Cover Photo: Sopheap Pich, Delta (2007). Rattan and wire. 341 x 478 x 70 cm. 
Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material, the current exhibition at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA Singapore) (21 July – 30 September 2018), is an exploration into plant-based materiality (rattan, indigo dye, lacquer and mulberry) that begins a much-needed conversation into the interstices woven by art and knowledge, visuality and industrial science. Complemented by NTU CCA Singapore’s usual thorough public programme of lectures (I went to the rattan and indigo series of lectures), the exhibition showcases works by five artists spanning the wider Asian region: these artists are Liang Shaoji (China), Manish Nai (India), Phi Phi Oanh (Vietnam), Sopheap Pich (Cambodia), and Vivian Xu (China).
What I particularly appreciated is the nudging away of the old and the gentle ushering of the new through the curation of Ute Meta Bauer and team, what art historian David Teh might call ‘unframing the nation’, by which I mean the drift away from artist nationality and nation-representation but without doing away with the notion of place and flows. In other words, the exhibition here moves towards a deeper, denser conversation about how places of production (China, for example, with its industrial concentration on silk; the islands of Indonesia with its production of indigo and specific types of textile-weaving — ‘the ikat’, Southeast Asia with its ample resource of rattan, the particular use of lacquer in Vietnam) — how these places of production infiltrate artistic imagination. In turn, artistic labour yielding artistic expression as well as craft products enter a global market, a global exhibition circuit, thus breaching the global/local divide in artistic discourse. The exhibition not only invites us to reflect on the cyclicality of industrial production and the interaction with bio life-cycles, but also particularly on how atavistic aspects of any natural resource, its materiality, its physicality, inform an artwork, gives it cultural personality. The exhibition catalogue is especially commendable for its brief exegesis of each natural medium, the artist’s engagement with said material (often career-length dedications), and I particularly loved the interdisciplinary bibliography provided for each material, each a trail for further art historical exploration.
Sopheap Pich’s career-long investigation into rattan is a prime example of this dance between place of production and artistic grapple with materiality. Rattan, a climbing plant, is known for its tensile strength, but what is less known is the variety (over 600 species), and its myriad uses (including as bone replacement through a complex medical industrialisation process). Rattan has many names; one of its Iban nicknames is nganti mimit (‘wait a moment’) because, god forbid, it’ll take you at least that long to free yourself once ensnared by a clawed thorn.

As the primary material in Sopheap Pich’s organic or biomorphic-shaped rattan sculptures (see cover photo), the durability of rattan finds curious echo when he described how he’d tried to destroy his own sculptures during past periods of personal despondency, by burning or leaving them on rooftops to rot. Some have since been rescued and revivified, and now rest at major art centres around the world. 

Fig. 1a. Sopheap Pich, Red Grid (2015). 200 x 200 x 8 cm. Bamboo, rattan, burlap, beeswax with natural pigment. 
Fig. 1b. Sopheap Pich, Valley Drip (Maroon Top) (2012). 160 x 120 x 8 cm.  Bamboo, rattan, burlap, beeswax with natural pigment. 

Pich describes weaving rattan as so incredibly labour-intensive he’s called a madman by neighbours and family.  Eschewing premeditated design, his artistic process is akin to ‘taking a line out for a walk’, waiting for the shape to emerge out of intuitive discovery. To hear him tell it, a length of cut rattan ‘talks’ to him.  The exhibition also showcases his recent works that are more abstract, painterly and formalistic in effect – Red Grid (Fig. 1a) and Valley Drip (Maroon Top) (Fig. 1b), part of his Relief series,  begun in 2010 and since exhibited at Documenta 14. The colours in these grid paintings are made of ‘grinded pebbles collected by the artist during journeys, mixed with beeswax and tree resin’ (exh. cat.), a testimony to his deep respect of nature and organic processes.
But it’s the ode to the mulberry plant, the only food source for the silkworm, and the artworks of Liang Shaoji, who has dedicated three decades of his life to employing it in his artworks who stole the show.  Zen and meditation form the mental and spiritual cornerstones of his practice; Liang says,

In China, the silkworm represents generosity, warmth, life and endurance. And because silk threads are so very long – a single silk worm may give out from its mouth a thread of up to a kilometer [in] length – the thread of the silkworm represents human life and history.” (Exh. Cat.)

The use of silk dates back more than 5000 years in China and was a valuable trade currency. The fact that silkworms spew silk until the day they die, much like ‘candles consum[ing] themselves while providing light and warmth,’ invites contemplation on the nature and meaning of work.  It might surprise one to know that Liang breeds his own silkworms; he intimately investigates and observes their life cycles. Broken Landscape (Fig. 2), his magnificent installation mimicking a sanshui (山 水) scroll, is a 5 metre-long silk hanging that invites a kind of deep gazing of the many silkworm lifecycles imprinted on its surface– from cocoons to feces and urine. The title implicates the passage of history, human interventions and natural disasters upon the landscape of China.

Fig. 2. Liang Shaoji, Broken Landscape (2016). Installation: Silk and cocoons, 520 cm x 145 cm. 

Moon Garden (Fig. 3) is a mesmerising video of the artist’s filming of silkworm spinning on different surfaces such as mirrors and metal, the sound they make while eating mulberry leaves, and the raw silk trails that emerge. 

Fig. 3. Liang Shaoji, Moon Garden (2015). Single-channel video, 7 min. 41 sec. 

