There’d always be a risk curatorially, in any attempts to productively conflate modes of colonially-derived knowledge from the past with our fraught contemporary moment. Yet, refusals to see the parallels comes with its own pitfalls. The word “contemporary” is itself contentious. Depending on where one is from one may be privileged for it to simply mean now. However, if one is to be from a formerly colonised space it could come to connote a complex overlapping of the past for which the context of the present is derived.
As the saying goes, context is everything.
The latter definition of the contemporary is where I would like to begin, which necessitates occupying two (or more) moments at the same time. In the recent past, the ease of travel meant that my presence could straddle multiple spaces. Now no longer the case, it has only intensified a need to engage with different places synchronically. As if drawing time zones together meant the shortening of physical distances.
In the past, the disciplines of botany and natural history were oftentimes practiced remotely via samples that were shipped from the colonies in the tropics to the various Western metropoles for study. It meant that many scholarly works were authored by people that had (and would) never experienced the environment and cornucopia that are the tropical rainforests.
It bears reminding that long after the “discovery” of the Americas, the Aristotelian belief that the tropics (or the torrid zone as it was known for millennia) was a place of scorching heat and thus rendered life impossible was only belated discarded in scholarly circles. Unbeknownst to Aristotle and lot, the tropics and its rainforests had been around for what would seem to them like an eternity.
The artists of this edition of If Forests Talk (IFT22) were asked from varying distances to look at the tropical rainforests in Singapore as a starting point for each of their works. To which each interpreted the subject matter in varying degrees and approaches. It would appear that I’ve recast them all as botanists and naturalists of yesteryear in a piece of curatorial theatre. The question would of course be, why?
Firstly, the parallels are stark whether by design or not. Secondly, the fact that research and projects across geopolitical regions by an art industry notoriously obsessed with internationalism will likely remain remote and/or tenuous for most in the short term. More pertinently, Singapore as an island requires perspectives from within and out. In its case, it is fair to say that for the city-state navel-gazing is a very real existential threat.
What’s different from the practices from the (colonial) past is the directionality from which the intentions to look at Singapore derive from. Despite my absence from the city-state for over two years, I’d argue that the interests in Singapore and it’s tropical rainforests stems from within. As opposed to the detached foreign gaze from years past.
To that effect, each of the artists of IFT22 possess an affinities to Singapore and/or the tropical rainforests that are the focus of this project. The first of two Amsterdam-based artists, Marjet Zwaans has produced the work, “” that examines ecological economics from deep within the tropical rainforests of Suriname, which she has been increasingly and physically drawn to in recent years. Jonathan Castro Alejo’s video and sonic essay that likens the tropical rainforests as a form of acoustic barrier amidst the encroachment of industrial soundscapes. Based in Madrid, Weixin Quek Chong’s series of videos and texts hinges upon a sense of disembodiment that while looking at the history of early practices of botany and natural history, seems to at once dissolves it. At the scene of the crime is ila’s video in four chapters that looks at the history of the garden in Singapore. A concept that at its heart encompass colonial plantations, urban greening and the most recent trend of biophilic design whose offence is in confusing people of the distinctions that lie between nature and nurture.
Before I wrap this up, I’m going to throw in another reason behind the premise of this edition of IFT. In the West’s pursuit of colonial knowledge, it seemed the more that was learnt of the tropical rainforest the more the West’s relationship with it was perverted. It’s a relationship that has hardly abated and in many ways has been adopted and exacerbated. So while the tropical rainforests does seem to have been around forever, maybe it’s worth asking whether that will remain the case.
To which the answer in our seemingly-eschatological time might just amount to a firm maybe.