Mali Wu

Taipei Tomorrow as a Lake Again

Mali Wu, Paradise Garden , 2009  © www.flickr.com, http://www.flickr.com/photos/family_schindler-hofer/4144412017/sizes/m/in/set-72157622882286994/About 300 years ago, the place where Taipei now stands was swamp and grassland – the Taipei Basin was once a lake. One must know this to understand the work of the Taiwanese artist, Mali Wu. In her garden installation Taipei Tomorrow as a Lake Again, which she realised for the 2008 Taipei Biennale, she assumes hypothetically that the city could be turned back into a lake again due to rising sea levels. And what then?

© Mali Wu, Taipei Tomorrow as a Lake Again, 2008Taipei Tomorrow as a Lake Again  arose in cooperation with the urbanist group, Organisation of Urban Re-s (OURs). For this work, Wu planted a mobile kitchen garden on the terrace of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. The beds were arranged in potatoes, peppermint, and other useful vegetables and herbs, bordered with up-side-down beverage crates that served as pathways. In this way, the installation’s aesthetic picked up on the museum’s modernistic architecture and geometric terrace design. The austere arrangement of the beds and their yellow bordering reminded one of colour-field painting. This garden is already tamed, and is no stormy, large-scale surface like the wheat field planted by Agnes Denes, the American pioneer of Environmental Art, on a vacant lot in Manhattan in 1982. With Land Art, the nature-culture discourse had broken out of art institutions. And thus the real garden – not the image of a garden – was established as an artistic medium: of course at the price of allowing itself to be cultivated from clandestine Guerilla Gardening to museum status.

Exhibition visitors were invited to harvest. The selected plant groups offered a reliable and robust seeding and were thus less in danger of failing than the delicate poppy field by the artist Sanja Ivecovic or the exotic rice terraces by the artist Sakarin Krue-On at the documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. After all, turning agriculture into art is not automatically crowned with success – climate factors and agricultural know-how determine the outcome.

Mali Wu, Paradise Garden, 2009 © Otto Saxinger

Gardens are a recurring motif in Wu’s artistic work. She planted a Paradise Garden (2009) for the 2009 Cultural Capital in Linz, in cooperation with the Austrian Mountain Herb Association of Hirschbach. Wu planted herbs on the roof of a former Ursuline convent and laid out information on “secret” knowledge about their medicinal effects.

With her almost poetic idea that Taipei might one day return to the state that preceded it, the artist has nonetheless zeroed in on very real questions. Does climate change demand a different kind of agriculture? Is the food crisis turning more and more people into subsistence farmers? How does one become a subsistence farmer in the first place? What sorts of things does one have to know?

Taiwan is not a country where such questions are being asked with all that much urgency. But it is a country that imports the most of its food. For this reason, Mali Wu proposes to the City of Taipei to allocate cropland in the city before it is too late, so that it can provide for itself. In addition, shorter transportation distances save energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Wu is bringing a rural practice into the city and the past back into the present. With her concept of a green city, she is also associating positive secondary effects such as a more pleasant micro-climate and less fine particulates in the air.

Mali Wu deals with nature in other works, as well. In an excursion lasting several days, she followed the courses of the four rivers that cross through Taipei in boats of various sizes. Of the River, On the River, By the River (2006) captures the rivers and their surroundings. The participants were to learn what is wrong with the rivers – water level or water quality. She is currently thematising another urban water course. For her Plum Street Project, Mali Wu is cooperating with architects and the urban community, to save the canal and transform it into a beneficial recreation area.

With her thematisation of biotopes and biological cycles as it occurs in Mali Wu’s garden installations or water works, the artist is touching on an international renaissance of the observation of nature. Neighbourhood gardens are popular again in western countries. The subsistence farmers in Detroit’s inner city manage their gardens for reasons involving an entirely different imperative than that of Berlin’s Princess Gardens. In Detroit, it is the only way for the poor to survive, in Berlin it is a prototypical project that is dedicated both to the re-learning of gardening knowledge and for the alternative use of open spaces. In art, too, the garden is being dealt with in terms of its real existence, after having been treated more in terms of a medial reference; as, for instance, post-natural nature as object in the media art of the 1990’s. Now the word is “Back to Nature:” the garden as common land is, on the one hand, a tool for strengthening the rights of city dwellers, for protesting against gentrification, but also for translating rethinking in connection with climate change into concrete action.

Interview with Mali Wu

Guiding themes in the work of Taiwanese Artist Mali Wu include, amongst others, the recurrence to nature in an apparently urbanized environment, agricultural self-supply of urban areas as well as tracking down unnoticed biotopes. In our interview, Mali Wu talks about her most recent campaign, the Plum Stream Project. Together with architects and residents of the coastal town of Tamsui, she develops ideas on how to use the canal as a recreation area.

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Vera Tollmann
works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2010

    Biography

    Mali Wu © The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
    Mali Wu (*1957 in Taiwan) is a visual concept artist. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, and returned to Taiwan in 1985. Wu expanded her understanding of art with practical social engagement and closely connects her art works with a historical perspective. She thus developed her work Art as Environment – A Cultural Action on Tropic of Cancer(2006): with the aid of over 30 artists, it offers a critical perspective on the consequences of chaotic urbanisation, and provides didactical alternatives for urban development. In her work, she thematises the role of the artist in society, among other things and frequently works closely with local communities in this connection. Mali Wu lives in Kaoshiung and Taipei, Taiwan.