For the Taipei Biennial 2018, Lucy Davis presents wood-print collages, photographic material and hand-animated films drawn from her ten-year material-led research into stories of wood in Southeast Asia. The project’s different iterations collectively work through the material of wood-print and cut-wood in order to recast the form and micro-gestures of the Malayan Modern woodcut movement, which was adopted by artists of the mid-twentieth century migrant Chinese Left. The Migrant Ecologies Project aims to work through the spirit and gestures of this movement, in the context of continuing regional deforestation of Southeast Asia.
This project has its origins in Singapore’s Little India, an area in which the artist lived from 2006 to 2009 and which has a high South Asian migrant worker population. Davis came to notice the plethora of objects—electrical items, cardboard, and tin-cans—which tend to be left on the streets, collected at night, and taken to a central recycling point. Recognising that timber was one of the materials not directly integrated into this nocturnal economy, Davis began collecting locally discarded wooden furniture. Having learnt that each tree and therefore piece of wood has its own traceable genetic code, Davis sent samples to a timber tracking company, which provided her with certifiable data indicating which species of tree, and where, each piece of wood had come from.
By locating living examples of every identified tree, the artist began to attempt the impossible task of understanding the lifestories of these pieces of wood; this laborious research is reflected in Davis’ artistic process whereby fragmented prints are painstakingly pasted together to form micro-detailed woodprint-collages and animated films.
Instead of the romantic quest for an original spirit of a living tree inside its resulting wooden objects, The Migrant Ecologies Project complicate a colonial legacy of ‘journeys to a pristine source’ that also inflects popular understandings of DNA. The resulting, entangled stories of wood include the spirits of modern objects in reconstructed trees. They suggest how wooden ontologies haunt human timber patriarchies. They animate encounters where dreams in DNA code meet forest spirits and where fingerprints meet woodgrain across the archipelago.
Lucy Davis, born 1970, has lived most of her life in Singapore.