Lo Lai Lai Natalie and Sangwoodgoon: The 10-Year Practice of a Hong Kong Farming Collective

Lo Lai Lai Natalie, The Days Before the Silent Spring (film still); Ritual, 2020, 5 channel video installation, installation size variable. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.
Lo Lai Lai Natalie, The Days Before the Silent Spring (film still); Time as fuel, 2020, 5 channel video installation, installation size variable. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.
Lo Lai Lai Natalie: “The Days Before The Silent Spring”, installation view, 15 December 2020 – 15 January 2021, WMA Space. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.
Lo Lai Lai Natalie, The Days Before the Silent Spring (film still); Plant and plant ash, 2020, 5 channel video installation, installation size variable. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.
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“The Days Before The Silent Spring,” the new solo exhibition by Lo Lai Lai Natalie at WMA Space, documents 10 years of Sangwoodgoon, a farming collective which has been practicing permaculture in Hong Kong since 2010. Based on the artist’s personal involvement with the community and her conversations with its members, the multi-channel video installation reflects on the struggles, contradictions, evolution and doubts of the collective and on each individual’s quest to connect back to oneself.

 

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and WMA

Sangwoodgoon was founded in 2010 by a group of activists during a social movement opposed to the construction of a high-speed rail that caused the displacements of villages the conversion of farmland. At that time, Lo Lai Lai Natalie was a travel journalist. Although she was not previously interested in farming, she moved to the New Territories and joined the collective as she felt it might be time for her to find her own mode of living. None of the collective members were actually from farming families and they asked a permaculture farming teacher, TV Yeun Yic-Tin, to show them how to farm organically. Above all, they were all searching for an alternative way of life. Farming, through its deep connection to nature and to the land, offered a relevant path for their quest. However, in contrast with American hippies from the 1960s, they did not reject the whole mainstream society and did not wish to isolate themselves in a self-sufficient community organised with fixed rules. As an entry point, Yeun proposed they follow the “Half-Farmer and Half-X” model, a Japanese lifestyle conceived in the mid 1990s by Naoki Shiomi, which became very popular among the youth in Japan after the 2008 crisis. According to this model, people balance their time between small-scale subsistence farming activities and a personal occupation (X). Although Shiomi confessed this is not a perfect model, it encourages people to escape today’s system of mass consumption and find happiness while contributing to a sustainable environment. For the members of the collective, the limits of the model arose quickly as they struggled to share their time equitably between their various activities. Despite their doubts and their low efficiency, they persevered and tried to find their own rules and balance. In her art practice, Lo’s films often point to the difficulties and complexities of maintaining a farming collective, considering that each member has a different vision of what farming could be and could stand for.

 

Lo Lai Lai Natalie, The Days Before the Silent Spring (film still); Ritual, 2020, 5 channel video installation, installation size variable. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.
Lo Lai Lai Natalie, The Days Before the Silent Spring (film still); Time as fuel, 2020, 5 channel video installation, installation size variable. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.

 

“The Days Before The Silent Spring” consists of four videos that play simultaneously or alternatively on various sized screens, including a large curtain that closes the gallery space. Viewers are invited to sit on cushions on the floor where they are immediately surrounded by images and sounds—insects buzzing, birds’ songs, rustling of leaves in the wind. Nature invades the space and complements the artist’s conversations with the collective members that can be heard through individual headphones. From the start, the installation setting crystalises the polyphony of forms, sounds, living species and ideas that characterise any diverse ecosystem where various and sometimes competing entities cohabit. Images and sounds have been edited like a collage of fragmented pieces that create a common yet variegated ensemble.

 

Lo Lai Lai Natalie: “The Days Before The Silent Spring”, installation view, 15 December 2020 – 15 January 2021, WMA Space. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.

 

On the screens, images vary from slideshow to short film sequences. We rarely see the faces of the farmers as Lo wished to preserve their privacy. Instead, she focuses on their tools, hands and on mundane objects of the farm that embody their work and engagement with the soil—gloves that rest after work, or boots covered by mud. The films feature many close-up shots on nature too, from fruits and frogs to a snake gliding towards a hole and a spider weaving its web. Most of the time, the camera takes the low perspective of the land: at the forefront, fine rootlets, moss, ground seeds and soil; at the back, the outline of a farmer plowing or sowing. Some images are blurry with the lens struggling to focus. At the same time, from the audio recording, we can hear how these young people are also striving to find a balance in their lifestyle as they are searching for a mode of living that would match their dreams and values, independent from the established societal norms. It is said that “Sangwoodgoon is like a haven for stray cats” and the members discuss their various reasons for working there and how much they have changed during this 10-year experience. Yeun calls it a miracle because they persisted in their effort, despite the local fire ants, which infest the farm, and the poor productivity of crops. Above all, according to him, the success of the community lies in the members’ ability to cohabit with each other, to share and change together. As one member says, this is not heroic, but it is already something. For Jenny Li Chun-nei, one of the co-founders of Sangwoodgoon, the most important aspect of this experience is to show that one can change radically.

 

Lo Lai Lai Natalie, The Days Before the Silent Spring (film still); Plant and plant ash, 2020, 5 channel video installation, installation size variable. Image courtesy of the artist and WMA.

 

During the social movement in 2014, some activist groups organised farming activities in the urban areas, and the collective supported these initiatives. In the film, Lo included some black and white images of the protests from 2019. In the early days, the collective was strongly engaged politically, yet, with time, its members became more humble and more nuanced in their judgements. They used to see farming as a slow resistance protest, but most of them realised that they had to change themselves before trying to change the world around them. The film explores their questioning about where to stand and how to contribute to social change. Ultimately, organic farming plays an important role in the society, contributing to the local consumption of vegetable and to a more sustainable use of the land, and this is also another way to assert their values and beliefs. Taking ecology and nature as a common ground, Lo believes in a more cosmopolitan vision of society, that transcends national boundaries.

In the film, a relatively long sequence features night butterflies flying towards a lit lamp at night. We can wonder if they represent the members of the collective attracted by farming as if it could really lead to a better and more autonomous life. Trying to find freedom in farming, with its very constrained and heavy workload, might indeed seem utopian. However, Lo’s approach is not judgmental. As both an observer and a participant, she takes a compassionate look at the community. Overall an impression of softness stems from the work, reflecting her empathy. A beautiful scene shows the farmers covering their crops with a white transparent veil that resembles a bride’s veil. This light net represents the necessary protection against pests and various invaders, a fluid and light form of boundary aiming at finding a compromise between all kinds of different species, from the micro to the macro, that connect together and make their way into common ground.

“The Days Before The Silent Spring” title refers to Rachel Carson’s 1962 influential book Silent Spring, in which the American biologist and science writer describes a world devastated by pesticides. In particular, Carson emphasises the deadly impact of DDT on birds, and forecasts a time when birds will not sing anymore. In contrast, in Lo’s films, birds are still plentiful and noisy. Sangwoodgoon’s attempts to explore new modes of living that would better respect people and their environment remain full of promises.

 

Lo Lai Lai Natalie: The Day Before The Silent Spring
15 December 2020 – 15 January 2021
WMA Space, Hong Kong

 

 

 
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