Art and social change: How environmental art is transforming a Taiwanese village



Huge site-specific sculptures sit among birds, reeds and muddy water in Taiwan’s 2013 Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

In April 2013, four international and two local artists gathered for 25 days in Cheng-Long Wetlands, a conservation preserve that sits beside a remote coastal village in Taiwan’s Yunlin County, to take part in an environmental artist residency and community renewal project that has been running for four years.

Ya-chu Kang, 'Reservation', 2013, bamboo, recycled chairs, sisal rope, oyster shells, natural cotton fabric, Cyanotype made with discarded cooking pots, kitchen tools, found objects collected at the seashore and shapes gifted by local children. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Ya-chu Kang, ‘Reservations’, 2013, bamboo table, recycled chairs, sisal rope, oyster shells, natural cotton fabric, Cyanotype made with discarded cooking pots, kitchen tools, found objects collected at the seashore and shapes gifted by local children. Photograph credit: Timothy S. Allen.

Organised by Kuan-Shu Educational Foundationsupported by the Yunlin County Government and the Taiwan Forestry Bureau and curated by American curator Jane Ingram Allen, Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project has brought artists from across the world to the tiny village as part of an effort to help residents find some value in what was once viewed as nothing more than a natural disaster.

The high-density fish farming, agricultural production and heavy industry in the area requires large amounts of fresh water to operate, a need met by pumping up huge quantities of ground water from aquifers. The result: significant land subsidence. Yunlin County, located in the southwest of Taiwan, is one of the most severely affected regions and much of the area now sits below sea level. It is flooded several times a year by typhoons and heavy rains, and saltwater intrusion has caused salinity levels in the soil and water to rise substantially, making the land difficult to grow in. The first big flood hit the rural village of ChengLong, situated north of Taiwan’s fourth largest city, Tainan, over 25 years ago and today, much of the land the community occupies is under water continuously, although the depth of this water fluctuates with the seasons.

Through the Cheng-Long art project, along with the environmental education efforts of Kuan-Shu Educational Foundation, the wetlands are slowly but steadily being transformed into a cultural asset. The theme for 2013 was “On the Table – Aquaculture and the Environment”, which, according to Ingram Allen in the exhibition text, means that this year’s site-specifc sculptures focused on

… acquaculture, the primary livelihood in the Cheng-Long area, and intend to raise public awareness about how wildlife and the environment are affected by what we put on the table to eat. The phrase ‘on the table’ in English also means putting something up for discussion, and with this project we want to open up community dialogue….

Artists tour the ChengLong Wetlands. A work from the inaugural year of the project can be seen in the foreground. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Artists tour the Cheng-Long Wetlands. A work from the inaugural year of the project can be seen in the foreground. Photograph credit: Timothy S. Allen.

Collecting bamboo along the coastline. The bamboo poles come from abandoned oyster farms. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Collecting bamboo along the coastline. The bamboo poles come from abandoned oyster farms. Photography credit: Thomas S. Allen.

Instead of an open call for artists, as was the case in previous years, in 2013, Ingram Allen and the organisers invited artists who had submitted outstanding proposals for previous editions of the project, as well as well-known environmental artists, to submit a proposal. The 2013 artists, selected from these submissions, included,

As an artist and art critic, Ingram Allen has been increasingly drawn to ephemeral and site-specific art practices. “I think it’s sort of liberating,” she says. “You don’t feel that your art is so precious that you have to keep it forever.” As a curator, she encourages the artists in the exhibitions she curates to make outdoor works that do as little damage as possible to the environment in which they are placed. In Cheng-Long, resident artists are required to make their installations entirely from biodegradable or recycled materials found locally: oyster shells, common reeds (Phragmites australis), driftwood, bamboo and found objects collected at a nearby recycling centre.

Giorgio Tessadri, 'Element', recycled and new bamboo, non-toxic paint, sisal rope. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Giorgio Tessadri, ‘Element’, 2013,  recycled and new bamboo, non-toxic paint, sisal rope. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Johan Sietzema, 'Food-Prints' (during installation), 2013, recycled and new bamboo, reeds, other local vegetation. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Johan Sietzema, ‘Food-Prints’ (during installation), 2013, recycled and new bamboo, reeds, other local vegetation. Photograph credit: Timothy S. Allen.

Kuo-chun Chiu, 'Fish for Every Year', 2013, recycled and new bamboo, recycled glass, sisal rope. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Kuo-chun Chiu, ‘Fish for Every Year’, 2013, recycled and new bamboo, recycled glass, sisal rope. Photograph by the artist.

