A tree dead and alive

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

Through a tree trunk, removed from its natural and human surroundings and placed in a new context, a Singapore artist pays tributes to transient belief systems.

A HORIZONTAL tree trunk at the rear end of a defunct chapel is all there is, at the outset, to `A Tree in a Room', by Zai Kuning, a young versatile artist of Singapore (Figure 1). The programme was organised by Sculpture Square, Singapore, in February 2004. It is a massive trunk, with a length of approximately 4 metres and a circumference of about 2 metres, laid on the floor inside the Chapel Gallery. The evident simplicity and directness of Kuning's work may appear banal as well, considering the fact that such acts have become quite passe. In the last few decades, artists have deployed found objects for diverse agendas, ranging from aesthetics to politics. However, Kuning's work is refreshing because he resists certain formal and conceptual simplifications. He does this through a number of complex interplays between the physical and spiritual dimensions of his object. The work exists, to be sure, on a physical plane as a log of wood in a chapel and even reasserts itself as part of a tree.

Procured from a saw mill, it is hardly mediated except for a stitch like zigzag pattern made of thick metal wire along the circumference at its centre. The shape of the object is arbitrary as a result of the ways in which it has been chopped at the saw mill. Kuning has not cut it from a tree nor has he transformed it, but for the enigmatic `stitch'. The metal wire is visible only at close quarters (Figure 2).

Kuning leaves the trunk unmediated also by avoiding artificial lighting, which would, typically, privilege the `art' attributes of an object. However, he does exercise certain artistic options to lend remarkable religious and artistic resonance to the log. The position of the log at the rear end of the chapel, for instance, does encourage a frontal view much like religious icons. However, there is enough space to move around the object and to survey it leisurely as one typically surveys a three-dimensional art work in a museum or an art gallery. As I do that, rather habitually, the trunk almost comes alive owing to the specific ways in which the undulating contours of the trunk suggest a giant human torso. The torso, denuded of its limbs, emerges with shocking vitality (Figure 3).

This dramatic but gradual metamorphosis is, of course, owing to the massive size of the tree. The size renders it also rather bizarre as one realises the fact that it is after all lifeless. Its `repose' reinforces, if anything, the loss of its earlier contexts: removed from a saw mill, fragmented and deprived of its natural surroundings, lying horizontally on the floor; it is no longer a `tree'. The trunk thus powerfully articulates the violations on the non-existent tree. It is uprooted and twice dislocated from its context, natural and human. Similarly, the stitched pattern hints at a dubious healing process: the log of wood in the chapel is pretty much intact. It is not cut into two pieces. It flaunts only a mock stitch which does not completely cover the body. The stitch is not even visible unless one pays enough attention. The suggested split and the subtle stitch lead us from the external perceptions and processes of violation and healing to certain self reflections. The trunk becomes almost incidental in these perceptions and processes. Consider, for instance, the impression that it appears more abandoned than ever, for all the exclusive attention bestowed on it. If anything, it adds to the quiet ambience of the new context provided by the defunct chapel. In turn, it pays sensitive tributes to the transient and evasive belief systems. Kuning juxtaposes the chopped-off tree against the backdrop of the empty space that once housed a chapel.

(The organisers claim that the chapel, built in 1870, is one of the few Gothic buildings in Singapore and home to the first Baba Methodist Church and Methodist Girls' School. During the Japanese occupation in 1946, informs a handout from the organisers, the building served as a Chinese restaurant. It has also served as `a motor workshop and parking area soon after'. Sculpture Square, `a non-profit, independent arts organisation', has been conducting its art programmes in the building since 1999.)

It is through a provocative gesture that Zai Kuning reinvents the context of the found object to focus on certain symptomatic aspects of art and life: the gesture enacts diverse untold stories about the tree trunk which in itself is a visual/performance piece, inspired by a couple of scripts by the late Kuo Pao Kun, a Singapore playwright .

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