Episode 4: On Old-Growth

Plants and fungi are sources of ancient knowledge, spiritual nourishment, and bodily sustenance. As primordial vestiges, natural forms are blueprints and points of genesis.

This episode unravels the thought process behind the newest issue on Object Lessons Space. How can a deeply rooted perspective resituate our understandings of these environments and cosmologies?
Originally Aired: 9 February 2021


Object Lessons Space
Plants and fungi are sources of ancient knowledge, spiritual nourishment, and bodily sustenance. As primordial vestiges, natural forms are blueprints and points of genesis. This episode unravels the thought process behind the newest issue on Object Lessons Space. How can a deeply rooted perspective resituate our understandings of these environments and cosmologies?
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Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to another episode of Mushroomed, a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast.

In this episode, we’re going to be introducing you to our newest issue on Object Lessons Space. We publish new articles on our platform once every two months, and this episode gives you the low-down as to the thought processes behind each issue and how everything comes together.

Our latest issue on Object Lessons Space is titled On Old-Growth. Old-growth forests are also known as primary forests, and they are both incredibly important and deeply significant. These are historical places that have seen cycle after cycle of birth and decay.

This issue features a total of five artists whose works and practices have touched on notions of plant sentience, organicity and indigenous botanical knowledge, and is now available online at www.objectlessons.space. In paying homage to the transition and transformation exemplified by old-growth habitats, this episode will attempt to speak to the enduring concert between human and non-human beings. You’ll hear from myself, and from the artists we interviewed for this issue.
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Object Lessons Space
On Kusu Island, off the coast of mainland Singapore, sits an old and large banyan tree. Every year, pilgrims travel to Kusu Island to pay their respects at three keramat, or shrines, and the Taoist temple there. It is a religiously syncretic site, and pilgrims who make the trip are of various faiths and beliefs. Where a keramat may be found, a large, towering tree, such as a banyan tree, can often be found in its immediate vicinity. In the case of Kusu Island, a banyan tree lends its cool shade and assured presence to the shrine complex. The branches of the banyan tree are filled with strips of cloth, each containing a devoted pilgrim's prayers, hopes, and wishes.

One of the artists we interviewed for our latest issue on Object Lessons Space is Lêna Bùi, and she sheds more light on how old, large trees can serve as a focal point for social life and the wider community in the context of Saigon. Lêna lives and works in Saigon, Vietnam. Her practice is wide-ranging, and some of her works articulate the impact of rapid development on our relationship with nature. At the centre of a recent research project of hers is a large African mahogany tree in Saigon that was felled recently:
Lêna Bùi
So this major road, one of the oldest in Saigon, is right in the centre of the city, and I grew up here. It’s probably the most planted old road, with rows of trees, maybe about two hundred trees, along just one road. Then they decided to chop everything down, and they did it so quickly that a lot of people didn't even realise what was going on. Going past this rather big street and seeing this happening, I was also just completely shocked.

I was also thinking of a very common belief here where we think that spirits reside in trees, especially hungry ghosts with no place to go. They live in the trees. Some types of trees here, you’ll always see altars underneath, and this is just everywhere. It’s a form of belief that’s a mixture of Taoism, and Buddhism, and local concoctions, so it's not organised. And I love that. It's living. It’s not really orchestrated. The spirits are there, and people still believe in them.
Object Lessons Space
African mahogany trees are not indigenous to Vietnam, and are actually native to West Africa. Yet they have become commonplace in various cities around Southeast Asia, and if you look up the African mahogany tree on Wikipedia today, the main cover image is of a tree-lined avenue in Hanoi. Yet in rapidly developing cities all around the world, trees such as these are often cut down to make way for roads, highways, and buildings.

Beyond their cultural significance, Lêna also spent time talking about how trees provide much needed and well appreciated shade for a host of other activities:
Lêna Bùi
In that road, the pavements were actually very big, so there's vibrant life on the side of the road. There are barber shops, and some people with mirrors, who have been doing this for thirty years at the same spot. When they chopped down the trees, I did physical rubbings of the tree stump. For one month, everyday I was on the street, and lots of people would stop by and chat. Locals also came out. It’s beyond the belief or the mythical aspect. There’s also a lot of social life.
Object Lessons Space
Trees have captivated the imagination of various artists, and Lêna is not alone in her explorations about them.

