Syaiful Garibaldi on Foraging for Mushrooms, Ecologies of Connection and Coming Full Circle


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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Old-Growth

Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi, born 1985 in Jakarta, worked in Bandung, graduated from the Fine Arts Department at FSRD ITB. Currently studying a master's degree in Environmental Science at UI. Working with various mediums, interested in the world of microorganisms, the process of decomposition, and Ecology as themes of work. Solo Exhibition at Roh Projects, Silverlens Gallery, Mindset Art Center, Pearl Lam and Padi Art Ground.








¹ Een berg in de Preanger, Abdullah Suriosubroto
Tropenmuseum, c. 1935

Let’s begin our conversation with a work you picked out for our conversation by the artist, Abdullah Suriosubroto. Suriosubroto was known for his lavish, scenic paintings in the Mooi Indie (Beautiful Indies) tradition. What would you say is the place of the historical within your practice, and how do you relate to this artistic lineage and tradition?

It reminds me of what I saw growing up. I was born and raised in the suburbs of the south of Jakarta. As a child, the beautiful landscapes as in the Mooi Indie paintings would have been very far away from where I lived. Yet it was always present in my childhood, just in a different way. These kinds of paintings were always hanging in my house or in my friends' houses. You could easily get these paintings as souvenirs from tourist landmarks or attractions. These paintings would depict the landscape and the mountains of West Java, and they could always be found in the houses of Indonesian people at that time.

In my opinion, what is more interesting is how the general public perceives standardised works of art, like those from the Mooi Indie tradition. It affects things relating to creativity such as models for art education for elementary school. In the New Order era, education curriculums deprioritised the arts and creativity. Everything was geared towards science and math in school, and when you got back home, the focus would be on religious education. There was no place for art or the study of art. During drawing classes in school, we were taught the principle of naturalism. How do you colour the blue sky? How do you draw the sun? We learnt about perspectives too. To me, this method of teaching discouraged the creativity of the children at that time. They weren't given a space to imagine or to build their own landscapes. As a result of the curriculum at that time, I missed out on having a happy experience with drawing or landscape drawing. Art had to be like the paintings from the Mooi Indie era, and paintings from this tradition documented the new and exotic Indies for the Dutch East India Company. In a sense, they were souvenirs too.

Ironically, I now live and work in Bandung. The painter Abdullah Suriosubroto moved from Semarang to Bandung in order to be closer to the mountains and the nature that he painted.  Here, he painted the work I picked out for our interview. I'm an artist myself now, living in Bandung, and amazed by the landscapes that surround me.

It’s all come full circle.

Yeah.

² Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini
1981

Another work you picked out for this interview is the Codex Seraphinianus. The encyclopaedia draws from the language of scientific botanical illustration and documentation, but incorporates fantastical embellishments. Personally, how do you approach the relationship between science, art and imagination?

The botanical illustrations in the Codex Seraphinianus were the sort of artworks that made me move from agricultural studies to the visual arts. Before I moved into the fine arts, I majored in agricultural studies. I still remember having botanical classes where we would do field drawings of structure, physiology, or genetics. We weren't just doing drawing on a macro scale. We drew on a micro scale as well. The experience of drawing under the microscope is scattered with meaning and imagination, and I sketched out so many things based on what I observed as well. That was when I realised that I might be becoming more of an artist than a scientist or a researcher, and I moved to a school for fine arts. Even after moving to study the fine arts, I realised that this idea of the botanical was still the best artistic concept I had. Art is meant to make you think deeply or philosophically, and this can be applied to thinking about plants, ecosystems, or ecologies. 

This was all sixteen years ago. Now, I'm back in school and finishing up a master's degree in Environmental Science. It's all interdisciplinary — the science and the arts — and what's important is that you need to respect and work towards understanding both. If you want to talk about the environment, about nature, or about the ecosystem, I think it is important that we are thinking about what we make holistically.

Art is meant to make you think deeply or philosophically, and this can be applied to thinking about plants, ecosystems, or ecologies. 

³ Abiogenesis: Terhah Landscape #14, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2014, Installation View at Pearl Lam Galleries


Abiogenesis: Terhah Landscape #14, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2014, Installation View at Pearl Lam Galleries

Now that we’re on the topic of nature and ecologies, let’s also spend some time discussing your interest in mycology, and what the origins of that were. Was there a particularly formative experience, or a couple of formative experiences, that come to mind for you when thinking about how these interests were shaped?


