Ernest Goh on Faith Moving Mountains, Elucidating Our Relationship with Our Trash and Facilitating Honest Conversations

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Ernest Goh founded Ayer Ayer, an ecologically-engaged art project that reaches out to communities through visual, experiential and participatory artworks in art and science. In 2019, Ernest looked at the complications of ocean plastic pollution faced by Punggol Beach in Singapore. The artist also created The Animal Book Co., a photography-based project that explores natural history and wildlife. Ernest’s animal portraits have been published in The Fish Book (2011), Cocks (2013, republished as Chickens in the US in 2015), and The Gift Book (2014). He presented an exhibition, Breakfast at 8 Jungle at 9 (Objectifs, 2015), exploring the famed British explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s time in Singapore and the Asian region in the 1850s. Ernest's work has been commissioned by and installed at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, collected by the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, and also resides in corporate, public and private collections.

True to the community-centred approach of Ayer Ayer, Ernest’s selection for our conversation is primarily concept and image-based. For this interview, Ernest picked out images of shared meals, a bottle of water, mountains, plates of food and microplastics. We talk to him about the project, how it came about, and why it is so important to think about the relationships we share and the spaces we occupy in the world today.

A lot of what you’ve picked out for our conversation reflects the ecologically-engaged angle that Ayer Ayer has. Mountains and water, for example, bring to mind our natural landscapes and surroundings. What is your personal relationship with nature and our environment?

The image of the mountain, in and of itself, depicts a sense of freedom to me. As someone who grew up in the outdoors and love the outdoors, it speaks to me and my senses. When I was picking out these so-called images for the conversation, I picked them out in relation to the Ayer Ayer Project as well. The mountains, for example, hold a double meaning given that context. I also wanted to talk about this idea of faith moving mountains. Given the scale of the ecological problems we’re facing now, we do need that faith. In order to even think of how we could begin to solve these issues, we need a lot of faith. If not, we’d be completely defeatist in our attitude. In order to think of this mountainous problem as surmountable, there needs to be that element of faith in ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the system’s ability to change with the times.

Coming to the bottle of water I picked out, it represents multiple things. I’m used to thinking and talking about things through art, and I’ve been tinkering around with how I can use this language to tackle the ecological issues we’re facing today. This includes drastically reducing our consumption of single-use plastic bottles. I say reduce instead of eradicate because I still feel that there is a place for a bottle of water. The bottle of water, to me, symbolises our love for convenience — even if this comes at the expense of our environment. It also brings to mind the amount of waste and pollution generated from this single, seemingly harmless everyday product. It is something that we could do without, and this comes back to this idea of having faith in people that we can break these habits. We lived without plastic bottles of water for the longest time, so I have faith that we could live without it again.

There is a clear sense of optimism that comes through in your answer, and this stands in sharp contrast to some of the rhetoric around climate change. Artists often create works in response to the issues of the time, however some feel that the frivolousness associated to the pursuit of art makes it an unsuitable medium for the message of climate change. What is your personal take on this, and why have you decided to tackle these issues through art with Ayer Ayer?

I’m actually quite a pessimist when it comes to these issues, but I’m a pessimist that likes to solve problems. Even though I do share the view that the environmental situation as it stands is quite dire, I also don’t like sitting on my ass doing nothing. Having said that, I have faith that if we all do something about it, then things could change. It just becomes a question of how and when. As to your question of why approach these issues through art,

I think art is a good translator of statistics. It is just another tool in the arsenal to spread the message and to solve problems.

You have biologists, physicists and geologists coming up with really good research, backed up with facts and figures, about what’s happening to our environment today. I see art as functioning as a translator for these figures, allowing for this research to reach more people. Some people think better through their hands, others think better through reading, and the possibilities are endless. There are seven billion people on this planet, and I think there is definitely a proportion of people who absorb information better when it’s presented through the visual. It’s another tool in the box, and it just so happens to be a tool that I’m familiar with.

Tell us more about how you started Ayer Ayer. Was there something in particular that sparked off this project?

The idea for this project was seeded more than ten years, when I was still doing my Masters in London. I titled my thesis, ‘Regress to Progress’, and it argued that we had to look towards the old methods of doing things in order to move ourselves forward as a species. The older ways of living are often more sustainable, and can lead us on a more steady path for our future. It was an incredibly idealistic idea, but that’s how the project started taking shape.

