In December 2019, Brack collaborated with Post-Museum to host a sharing by Chu Hao Pei, a Singaporean visual artist who spent three months in residency at Cemeti Art House the oldest platform for contemporary arts in Indonesia. During his sharing, Hao Pei was joined by Respondent Tan Yock Theng who spent 8 months in an ecology-centered and residential graduate school programme at Schumacher College. Hao Pei and Yock Theng and moderator Kei Franklin discussed the intersections of ecology, ritual, food sovereignty, and spiritual belief. This article presents a snapshot of the evening’s discussion and was authored by Kei Franklin, Sara Wong, and Hyorim Yoo.

Hao Pei begins his sharing with a provocative quote by Gus Speth:

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

During his residency at Cemeti, Hao Pei explored the connection between environmentalism and religious / spiritual systems of belief and practice. Cemeti was founded in 1988 with the intention of inviting local communities to engage with social and political questions through various artistic practices, in hopes of sparking eventual civic action.

Hao Pei’s sharing includes a table featuring ‘artefacts’ from his residency – seeds, tools used for farming, and objects that play a significant role in kejawen harvest rituals.
Photo Credit: Cavin Lim.

Hao Pei’s initial curiosity in this research was sparked in 2017, during a residency at Sa Sa Art Projects in Cambodia. He learned about the “tree ordination” movement started by a Monastery in Northwestern Thailand in the late 1980’s – wherein monks asserted their political voices by tying their robes around trees to prevent deforestation – and was determined to continue exploring the intriguing intersection between faith and environmentalism. This led him to the residency at Cemeti where he engaged local farming communities in order to learn about the local agricultural calendar (pranata mangsa) and its connection to harvest rituals (wiwitan) and the rice goddess (Dewi Sri / Mbok Sri) under the context of the Javanese belief system “kejawen.”

When asked about what intrigued him most regarding kejawen, Hao Pei replies:

“I am fascinated by all the traditional agricultural elements in the Javanese culture from wiwitan to pranata mangsa and Dewi Sri, as these are ways that the people’s faith is retained through their farming practices. The interviews that I conducted with various farmers and community members opened my eyes to the complexity of the cultural and religious layers that overlap with one another in Java. The hybridity is something unique, which few other places have. I remember one particularly interesting interview with some older conventional (chemical) farmers. They reportedly knew about wiwitan and pranata mangsa but were unsure why they had stopped engaging with these practices. I found this very peculiar. It was as if the rituals would soon exist only in memories.”

Hao Pei learned of the rapid loss of agriculture-based spiritual traditions and rituals in the wake of the Green Revolution in Indonesia. In the past, Javanese farming communities would commonly practice a wiwitan each harvest season in order to gratify Dewi Sri and secure a bountiful harvest. At the same time, seeds would be set aside for the following planting season. Rituals of praise and gratitude for Dewi Sri accompanied pragmatic agricultural best practices, and in this way the material and the spiritual realms supported one another.

“I’ve come to believe” says Hao Pei “that faith, religion and spirituality can do something which science and technology cannot – that is to encourage people to have belief and compassion. I’m now convinced that looking back on history and how we traditionally sustained ourselves is the way to go – not inventing another ‘green’ product to be consumed nor using technology to ‘enhance’ sustainability.”

Attendees are asked to ‘check in’ by choosing one of Hao Pei’s residency artefacts to represent how they feel at that moment. Photo Credit: Cavin Lim.

Today, however, wiwitan is rarely practiced outside of the context of somewhat-contrived, explicitly performative festivals. As of September 2019, the Indonesian government mandated that farmers use only seeds that are distributed through the centralised formal channels. One can easily see how this could lead to a rapid loss of seed diversity and possibilities of empowerment, autonomy, and sovereignty for farming communities. To resist this new mandate, Hao Pei teamed up with Sekolah Tani Muda, (which translates to young farmers’ school) in order to distribute packages of unsanctioned seeds during political rallies and protests.

The diminishing practice of wiwitan corresponds with a rise in more centralised, monocultured, and technology-dependent agricultural practices, as well as with the explicit banning of spiritual practices that do not fall neatly within the bounds of one of Indonesia’s major religions, as defined and articulated by the state. As a result, knowledge about pranata mangsa and wiwitan has been lost over time leading to a disconnection of people from land.

