I attempt . . .

Audrey Yeo

I grew up in Singapore. I heard stories from my father about when he was a child and how it used to be in the ‘kampungs’ – Malay for traditional villages. He would go out with a net to hunt for frogs early mornings before dawn and scurry down drains to catch tadpoles and small fishes. Amidst many other kampung stories that feels like a whole other world to me. The experience of the same land has shifted drastically within a short span of one generation. Singapore, a place that can be seen as a notable example of rapid urbanisation whilst attempting to ensure urban greening proliferates the city. Despite being known as a ‘Green City’, I often catch myself questioning the artificiality of the arrangements of these ecological entities surrounding me – how many of these are native to the land, is the diversity human-imposed? It became apparent that a question as such, was the beginning of conceptually blurring the lines between urban greening and ecological landscapes and what they meant to me.

“the knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, and can thus only develop in combination with others”[1] 

The main body of my work serves as an avenue to continuously put into question my human-centred perspective of the world around me. In part, it can be seen as an almost futile attempt to detach my perspective from itself – or perhaps the only thing that will be accomplished is quite the opposite. On further contemplation, what we come to commonly deem as ‘Natural’ and ‘Unnatural’, it seemed to me as a classical example of human nature to categorize the experiences around us in order to make sense of the world. Can we step out from the primacy of human agency? Is the over reliance on our consciousness the root of the inside-outside manifestation as Butler captured in her writing of heterosexist gender performances[2]? Understanding and awareness of the inside-outside manifestation changes the way we relate to living organisms around us. Another word that captures this is dualism. Imagine, the dualism between man and nature. As Bateson suggested, the mental processes we engage in reinforces the dualistic mind-body assumption that what happens in the natural world is mechanical[3]. By this, the division causes a divide, instead of being influenced and co-influencing by process and organisation of entities.

During a field trip to Forsinard, in the Highland area of Scotland, I stood between the fences which formed the boundary between a section of untouched peatland and a section of pine trees that was introduced onto the landscape by man. The breeze was picking up. I closed my eyes. It was distinct – I could hear the manifestation of fences in the landscape.

Detached in Tent Gallery, November 2017

Close ups of Detached, November 2017

I interpreted the fences in the landscape as an analogy to the inside-outside manifestation of how we categorize and order the world around us. Through DETACHED, the process of physical line drawings of the map-perceived boundaries within the landscapes of Caithness and Sutherland, I was further imposing on the alienation that was derived from categorizing ‘nature’ as an entity which exists outside of my body. The use of the gallery wall as canvas was an attempt to undo the single momentary impression of the impermanent and ever-changing landscape that I had taken.

I wanted to find comfort in the process of returning the wall space to its original condition as a metaphor for (re-)entering into another state of mind. Perhaps one day, we are able to embrace a state of being that does not drive the inside-outside manifestation. In contrast, do other living organisms struggle in finding this balance or engage in the inside-outside manifestation? How can we begin to comprehend the reality of other organisms? Questions that led to the wanting of understanding ideas and reality from a different perspective.

I attempt to investigate . . .

My starting point was through interactions with those coming from different disciplines, specifically the sciences. Crossing disciplinary proves to be stimulating and engaging, leading to more questions than answers. With the reliance on our cognitive abilities – is it the case that the majority of us humans are trapped within a frame of mind that has been shaped and we shape, (perhaps irreversibly) by a perspective that is enabled only via western science? Coming from a family with ancestry line from China, paired with rapid westernization in our social culture, I grew up with shadows of eastern beliefs and practices. Such as, the teachings of Confucius and herbal remedies for illnesses from the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It feels like a difficult reconciliation which creates tension. Drawing upon this tension as an analogy for the narrow perspective we hold of comprehending ecology and other living organisms around us, it gave rise to the starting point for my next piece of work.

“There was a time where I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of the two worlds – the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. Or at least I try. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers – to drink the nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world.”[4]

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A BOTANICAL GLIMPSE, May 2019

“Taxonomy, i.e. the classification of the natural world whilst a useful tool, is a system of order imposed by man and not an objective reflection of nature. Its categories are actively applied and contain the assumptions, values and associations of human society”[5]

Through the process of creating A BOTANICAL GLIMPSE, I partake in the beginning phase of a knowledge creation process in a systemically and scientifically acknowledgeable way – by ensuring the process and methods I engaged in is sound. Fully aware that I have no formal training in such scientific processes reflects in itself a process to re-iterate our ways of curating knowledge; is in itself based solely from an anthropocentric belief system. In this method, I placed myself in the role as a creator of knowledge, as an attempt to grasp knowledge and the way we come to perceive it in this world. The isolation of each species found within the field sample area draws attention to and serves as an analogy of how within knowledge creation today, we place significant emphasis in looking at things in parts; broken down till the molecular level – in an attempt to understand and sense-make of the world around us.

