22 – 31 January 2021
Tanjong Pagar Distripark

Art and Ecology

Taking Collective Action

It is now clearer than ever – the irreparable damage that we have done, and continue to do, to Planet Earth. This begs the question: should we not pause and consider our future actions? After all, we seem to be at a turning point in history. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted the efficiency (and consequences) of our precarious attempts to ‘tame’ Mother Nature; it has forced us to halt our activities and reform our lives. This global outbreak has also compelled us – artists, curators and collectors alike – to reexamine our mobility, exposing the flaws of a schizophrenic and hyperbolic art model. Along with debates on the dawn of the Anthropocene – the geological epoch superseding the Holocene – we bear witness to escalating environmental crises on a global scale. Besides the pandemic, the onslaught of fire and flood ravages, destructive weather phenomena, and extinction of flora and fauna are but unmistakable signs of the larger, looming ecological disaster facing us and our future generations.

Responding to these environmental (and social) perils, artists the world over, and specifically in Southeast Asia, the focus of this article, have been taking collective action with and in support of their communities, with their works and practices raising awareness of and prompting action  towards the undermining of the environmental threats of our times. As Lucy Lippard discusses in her book, this very act of ‘undermining’ is colored by the prevalent geopolitics.[1] On one hand, ‘undermining’ can refer to “pits and shafts that reflect culture, alter irreplaceable ecosystems and generate new structures”; on the other hand, Lippard insists, it points to “what we are doing to our continent and to the planet when greed and inequity triumph; undermining as a political act – subversion is one way artists can resist.”[2] And resist they do, engaging with nature in a constructive and productive way. The classical elements of earth, air, water and fire, become key aspects in fueling and inspiring a number of art platforms and events in Thailand, where I currently reside and conduct my groundwork and research. Air, specifically the degradation of its quality primarily in the Thai northern city of Chiang Mai, is the focus of the recent exhibition #LetBygonesBeBygones by artist Jedsada Tangtrakulwong.[3] Based on the daily air quality statistics of Bangkok and Chiang Mai published by IQAir AirVisual (a must-have application if you live in Thailand) that the artist compiled every hour over a period of five months (during the dry season of January to May 2020), the graphics-turned-paintings serve as a memento and a warning. Traversing a metal grid walkway covered with glass – beneath which the paintings are displayed – viewers come to sense the fragility of their lungs, deliberated by the thin glass panes (Fig. 1). The so-called PM2.5 (now part of our daily language) indicates air quality of dangerous levels, especially during the dry season, as a result of crop-burning and slash-and-burn farming. In 2019, Chiang Mai registered air quality among the world’s worst in the World AQI (air quality index) Ranking.

Fig. 1: Jedsada Tangtrakulwong, #LetBygonesBeBygones, 2020, five paintings of various sizes, five LED lightbulbs, expanded metal & plywood. Photo courtesy of Jedsada Tangtrakulwong.

A collective effort by the people of Chiang Mai appealing for the government’s better management of the air quality was made in early 2020 by the Chiang Mai Breathe Council, of which Art for Air is its art branch.[4] Supported by over 80 artists residing in Chiang Mai and beyond, and initiated by senior artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Art for Air kickstarted the fight against pollution in January 2020 with an art auction. Of the 5 million Thai baht generated through the auction, approximately half was invested in financing the second part of the project, a large-scale art event that opens on 14 February this year (Fig. 2). “We all share the same air and the same breathing, we all must collaborate,” Kamin highlights during our recent conversation in preparation for this article, emphasizing the communal effort and action for this event.

Fig. 2: Exhibition poster for Art for Air, designed by DDMY Studio. Image courtesy of Kamin Lertchaiprasert.

