In 2015, Dennis Tan was hosted by a family in Kebau, Riau Islands of Indonesia where he honed skills in the construction of the traditional Kolek sailboat. On this journey Tan was introduced to three generations of all; Kolek named Pujangga, each built by a generation within the same family.

Two of the boats were gifted to Tan, who is now its custodian, keeper and bearer. While in residence, Tan will attempt to reconstruct the Kolek whilst investigating ideas of self-organisation and the transmission of skills and knowledge through generations of oral history in the Riau Archipelago and how this enables the continuity of cultural communities.

During the residency, Bridget Reweti intends to continue her long-term research on Ra’iatea navigator Tupaia. A leading arioi (high priest), skilled star navigator, and diplomat conversant in Māori, Tupaia joined Lieutenant James Cook’s first voyage across the Pacific in 1769, on board of the research vessel HMS Endeavour, and aided the navigation to Aotearoa New Zealand. Tupaia died, whilst en route to Britain, in Batavia (today’s Jakarta) in 1770 and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave on Pulau Damar Besar, an island off the coast of Java. Though relegated to a minor role in the Endeavour’s log books, Tupaia is remembered differently by Pacific communities. Still today, oral histories shared by fishers and voyagers across the ocean frame him as a highly influential figure. By accessing archival records and oral histories, Reweti will attempt to shed light on the reasons why Pulau Damar Besar was chosen as Tupaia’s final resting place.

Art Labor will recreate a Hammock Café serving traditional Vietnamese coffee, akin to the many itinerant roadside-resting spots of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The café will be a place for visitors to sit together, chat, rest, observe, think or simply pass time, alluding to the café culture central to Vietnamese daily life. The name Jarai Dew Hammock Café is an introduction into Art Labor’s long-term project. That takes inspiration from the Jarai people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands and their philosophy on the cycle of life. After death, humans will go through many stages to get back to their origins of existence. The final stage is that they transform into dew (ia ngôm in Jarai language) evaporating into the environment – a state of non-being – the beginning particles of a new existence.

Sopheap Pich left Cambodia with his family as a refugee at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, settling in the United States in 1984. Memories of his childhood and a desire to reconnect with his home country drew the artist back to Cambodia in 2002. He began working with local materials—bamboo, rattan, burlap from rice bags, beeswax, and earth pigments gathered from around Cambodia—to make sculptures inspired by bodily organs, vegetal forms, and abstract geometric structures. The strength, durability, lightness, and incredible malleability of rattan allow Pich to create organic forms that have become a signature of his practice. Pich holds a BFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1995), and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1999). In 2013, Pich presented a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, entitled Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich. Selected group exhibitions include the 57th Venice Biennale (2017); the Moscow Biennale (2013); Documenta 13, Kassel (2012); the Singapore Biennial (2011), among others. His work was presented at NTU CCA Singapore as part of Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative’s No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia (2014), curated by Dr June Yap.

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore is embarking on an inquiry into natural materials, exploring the knowledge they embody as biological forms as well as within social, geopolitical, and historical contexts.Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material is part of the Centre’s long-term research cluster Climates.Habitats.Environments.

This exhibition focuses on materials from four plants deeply rooted in Asia: indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), lacquer (Rhus succedanea and Melanorrhoea usitata), rattan (Calamoideae), and mulberry (Morus). The works trace the ongoing involvement with these plants in the artistic practices of Manish Nai (India) with indigo, Phi Phi Oanh (United States/Vietnam) with lacquer, Sopheap Pich (Cambodia) with rattan, and Liang Shaoji (China) and Vivian Xu (China) with mulberry silk. While the featured installations serve as a starting point to uncover the materiality of the chosen plants, the study of their natural and cultural DNA allows further exploration into their biological processes and diverse usages at their locale.

The artworks intertwine with selected research documents that address the complex histories and circulation, as well as the effects of human intervention on these natural resources. Starting from the properties and characteristics of the materials themselves, the project expands into their cultural representation and significance for communities and their crafts.

The longstanding social and cultural practices associated with indigo, lacquer, rattan, and mulberry silk have accumulated a vast repository of knowledge, whether formal or tacit. Beyond the format of the exhibition, topical seminars will be dedicated to each of the four materials, further investigating their social applications over centuries in terms of their materiality, cultural references, or expanded ecology, and as arising from technological advancements. The lectures, panels, talks, and workshops feature the participating artists, as well as craftsmen, scientists, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, scholars, and designers who are working with these materials and researching innovative applications. From the diverse perspectives offered by the contributors, the public programme excavates layers of meanings and reiterates the deeper role art and craft traditions have in supporting local communities and their ecosystems.

Topical seminars take place between 21 July and 8 September 2018.

