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The Oil in the Tankers, the Wind in the Trees
Ho Rui An
Prevailing international perceptions of Singapore as a postindustrial financial hub belie the reality of an economy built upon the successes of a robust oil industry. Likewise, the botanical lushness of its urban landscape—a legacy of a nationwide greening movement launched in 1963—has allowed the city-state to produce an image of itself as “a city in a garden” that obscures its centrality within the global fossil fuels trade. Situating the oil industry’s unlikely and little-examined development in Singapore against a scenography of the island city’s postcolonial repopulation by greenery, this lecture proposes a visual economy of the city-state that is premised upon the near-invisibility of oil and the spectacular visibility of trees. In this encounter between oil and trees, the vast tankers that allow oil to be kept out of circulation in order to be sold for higher prices at a later time are the underside to the alluring views of nature in constant motion, as best observed by the American filmmaker D. W. Griffith when he famously invoked “the beauty of the moving wind in the trees”. If the latter has since been theorised within discourses of cinephilia as an instantiation of how contingent presences in the background of an image can become a source of visual pleasure, what modes of attention might in turn allow us to trace the material networks that enable oil’s always volatile emergence into visibility?