Exhibition focuses on materials from four plants deeply rooted in Asia

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Exhibition focuses on materials from four plants deeply rooted in Asia
Vivian Xu, Silkworm Project, 2013– ongoing, multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

SINGAPORE.- NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore is embarking on an inquiry into natural materials, exploring the knowledge they embody as biological forms as well as within social, geopolitical, and historical contexts. Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material is part of the Centre’s long-term research cluster Climates. Habitats. Environments.

This exhibition focuses on materials from four plants deeply rooted in Asia: indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), lacquer (Rhus succedanea and Melanorrhoea usitata), rattan (Calamoideae), and mulberry (Morus). The works trace the ongoing involvement with these plants in the artistic practices of Manish Nai (India) with indigo, Phi Phi Oanh (United States/Vietnam) with lacquer, Sopheap Pich (Cambodia) with rattan, and Liang Shaoji (China) and Vivian Xu (China) with mulberry silk. While the featured installations serve as a starting point to uncover the materiality of the chosen plants, the study of their natural and cultural DNA allows further exploration into their biological processes and diverse usages at their locale.

Originally trained as a painter, Manish Nai, expanded his practice into creating sculpture, photography, and murals, drawing inspiration from the bustle of the megacity Bombay, where he lives. In 2010, Nai started using indigo-dyed fabric for his works, a material that became increasingly central to his practice. In high school, Nai worked in a clothes workshop run by relatives. There he found himself in the midst of bundles of indigo-dyed fabric, piles of soon-to-be uniforms for schools and factories. Indigo, extensively used in India, was commercially exploited during the colonial period, having led to the 1859 Indigo peasant revolt in Bengal. However for Nai, these connotations are less central than the material itself. In his work developed for NTU CCA Singapore, indigo-dyed jute is compressed into 99 poles, turning his childhood memories into an abstract manifestation.

Phi Phi Oanh has been working with Vietnamese sơn ta lacquer for over a decade. With a background in painting, she is interested in exploring alternative strategies for working with sơn ta from the perspective of contemporary art and cultural theory. In the 1930s, Vietnamese lacquer was introduced as a painting medium at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l'Indochine established by the French colonial government, through which a hybrid between ancient craft techniques and Western art emerged: the modern tranh sơn mài (Vietnamese lacquer painting). Oanh is interested in expanding this process of acculturation by combining sơn mài with new materials and display devices in order to reflect not only the medium itself, but also cross-cultural histories. Palimpsest (2013–18) is an attempt at the total dematerialisation of the medium of lacquer painting. While presenting a shift from the traditional application of lacquer as surface, the artist rescales the medium, rendering small paintings in large formats, seen through lenses, reminiscent of a microscope or a telescope. This play between light and shadow, scale and perspective, allows a new take on how we view Vietnamese sơn mài.

Sopheap Pich started as a painter, working now almost exclusively with sculpture. He uses natural and inexpensive materials from Cambodia, such as rattan, bamboo, and burlap, imbuing them with a renewed value. Pich left the country as a refugee at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign in the late 1970s. His childhood memories of war, poverty, and hunger, left a profound impression on the artist. In 2002, Pich made the decision to return to Cambodia from the United States. He began to work with local materials, deepening his interest in craft, technique, and the process of creation. Recurring threads are poverty, lightness and strength, fragility versus monumentality, are reflected in his use of simple means and everyday materials. Delta (2007) is one of his early pieces using rattan. The hanging sculptural form is made of hand-cut rattan, woven together using wire, with its title, Delta, alluding to the importance of the rivers in Phnom Penh. Valley Drip (Maroon Top) (2012) and Red Grid (2015) are part of the “Relief” series that Pich began in 2010. The colours are made from ground pebbles collected by Pich that are mixed with beeswax, tree resin, and applied onto the burlap used in farms or markets. Regarded as an expression of modernity, the grid appears in Pich’s work as a contrasting shape to his organic or figurative sculptures.

For three decades, Liang Shaoji has been breeding silkworms, integrating their silk and lifecycle into his practice. Through this interaction, he explores bioecology from an artistic perspective, especially the inherent relationship between humans and nature. Liang, who lives in a small town in the Zhejiang Province called Tiantai, ideal for sericulture. Meditation is an important element of Liang’s life and art, connected to Zen and Buddhist philosophies. In Tiantai, home of Tiantai Buddhism, camphorwood is regarded as sacred. For Lonely Cloud (2016), Liang uses this wood, often employed for carving Buddha figures, as a ground for his silkworms who have covered it in silk. The large and heavy piece of wood is held up by rusted scaffolding that the artist found at a construction site.

The trunk’s form, wrapped in the transparent white fabric, and its elevated position are reminiscent of a cloud. The artist incorporates rusted iron and other industrial waste in his sculptural work, often using metal as a symbol of industrialisation and violence. His subjects are inspired by the socio-economic context of today’s China and its collective psychological experiences. He also draws from traditional Chinese architecture, especially temples and spaces conducive to introspection and quietness.

Vivian Xu explores the intersection of organic and artificial systems, her interest is in the intrinsic relationship of electricity and life, as well as the specificity of materials. Her research centres on ways to transfer information from technological mediums to life organisms, and vice versa. Xu sets up experiments to observe how lower-level organisms, such as bacteria, respond to electric stimulation patterns, which in this way could be categorised as bio art. Xu has been drawn to silkworms due to her familiarity the insects and because of the aesthetic qualities of works using silk by Chinese artists Xu Bing and Liang Shaoji. Silkworm Project (2013–ongoing) is a series of bio machines that generate selforganised silk structures. Electronic and digital systems house the silkworms creating a closed feedback loop as an autonomous ecosystem. The combination of an ancient material with the new medium of data poses questions of production and consumption.

The artworks intertwine with selected research documents that address the complex histories and circulation, as well as the effects of human intervention on these natural resources. Starting from the properties and characteristics of the materials themselves, the project expands into their cultural representation and significance for communities and their crafts.

The longstanding social and cultural practices associated with indigo, lacquer, rattan, and mulberry silk have accumulated a vast repository of knowledge, whether formal or tacit. Beyond the format of the exhibition, topical seminars have been dedicated to each of the four materials, further investigating their social applications over time in terms of their materiality, cultural references, expanded ecology, and as arising from technological advancements. Through lectures, panels, talks, and workshops, participating artists, craftsmen, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, scientists, scholars, and designers unfold their diverse perspectives. This series reiterates the deeper role art and craft traditions have in supporting local communities and ecosystems.

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