Shifting the focus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok where, despite all odds, the 2020 Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) opened to the local art circle, a number of works convey environmental concerns with the broad curatorial theme Escape Routes. Of note is the video installation 1001st Island: The most sustainable island in archipelago (2015–16) by duo Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett. Addressing the problem of garbage disposal in Indonesia, the artists worked with local fishermen to create an artificial (and ironically sustainable) island made of marine debris and litter (Fig. 3). Also compelling is Martha Atienza’s renowned video work Our Islands 11°16’58.4″N 123°45’07.0″E (2017), which confronts the climate crisis through the changing lives of the Visayan Sea islanders in the Philippines. Shot underwater, the seabed of dead coral shown in the video is likened to the transformation and loss of cultural heritage. 

Fig. 3: Still image of the artificial island in 1001st Island: The most sustainable island in archipelago. Photo courtesy of Irwan Ahmett.

On the Thai front, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon created an evocative and provocative installation titled 98-160-500-5,000-14,000-100,000-7,000,000,000 (2020) (Fig. 4).  At its core, this work incorporates 98 resilient plant species Anuwatwimon collected or sourced despite the coronavirus pandemic, which, as I learned from the artist, represent the “genetic variants of 98 nations around the world”. Part of the installation demonstrates a scientific bent, equipping viewers with a microscope to observe Nostoc, a genus of blue-green algae with cells arranged in beadlike chains (Fig. 5).

Fig. 4: Installation image of 98-160-500-14,000-50,000-100,000-7,000,000,000, 2020. Photo courtesy of Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani.
Fig. 5: Microscope image of Nostoc cyanobacteria in 98-160-500-14,000-50,000-100,000-7,000,000,000, 2020. Photo courtesy of Ruangsak Anuwatwimon.

Environmental consciousness is not new to Anuwatwimon’s practice, which lies at the intersection of political and ecological activism – two sides of the same coin after all. In the Singapore Biennale 2019, Anuwatwimon presented Reincarnations, an ongoing project in its second permutation, which focused on extinct flora in the city-state. He is currently working on Reincarnations III, which considers endangered and extinct animals in Thailand, and will be featured later this year at Warin Lab, a new art space in Bangkok.

As the new kid on the block, Warin Lab dedicates the whole year of 2021 on projects that focus on ecology and sustainability. Their inaugural show this month is about recycling and the notion of a circular economy. Along with Warin Lab, several galleries and art venues in Bangkok are taking serious action on the environment plight. Perhaps one silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic presents itself as a hastened, long overdue, realization that we must change the way our society operates. Art has the power to bring us together in our collective effort to find new strategies in approaching the politics of ecology, as Bruno Latour indicated almost two decades ago, in favor of a more sustainable society.[5] Viewed in this perspective, the range within which art operates is not limited to safeguarding the ecosystem, but includes cultural heritage and the tradition of urban and rural communities in their effort towards securing social equality.

(Note: This article was written when Thailand was in the midst of its second COVID-19 wave.)

Published January 2021.


Notes

[1] Lucy R. Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (New York: The New Press, 2014).

[2] Ibid., 1–2. 

[3] #LetBygonesBeBygones was held at Gallery Seescape in Chiang Mai from 31 October to 6 January 2020.

[4] See “Chiang Mai ART for AIR,” Facebook, January 5, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/artforaircnx/.

[5] In Politics of Nature, Latour broadens the concept of political ecology from being purely scientific to embracing other approaches to nature and culture in favor of a sustainable society. See Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2004).


About the Writer

Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani is an independent scholar and curator of Southeast Asian contemporary art. Her research and curatorial practice revolve around critical socio-political issues in Southeast Asia, advocating a counter-hegemonic and non-Western-centric discourse. She curated Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia (2019) at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Thailand; and Architectural Landscapes: SEA in the Forefront (2015) at Queens Museum, New York, along with several exhibitions for commercial galleries in the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. Her published academic research is included in Frames Cinema Journal, University of St Andrews, UK; Convocarte: Revista de Ciências da Arte, Lisbon University, Portugal; and M.A.tter Unbound, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, among others. Together with Patrick D. Flores, Loredana co-edited the anthology Interlaced Journeys: Diaspora and the Contemporary in Southeast Asian Art, published in 2020 by Osage Art Foundation, Hong Kong.