The Ayer Ayer Water Fountains really drew upon these ideals. As I mentioned earlier, we lived without single use plastic bottles of water for a very long time. Governing bodies used water fountains to distribute water to their populations in public. Having done historical research into these matters, I’ve come to conclude that public water fountains have the ability to, if I dare say, save a city. For example, you have Rome being hydrated by beautiful water fountains all around the city. Victorian London was stricken by cholera and sanitation was horrible. In a time where beer was cheaper than water, philanthropists came together to build water drinking fountains to facilitate public access to clean water. That helped to reduce the spread of the waterborne disease, and prevented further outbreaks. In my mind, I was thinking about how I could bring public water fountains back to save the day. That’s how the Ayer Ayer Water Fountains came about. It was born out of idealistic and almost whimsical notions, but serves an incredible practical purpose in solving this problem.
¹ Ayer Ayer Water Fountain, Ernest Goh/Ayer Ayer Project

Photography: Ernest Goh and Ayer Ayer Project

Let’s talk about the Ayer Ayer Water Fountains for a bit. You’ve brought these fountains to several corporate events, and this has drastically reduced the need for single use or disposable plastic bottles of water. Often when we think of community art projects, we think of symbolic gestures that bring communities and artists together to unpick a particular issue. With these fountains, the project goes beyond calling for change to actually effecting change. Why was it so important for you to bring in a practical aspect to this project?

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, I love problem solving. I was trained both as a designer and as an artist. I had great mentors who were designers, and great mentors who were artists. Maybe that combination of the two disciplines had something to do with this, because I like this idea of making problem solving an art. Perhaps when it comes to making art, this is my pedagogy and process. To me, it is important that I go beyond just raising awareness or talking about an issue through art. Could this art then serve a function as well?

There are those who think of such an approach as sacrilegious. Having said that, who gives a shit about what they think?

As someone who is trained in both art in design, how do you think your understanding of one shapes how you approach the other?

I’ve always been interested in both art and design, and I like the idea of placing two opposing things together. I say opposing only because there are purists in both camps who draw a very clear, firm line between art and design. Traditionally, dogma states that a particular discipline should stay within its confines. Personally, I enjoy blurring the lines and I guess I’m just rebellious in that sense.

² Debris Shore Table, Ernest Goh/Ayer Ayer Project

Photography: Ernest Goh and Ayer Ayer Project

There is deep intentionality built into every aspect of making and putting together the Debris Shore Table, and this extends even to the wood used for the table. Could you talk us through the significance of using found or repurposed objects across every facet of this project?

On a practical level, I’ve always liked repurposing and reusing the resources we already have. If I had a house, I would furnish the space with old furniture. Having said that, the work talks about how we deal with our waste. I realised that if I were to discuss waste and the relationship we should have with our trash, then I wanted to bring this out through the very materiality of the work itself. The only way we can insert ourselves into this equation is in using this trash, picking it out and sorting it out. That’s how you can begin to learn about the different types of plastic, and why different types were even synthesised in the first place. It usually comes down to cost.

For the Debris Shore Table, I collected bits of plastic that was washed up onto Punggol Beach. But it is important to remember that plastic is not the only thing that is washed up onto our shores. We dump wood into our oceans too, and I saw all of this on the beach. There are so many interesting stories tied to the kinds of wood that we throw into the ocean. You even find benches and doorways floating around in the oceans, and these stories allow us to begin forming relationships to these items. That is, for me, the whole point of this project. It is about understanding what we throw away, and then finding ways to reuse them.

Often, people think that we saved a lot of money by repurposing objects for this artwork. That’s not actually true. In fact, it cost more for us to use this salvaged material for the work. The wood you collect, for example, needs to be processed. A lot of gunk gets stuck in the wood, and you need to send it to carpenters with expertise. It was very hard for us to find a carpenter who was willing to process this wood because of how much work it would take. This was one of the challenges of working on Ayer Ayer. We didn’t want to work in silos, but that also meant coming into contact with those who might not immediately understand why we were doing things the way we did. In a very idealistic sense, I saw this as an opportunity to educate these collaborators or to bring them into the fold.

At the crux of this project is the idea of opening up conversations.

Without these moments, my interaction with my fabricators or carpenters would just be another transaction for them. It opens up a doorway for others to think, and it’s always an interesting process. In order for these opportunities to arise, the use of salvaged material was key.

The relational aspect of the Debris Shore Table is built into not just the materials used for the work, but the making of the work as participants sit around the table to sort through the bits of plastic as well. You referenced meals and food in your selection for our interview, and the topics discussed at the dinner table are often light-hearted. Have you found this communal or convivial activity a productive way through which to engage audiences, and why do you think this informality sets the stage for honest conversations?

People relate to the dinner table, or the table, on a personal level. We know that having a meal at a table is, most of the time, a relaxing affair. It is not a table with work or a desk with a computer on it. Immediately, the audiences’ guard is down. The next thing you do at a table is to talk. You have a conversation with the person next to or in front of you. What better way is there to talk about the artwork or the issues that the artwork comments on?

On another level, you’re also confronting them with the issue. Usually, I don’t tell audiences what the artwork is about upfront. I know that can turn certain people off the work entirely. We’ve also been bombarded with information about the ecological crisis, so people have heard about it enough. Of course, flooding people with facts and figures has its place. It is important as well. But what this artwork does is to go beyond that, allowing viewers to interact with that pollution firsthand. I always tell audiences that the table is a collection of debris from the ocean, and that I’d like their help in removing some of the plastic bits from the debris. I wanted to draw viewers in through the simple act of picking, and to help them realise the sheer scale of this pollution through a tactile experience. Throughout my practice, I’ve always enjoyed introducing small acts of engagement. I wanted to bring down the barriers to engaging with a subject that we might hear about too often. It was about creating an opportunity for participants to sit down and interact with the work, whilst allowing me to share the stories behind these objects with them.