We’ll soon be hearing from another artist who shares these interests. Jason Lim's repertoire of works encompass ceramics, photography, installations, and performance art. He is also one of the artists we’ve interviewed for our latest issue, On Old-Growth:
Jason Lim
Before looking at the banyan tree, I spent a lot of time walking the back streets of the city. I was very amazed by this particular plant, which would cling onto the cracks in the wall, and they just grow from there. They need very little soil, and the plant will just grow, taking over the entire wall or architecture. It got me interested, and I wanted to find out what this plant was. I've discovered that they are from the ficus genus. These are basically fig trees, but there are many different species of the fig tree. Upon further research, I realised that the banyan tree is actually a specimen of the fig trees. Therefore, I used the banyan as the main motif of a clay performance or installation work that I have been doing over the last few years.

What's interesting for me about the ficus is that it is a very resilient plant, and it also has very parasitic characteristics. They cling onto something else, and will eventually take over the host. There is a kind of banyan called the strangling ficus, which clings onto a host tree before totally strangling the host. At the end, there will be a hollow in the middle of the banyan tree structure, which was formerly occupied by the host tree. For me, this tells us a lot about humanity, in some sense, especially the resilience of humanity. Yet at the same time, I feel that humanity can be quite parasitic in the same way because we are quite reliant on one another for that survival instinct.
Object Lessons Space
Trees such as the banyan exist in communion with a host of other living beings, and we now move from the highest point of a natural habitat to look at what happens deep underground. There is so much more to forests and natural habitats than what is visible. It turns out that what was happening beneath the surface would redefine the way we understood these places.

It was always very much doubted that trees in a forest could talk to or communicate with one another. That is, until Suzanne Simard and her research turned these misconceptions on its head. Simard’s research into forest ecologies was revolutionary. Her research showed how trees would share knowledge with one another — we just didn’t understand their language yet.

How trees pulled this off was through interspecies collaboration. When fungal webs and mycelial networks pair up with tree roots, mycorrhizal networks are formed. Through these mycorrhizal networks, trees share carbon, nutrients, water, hormones and warnings with one another.

Simard’s research is proof of the fact that forests are more than just a collection of trees. They’ve also shown that trees and the fruiting bodies above ground are just the tip of the iceberg. We cannot come to a full, cohesive picture of what happens within forest networks without a discussion of fungi.

Syaiful Garibaldi is an artist whose practice is interested in fungi, moss, and lichen. Syaiful lives and works in Bandung, and being in the city has invigorated his enduring interest in nature and mycology:
Syaiful Garibaldi
For research and observation, the city of Bandung is a place that becomes your lab, or your outdoor lab. Bandung is very interesting, I think. Topologically, the city is under the Bandung basin. It’s like a large, basin bowl that is, at the top, surrounded by the mountains. Environmentally, it is a city that is prone to various natural disasters. We have water problems, trapped air pollution, and also the volcanoes. So I think the experience of living and exploring this city and its surroundings eventually shaped me and my interests in nature.

As in the case of mycology, like you said before, when I know that the rainy season is here, or that it has been raining for three days in Bandung, I know that it's the time for me to go up into the mountain to look for or spot the fungus or the mushroom. It's easy for me to observe them. From my place, it takes one hour or two hours to go into the forest and get lost inside looking for the mushroom things, and something like that
Object Lessons Space
There’s a wonderfully interconnected or ecological perspective to the way Syaiful thinks about and moves through his city. He mentions foraging for mushrooms during the rainy season, and these explorations have made their way into his own works as well. Syaiful’s works often bring organic materials such as moss, orchids, and mycelium into the context of the art gallery:
Syaiful Garibaldi
Working with them always gives me a surprise, you know, like you said before. We can plan the final result of the work, but because they are creatures that move, they grow, and they are very sensitive, we get unexpected results. At first, I'd feel like I had failed because they're not working or they are not growing according to schedule or as they should be. But this gives me the feeling of acceptance, because you cannot fully control them — of course, because you are working with living organisms. And this acceptance and awareness about this has also built my character — not just with the mushrooms, but with my work in more conventional things such as my paintings.
Object Lessons Space
Incorporating fungi and lichen into artworks might seem unconventional, but organic materials come in many forms. A material that many of us will find more familiar is clay. Clay is drawn from the earth, and as a result of that, often bears characteristics of the land they come from, such as soil composition or mineral levels.

