Sustaining a fragile environment: Art in Taiwan’s Cheng Long Wetlands

Artists work with the community towards creating a sustainable environment in the Cheng Long Wetlands.

In the sixth iteration of the Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project, international artists create sculptural installations, collaborating with the local community to raise awareness on local environmental conditions.

Roger Rigorth, 'Water Core', 2015. Installation view in the Cheng Long Wetlands. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Roger Rigorth, ‘Water Core’, 2015. Installation view in the Cheng Long Wetlands. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

The sixth edition of the Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project was launched with a press conference on 1 May 2015. The project, in Taiwan’s Yunlin County, is themed “Fragile: Handle with Care” and will remain on site until the beginning of the next edition in April 2016.

Alongside project founder and curator Jane Ingram Allen, this year’s iteration sees the collaboration of Isabelle Garbani as assistant curator. Garbani participated in the Project as an artist in 2012 and in 2015 she supervised and facilitated it on-site, assisting the artists with the installations and managing day-to-day operations.

Educating the local communities

Since its inception in 2009, the Project has aimed to raise awareness and improve the local environmental conditions in Cheng Long. Allen tells Art Radar that Yunlin County, where the village is situated, is probably one of the poorest areas in Taiwan. For many years, Cheng Long has suffered the effects of human errors, natural disasters, climate change and global warming, with sinking land and rising water levels.

The Project is part of the Kuan-Shu Educational Foundation’s environmental education programme that aims to help people improve their environment and learn to adapt and to cope with the changing environmental conditions, as well as to improve the quality of life in the village. The Taiwan Forestry Bureau and local governments are also contributing to the educational programme of the Foundation. The artists taking part in the project work with the Cheng Long Elementary School children each year, helping to educate them about taking better care of their own environment.

Children participating in the Project. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Children participating in the Project. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Locating the project

Allen tells Art Radar about the significance of the Project in Cheng Long and how the local situation is symptomatic of a much larger condition:

This small village seems to me to be like an extreme example of what may soon be happening in many other places around the world. Maybe the environmental problems in Cheng Long are an early warning sign for the rest of the world that may also soon be facing the same changing environmental conditions due to global warming and climate changes.

Each year, the Project’s core mission is to involve the local communities in the realisation of the artworks. Last year, when the project focused on the local fishing industry, artists were working with fishermen. In 2015, the spotlight is less specialised, targeting the entire community living in the Wetlands and, as Allen says, was “especially relevant to Cheng Long and the fragile environment there from the rising water and sinking land”.

Allen tells Art Radar that this year saw an increased involvement of the local communities and a rise in participation from villagers and people returning to visit Cheng Long. One of the reasons for this was a change in the location of the installations. In 2014, artists worked hard in order to use fishing huts, and therefore private spaces, to create their artworks. In 2015, the installations are all in public spaces, both in the village and the wetlands.

Tsuneo Sekiguchi, 'Rainbow Boat', 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Tsuneo Sekiguchi, ‘Rainbow Boat’, 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Handle with care

This year’s theme focuses on the fragility of our environment. “Fragile: Handle with Care” is usually stamped as a warning on packages and boxes that contain fragile and breakable items. The 2015 artists were allowed to use natural and recycled materials, but only those taken from the Wetlands’ nature preserve area, to create installations in the village and the wetlands.

The Foundation has also presented a children’s painting show on the theme of the art project, located in abandoned houses that they cleaned up with the community and transformed into a makeshift art gallery space. Jane Ingram Allen, owing to her having an assistant curator, also had the time to create her own contribution to the project: involving the children and local people in making handmade paper from local plant waste materials to create a Cheng Long Site Map, which was exhibited alongside the children’s paintings.

The 2015 Project’s five participating artists, selected from among 139 entries from 56 different countries, are:

  • Christopher Varady–Szabo – Australia/Canada
  • Marisa Merlin – Italy
  • Roger Rigorth – Switzerland/Germany
  • Tsuneo Sekiguchi – Japan
  • Chao-chang Lee – Taiwan
Christopher Varady-Szabo, 'Living Landscape', 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Christopher Varady-Szabo, ‘Living Landscape’, 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

From dragons to rainbows

Christopher Varady-Szabo created a miniature eco-system entitled Living Landscape on top of a rolling cart made from bamboo and other found materials. The artwork can move to different locations in the village to remind us of the fragile environment.

Marisa Merlin’s installation is made of sand bags – recycled natural fibre cloth bags filled with soil, sand, shells and plants. The bags are arranged to spell out the word ‘EARTH’ in huge Chinese characters. The sand bags, commonly used to keep out flooding waters, are symbolically protecting the environment of Cheng Long.

Roger Rigorth’s Water Core comprises tall, water bottle-shaped bamboo sculptures installed in the shallow water of the wetlands. The artist aims to highlight the importance of protecting water sources for all life.

With a particular interest in the qualities of light, Tsuneo Sekiguchi made Rainbow Boat, a large boat of bamboo, driftwood and other found materials, located in the Temple Courtyard area in Cheng Long village. The boat, with a big white cloth sail, contains recycled metal pans with a mirror and some water to project rainbow images on the white sail when the sun is shining.

Yunlin County native Chao-chang Lee created a sculptural installation entitled Heart of Dragon in the wetlands, made of bamboo, oyster shells and traditional nylon cords used for tying the shells. The dragon appears and disappears in the land and water, and visitors are invited to enter the dragon on land and think about how they can help the creature to protect the fragile local environment.

Chao-chang Lee, 'Heart of Dragon', 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Chao-chang Lee, ‘Heart of Dragon’, 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Towards a better future

This year, a curator from Australia visited Cheng Long to learn about the project and adapt some ideas for an Australian version. In 2014, a curator from Denmark also visited. Allen points out that the Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project is a model that is spreading around the world, and some artists from the Project itself go back to their own country and start something similar, helping to raise awareness about global climate changes.

The Project in Taiwan has so far lasted for six years and for each edition, Allen has kept it fresh, improving the participation of the local community and fostering a better understanding of the environmental conditions in the area. But like anything that involves a great deal of communication, especially with different cultures and languages and in poorer areas, the Project has had and still faces challenges.

Marisa Merlin, 'EARTH', 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Marisa Merlin, ‘EARTH’, 2015. Photo: Timothy S. Allen. Image courtesy Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project.

Allen tells Art Radar how, for example, villagers still do not completely understand the importance of creating artworks that are ephemeral and eventually dissolve in the environment, as opposed to permanent structures, by using biodegrable materials instead of durable but polluting ones:

[…] the Foundation tells me it is difficult for the local people to understand that environmental art may not last and might get destroyed in a typhoon. They don’t understand that environmental art should be made of natural materials and not pollute the environment further and that it may not last forever and is meant to change over time and biodegrade into the environment without polluting the water, air or soil or further harming the environment. […] The important contribution of the environmental artworks is in their process and the experience of creating it with the international artists.

Allen spends the entire length of the creative and installation process during April each year in the wetlands and has been carefully observing changes in the local communities. Eventually, she hopes

[…] to see the local people start to improve their own environment more and clean up vacant lots, not throw out their garbage and in general continue to take more pride in their own place. It is a slow process to change people’s ways and I think the best way is to concentrate on the children as this project does so that as they grow up things may change.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Japanese artists, Taiwanese artists, European artists, Australian artists, art and the environment, art and the community, events in Taiwan

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