By Brady Ng /
Around the world, many public gardens, especially those normally maintained to symmetrical and groomed perfection, have been left untended during citywide lockdowns or movement control orders. In Paris, a friend walked by the Jardin de la Nouvelle-France, peered inside, and called it a “little jungle”. This wildness without wilderness is the consequence of eight weeks of precautionary restrictions. When people cannot visit parks and gardens, their upkeep is similarly affected.
While human activity in public ground to a near halt in many major cities, nature reclaimed its place in our constructed environs. Wild boar roamed down paved roads in Berlin. Dolphins frolicked in sections of the Bosphorus normally busy with tankers and cargo ships. Monkeys climbed up to my sister’s fourth-floor apartment in Singapore and tried to break in.
Taking its title from the name of a neoclassical garden in Kathmandu built in 1920, Garden of Six Seasons was a wide-reaching exhibition that also functioned as a precursor to the Kathmandu Triennale scheduled to open in early December and run for more than a month in the Nepali capital. The show was curated by Cosmin Costinaş, director of Hong Kong’s Para Site and the artistic director of this year’s iteration of the triennale in Nepal. It included works by more than 40 artists that highlighted pressing concerns from around the world when it opened, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
At Para Site, the main site of the show, a human body in John Pule’s oil painting Prototype – Site of Old Myths (1995) maps out the village where the Niuean artist was born, Liku, on the eastern edge of the island nation. The figure’s head represents the site where a church now stands, containing a frame in which a man kneels in an open field, Christian cross behind him, his penis erect; Pule was educated at a Mormon school and attended services every Saturday and Sunday when he was growing up. On the figure’s chest, right over his heart, is a motif representing the birthplace of Pule’s mother. Below that is where the artist was born. The figure’s legs lead down to the ocean. Pule draws on the informational energy of hiapo – bark cloth – to pack the rest of the canvas. There is an intimate biography here, paired with the resuscitation of a storytelling tradition that has faded in part because of colonisation, a combination that was present in other works in the show too.
In the same gallery, watercolours by Izmail Efimov also referenced age-old traditions, but propelled them in a different direction in contemporary settings. Originally trained as a socialist realist painter, Efimov eventually became one of the most original artists in the ethnofuturism movement, which came into accidental existence when a group of young artists and writers were spitballing in Tartu, Estonia in the late 1980s, during the Soviet Union’s twilight years. Facing an existential crisis, Estonia’s young intellectuals sought to redefine their forms of expression in literature, poetry and art – in turn forging the beginnings of a new identity for a sovereign nation emerging from the Kremlin’s rule.
Among Efimov’s works in Garden of Six Seasons, titles like Swamp Divinity (1993) and Ruler of the Mountain Tops (1996) recall ancient folklore shaped by centuries or millennia of oral history, while yonic shapes pack the totemic Attributes of the Finno-Ugric Everyday (2004).
Ethnofuturists like Efimov wanted to join “the archaic, prehistorical, ethnic substance” unique to their nation with a “contemporary vision of the world”. The scholars and creators who were part of the movement tried to build a new head space for their people, one that connected their traditions with the future.
Traces of Efimov’s ethnofuturist tendencies were found downstairs in another artist’s work, mounted in Para Site’s ground-floor space. Janakpur-based Komal Purbe’s A woman flying a rocket (2019), an acrylic painting on lokta paper, shows exactly what its title describes. Drawing from Mithila art-making traditions that were passed down through generations by women in what is now southern Nepal and northern India, Purbe depicts jagged red combustion blasts trailing from three nozzles, her rocket decorated with rich geometrical patterns as well as fish and tortoise motifs. Like Niue’s Pule, Purbe taps a traditional practice that has been partially lost, especially at a time when globalised, massively disseminated visuals often supplant local image-making practices. Both artists keep their forebears’ art forms alive, adapting techniques and sensibilities honed over many generations to reflect the ideas, dreams and reflections of people who are looking at their art now.
Purbe is a member of the Janakpur Women’s Development Center (JWDC), which was founded in 1991 to open the possibility of using art as a source of sustainable income for the local Maithil women, as opposed to the meagre pay that was offered to art workers who churned out multiple copies of the same picture. Works by other painters who are part of JWDC were included in the exhibition too, over at Soho House, the show’s second site, including the self-taught Madhumala Mandal’s painting of a woman controlling an excavator, and Rebati Mandal’s depiction of a woman steering a combine harvester through a rice paddy. Both works are less fantastical than Purbe’s imaginative marine-astronautical imagery, yet still deviate from age-old representations of religious scenes or nature, preserving Mithila visual heritage while expressing aspirations for a fair social order in what is still a severely patriarchal and casteist society.
Also in Soho House, Lu Pan and Wang Bo make sense of the history and consequences of 19th-century European colonialism in East Asia in their two-channel video Miasma, Plants, Export Paintings (2017). The pair map out the connections between the British East India Company’s presence in Canton, now Guangzhou, its inspector of tea John Reeves’ encounter with Chinese draughtsmen and his botanical transplants to London’s Kew Gardens. These are linked with the British occupation of Hong Kong, the 1894 plague in the city, the belief in miasma before germs were discovered, and the western circulation of Chinese paintings and documentary photographs taken in Hong Kong. Segments from the 1955 film Love is a Many-Splendored Thing are cut into the video frequently, in which one of the leading roles, a Eurasian doctor named Han Suyin, is played by a Caucasian actress. Running at 28 minutes, Lu and Wang’s video unpacks many topics. It flicks at the appropriation of botany to realise colonial ambitions, documentary photography as a channel to propagate racial prejudice, and how cultural frictions persist even in what seem like harmless forms of soft power.
