Migrant Grove


'Migrant Grove' is a landscape installation of a living bamboo grove with a winding path and wild underplanting. Bamboo represents a familiar, shared landscape to all that migrated here, each community with its own unique ethnobotanic interactions with this plant. Bamboo is also a metaphor for the migrant experience in its dual, conflicting perception as both a valuable and prized resource or an invasive one to be feared. 

Bamboo is endemic throughout India, China and southeast Asia. Despite regional variation in species that manifest in different sizes, colours and growing habit, it is a familiar, shared landscape to all that have come from these Asian regions.
Bamboo throughout these regions also has an extraordinary range of ethnobotanic relevance from practical cooking utensil to medium for cultural expression like flutes and martial arts. While our earliest examples of the written word, ink on bamboo slips strung together into books have now been replaced with new technologies, bamboo baskets and buildings continue to be of contemporary relevance.

Perceptions of bamboo also span the gamut of valuable, renewable resource at one end and at the other an invasive competitor for resources. Bamboo forests are fast growing harvestable commodities or sacred spaces to be protected and preserved.
I find in all these qualities, philosophic metaphors for the migrant experience - a paradox of familiarity, commonality and also difference and otherness subject to the lens of perception. I explore these ideas in species choices, planting scheme and some decorative carvings on the bamboo.

I utilise a site that is longer than it is wide to create a sense of journey, its winding path a psychologic shift away from the grid of the surrounding built up environment. As the site matures, the shadows, the swaying of bamboo culms and the rustle of leaves will increasingly envelop the viewer in a sensory experience which, combined with shifts in porosity and density of planting adds to the unique experience of walking through a bamboo forest.
The underplanting is intended to define this as a wild place subject to the whims of nature, its personality shifting over time as ferns compete with grass, ultimately succumbing to leaf litter as the canopy becomes denser and limits sunlight. This wild landscape arouses enquiry into our discomfort or disconnect with the chaos of the natural world or of sharing space with other creatures like birds, insects or snakes.
Towards the end of the path, there is a circular clearing to signify deforestation, a phenomena of increasing global concern. It is symbolic of human interference in the natural world and how destructive that can be. One of the installed cut stumps surprisingly re sprouted adding an element of hope and resilience.

The installation is populated with a diversity of species from sizes as small as the undergrowth of bamboo grass, shrub sized Bambusea Multiplex to the large culms of Bambusa Vulgaris . Colours range from yellow, green to the black of Phyllostachys Nigra native to Hunan in China. 

Phyllostachys Nigra

There are fresh green shoots, old moss covered culms and shapes that vary from the narrow stemmed clumping forms of Bambu Siamensis to the larger, thornier Bambusa Blumeana endemic through Malaysia, Indonesia and India which is the primary species used for the other Bamboo Sculpture installations. Even in this relatively small selection there is a sizeable range of beauty and diversity in color, form and habit.
The journey through different sections of bamboo species is in fact unusual in the natural world as Bamboo species tend to fall into two groups: ‘running’ species that create mono species forest and ‘clumping’ species that cohabit with other kinds of tree flora in mixed forests. Migration is often not only the movement of people but the plants that they bring with them. Both can exhibit the tensions of encroachment and displacement or peaceful coexistence and healthy competition.
This dynamic resonates globally, particularly in our urban cities that attracts not only international but intra national emigres and this mixed bamboo grove reflects the many cultural and racial pockets that we find in cities in a constant dynamic of development, gentrification and cultural change. Towards the end of the grove the choice of species moves away from the larger jungle species to smaller garden varieties to reflect the shift into more restricted confines of urban space.


Sofia Cole at work

The marking of trees in forests is an ancient human activity throughout the world and a device I have used to show an important aspect of migration - that despite circumstances that may have brought a migrant here with few possessions, they carry with them a wealth of memory and culture. Some culms are decorated with carvings that you might find on Chinese bamboo brush jars - birds and flowers, landscape. Some have Indian flute markings. Some have decorative motifs found on early indigo and Nusantara batik textiles. There is a poem from the Song dynasty that suggests a longing for home.
京口瓜洲一水間, 鍾山只隔數重山。 春風又綠江南岸, 明月何時照我還?

Carving by Tan Seong Choon

There are primitive designs that have roots in Pacific Oceanic culture still evident in our indigenous communities, markings referencing our Colonial past and Commercial Trade designs to describe passages of history that have coincided with human movement and settlement in this region.

This landscape installation is commissioned as part of Iskandar Puteri’s Public Art Program to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Iskandar Malaysia. It is a Khazanah Nasional initiative supported by UEM Sunrise Berhad. Konstruk is developed and project managed by Lab DNA. The landscape was realized by Zoen Sdn Bhd.
I am grateful to the carving team organized by Sofia Cole comprising herself, Rowel Naanep and Tan Seong Choon for their artistry in the execution of the above mentioned carvings.
This landscape, like much of our country, was built by migrant labour from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and East Malaysia. Thanks to Din, Abjal, Ah Heng and many others for their toil and labour.

Artist’s Statement Within a tradition of environmental art, informed by emerging ideas in environmental psychology and landscape urbanism, I create landscape installations that are immersive experiences intended to evoke philosophic enquiry and emotional response.

I begin by inserting a 'real' landscape into a built urban context, immediately juxtaposing the natural and organic with the geometric grid of the modern and manmade. Then, utilising ideas about wilderness, ethnobotany, memory and sense of place, I suggest a narrative that reveals anintrinsic bond between the human experience and our landscape and environment.

Views of Downtown JB

There was still some artwork due to be put up on the walls of #blueparkjb when we stopped work (as the site had been rented). Think City asked if I could instead re direct them to suit their new office on Jalan Dhoby. I started a series of graphic artworks themed 'Views of Downtown JB'. The aesthetics are inspired by Japanese woodblocks, inked outlines and textures but the medium is contemporary, digital and created on the computer. Although the source material is digital photographs, they are heavily manipulated and processed to achieve the compositions and textures of the final image.

I've been meaning to do this for a while as much of the imagery of the city (google 'Johor Bahru' to see what I mean) is usually of palaces, mansions, government building - places, ordinary Johoreans are not allowed into. Or they are rather soulless birds-eye, panoramic, drone views, of buildings and malls celebrating the work of property developers. Or they are of iconic places -clan houses, temples, mosques, places where Johoreans are sorted into tribes.

So instead I want to capture the city and its people at a human scale, at eye level view, without iconic landmarks and with the city itself as as a character with a personality and moods (hilly, rainy etc) and in a relationship with the people living in it. It has evidence of our times - cell phones, parked cars, and also layers of history revealed in the juxtaposition of old and new buildings, old signs, modern fonts. My visual story of JB avoids on purpose the glorification of kings, rich men, clergy, clans and corporate developers and retells it from the mundane and ordinary perspective of an ordinary citizen.

A friend who is analysing data about the city, tells me that downtown JB is no longer the heart of the city, as urban sprawl and shifts in how traffic and people move now reconfigures that to Larkin. This is a fate that often befalls the historic seed centres of cities. In this contemplation of where this city began and is now in transition, I also want to provoke enquiry into whether this is good enough for us. Do we have enough green spaces, performance and public venues? Should our public venues be the insides of a mall? Are there enough people walking on the streets? Why are we crowded into walkways and markets on the streets? We pay taxes, we elect the government and state officials - we are supposedly in charge, do we have enough say in how this city looks, feels and works for us? Are we doing enough as civil society to claim this city as ours?