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Another Nature: Rooting Through Our Complex Relationship to the Environment

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Cooped up in our homes during government-mandated lockdowns at the height of the pandemic, those of us in Singapore relished exercising outside and grew to find solace in the ‘great outdoors’.

For many of us, building a relationship with the environment meant taking walks through fields and gardens, or hiking in our local parks.

As we were relegated indoors, the natural world moved on without us.

Weeds and grasses grew with abandon in green spaces for months, only for their lush stalks to be trimmed when grass-cutting services were activated again. This sparked an intriguing reaction from Singaporeans online. While one camp lamented the loss of the beauty that comes from ‘untouched’ nature, others were relieved to see manicured green spaces again. Families of otters roamed freely to the delight of some Singaporeans, while other folks complained about them breaking into their homes — usually to feast on pet fish.

Anecdotes like these shed a light on the varying perspectives we have towards nature in our busy city.

Of Roots and Leaves

Living Legacies II: Of Roots and Leaves is Plural Art Mag’s latest digital collaboration with the National Heritage Board for Singapore HeritageFest 2022, in which we explore how Singapore’s history, heritage and contemporary visual arts intersect. While last year’s edition spotlighted traditional healing practices, this year we’re taking a look at our natural heritage through the eyes of three local artists, Shubigi Rao, Isabelle Desjeux and Alysha Rahmat Shah. This year’s edition will boast a hybrid digital-physical format, with physical experiences brought to life by our artists accompanying our digital microsite.

Historical approaches towards nature

In Isabelle Desjeux’s artwork for Living Legacies, Did Ali See What Wallace Saw?, the artist takes participants on a tour through Fort Canning accompanied by digital projections.

Her work interrogates the role of botanic gardens in containing and controlling nature in Singapore’s colonial history. Tracing the imagined steps of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and his assistant Ali, Isabelle will prompt participants to question and reflect on how historical categorisation and exploitation of nature have become intrinsic to our culture.

It might be curious for some to learn that Isabelle’s artistic practice draws on her previous life as a molecular biologist. But Isabelle has learned valuable lessons from both fields, saying, “As a scientist, I have learned the power of questioning everything rather than living with certainty.

As an artist, I try to convey this in my artworks and invite the public to become scientists (themselves) –  to ask questions, the ones that no one knows the answer to.”

The perspective of Ali (or “Buang,” as Isabelle has named him), Alfred Wallace’s assistant and companion who assisted him in his travels through the Malay Archipelago, features significantly in this tour. While little is known about him, Isabelle observes that his views “re-introduce the notion of relativity to the concept of natural ‘discoveries’ in different cultures.”

“One culture can discover, name, and cultivate a specimen that is already known to another culture,” she explains. 

Check out our Behind-The-Scenes video with Isabelle to learn more about her personal relationship with nature.

Is there only one definition of what nature is, or can everyone formulate their own boundaries of what they consider nature is and what it isn’t? Through her work, Isabelle prompts us to look at nature anew. To sign up for the tour, click here.

Tropical tropes and contemporary desires

Extending the inquiry into our perceptions of nature is artist Shubigi Rao’s video work, Waysides. The video work lives digitally on our Living Legacies website, and examines tropical tropes and representations of nature in Singapore’s context. The two-channel film draws on footage of Singapore’s built and natural landscapes accumulated over many years, as well as colonial representations and contemporary depictions of nature.

The artist muses, “For us, it’s always about the appearance of nature, and I feel we’ve lost the ability to understand the natural world as not something that can, or should be, constantly contained. This work comes from me having moved to a hyper-urban environment and feeling the deep sense of loss, unable to understand why I felt that loss, but also recognising the loss in (other) Singaporeans as well. And I think this is not my personal loss or emptiness that I speak of, but that sense of disconnect when we don’t have a relationship with the natural world.”

In speaking to an intrinsic disengagement from the natural world, Shubigi observes how our interpretations of nature can fill this vacuum with what is closest to an imagined ideal. For example, the romanticisation of wilderness by man throughout history casts it as separate from human actions, and ultimately seeks a return to an ‘untainted’ and Edenic state of being.

Within our current ecological crisis, this kind of romanticism conjures the image of an idealised past as a way to overcome the dilemmas of the present in doing so, it unravels contemporary desires and articulations.

In this Behind-the-Scenes video, Shubigi speaks more of her process in creating Waysides, her meditations on the natural world, and how she imbues her work with wry humour to wrestle with these issues.

Click here to view Waysides.

Thriving on what the earth provides

Another perspective on nature is one adopted by artist Alysha Rahmat Shah in her artwork tumbuhan penyembuhan. Drawing on Alysha’s family practice of ubat-ubatan, which incorporates the belief that one can exist, thrive, and be cured solely by what the earth provides, her work focuses on plants central to her family’s healing practices, sharing her family’s deep connection to nature and the land.

She recounts, “Spending a lot of my childhood on my uncle’s farm in Tangkak, Malaysia, I was mesmerised by the idea that you could take seeds or seedlings, and with some care and attention, they could turn into trees that would, in turn, produce leaves or fruit that could heal and care for you.”

Alysha’s work draws on embroidery as an artistic practice, which is also deeply embedded in the artist’s personal history. As a craft passed down to her, Alysha harnesses the technique in response to the colonial illustrations and natural history drawings, transforming them with her personal visual language. In doing so, she seeks to counter the perception that the discovery of local plants and their various uses originated in colonial times.

In fact, she contends, this knowledge pre-dates colonialism and has always been central to indigenous wisdom.

As part of tumbuhan penyembuhan, participants can sign up for a workshop in which they will learn to create embroidery works of local plants and share their own experiences with plants and traditional healing practices.

Alysha reflects, “We often find ourselves so dissolved into our existence in this concrete jungle that we forget what it is like to be truly vulnerable around nature. It provides as well as takes, it is a balance of life.”

We follow Alysha as she speaks about her personal connection to plants and embroidery.

Healing practices in the region have traditionally always been deeply connected with an understanding of the interdependence of ecosystems and provisions of nature.

To find out more and join Alysha in her workshop, click here.

Taking root and spreading leaves

Instead of providing hard and fast rules on how we should interact with nature, Living Legacies II: Of Roots and Leaves brings together various perspectives in an ongoing discourse on natural heritage.

Do we romanticise nature or deem it a nuisance? Do we only appreciate it under certain fixed conditions? Do we only seek to control or derive gain from it?

Or does nature play a completely different role in our lives entirely?

Living Legacies II: Of Roots and Leaves launched online over the weekend and takes a deep dive into all these meaty ideas. Visit the microsite to view the artworks and sign up for the tours and workshops. If this topic interests you, join us for an online Artist Panel on 18 May 2022 to hear from the artists themselves.

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This article is produced in collaboration with the National Heritage Board for Singapore HeritageFest 2022. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural. 

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