I've lived in Bandung since 2003, and I worked in my studio in conventional ways such as painting or sculpture. When it comes to research or observational purposes, the entire city of Bandung is almost like a laboratory, or an outdoor laboratory. Bandung is very interesting, I think. Topologically, the city is at the bottom of the Bandung basin. Surrounding the city at the top of the basin are mountains. Environmentally, the city is prone to natural disasters. We have problems with water, air pollution, and volcanoes. The experience of living in and exploring the city and its surroundings eventually shaped me and my interest in nature.

With mycology, when I know that the rainy season is here or that there have been three consecutive days of rain in Bandung, I know it's time for me to go up into the mountains to forage for fungi or mushrooms. From my place, it just takes an hour or two to go into the forest and get lost inside looking for the mushroom things.

When you search for fungi or mushrooms in the mountains, what are some of the common ones you come across?

They are mostly basidiomycetes and there are a lot of wild mushrooms in the forest. There are so many different species of wild mushrooms or lichen in the city as well. It’s just that if you're looking for a particularly rare or unique mushroom, you need to go into the forest, which is quite close by.

Bodies Of Change - A Beautiful Decay, Maurizio Montalti
2010

Something that’s incredibly striking about how you’ve extended these interests into your own work is through the use of fungi as material. As living beings, mycological organisms have a life of their own. What do you enjoy most about incorporating or working with this open-endedness?

It's always a surprise when you work with organic materials. You can try to plan out how you'd like the final work to look like, but because these are creatures that move, grow, and are very sensitive, the results are always unexpected. Sometimes you feel like you’ve failed because things don't work out, the materials are not growing according to schedule, or as they should be. But it's about accepting that we can't fully control the outcomes. Of course — we're working with living organisms after all. Beyond working with mushrooms, cultivating acceptance and awareness about this builds up my more conventional painting practice. When I paint, I make initial sketches. After that, I mix my paints into a lot of water. When I pour them onto the surface, it's about allowing the liquid paint to give shape to the painting itself. How do the liquids flow? How are the colours seeping into each other? Such acceptance is what I learnt from working with mushrooms.

One of the works I've done, Balitsa Ehoor, is a series of fences with lichen growing on the fence bars. With this work, the idea was to use lichen as bioindicators. Lichen are sensitive organisms, and can be used to monitor the air quality of our surroundings. Lichen are also composite organisms where fungi and algae coexist symbiotically. They function as good biomonitors because they have very long lifespans. But the thing with this is that you can't control how or where the lichen grows. The fence the lichen was growing on was the property of the Indonesian government, and because of that, we spent a lot of time negotiating an arrangement with officials so that I could get the fence. That's my experience of working with living organisms. Not knowing where they grow or how they'll grow means that it's constantly a surprise for me. I think that's what I love about working with living organisms.

You can try to plan out how you'd like the final work to look like, but because these are creatures that move, grow, and are very sensitive, the results are always unexpected.

Balitsa Ehoor, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2019, Installation View at Art Jakarta


Balitsa Ehoor, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2019, Installation View at Art Jakarta

Fungi and mushrooms were front and centre in your Abiogenesis: Terhah Landscape series of works. How did you find the experience of working with and bringing organic materials such as moss, mycelium, and orchids within and into the context of a white cube gallery space?

When you're working with a gallery space, you have to work with the gallery team. With Pearl Lam Galleries, for example, they accepted my proposal when I submitted my ideas for the installation. One thing I learnt from that show, which was my first international solo show, was that I can't bring in all the materials I want to use in my works from Indonesia. I asked the gallery if they knew of any mushroom farmers in Singapore. There are these huge farms in the north of Singapore which are a slight distance away from the city centre. That was where I learnt how I could grow mushrooms inside the gallery space. Together with the mushroom farmers there, we talked about the optimal environments and temperature for growing mushrooms in the gallery, and I learnt so many things from them. That experience made me realise that for future international shows, I should use material or organisms from the destination city or the country.

Mushroom and mold are organisms that are everywhere. They can be found on the streets or in your food, but most people aren't aware of their presence. When they're placed into the setting of a white cube or a gallery, audiences are able to have a new experience with these organisms, and sometimes people begin to take pictures with these works as well. It’s an interesting experience for me as well, and that's why I want to bring these materials into the space of an art gallery.