When we brought the table to the Central Business District, we realised that we were faced with a tough crowd. I don’t work in the area myself, but it was through that experience that I realised that nobody walks there. They all fly. You can’t even talk to them during lunch hour because you’re simply getting in their way. My facilitators and I were having such a hard time getting people to participate in the work, so I came up with a sign that read: “One minute beach clean-up”. It worked because people knew immediately that the commitment level was low, and that I wasn’t trying to sell them anything. So I’ve always liked the table as a very informal or even democratic, if you will, setting. It isn’t imposing, and allows for genuine conversation.
³ Debris Shore Table, Ernest Goh/Ayer Ayer Project
2019, Installation View at Ocean Financial Centre

Photography: Ernest Goh and Ayer Ayer Project

Let’s turn the conversation to Plasticity, a series of photographs you showed at the Objectifs earlier this year. You collected bits of plastic bits from a beach in Punggol and photographed them against a white background. Why remove the plastic waste from the context of their original location, and photograph them as products or specimens?

I guess I was trying to find another way of presenting the problem of plastic pollution. As an artist, I’m aware that visual fatigue often plagues many viewers today. Viewers are often bombarded with the same image over and over again, and it gets to a point where that image no longer has an impact. We’ve seen so many photographs of plastic bags in the ocean or plastic straws and turtles, so I wanted to see if I could present the same object in a different way. I wanted to strip these objects of any context, hence forcing the viewer to see it as it is and inviting them to think about it differently. I wanted viewers to notice the nooks and crannies in these pieces of plastic, to observe its cracks, and to look closely at it. In doing so, I hoped that viewers would form different conclusions as well. As to what those conclusions are, I guess that’s something that’s beyond my control. What I can control, however, I show these images. These are tiny bits of plastic, but I printed them out as large photographs. I wanted to allude to the fact that though these bits of plastic as small, they add up to become this gigantic problem.

When Faith Moves Mountains, Francis Alÿs

Around the world, we’ve seen an uptick in projects that explore the intersections between art and communities. Have you found some of these artist-led projects helpful? This could be in terms of drawing upon or adapting these frameworks in your own efforts, or similar initiatives that you have been inspired by.

I got this idea of faith moving mountains from this particular artist-led community art project by Francis Alÿs titled When Faith Moves Mountains. The artist got a community of people to literally move a mountain from one place to another, one shovel at a time. That really resonated with me, because I know the issue that I’m engaging with is a mountainous one as well. Anything that I do with Ayer Ayer is just one shovel. Having said that, it’s important that we still do this work — even if it is just one shovel.

When you think about the idea behind When Faith Moves Mountains, it becomes clear that it is an incredibly valid one. That’s really how things are changed. When you look at how history has played out, that’s how things have been changed time and time again. Having faith that the system will change, or that we make the system change is important. This work really resonated with me, and so when you think about how the Debris Shore Table is about sitting down to remove one plastic piece at a time, it makes sense. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is me having faith in people and in the possibility that things might change.

Microplastic Bit #01, Collected from Punggol Beach, Approx. Size 2mm, Ernest Goh/Ayer Ayer Project

Photography: Ernest Goh and Ayer Ayer Project
Microplastic Bit #05, Collected from Punggol Beach, Approx. Size 1.5mm , Ernest Goh/Ayer Ayer Project
Photography: Ernest Goh and Ayer Ayer Project

We’ve seen how conversation surrounding ecologies and the environment can prove rather polarising or contentious. This is something you hinted at earlier when you talked about how some get turned off knowing that the artwork discusses ecological issues. How do you see art working to produce solutions or different perspectives to this, and how do we work against preaching to the converted? 

Firstly, you shouldn’t go into this expecting to change people’s minds on a matter. It isn’t sustainable for the long run, and you’ll burn out quite quickly trying to do so. But how we engage audiences effectively is by talking to everyone and anyone with an extremely open heart and mind. I think it is important to share without confrontation. Our audiences are intelligent, and especially in the context of Singapore, they’re most probably already aware of such issues. Our role is just to help them connect the dots to see how reducing their consumption and cultivating sustainable habits can positively benefit them in the long run. If you do this with the expectation to convert people, it is unfair to the audiences that you encounter. Instead of sharing as a two-way street, it has become someone imposing their views on the other.

I’ve always been drawn to this act of sharing and how it invites a shared response from the other. There’s this level of engagement where two people can have a real discussion that goes back and forth. Without that, there is no space for imagination or negotiation. If you want to change something, it always starts from negotiation. That’s the only way to really move forward. So to answer your question, for me, it’s about engaging anyone and everyone. This includes engaging the pollutants. In fact, we should engage them even more.
⁷ Various Works, Ernest Goh/Ayer Ayer Project
2019, Installation View at Objectifs

Photography: Ernest Goh and Ayer Ayer Project

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