Telephone poles rise from the flooded land in the distance; somewhere nearby the rooftop of a house is submerged in water. A dog walks and sometimes swims, seemingly knowing its way around the marsh.
In the strangely beautiful landscape of Chenglong Village (成龍村), a small fishing village with a population of 1,000 in Yunlin County, a group of international artists have been working toward the opening of the Chenglong Wetlands International Environmental Art Project (成龍濕地國際環境藝術節), an annual exhibition that features large-scale installation pieces that are displayed outdoors in the wetlands area. Organizers try to involve the community, and depend exclusively on materials that do no harm to the earth.
In the eyes of American artist Jane Ingram Allen, who curates the event, the village is an ideal site for the project.
“This can be a model area to show people how things can be beautiful and natural,” Allen says.
Though the wetlands are a natural preserve, they were not created by nature but by human error. Around 30 years ago, a typhoon brought coastal flooding to a low-lying area plagued by land subsidence problems, inundating homes, graves and temples. Even today, once-farmable land remains under seawater.
The area’s fish-farming industry, which uses massive amounts of underground water, has received most of the blame for the sinking land. But there are some who say that regional water projects like dams and reservoirs have contributed at least equally to the sinking land.
And when environments change, local residents bear the brunt of the consequences. Having lost an important means of livelihood, people seek jobs elsewhere, leaving the elderly and young stranded in Chenglong — one of the nation’s poorest areas. When Allen and the first group of artists came to the village four years ago, they deemed the life here “depressed.”
What: Chenglong Wetlands International Environmental Art Project 2013: On the Table — Aquaculture and the Environment (成龍濕地國際環境藝術節)
When: Opens today, until Dec. 31
Where: Chenglong Wetlands (成龍溼地), Chenglong Village, Kouhu Township, Yunlin County (雲林縣口湖鄉成龍村)
On the Net: artproject4wetland.wordpress.com
Getting There: Buses run to Chenglong Village from Taiwan High Speed Rail’s Chiayi Station, but taxis are the most convenient way to arrive at the Chenglong Wetlands. The fare should be approximately NT$600. If driving, Chenglong Wetlands is located on Provincial Highway No. 17 at the 106km marker (台17線, 106km)
“One thing I noticed about this place is that nothing grows. It was desolate,” Allen recalls.
In 2010, the Kuan Shu Education Foundation (觀樹教育基金會), a non-governmental organization devoted to environmental education, initiated a program in the village to foster an appreciation for the wetlands. For the past four years, the foundation has worked with Chenglong Elementary School (成龍國小) to teach students about the local environment and its preservation. The school’s 65 students also actively participate in a unique art project that’s part of the foundation’s continuous environmental effort in Chenglong.
Every Thursday and on weekends, schoolchildren come to help visiting artists collect raw materials and construct works of art. Some village residents show support by providing local skills and knowledge, hosting banquets or preparing snacks. Over the course of their one-month residencies, artists gain an understanding of the local way of life, while villagers become acquainted with their foreign guests, who come from places as far away as India, Germany and Peru.
Sometimes, the visiting artists rely on the village elders’ memory of what their hometown looked like and where the roads, fields and fish farms once stood before they were submerged under water.
“When artists go out in the water, we have to get local elders to tell us which part is too deep and which part we can walk on,” Allen says. “Once we had 30 people carrying this huge art piece walking through the wetlands. It’s like a piece of performance art itself.”