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.”
“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.”
To abide by the precept of “not putting anything in the natural preserve that can harm [wildlife],” artists use only natural materials available in the local environment such as clamshells, bamboo, reeds, wood, mud and stones, as well as recycled materials gathered from the seashore or nearby recycling centers.
The title of this year’s exhibition is On the Table — Aquaculture and the Environment, which focuses on fish, shrimp and clam farming, the area’s main industries.
Visitors are encouraged to see the sculptural installations by the six international artists that are spread across the wetlands.
“People need to come close to the wetlands to see it, experience it and start to appreciate it as a beautiful place,” Allen says.
Italian-born, Belgium-based artist Giorgio Tessadri creates Element, a sculptural installation composed of three parts made with salvaged and new bamboo. To echo the close connection among different elements in nature, the organic-shaped sculptures will lie separately on land, in the water and inside the bird-watching tower formed by recycled shipping containers painted in vibrant colors.
Michele Brody from the United States uses bamboo, driftwood, oyster shells and other natural materials to create a teahouse where people can rest, contemplate and discuss the environment. The work is partly a meditation on Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked havoc on New York in 2012.
On the marsh, landscape artist Johan Sietzema of the Netherlands uses bamboo to create large fish traps and fish shapes hung on tall bamboo poles in the wetlands as a way to “show the steps of catching, selling, preparing and eating fish like the footprints people leave on the ground.”
Some artists try to incorporate natural sources of energy into their installations. Taipei-based artist Kang Ya-chu (康雅筑), for example, harvests sunlight by making images on tablecloths through the technique of cyanotype, a photographic printing process made possible by ultraviolet light.
She says the biggest difference of working for the community-based project is that artists have to “think about others.”
Kang’s view is shared by Chiu Kuo-chun (邱國峻), an associate professor teaching in the Department of Visual Communication Design at Kun Shan University (崑山科技大學), whose sculpture is the skeleton of a huge fish mounted on a round table made with bamboo. The inspiration comes from the Chinese tradition to leave some parts of the fish at the Chinese New Year table to make sure there will be enough food for all the year to come.
“What’s important here is the process. You can’t be a lone artist minding only your own art. You are constantly learning things from local life. You have to adapt your work to the environment, trying to reach coexistence between the two,” Chiu says.
“[The art project] also emphasizes artists’ participation and engagement with the community. For example, we are teaching schoolchildren English this year.”
For Allen, the biggest change is villagers’ attitude and perception of the community, the environment and themselves.
Over the years, the wetlands have become a thriving home to more than 85 bird species. Locals have begun to grow vegetables in their gardens and to beautify the community with murals and other decorative art works. An experimental, eco-friendly fish farm project has been established by the foundation this year with local residents’ support, and is built to use sea water rather than groundwater.
“When I first came here, [the villagers] saw the wetlands only as a bad thing, sort of a disaster. But now it is very popular with birds and [much wildlife], and people come to watch them. They are feeling more pride in their own place,” Allen said.
Artists-in-residence of the Chenglong Wetlands International Environmental Art Project (成龍濕地國際環境藝術節) will attend the opening and be on hand today and tomorrow for DIY art activities.