographies

2018. Table with printed text sheets, glass plates, original drawings and collage, two chlorophyllin drawings. Two prints 63.5 × 104 cm

The Island, once a hilly, densely forested place of tropical life has shape-shifted. The territory has been levelled, reclaimed and urbanized without rest. Its growth seems endless, boundless, limitless. No, there are no geological or tectonic shifts or volcanic activities at work, but rather an accumulation of man-made engineering. A concrete crust extends into the sea in any direction. The island stiffens, calcifies, fossilizes, it has long lost its breath.

The lay of the land was once vastly different from what we see today. As naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace tells us in his travelogues, the rivers once were flanked by mangrove swamps and rich jungle, and what now are busy inland streets of circulation were once beach roads that hugged the sea.

Hill after hill cut and their soil transported to the shores; my step-mother still remembers the buckets of gravel passing by the windows in front of her childhood home in Bedok: the mounts translocated by conveyor belts.

Excavation has eradicated the horizon of elevation and depression, the contours erased. Skyscrapers compensated for the loss of relief. The island boils up, sweltering under the tropical sun, the concrete planes and facades can’t perspire, they can only overheat. Now nature is being invited back to the land, but not in its diversity and entirety, but in carefully selected, curated versions of vegetation to appropriately climb the vertical and horizonal urban strata. The landscape has lost its horizontal body, it morphed into a vertical organisation of homogenized squares and lines.

Natural formation modelled on demand, orchestrated by seas of data streaming in and out. The discontinuities fill up with calculations. Fissures fuse and ebb, growing into a global uniformity. Nature loses its echoes into the vast openness of the vertical shift.

The island of Singapore consists of a multitude of small hills, three or four hundred feet high, the summits of many of which are still covered with virgin forest. The mission-house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by woodcutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting ground for insects. Here and there, too, were tiger pits, carefully covered over with sticks and leaves, and so well concealed, that in several cases I had a narrow escape from falling into them. They are shaped like an iron furnace, wider at the bottom than the top, and are perhaps fifteen or twenty feet deep so that it would be almost impossible for a person unassisted to get out of one. Formerly a sharp stake was stuck erect in the bottom; but after an unfortunate traveller had been killed by falling on one, its use was forbidden.

There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore, and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day, principally those who work in the gambir plantations, which are always made in newly-cleared jungle. We heard a tiger roar once or twice in the evening, and it was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, awaiting an opportunity to spring upon us.

Several hours in the middle of every fine day were spent in these patches of forest, which were delightfully cool and shady by contrast with the bare open country we had to walk over to reach them. The vegetation was most luxuriant, comprising enormous forest trees, as well as a variety of ferns, caladiums, and other undergrowth, and abundance of climbing rattan palms. Insects were exceedingly abundant and very interesting, and every day furnished scores of new and curious forms.

In about two months I obtained no less than 700 species of beetles, a large proportion of which were quite new, and among them were 130 distinct kinds of the elegant Longicorns (Cerambycidae), so much esteemed by collectors. Almost all these were collected in one patch of jungle, not more than a square mile in extent, and in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot. This exceeding productiveness was due in part no doubt to some favourable conditions in the soil, climate, and vegetation, and to the season being very bright and sunny, with sufficient showers to keep everything fresh. But it was also in a great measure dependent, I feel sure, on the labours of the Chinese wood-cutters. They had been at work here for several years, and during all that time had furnished a continual supply of dry and dead and decaying leaves and bark, together with abundance of wood and sawdust, for the nourishment of insects and their larvae. This had led to the assemblage of a great variety of species in a limited space, and I was the first naturalist who had come to reap the harvest they had prepared. In the same place, and during my walks in other directions, I obtained a fair collection of butterflies and of other orders of insects, so that on the whole I was quite satisfied with these — my first attempts to gain a knowledge of the Natural History of the Malay Archipelago.

1869, Alfred Russell Wallace

Understory is nothing but a coordinate, the canopy the storey of random classification.  There is no orientation, neither vertical beams nor horizontal grids.

Life compressed in pools of biota, where time echoes in transient membranes built from endless loops of whispered sugar.

The forest becomes a state of mind.

Text: Monica Ursina Jäger


Working with drawing, sculpture, installation, and cognitive mapping, the practice of Monica Ursina Jäger (b. 1974, Switzerland/United Kingdom) unfolds through a multidisciplinary reflection on concepts of space, landscape, and architecture that scrutinizes the relationship between the natural and the constructed environment.

During a residency at NTU CCA Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore, Jäger examined the shifting topography of Singapore and Southern Malaysia and how it changed over the last century by engaging with urban development, and architecture. Of particular interest is the relationship between built environments and natural landscapes in “the vertical shift” incurred in the notion of landscape. Looking at Singapore as a unique case study, her research aimed to focus on and excavate histories related to the social, political and sensorial conversations between natural and built elements and to rethink ‘topography’ as a mental landscape, rather than as a form of visual representation.