In another chamber, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster offered a quiet video recorded at Praça Paris, a neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro where the garden landscape is a copy of the symmetrical, formal layouts found in French gardens – a stylistic transplant rather than a literal one. Her five-minute video Gloria (2008) shows us stationary scenes of shrubbery and fountains, growing and thriving in natural, wild ways in the savanna climate, breaking out of the strict aesthetic boundaries defined by European tastes. Here, humanity’s imposition of order over nature is overturned. In 2020 this has become a new reality in some parts of the world, like the public parks and gardens of Paris.
Contemporary art’s cultivation, propagation and evolution depend on globalisation. Pule’s renewed interpretation of hiapo in part leans on an international audience, which circles back to bring about a new generation of practitioners, keeping the art form and heritage alive. The same applies to the paintings by the artists of the Janakpur Women’s Development Center. Their Mithila paintings are sold to buyers who are often overseas; the organisation’s website specifically emphasises that they ship their products all around the world. As for the actual Garden of Six Seasons in Kathmandu, the site was restored with the assistance of the Austrian government in the 2000s after lying in neglect for nearly four decades. Global capital, shipping lanes and cultural exchanges can keep alive ancient traditions and invigorate faded forms of heritage, but it depends on practitioners like those in the exhibition to keep them tethered to their original essence.
Garden of Six Seasons reached into many cultures and encapsulated a broad range of research, interpretations and myths from various corners of human civilisation and from across ages. There was a complex Navajo textile by Mae Clark, Batsa Gopal Vaidya’s symbols lifted from ayurvedic healing practices, Wing Po So’s repurposed traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients, and linen amulet vests from the Philippines, Burma and northern Thailand. In turn, the show offered alternative readings of globalised, flattened systems that we have all come to take as constant no matter where we land. In that spirit, the Kathmandu Triennale will be held later this year, in 2077 – according to the Nepali Bikram Sambat calendar.
在封城和禁足令期間，世界各地很多公共花園都無人看管，尤其是那些平常修飾得對稱整齊的花園。友人最近路經巴黎的Jardin de la Nouvelle花園，形容花園內像個「小森林」。這種市內的野外狀態是由於八星期的防疫措施的結果。當人們無法參觀公園和花園，園內的保養自然也受到影響。
展覽的主要場地Para Site，展出了約翰．普爾的油畫《Prototype – Site of Old Myths》（1995年），畫中一個人物代表了紐埃東部的利庫村，亦即該藝術家的出生地。普爾在摩門教學校接受教育，小時候逢星期六日都要參加禮拜。人物的頭部代表教堂現時的位置，裡面有一個框架，框中人的陰莖直立，跪在一個十字架前方空曠的地方。人物胸口的心臟上方的圖案，象徵普爾母親出生地，下方則是他的出生地。人物雙腿向下延伸至海洋。普爾利用樹皮布的訊息能量來充滿畫布其餘的地方。這是個親密傳記，配合了在殖民時代消失了的講故事傳統的復興，這種結合同時也在展覽中其他作品中出現。
葉菲莫夫在「一園六季」的作品中，《Swamp Divinity》（1993年）和《Ruler of the Mountain Tops》（1996年）等令人回想起數百或數千年前的的古老民間傳說，而《Attributes of the Finno-Ugric Everyday》（2004年）則充斥著「約尼」圖騰。葉菲莫夫等的民族未來主義者希望把「古老、史前、民族」的獨特性質加入「當代世界觀」，參與運動的學者和創造者嘗試為人民建立新的思考空間，聯繫傳統與未來。
葉菲莫夫的民族未來主義傾向，同樣可以在於Para Site下層展出的另一位藝術家作品中發現——現居賈納克布爾的哥姆．樸比的《A woman flying a rocket》（2019年）。藝術家以「米提拉」藝術傳統作畫，在lokta紙上繪成的丙烯畫準確地畫出其名。這種傳統繪畫方式被現今的尼泊爾南部和印度北部的女性世代相傳，樸比描繪了飾有豐富幾何圖案以及魚和烏龜圖案的火箭，鋸齒狀的紅色火焰從三個噴嘴中噴出。樸比與來自紐埃的普爾都運用了部分已遺失的傳統作畫方法。在全球化的影響下，大型傳播的視覺元素取代了本地圖像製作，但兩位藝術家仍努力保持前人的藝術形式，在時代的變遷下調整技術和敏感度，反映出現在觀賞他們藝術的人的想法、夢想和反思。
「一園六季」觸及許多文化，並囊括了來自人類文明各個角落以及不同時代的廣泛研究、詮釋和神話。有由Mae Clark製成的複雜納瓦霍紡織品、Batsa Gopal Vaidya從阿育吠陀療法中提取的符號、蘇詠寶重新使用的傳統中藥成分，以及菲律賓、緬甸和泰國北部的麻布護身背心……反過來說，展覽提供了對全球化、扁平化系統的另類解讀，無論身在何處，我們都會看成為不變定律。按這種說法，根據尼泊爾的維克拉姆曆，加德滿都三年展將於今年2077年舉行。