On Lacquer: 21, 22 July

On Rattan: 25, 26 August

On Indigo: 4, 19 August, and 1 September

On Mulberry: 8 September

The project Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material is led by Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director, NTU CCA Singapore and Professor, NTU School of Art, Design and Media (ADM); Laura Miotto, Associate Professor and Co-director, MA Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices, NTU ADM; and Khim Ong, Deputy Director, Curatorial Programmes, NTU CCA Singapore.

Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material public programmes

Amar Kanwar has been filming the industrial interventions that have reshaped and permanently destroyed parts of Odisha’s landscape – a battleground on issues of development and displacement since the 1990s. The resulting conflicts between local communities, the government, and corporations over the use of agricultural lands, forests, revers and minerals, have led to an ongoing regime of violence that is unpredictable and often invisible. A long-term commitment of Kanwar, The Sovereign Forest initiates a creative response to the understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology. The validity of poetry as evidence in a trial, the discourse on seeing, and the determination of self, all come together as a constellation of films, texts, books, photographs, objects, seeds and processes.

The Sovereign Forest is produced with the support of Samadrusti, Odisha, India; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, Austria; Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, United Kingdom; Public Press, New Delhi, India; and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany.

The exhibition at NTU CCA Singapore and its public programmes are curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Khim Ong, and Magdalena Magiera, in collaboration with Amar Kanwar, Sudhir Pattnaik and Sherna Dastur.

The Sovereign Forest is produced with the support of Samadrusti, Odisha, India; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, Austria; Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, United Kingdom; Public Press, New Delhi, India; and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany.

The Sovereign Forest pubic programmes

Liang Shaoji’s practice intersects science and nature, biology and bio-ecology, weaving and sculpture, and installation and performance. He has been working with silkworms for almost three decades, using the life process of these insects as a medium. Liang graduated from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now renamed China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou) in 1965 and studied at the university’s Varbanov Institute of Tapestry. Now working in Tiantai, Zhejiang Province, his works are filled with a sense of meditation, philosophy, and poetry, while illustrating the inherent beauty of silk. Selected exhibitions include Cloud Above Cloud, Museum of China Academy of Art, Hangzhou (2016); What About the Art?, Contemporary Art from China, Al Riwaq, Doha (2016); Liang Shaoji: Back to Origin, ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai (2014); Art of Change, Hayward Gallery, London (2012); Liang Shaoji, Prince Claus Fund, Amsterdam (2009); among others. He was awarded the Prince Claus Award in 2009 and the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) in 2002. In September 2018, Liang will have a solo exhibition at M Woods, Beijing.

Artist and writer Lucy Davis’ (b. 1970, United Kingdom) interdisciplinary practice examines notions of nature in art and visual culture, science and indigenous knowledge, natural histories, materiality and urban memory primarily but not exclusively in Southeast Asia. Most notably, Davis is the founder of The Migrant Ecologies Project – the product of her longstanding interest in the mid-twentieth century Singapore Modern Woodcut movement which later informed a six-year long, material-led cumulative series of investigations under the auspices of The Migrant Ecologies Project. Davis was also the founding editor of the Singapore critical publication series focas: Forum on Contemporary Art & Society from 2000-2007. She was previously Assistant Professor at School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) at Nanyang Technological University.

Manish Nai concentrates on the material qualities of the various substances he utilises in his work. His interest is in the discovery of abstract forms through the physical manipulation of matter, and the new life assumed by cast-offs when transformed from objects of use to objects of art. Using the colour indigo (indigo dye), itself loaded with a multitude of representations and associations, this opens up the visual form to subjectivities in the interpretation of the medium throughout time. Nai’s work was included in A beast, a god, and a line, curated by Cosmin Costinas, which debuted during the Dhaka Art Summit 2018 and subsequently travelled to Para Site, Hong Kong (2018). In 2017, the Fondation Fernet Branca in St. Louis, France, presented a comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s paintings, murals, sculptures, and photographs. The exhibition will travel to the Het Noordbrabants Museum in The Netherlands. Other group exhibitions include Asymmetrical Objects, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai (2018); the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014); and the Shanghai Biennale (2012). He has newly completed an 18-metre-long sculpture as a permanent installation in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex. His works are on view at the Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace, Rajasthan, India (2017–18), and at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago as part of its permanent collection.

Phi Phi Oanh’s work is informed by her inquiry into lacquer as a material combined with her studies of the Vietnamese lacquer painting (sơn mài) tradition. Drawing from the hybrid nature of her personal history, Oanh constructs pictorial and evocative installations that reconfigure culturally-specific signs and symbols, creating familiar yet distinctive experiential spaces. In 2004 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study traditional Tranh Sơn Mài (Vietnamese lacquer painting) in Hanoi, which has since become a key medium in her practice. She has had solo exhibitions at L’Espace, Alliance Française in Hanoi; Artcore in Los Angeles; Art League in Houston; as well as El Palacio Nacional de la Cultura in Managua. In 2016, she was commissioned to create Pro Se, a work for the National Gallery Singapore and also showed her monumental Specula in the Singapore Biennale (2013).