In Lonely Cloud (Fig. 4), the artist wraps camphorwood in silk, suspending it on top of a rusted scaffolding to signify a cloud. Camphorwood is regarded as sacred in Tiantai, home of Tiantai Buddhism (also known as Tendai in Japan and Cheontae in Korea), and also where the artist resides. In cocooning the wood within spun silk, the existential cycle of the silkworm and its excretions are made to embrace the sacred and the religious, and interacts with the title to become a metaphysical reflection on the ephemerality and whimsy of life.

Fig. 4. Liang Shaoji, Lonely Cloud (2016). Installation: Silk, wood, cocoons, steel pipes. 245 x 428 x 114 cm. 

Vivian Xu’s Silkworm Project (Figs. 5a and 5b) is an ongoing project involving bio machines and genetically-modified silkworms from Japan that spew coloured, glow-in-the-dark silk, drawing upon her background in media arts and bio-research.  Thus, the work encompasses a flat spinning machine and a spatial spinning machine that alter the silk structures and weaving behavior of silkworms through artificial interference such as magnets and Hall effect sensors. What Xu is intent on are ‘points of negotiation’ where technology, rather than modifying an organism, works in tandem with it. 

Fig. 5a. Vivian Xu, Silkworm Project (2013-ongoing). Multimedia installation, dimensions variable. 

Fig. 5b. Vivian Xu, Silkworm Project (2013-ongoing). Multimedia installation, dimensions variable.

From mulberry leaves, we move onto lacquer, yet another material called by different regional names that is replete with history and acculturation. Harvested as sap from trees within the family of Anacardiacaeae (cashew or sumac), it undergoes a laborious and time-consuming industrial process before being transformed into lacquer. Its high resistance to chemicals, heat, flame, water, wood, rot, salt and electricity means that as a varnish, it has the added benefit of acting as disinfectant and insect repellent. Interestingly, in Vietnam, it was first introduced as painting medium in the 1930s at the École Supérieure des BeauxArts de l’indochine, established by the French colonial government as the first fine art academy in Vietnam. In fine art painting, lacquer is applied in multiple coats, then vigorously sanded, before the lustre and scintillating colours emerge. Phi Phi Oanh, an artist who has been working with lacquer for over a decade, deconstructs and manipulates it in Palimpsest (Figs. 6a and 6b) in terms of scale and perception. These small paintings, displayed in a glass cabinet, are then viewed through a magnifying glass, like laboratory specimens. Projections through a machine called a Lacquerscope create a palimpsest installation that according to Oanh, situates the work along a continuum between painting and photography, and I’d argue, film-making as well.

Fig. 6a. Phi Phi Oanh, Palimpsest (2013-2018). Installation detail, dimensions variable. 

Fig. 6b. Phi Phi Oanh, Palimpsest (2013-18). Installation detail, dimensions variable.

Last but not least, we have indigo, another fascinating plant from the family Indigofera which has yielded a unique process that dates back four millennia, producing the world’s oldest and most valued dye for many textile-based crafts. It’s a colour that according to indigo scholar and expert, Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul, transcends class boundaries, associated equally as it were with peasant clothing in Mao China and with Indian royalty and European landowners. Indigo is believed to have mystical properties; in Indonesia, for example, it’s connected with notions of fertility (the dye vat is even called a womb).  Textile weaving, as heavily populated as it is across sections of the globe with women workers, makes indigo part of a gendered conversation. 

Manish Nai’s contribution to this exhibition is an installation made of compressed indigo jute cloths wrapped around wood. (Fig. 7) He started using indigo-dyed fabric only in 2010, but it has become central to his practice. Coming from a textile-working family background, this work references his personal memory of seeing bundles of indigo-dyed fabric for usage as uniforms for schools and factories. The properties of indigo, as a pigment that increases in colour intensity and volume the more that the dye accumulates as layers, are given enhanced effect through Nai’s bringing in of trajectorial lines of colonial history (indigo production centers around Bengal witnessed peasant revolts against colonialism in 1859), the mercantile cycles of exploitation (particularly pertinent to India when one thinks about how many fields of production, from telecommunications to computer technology, are outsourced to India), and the seep of violence (dark blood as a colour runs indigo).  As the 2016 winner of the Prudential Eye Award for Best Emerging Artist (Painting), I feel that Nai is such an exciting artist to watch. I was really taken by one of his works shown at the exhibition entitled Asymmetrical Objects, shown at Bhau Daji Lad Museum in 2018.  The untitled work (all Nai’s works do not have titles!) comprises square-compressed bundles of old T-shirts and salvaged clothing, stacked like the ubiquitous crates one sees trundled down Mumbai streets on a daily basis, but placed in the exhibition space in front of a mammoth-sized statue of Queen Victoria’s head as a symbol of colonial power.  Not only is there an ‘incongruous parody’ at play, to borrow literary scholar Rey Chow’s term, but there’s also an appeal to the pleasing effect of geometry and lines and colour, all formal aspects that dominate the abstract expressionism in Nai’s works. 

Fig. 7. Manish Nai, untitled (2018). Compressed indigo jute cloths, wood, 99 pieces, each 203 x 7.6 x 7.6 cm, installation dimensions variable. 

Art curator Tong Juanjuan was only referring to Liang Shaoji’s artworks when he called them ‘epiphanies in material form,’ but I believe the term certainly extends to each artwork in Trees of Life, each so visually arresting and thought-provoking in highlighting the interaction amongst, art, nature and scientific processes.