Phases (Melaleuca cajuputi), 2024

Wardah Books

The gelam tree was once an essential part of the daily lives of the inhabitants of Kampong Gelam: from firewood to boat-making to medicine. In other words, it was woven into the very fabric of economic and communal life.

This holistic use of the tree is reproduced by the artist in her material transformation and preservation of the tree. The paper is made from the bark of the tree, the ink from the twigs, branches, fruits and seeds.

Ong’s series of algorithmic drawings depict the gelam tree in different phases, from sapling to maturity. The L-system, as a mathematical language, describes the morphology or “the fractal imagination” of the gelam tree.

The Malay word for history, sejarah, has its roots in the Arabic word for tree, shajarah. Ong’s work is a way of not only remembering, but also rewriting the gelam tree.


Isabella Ong (b. 1992, Singapore) examines the complex and fraught relationship we have with our environment. Working across the fields of art, computation, electronics, and research, she combines computational techniques with the physical investigation of materials like volcanic sand and debris. Drawing from a range of ecological sciences, she collaborates with scientists and experts to communicate their research to a broader audience.

Her work has been exhibited at COP26 in Glasgow, the National Design Centre in Singapore, and Today Art Museum in Beijing. In 2023, she was an artist-in-residence at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy (CIRA). She is also a co-founder of awe.curation, a platform that presents artists and designers working at the intersection of art and technology.

Isabella Ong

Algorithmic drawings in charcoal ink on organic paper; gelam tree bark, branches, leaves, fruits, flowers; glass vials containing pulp and charcoal ink
Dimensions variable

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