Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

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

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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.

 

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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