During her response to Hao Pei’s sharing, Yock Theng offered an alternative way of thinking about the ‘connection’ between people and land. She shares:

“The thought of people’s connection with land, is premised on the possibility that one could ‘connect without / disconnect.’ The ensuing visual metaphor (of ‘connection with’), is that there is simply a link between humans and the land. When, we use the word ‘interdependency’ instead, we add nuance and shift the tone into one of mutual reliance (hence, a call for reciprocity) where our well-being and that of the land are both interwoven and possibly even entangled.

“The land precedes our existence – the history of earth dates back approximately 4 billion years. Homo sapiens, the first humans, only came about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. History tells us that we’ve only been around for a tiny part of the evolutionary process. The land feeds and nourishes life (including us, both materially and some would say spiritually too); when life departs, our physical bodies decompose into soil, returning to land. When I situate myself within these perspectives, I can appreciate the view that humans are of the land (possibly even an extension or manifestation of land) and return to the land.”

Yock Theng invites the audience to shift our understanding – from seeing humans as ‘connected’ to land, to seeing humans as ‘interdependent’ with land. Photo Credit: Cavin Lim.

Yock Theng advocates for the need to expand our understanding of human-land relationships, inviting a shift from a more mechanistic and transactional paradigm to a more relational and interdependent one. One point of intervention, she proposes, is shifting the language we use:

”I think language is really powerful, albeit in a nondescript manner through the unspoken assumptions that underlie our frames of thought. The words, phrases and expressions that we use are lenses through which we view the world, and they consequently shape our behaviour. They create the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves within the world. For example, do we refer to nature as a ‘resource’ or to ourselves as an ‘extension / manifestation’ of nature? Changing how we language is a way of shifting our relationship with ourselves, among ourselves and with the land.

“An ongoing practice that I have, is to constantly notice the language and frames that I am using, paying particular attention to the underlying orientations that are embedded within. By ‘orientations’ I’m referring to, for example, a mechanistic paradigm versus a relational one, or a linear paradigm versus a complex one. I’ve been asking myself: from which ‘orientation’ is my language originating? What hidden assumptions might be embedded in the words I am using?

“This personal inquiry – shifting from a mechanistic, linear orientation to a more relational, complex one – has compelled me to learn more about other orientations towards the land (i.e. from indigenous cultures) and about the land; it has also shifted my behaviour (I find myself being more mindful of provenance) and encouraged me to engage in practices of crafting and producing (e.g. wood-working, kefir-making, knitting). I’d love to invite everyone to partake in their own inquiry around how one can better navigate one’s relationship with land; and am curious how that unravels or what unveils.”

After his process of learning from and within the rice-growing communities in Java, Hao Pei created an exhibition that revisited notions and artefacts of local wisdom through technological and social platforms. This seeming irony was deepened, according to Hao Pei, when he realised that new forms of technology were enabling young people to become reacquainted with traditional forms of knowledge as the risk of the loss of this valuable knowledge became ever more apparent.

Through their lively discussion, Hao Pei and Yock Theng invited the audience to reflect on the intersection between the ecological, the embodied, and the ethereal. Hao Pei’s artistic process was inherently relational, a dialogical co-learning and co-creation with communities and the land. His final installation piece served almost as a ‘punctuation mark’ (or perhaps a comma? an ellipsis?) in a story of ongoing exploration.

Artist: Chu Hao Pei (b.1990) is a visual artist from Singapore. Formally trained in Interactive Media, Hao Pei began his practice under the School of Art, Design & Media (ADM) in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His artistic practice is informed by the shifting ecological, social and urban landscapes. By interweaving documentation and intervention as a strategy, he explores conflicts and tensions arising from state’s interventions on nature and culture. More critically, Hao Pei’s works examine loss, or potential loss, of nature and cultural heritage as a tactic to draw our attention to wider issues of environmental and cultural loss.

Respondent: Tan Yock Theng spent 8 months in residence at Schumacher College, an intentional learning community with ecology-centred programmes in the UK. There, she re-connected with soil and explored a different paradigm of relating to soul and society. She also explored the notion of embodying economics through a relational orientation. Her current inquiries include inviting other ways of knowing (and relating); and working from the premise of complexity and interdependencies.

This residency sharing was supported by:

National Arts Council Singapore
Cemeti – Institute for Art and Society

The session was hosted in the studio of Alecia Neo, Block 38 Malan Rd #01-06, where she is currently Artist-in-Residence at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.