By Christie Lee /
For city-dwellers, it’s easy to romanticise nature. William Wordsworth, who witnessed how the industrial revolution transformed London in the 19th century, for example, wrote such evocative lines as “nature never did betray the heart that loved her”.
Three centuries later, Lo Lai Lai Natalie has made rumination on nature a crucial part of her art. But unlike the English poet, she doesn’t romanticise it. For Lo, nature isn’t simply an object for humans to cast an admiring eye on or to destroy. It also exercises its own agency – and can create or kill, oblivious to what humans imagine it to be. This idea is captured in Like a stone, vain hope (2020), a three-minute video-art piece where a woman interrogates a plant, trying to tease out responses in vain.
Holding nature up as a mirror for mankind, Lo’s photography, videos and installations reflect on a myriad of topics, from survival and supply chains to religion and freedom. But the artist is also hyper-aware of her own limitations in articulating nature – “after all, I’m a human being”.
The voice, or lack thereof, is central to Lo’s work, manifested in farmers, ripples in paddy fields, insects and plants. While silence is often regarded as the language of the oppressed, it is perhaps not so much a form of resistance in Lo’s works as a way to constitute selves.
A fine arts graduate of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lo is at once an artist, farmer and former journalist. She is an active member of Sangwoodgoon (“life hall”), a farming collective born out of the anti-Hong Kong Express Rail Link movement in 2009-10.
Christie Lee: You became a travel journalist after graduating with a fine arts degree from Chinese University. What drew you to journalism? Lao Lai Lai Natalie: I didn’t want to become an artist as I found it too restrictive. For me, travelling provides an opportunity to see new things, meet new people, but if you ask, do I like travelling? Hmmm, I don’t think so, not compared to my travel journalist friends, who genuinely enjoy being on the road all the time. That’s why I quit. I’m more interested in critiquing the act of travelling – what it means, why people romanticise it. Later, I extended that to looking at the ways people romanticise the agrarian life.
CL: What about you – have you ever romanticised the agrarian life? LLLN: I don’t think so. It wasn’t that I had a negative impression of it, but I also understand the challenge. I never thought: as long as we find a way to farm locally, the city could become entirely sustainable.
CL: When and why did you start farming? LLL: It wasn’t a deliberate decision; things sort of came together. When I quit my journalism job in 2010, I wanted to volunteer at an arts festival, but that fell apart. A friend then asked if I wanted to be involved in Choi Yuen Tsuen [a village located on the site of the Hong Kong Express Rail Link] farm experiment.
I thought, why not? Now, I find myself increasingly valuing the companionship offered by nature. I don’t agree that nature is this heroic figure that towers over the little man – I think it’s more, how should we find a way to coexist? The more we interact with nature, the more we see our limitations. Nature adapts very quickly, which, to me, trumps man’s inflexibility. For example, it knows what kinds of vegetables thrive in what kind of season, but we always insist on eating out-of-season vegetables. My art explores this dilemma of coexistence.
CL: What’s your view of this attempt to control nature? LLLN: At Sangwoodgoon, we don’t subscribe to the idea of greenhouses, as permaculture [the idea of working with different natural elements to create a self-sustaining system] is such a core part of our philosophy.
CL: Do you see yourself as part of the agricultural industry? LLLN: I’m not sure. For many people, to turn something into an industry, one must scale up. But that is contrary to our philosophy, which is about self-sustainbility.
CL: What is your goal as a farmer? LLLN: I hope more people will realise how deeply connected mankind is to the land. I’m not saying, alright, everyone should become a farmer, but as a farmer I want to provide that avenue for others to realise that connection.
CL: There are so many ways one can talk about local farming and the agricultural industry. What does the visual medium offer? LLLN: Ambiguity. I’m not a campaigner. If you’re advocating for something, there’s inevitably going to be some elements of propaganda involved. It’s not my nature. Art allows more room for reflection.
CL: What is your creative process like? LLLN: It’s quite organic. I take photos, I write, but I don’t immediately know that I’d like to make art out of [the material produced]. I think the act of creating a piece of art is very different from growing vegetables. As a farmer, once you’re in the field, you really have to adapt to natural conditions, be it the soil or the weather. You need to be constantly making these decisions. You’re working alongside nature to create something. I think that creativity is crucial, which is very different from the creativity that one would normally associate with the visual arts.
CL: Could you elaborate a bit more on the difference between creativity in the field and creativity in the studio? LLLN: Sometimes, I feel I think too much when I’m making art. Intuition is key to art but there is also a lot of thought that goes behind it, philosophical and otherwise. There is a lot of us in the art. When I’m in the field, I feel like I’m participating, but somehow nature just has a way of transforming itself. Nature is very intelligent – it has its own mode of functioning. We boast that we’re making all these advances in medicine, in science, but none of that is applicable in the field. Our way of communicating, of expressing ourselves, is actually quite limiting.
CL: I suppose you have to let go of your artistic ego when you’re farming? LLLN: You can still exercise your ego. I mean, you can aspire to grow the best vegetables, have the best fields [laughs]. But yes, I suppose that is one way of looking at it. There are too many variables in the field. A shrub might grow a certain way because of the care you put into it, but it could also be the soil conditions. You can never really claim successes in the field as your own. When you’re creating art, you’re serving first and foremost your own ego.
CL: What are you showing at the forthcoming group exhibition at Oi! art space? LLLN: The work is about fermented beets. I want to talk about the space the beets take up – that transition from raw state, when it was on the farm, to its fermented state, shrunken, in a jar.
三百年後，反思自然成了勞麗麗藝術創作中的重要元素。但與之前提到的英國詩人不同的是，她並未將其浪漫化。在她眼中，自然不單單只是人類用以大飽眼福亦或是去毀滅的一樣東西，它也有其自發性。大自然會創造也能扼殺，而且並不理會人類對其作出的想像。這一想法體現在三分鐘錄影作品《Like a stone, vain hope》（2020年）中：一個女人對著一株植物質問，徒勞地想尋求回應。