Working with clay is something that artist Madhvi Subrahmanian is familiar with. As a ceramic artist based in Singapore, clay is at the heart of Madhvi’s practice. She shares a deep affinity with clay that she tells us about in our interview with her:
Madhvi Subrahmanian
I think clay is one of the most versatile materials we have on this planet. Like you said, it's very organic. It has a malleability about it, and it is responsive. And for clay artists, people who are working with clay, we believe that — we don't believe, it's not so much a belief, but we can see it, It's evident in its structure that — it has a memory. It has a memory, and it also responds back to you. So you actually do develop a dialogue with this material as you keep working with it. So when I say memory, I honestly mean memory. You lay a flat slab of clay, and you twist it in a certain way, and then you flatten it back, and you go away, and you come back, and you see that slight twist has come back into the material, because it remembers what had happened to it. So I just love these subtle aspects about clay that constantly reminds me that it's a material that's very alive. It's not just sensuous, and sexy, and wonderful to work with, but it's responsive. Again as clay artists, we’ll say, if you push clay too far, it's going to push right back. So you cannot really force yourself onto it as much. You have to work with it. And these are some of the things that, as I started working with, with clay and started learning about this, conceptually, spiritually, it connects me more and more with this material.
Object Lessons Space
This memory of natural materials, of things that are of the ground, is an important point. Being attuned to and in concert with our natural surroundings brings the artist Ana Mendiata’s practice to mind.

Ana Mendieta was an artist who worked across painting, sculpture, video and performance. Her works were dazzling and often ritualistic, and she called them “earth/body sculptures”.

Mendieta is perhaps best known for her Silueta series. In this series of works, Mendieta traced the outline — or the silhouette — of her body out with a variety of organic materials. Some of the materials included rocks, flowers, branches, leaves, gunpowder, and blood.

About this series, she wrote, and I quote —
“I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body. I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb. My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source.”
End quote.

Mendieta moved from Cuba to the United States of America at a young age, and although the idea of place looms large in this series of works, the artist also touched on notions of feminism, spirituality, identity, and more.

Mendieta’s works are hard to place, and that in-betweenness is front and centre within this series, which contain more than two hundred works. Her ability to sit with and within nature was the focal point of an essay by writer Rebecca Tamas.

In this essay, Tamas writes about how Mendieta speaks the unspeakable — not by making it known, but by allowing it to speak through her, and I quote —
“Her art shows us that the ‘natural world’ does not wait outside of us, but moves through the doors of our being, connecting and reforming what we are, its sticky difference impossible to excise. Her work is the promise of a green flourishing, another way of sharing with, becoming with, the world of which we are a part.”
End quote.

Although it seems counterintuitive, it is this imprecision that allows for a truthful telling and retelling.

This communion with non-human entities and beings is something that artist Zai Tang explores in his work as well. Zai is known for his evocative works that sit at the intersections of sound, installation, animation, projection and performance. During my interview with him, we spent some time speaking to the way in which the human is disproportionally centered through terms such as the “Anthropocene”, and how art might gesture at possible alternatives to that: 
Zai Tang
Of course in thinking about what nature means, and how we understand this point this time, the term “Anthropocene” is important in understanding a geological situation of this moment of mass extinction, but perhaps it falls short of where we understand the source of the problem being. Whilst I do think the onus is on us to understand and find means to tackle this ecological crisis, I think it might also focus on the human aspect a bit too much. Whereas a term like “Capitalocene” becomes very useful, because in the writings of Jason Moore and Raj Patel, they speak about how it’s not because of humans that we’ve arrived at this situation - it’s because of capitalism. Capitalism, of course, has shaped nature as a process of capital accumulation. It has completely transformed the world, and also it’s divided up the world as well. So in order to find a path towards a more cohesive and equal future, I think we need to find strategies to disrupt - maybe even within ourselves - the capitalist mindset, which simply cannot sustain itself within this finite planet with its finite resources. So considering listening in relation to this time, as I’ve tried to articulate before, I think it’s really a gesture towards an Other. In this case of my work, it is a gesture towards the other-than-human creatures that we share this world with. Listening offers a space of possibility for both connection and imagination. For me, it’s a gentler gesture towards something that maybe can open up possibilities towards creating more cohesive ecological realities.
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Object Lessons Space
Old-growth forests are rich, biodiverse habitats. Although this episode was not a direct discussion around forest ecologies, it was so clear to us that the complexity of these multi-layered spaces have seeped into the works and practices of contemporary artists today as frameworks, analogies, and points of reference.

It is also important to note that all of the ideas this episode touches on have been known for a long time to indigenous communities around the world. This ancient wisdom is passed down from generation to generation, and we would do well to heed that knowledge when it comes to ecological stewardship and environmental restoration.

If you enjoyed this deep-dive into our latest issue, the full articles — and the transcript of this episode— can be found on our website at www.objectlessons.space.

We also have a presence on all the usual social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If you like our work, we do have a Patreon page that you can check out as well.

Mushroomed is a podcast series hosted by Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with the wonderful people at Singapore Community Radio. Thankyou so much for spending time with us today.

Mushroomed is a series of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. Sit in on conversations with artists and cultural practitioners. This podcast is hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with Singapore Community Radio.


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