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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Migrant Ecologies Project: A Grain of Wheat Inside a Salt Water Crocodile

By Lucy Davis 

(600 words, 5-minute read)

 

Another Chinese tradition, which probably has no connection with the previous one is that the Butterworth cannon belonged to ‘Panglima’ (Warrior) Ah Chong a bravo of the Inter-Chinese wars which took place in the Larut tin fields in 1862, and lasted sporadically for ten years.

“This warrior turned into a crocodile on his death and this crocodile is now the biggest stuffed crocodile in Raffles Museum, Singapore, though the director is unaware of the fact.

– From an article in The Straits Times, 12 July 1948, reproduced in the artist’s book with the permission of the Singapore Press Holdings

 

On 10 June 2019, a single grain of wheat from the interior of a 133-year-dead, 4.7 metres long, saltwater crocodile shot in 1887 at the mouth of the no-longer-existing Serangoon River in Singapore and kept for over a century in the Raffles Museum, migrated to the Arctic circle and was ceremonially buried in Platåberget, adjacent to the Svalbard Global Seed Bank, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.

This gesture was part of an artwork by the Singapore-situated Migrant Ecologies Project. The work was selected by an international jury of artists and scientists from 100 entries from all over the world for an exhibition called Agri/Cultures.Seed-Links, curated and led by Dr. Fern Wickson from the Centre for Biosafety at University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway. Dr. Wickson believes that nature and human cultures are intertwined and wanted to generate a parallel initiative to remember 21st century cultural relationships with plants and seeds, next door to the world famous ‘Doomsday Vault’.

The Migrant Ecologies Project proposal is called Seeding Stories: A Guide to the Interior of a Salt Water Crocodile.  It is just one part of an ongoing research initiative that started in 2013 and was first exhibited during a project called Unearthed at the Singapore Art Museum.  For this iteration of the work, Migrant Ecologies Project artist Zachary Chan was flown (all carbon costs were offset) to Svalbard with this very special grain of wheat and a series of other artistic offerings from the Migrant Ecologies Project for a ceremony, in which the works were offered to the mountain and placed to rest in Gruve/Mine 3, next to the Svalbard Global Seed Bank.

Our proposal consisted of regarding this 133-year-dead, saltwater crocodile as a comparative seed bank to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. But equally important for us has been the discovery, initially by Kate Pocklington (currently Curator at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) of what has become a feral diversity of sources all claiming in different ways that this very crocodile (currently in the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) is believed to host the spirit of Panglima (Warrior) Ah Chong, 19th century gangster, Taoist mystic, and anti-colonial freedom fighter.