Collectively called Element, Italian artist Giorgio Tessadri’s three separate geometric sculptures, made primarily from bamboo stenciled with environmentally themed questions, spread out across the wetlands, weaving through the windows of a bird watching building and leaping from the mud and reeds of the wetland. Johan Sietzema’s artwork, Food-Prints, consists of woven fish and traps suspended within a huge structure of upright bamboo poles. In his work Fish for Every Year, local artist Kuo-chun Chiu referenced a traditional Chinese proverb related to Chinese New Year celebrations, in which diners leave some of the fish on the table to ensure a full year of food ahead. For Chiu, the proverb is analogous to the importance of preserving natural resources for the future.

Ya-chu Kang, 'Reservation' (detail), 2013, bamboo, recycled chairs, sisal rope, oyster shells, natural cotton fabric, Cyanotype made with discarded cooking pots, kitchen tools, found objects collected at the seashore and shapes gifted by local children. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Ya-chu Kang, ‘Reservations’ (detail), 2013, bamboo, recycled chairs, sisal rope, oyster shells, natural cotton fabric, Cyanotype made with discarded cooking pots, kitchen tools, found objects collected at the seashore and shapes gifted by local children. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Michele Brody, 'Water Table Tea House', 2013, oyster shells, recycled and new bamboo, sisal rope, found and discarded traditional windows. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Michele Brody, ‘Water Table Tea House’, 2013, oyster shells, recycled and new bamboo, sisal rope, found and discarded traditional windows. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Michael Rofka, 'Milkfish', 2013, recycled and new bamboo, earth/clay, sisal rope, reeds and other local vegetation. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Michael Rofka, ‘Milkfish’, 2013, recycled and new bamboo, earth/clay, sisal rope, reeds and other local vegetation. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Ya-chu Kang, also from Taiwan, set up a dark room in Cheng-Long and used the Cyanotype technique to photographically print found objects related to food onto a huge tablecloth. In the finished work, called Reservations, the cloth was placed over a huge bamboo table, which was then mounted in the wetlands and surrounded by chairs collected from the recycling centre and discarded in the village. With her work, Water Table Tea House, American artist Michele Brody sought to create a place in which the community can discuss and contemplate their surroundings and the environmental issues they face. Michael Rofka, from Germany, created an enourmous, hollow work called Milkfish. Viewers enter the fish through a small opening in its side and, moving to the head of the fish, can peer through large holes to “see the world through [its] eyes”, as described in the exhibition text.

The ChengLong project artists visit a local bamboo craftsman. Photography credit: Timothy S Allen.

The Cheng-Long project artists visit a local bamboo craftsman. Photography credit: Timothy S Allen.

Artists, volunteers and local residents gather together in the evening. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Artists, volunteers and local residents gather together in the evening. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Cultural exchange is also central to the project. Each artist worked closely with a Taiwanese volunteer and a classroom of children. Artists visited local masters to learn techniques related to traditional Taiwanese crafts, such as how to cut and curve bamboo. They also learned about fish and oyster farming and other means livelihood in the area, as well as social practices, such as religious festivals. Upon arrival in the village, artists were asked to introduce themselves and their home country or city to the elementary school pupils, and, for the first time since the project began four years ago, a public symposium was held at Yunlin County Mango Art Café that aimed to encourage discourse on the project from the wider community.

When the inaugural project was announced to village residents in 2010, many were sceptical of its value to their community. According to Ingram Allen, the Kuan-Shu Educational Foundation, due to their previous experience working in Cheng-Long, “really paved the way and prepared the children and the community to receive the contemporary artists from around the world and other spots in Taiwan”. In 2013, not only are residents increasingly willing to contribute their time, expertise and manpower to the project, the village itself is changing, with new buildings, including a community hall and a number of houses, dotted between the traditional red brick farmhouses.

Giorgio Tessadri, 'Element', recycled and new bamboo, non-toxic paint, sisal rope. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Giorgio Tessadri, ‘Element’, 2013, recycled and new bamboo, non-toxic paint, sisal rope. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Johan Sietzema, 'Food-Prints' (during installation), 2013, recycled and new bamboo, reeds, other local vegetation. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

Johan Sietzema, ‘Food-Prints’ (during installation), 2013, recycled and new bamboo, reeds, other local vegetation. Photograph credit: Timothy S Allen.

The artist residency portion of the Cheng-Long Wetlands Environmental Art Project ran from 11 April to 6 May 2013, and the project was officially opened to the public on the weekend of 5 to 6 May 2013. The artworks will remain on view in Cheng-Long Wetlands for one year or until they decompose.

KN/JC

Related Topics: sculpturepublic art, site-specific art, art and the community, art events in Taiwan, environment

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