A BOTANICAL GLIMPSE, May 2019

The piece attempts to reconcile and put to question the outcome of such an approach i.e. western scientific methods and the role of cultural institutions, in our perception and relationship to the world around us. Through the use of a theatrical setting of a botanical collection whereby viewers enter into, it lends itself to the embodiment of authenticity as a way to validate the models of knowledge we have come to rely upon – familiar yet circumscribed.

The use of resin casts to present a part of the collected plants in an immortalized, encapsulated form echoes the further limitations of just relying on the present-day sense-making systems that drive society – emphasizing the routine of separating ourselves when observing what is around us.

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Video still  from A BOTANICAL GLIMPSE, May 2019

Close-up of wall painting in A BOTANICAL GLIMPSE, May 2019]

The sampled area was determined via a process of walking through an urban and bordering ecological landscape with botanist, Dr Heather McHaffie. The choice of area intended to draw attention to our entwined and co-existence with often overlooked ecological entities. The biodiversity found within the small sampled area of 0.07m2 further highlights this.

I attempt to deconstruct . . .

REVERSAL, Photography, May 2019

In REVERSAL, the series of photos presented a deliberate moment of constructed vulnerability and objectification of the human body in ecological spaces. In Western tradition, the tendency to recognize human beings at the top of the hierarchy of beings[6] is perhaps the seed of the capitalistic approach we take towards living. What would happen if we were able to experience the animacy of the world and give equivalence to all ecological entities? How have we drifted away from the animacy of the world? 

“The language is the heart of the culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world” [7]

One of the indigenous languages of the Americas, Potawatomi, an Anishinaabe language, is a predominantly verb-based language and holds most as animate beings – rocks, bays, apples, trees and the list goes on.  Items that are man-made are inanimate, for example, a chair[8]. In every sentence then, it allows us to incorporate respect to the animacy of the world and reminds us of our kinship with the animate world around us. Imagine, relating to the world in this light instead of separating anything non-human, as an it.

The photos were shot in Scotland between the months of January and April. By subjecting the bodies to nakedness, the work invokes a sense of vulnerability. The use of photography further lends itself to the sense of objectification – as we have come to do with non-human entities – reducing them to their usefulness for our needs. In the first instance, the instrumentalism aspect of the work is elusive. Instead, the photos come across as primitive, rebirthing, clean and natural. On closer inspection, each photo presented contains an interpretation of interruption – alluding to the lack of embeddedness of us to life.

I attempt to reconstruct . . .

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Set up of UNKNOW, April 2019

In collaboration with artist Cody Lukas I presented a virtual reality (VR) piece titled UNKNOW. The choice of medium enabled a sense of transposing into another world. In this way, the piece attempted to reconstruct the boundaries of perspective and put into question worlds and the sense of otherness.  The distinction we place on humans and non-humans reinforces the failure to understand our embeddedness and dependency on nature[9]. The use of VR as the medium to convey the blurring of boundaries, alludes to the possibility of reconciliation between indigenous and scientific knowledge for our understanding of a new way of being in the world.

 VR video of UNKNOW in collaboration with Cody Lukas viewable here: 

https://youtu.be/yX9CCIkDvMM

The piece intended to confront viewers with feelings of discomfort and helplessness as an acute scenario of vulnerability and complete surrender of one ecological entity – that of the same species as the viewer i.e. human, to another i.e. Pinus sylvestris, played out. The dependency of this ecological entity to that of other(s) reflected how I tried to reconcile the human/nature dualism. The process of suspending an ecological entity allowed me to place my trust in the mind-like aspect of nature – that she would hold onto the subject’s life knowing that he is depending on her.

In the end, my attempts do not answer, instead, pose more questions about what it means to be a living organism. Perhaps the only certainty I can hold for myself is there is a gap between how the world appears to us and the world as such. Through my practice, I attempt to experience this gap.

audreyyeo.weebly.com

[1] Haraway, D.J. (2000). Situated knowledges.

[2] Butler, J. (2014). Bodies that matter on the discursive limits of ‘sex’. New York: Routledge.

[3] Bateson, M.C. (2008). Angels Fear Revisited: Gregory Bateson’s Cybernetic Theory of Mind Applied to Religion-Science Debates. In J. Hoffmeyer, ed. A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics. Biosemiotics. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, pp. 15–25.

[4] Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, p47

[5] Dion, M. et al. (2005). Mark Dion: Microcosmographia. South London Gallery.

Dion, M. (2018). Theatre of the natural world. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.

[6,8] Kimmerer, R.W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. First edition.. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.

[7] Great grandmother quoted by Robin Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, p50

[9] Plumwood, V. (2009). Nature in the Active Voice. Australian Humanities Review, (46).

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