The first known image of the crocodile, shot in 1887 at the mouth of the Serangoon River. Photo: Original photographer, owner and copyright unknown. Reproduced in Tan, Kevin, Y.L. Of Whales and Dinosaurs. The Story of Singapore’s Natural History Museum. National University of Singapore Press 2015 pp 42-43 The interior of the crocodile photographed at the then-Raffles Museum of Biodiversity in 2013. Photo: Kee Ya Ting The one grain we were able to find in the wheat from inside the crocodile was inside this husk, now buried inside the mountain in Svalbard. You can see the grain on the bottom row, second from the right. Photo: Kee Ya Ting The artist's book is the main artistic contribution of the Project. It draws together the entangled stories of what we know about the crocodile, the seed and the spirit of Panglima Ah Chong, alongside a series of odes to them. Here, all the artists are helping to hold our 4.7m book – the exact length of the saltwater crocodile – in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Zachary Chan and Muhammad Faisal Bin Husni in a ritual ‘wheat gleaning ceremony’ in Singapore. We requested permission from the spirits of the crocodile, the wheat and Panglima Ah Chong to take the grain of wheat to the mountain in Svalbard. A DVD of the performance was buried along with the artworks. Photo: Kee Ya Ting A biscuit tin formerly containing Mermaid Brand Cream Crackers with wheat designs on the outside was chosen as the box to house the wheat as well as test tubes of salt, needles and Singapore’s very own NEWater – all for the wheat’s ritual protection.  A biscuit tin formerly containing Mermaid Brand Cream Crackers with wheat designs on the outside was chosen as the box to house the wheat as well as test tubes of salt, needles and Singapore’s very own NEWater – all for the wheat’s ritual protection. This is the second resin eye that was inside the crocodile (the first is in the NUS Museum). We include this eye in our offerings so that it may watch over our grain, together with a four-lined tree frog, two blue bees and assorted butterfly wings. It is a gesture aligned with what Donna Haraway might call ‘making oddkin’ – as indeed is this whole artwork. For the benefit of the possible intelligences that may find these treasures after humans have long gone, we have translated one of the photographs of our wheat gleaning ceremony in Singapore into binary code. We included 60 letters by leading artists and writers in Southeast Asia and beyond, addressed to the grain of wheat. Many are works of art in their own right. We have scanned them all and are issuing Certificates of Authenticity that these were buried in Platåberget. Clockwise from top left: Letters from Bartaku, Susie Lingham, Nguyen Trin Thi, Lynn Lu. Artist letters, clockwise from top left: Letters from Mari Keski Korsu, Marietta Radomska, Lee Weng Choy and Filippa Ramos.   Letter from Harriet Rabe Von Froelich. We are still trying to find an appropriate format to honour the tremendous care and consideration that went into these letters and artworks.   Part of a letter from Stephane Rennesson. We are still trying to find an appropriate format to honour the tremendous care and consideration that went into these letters and artworks. Our neighbour, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, was under reconstruction during our time in Norway in order to make the vault more resilient against melting glaciers and water leakage. This is the view from the mine next door in which the boxes were buried. Photo: Maggie Puckett The artists outside Mine 3 of Platåberget Mountain, in a moment of silence with their boxes in the goodbye ceremony to the exhibition. Lucy Davis & Zachary Chan (Migrant Ecologies Project), Maggie Puckett (Seeds in Service), Sergey Jivetin, Anna Laurent, Ivan Juarez, Paul Chartrand. Inside the mine with the Migrant Ecologies Project box, with project conceptualiser Dr. Fern Wickson (right) and other artists. Photo: Anna Laurent After what seemed like a long walk in silence and darkness into the mountain we came to an almost mythological-looking door with the words ‘Fröhall’ - seed room - written upon it. This was the door of the original seed bank chamber, which was an initiative of the Nordic Genebank. Photo: Anna Laurent. This is our box and our seed in its current resting place inside Mine 3 Platåberget Svalbard, Arctic Circle. Wheat Grain World Dreams, the centre section from the artist’s book contains a map that includes some of our research questions around, for example, histories of 19th century cash crops and the crimes of the  British India Company; and the extension of China’s Belt and Road journey West. The 4.7m concertina artists book: A Guide to the Interior of a Salt Water Crocodile by Zachary Chan and Lucy Davis with photographs by Kee Ya Ting, June 2019. Photos: Kee Ya Ting

 

How might such disparate beings as a wheat grain, a crocodile, and a spirit being, all entangled in the legacies of colonial agro-economies and monstrous dreams of progress, speak to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in a time of mass extinction and climate change?

Singapore and Svalbard are two islands situated in radically different parts of the globe.

There was, as we know, a violent scramble for natural resources by colonial powers from which Singapore emerged as entrepôt trading post in the 19th and 20th century. And the emergence and increase in attacks by saltwater crocodiles throughout our region can be seen as an ongoing result of the devastating impact of colonial and postcolonial capital on coastal ecosystems.

There is also a potential equivalent scramble for the Arctic commencing right now as China, Russia and America all compete for the precious minerals and sea routes that are being uncovered as the ice melts. Incursions by polar bears into the town of Longyearbyen are also on the rise.

Might Svalbard become the Singapore of the 21st century? And if so, what kind of worlds might this new entrepôt inherit?


Migrant Ecologies Project is a collaborative project between Lucy Davis, Zachary Chan, Kee Ya Ting and Faisal Husni in association with the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum (Curator Siddharta Perez) and Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art (ViCCA) at Aalto University Finland.

Lucy Davis is a visual artist, art writer and founder of The Migrant Ecologies Project. She is currently Professor of Artistic Practices in the Master’s Degree Programme in Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art (ViCCA) at Aalto University, Finland.

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