Condensation Cube, Hans Haacke
Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1965 (2006) (2013)

Your incorporation of organic materials into your work also touches on your interest in natural processes such as sweat, decay, growth, excretion, or fermentation. This also comes through in your selection of Toshiyuki Nakagaki's experiments with polycepalum and Hans Haacke's Condensation Cube for our conversation. These processes are often imperceptible, and one of the ways you’ve managed to capture them is by way of the microscope. In visualising the barely perceptible, what sort of perspectives are you hoping to uncover or shed light on?

When we are trying to understand things on a large scale, we need to start small. In order to understand the bigger ecosystem, we need to look at the small parts that form the ecosystem. I always begin by looking at the smallest thing first. When I have an idea, a material, or an organism for an artwork, the first thing I do is to place it under a microscope and look at it. For me, this allows me to better engage with or understand the bigger picture. A simple mushroom, for example, could become an entire ecosystem for smaller microorganisms or bacteria when you look at it under the microscope. They all interact with and are connected to one another, and knowing this helps us to understand the symbiosis between them. When I present works, I try to give audiences a large viewing area so that they can exercise their imagination when thinking about the connections between what they're looking at and the organisms or the microorganisms.

One of the things I picked out for this interview was Toshiyuki Nakagaki's experiments with polycepalum or slime mold. That experiment shows us the primitive intelligence of one single cell — the slime mold. This experiment later became the model for the Tokyo rail system in Japan. That exemplifies the perspective, for me, of trying to understand the bigger ecosystem by first beginning by looking at its smaller parts, in this case, a single cell.

When I have an idea, a material, or an organism for an artwork, the first thing I do is to place it under a microscope and look at it.

Abiogenesis: Terhah Landscape #11, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2014, Installation View at Pearl Lam Galleries


¹⁰ Abiogenesis: Terhah Landscape #11, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2014, Installation View at Pearl Lam Galleries

Some of these natural processes, specifically perspiration, were the subject matter of an exhibition you had earlier this year titled Sudor. Could you tell us a little more about this body of work, and how it came to be?

The Sudor project is the first step for me towards not just focusing on non-human living organisms, but also considering the human body. During the process of perspiration, the human body interacts with its environment or situation. I wasn't thinking about this through the lens of Anthropocentrism. For me, it was more about ecocentrism. That's why I saw the perspiring body as a landscape.

That's why I made a video about the process of perspiration and included some paintings of this process from the perspective of a microscope for this project. The video work features images of hair, for example, which is another bioindicator that can be used to measure air quality. There were rocks with lichen on them in the gallery space, and I included all kinds of bioindicators and organisms in the paintings as well. When you look at the video, the paintings, and the rock objects, I'm simulating a model that shows us how we connect, how we react, and how we interact with our ecosystems.

We've spent a lot of time talking about mushrooms and lichen in this interview, and it’s so interesting that the conversation has now moved towards how you’re incorporating the human body into some of your works. Is this a direction you see yourself moving towards?

The human body, for me, is interesting because of how it reacts to its surroundings. It's not so much about the human body itself. When I work with lichen, I'm interested in how they react to stressors such as pollution. It's the same for my interest in the human body. It's about how we respond.
¹¹ Sudor #1, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2020

The current global crisis of the pandemic deals with the microscopic as well. It can be seen as a breakdown or decomposition, in many ways, of world orders and old ways of being. Has any of this changed the way in which you perceive or approach your practice or art making?

It has definitely changed my personal situation. With regard to my works, I do think I'll be working with the same ideas. However something that I've been thinking about is the need to be more responsible with my work. I tend to talk about ecosystems or microbiology in an intellectual or theoretical way. It's become more evident to me that in these situations, we need to go beyond a technical understanding of our ecologies. It is important to understand the impact of my work and what I'm doing with these microorganisms. I'm doing a masters in Environmental Science now, and I am working on my thesis. This has given me time to think about what's happening around me, what's going on, and what I can do with my work.

I tend to talk about ecosystems or microbiology in an intellectual or theoretical way. It's become more evident to me that in these situations, we need to go beyond a technical understanding of our ecologies.

¹² Sudor #2, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2020


¹³ Sudor #4 and Sudor #5, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi
2020





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