Migrant Ecologies: Innovative Southeast Asian science-art collaboration

CONTEMPORARY ENVIRONMENTAL ART SCIENCE

Science and magic make for a dynamic partnership in collaborative art project Migrant Ecologies. Art Radar talks to one of the artists involved, Lucy Davis, about creative tension and the relationships that exist between both science and art, and nature and humanity.

"Ranjan Jati (The teak bed that sent four humans to Muna island Sulawesi and back again)", Photo Shannon Lee Castleman and "Cap Jari (Thumb Print)" Lucy Davis, prints from a found Ink on FSC, 150cm x 250cm. Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Singaporean woodcut movement inspiration for Migrant Ecologies

A visual artist, art writer and Assistant Professor at the School of Art Design and Media (ADM), Nanyang Technological University Singapore, Lucy Davis’ engagement with the Migrant Ecologies project began with her fascination with the modern woodcut movement in mid-twentieth century Singapore. Originating in Shanghai in the 1930s, the movement expanded via Chinese immigrants to Singapore. The woodcutters in Singapore carved out a place for themselves, quite literally, through their art, shaping a sense of residency in their new city out of wood-blocks.

Davis thought of using woodcutting techniques to investigate issues related to environmental sustainability. However, she soon discovered that the wood blocks used by artists were made from jelutong, a timber used extensively for pencils and art supplies, which is associated with deforestation. This led her to search for other materials on which to carve the journey of wood. Davis expanded on these developments in two exhibitions in 2009 and 2010, held in Singapore, and Migrant Ecologies grew out of these explorations.

Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Founded in 2010, the project is described by its founders as an inquiry into “human relationships with trees, forests and forest products in Southeast Asia, explored in terms of materials, metaphors, magic, ecological resources and historical agency.” As part of the project, which is set to continue until 2013, artists Davis and Shannon Lee Castleman, developed Jalan Jati, or Teak Road in English, which involved conducting DNA testing on wooden objects. This link between art and scientific research has resulted in the development of works which include photography, animation and woodcut prints.

Science and the magic of art

Jalan Jati, the most recent production in the ongoing Migrant Ecology Project, involved taking samples of wood from a 1950s teak bed in Singapore in order to test the DNA and trace where the bed had come from. Through this scientific process, and with the technical assistance of Double Helix Tracking Technologies, the team identified that the bed had mostly likely originated in Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Tracing this thread, the artists and other project members then conducted fieldwork in the area.

Samples from a teak bed. Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Samples from a teak bed. Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Shankar Iyerh from Double Helix extracting samples from a teak bed to be sent to the University of Adelaide for DNA testing, 2010. Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Shankar Iyerh from Double Helix extracting samples from a teak bed to be sent to the University of Adelaide for DNA testing, 2010. Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Working with DNA testing led to tension between the scientific process of gathering factual information and the creative output. While the scientific research relied on hard data, the creative process followed a more subjective, intuitive approach. Davis’ work, in particular, delves into magical realist elements, exploring relational and symbolic connections. “As artists, and particularly as artists working with contemporary ways of looking at the world, we’re used to not wanting truth,” she explains. “We want multiple answers. We want things to open up … and DNA … is so positivist, it’s like the absolute source, … and that tension is something that’s still there with the project.”

Nature and man

The relationship between humanity and nature is a theme that is unravelled throughout Jalan Jati, and the conflict and co-dependence of this contact was something that the project’s participants saw clearly demonstrated in the environment of Southeast Sulawesi.

In their field work, Davis and Castleman were taken to plantations that were considered to be haunted. Imported plantation trees battled for space with twisted Banyans, the seeds of which had been dropped by migrating birds. Davis used this experience to construct a metaphor for one sequence of a stop-motion animation called A Bed remembers an Island, which she created as part of the project. In the segment, called “Banyan battles with teak, magic battles with science”, spidery depictions of the trees, imported by man and by bird, tussle with each other for dominance.

In Castleman’s photographic piece, titled Tree Wound Portraits, she explores the command man has over nature. The artist documents the gradual cuts inflicted on teak trunks by local villagers, who are slowly cutting the trees down, “giv[ing] a tree one cut with an axe after another … until finally [after months] the tree falls or dies and no-one is to blame [for the illegal felling].”

Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Another concept that exhibits elements of magical realism is the assertion that it was teak that conquered Southeast Asia, carried along with other items brought by the humans that migrated to and colonised the region. Davis explains that this concept reflects the reciprocal relationship between nature and humanity. Objects, or nature, can have a value and can affect the actions we take. This relationship between humanity and nature, often referred to as ‘naturecultures’, is a theme that permeates Davis’ work in this project.

Nature does things to us as much as we do things to nature…. It’s not just about us dominating everything, … nature has always intervened in the ways in which we construct the world.

Can art really make a difference?

Migrant Ecologies is a project that approaches issues of environmental sustainability, and in particular tries to expose the origins of the materials that we use every day, but is it possible for art to really make a difference in this field? While Davis admits that this project, by itself, may not change the world, she hopes that the new approach taken by the Migrant Ecologies participants can provide a unique outlook that inspires audiences to stop and think. As an example of this dedication to spreading ideas and information, Davis and Castleman make use of the factual data collected during their investigation of the natural environment to create, in collaboration with local university students, educational animations that present information on the growth processes and the study of plants. This educational material is made available online and shown alongside the artwork when it is exhibited.

"A Bed Remembers an Island. An Island Remembers a Bird" Lucy Davis (stop motion), Zai Kuning & Zai Tang (composers), raw stills of woodprints and charcoal, 2011. Image courtesy of Lucy Davis.

Lucy Davis, "A Bed Remembers an Island. An Island Remembers a Bird" (stop motion), Zai Kuning & Zai Tang (composers), raw stills of woodprints and charcoal, 2011. Image courtesy Lucy Davis.

Future directions for Migrant Ecologies

Migrant Ecologies will show next from 1 to 31 May 2012 at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung, Indonesia, where it will be part of a group exhibition called “Still Building: Contemporary Art from Singapore”. Held in collaboration with Valentine Willie Fine Art Singapore, the exhibition is aimed at mapping out the development of contemporary art in Singapore.

CW/KN/HH

Related Topics: environmental art, art and science collaborations, photography, curatorial practice

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