Interview | Timur Si-Qin: The sacredness and counterintuition of nature

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RD: This solo exhibition is inspired by your trip to Hengduan Mountains last year, which makes me notice that your exhibitions often relate to specific natural scene, with landscapes and plants from particular locations frequently becoming subjects of your works through 3D scanning and digitization. Could we start by discussing what specificity of nature mean to you?

TSQ: I am fortunate to have made visiting wild places a part of my practice, to document and 3d scan elements of nature to use in my works. What’s really interesting about this process is that nature is often counterintuitive. There is such a big difference between what we think a tree looks like vs what a real tree actually looks like. I like the 3D scanning process because it actually captures the real quality of a tree as a living organism without chopping it down and killing it and turning it into wood like in a traditional art process.

The specificity of a real plant is something I’ve always been captivated by. I love how in nature you can find a plant that is slightly different on one side of the mountain as on the other side, yet still the same species, and maybe even subspecies. Every little valley and hill expresses organisms in a different way. Noticing that specificity is sort of similar to meditation, progressively seeing more detail. That’s also what I love about the digital recreation process, that it forces you to observe deeper and deeper. In order to recreate these plants, one has to really see them. I think there’s an easy urge when creating digital renditions of nature, for example, to make it a little bit weird or alien. But I’ve always found that actual nature is the most alien it can get. For me, the most extreme visuality is found in the way nature actually is.

I saw a rhododendron bush when I was in a park in Germany last summer. I’ve always thought rhododendrons are beautiful. In most places, they’re just garden bushes and I was really curious about where they are actually native to. Then later that year I traveled to Hengudan, a region with some of the highest density of biodiversity in the world. And suddenly I was in a huge rhododendron forest. Hengduan has over 223 species of rhododendron and the region is the likely origin of that type of plant.

RD: It’s interesting that the way you approach 3D scanning is quite ethical, which reminds me of the indigenous cultures you often mention. From your previous travel and study, how would you understand the indigenous cultures spread around the world?

TSQ: I grew up in Arizona because my mom married a Native American man. Being half Mongolian and accepted as a real son, I blended into that context. I was exposed to Native American culture, which was sort of my religious upbringing. I participated in various native ceremonies, dances, and rituals throughout the Southwest. On the other hand, I was surrounded by right-wing Christian Americans when growing up in Arizona. There is such a big difference between that culture and the native culture, especially in terms of the relationship to nature. In many ways, you can say that white American culture is really engaging in a war on nature. I always wondered why it was so different, a few years ago when I started focusing on that question, what I realized was that most cultures around the world are oriented towards nature.

It’s really only this specific aberration in Western culture that has such an antagonistic relationship with nature. Historically and religiously, the Judeo-Christian cultural background has formed a perspective where nature is given to man in dominion from God. Nature is seen purely as a resource for man use, as opposed to most indigenous cultures around the world where nature is seen as sacred. A rock is essentially just a pile of rocks in Western culture a, there’s no problem with mining it, extracting it or blowing it up. From an indigenous point of view, a mountain is considered a deity or something sacred you have to be respected.

So, today we really have to change this global culture somehow. My work over the last few years has been thinking about the questions of how do we return to, or create a culture in a contemporary world where nature is seen as sacred again? This is where the investigations of spirituality come into play and how we redefine faith in a contemporary sense that it makes sense for us.

RD: A return to nature-centered contemporary spirituality is your focus in the New Peace series. It is a shift from the previous project “Peace”, what are the differences?

TSQ: In the early years of my work, I was fascinated with visual culture, especially commercial visual culture. And I was interested in it from a kind of anthropological point of view, or even from a biological point of view. Centered around questions like why do Homo sapiens make the kinds of images that we do? Advertising was interesting to me because it served as a bridge into the animal mind, what allows our cognition to be influenced by advertising is really the same material vulnerability that we share with all animals. So I saw it as a kind of compassionate bridge to animal-being and a flat ontology.

This interest also came from my multicultural background of Germany, the U.S. and China, and seeing how a lot of visual culture is cross-cultural. You can find the same kinds of advertisement images everywhere, which for me is evidence that it’s biological, or species domain specific. The same goes for branding and logos, or symbols in general, they’re a type of exotic cognitive material with exotic affective properties. Our brain processes a logo differently than just any other visual input. The way our memory processes symbols is unique and similar to how one remembers a friend’s face. It’s a really interesting class of visual matter. Early on, I was mostly interested in this exoticness and thought of the PEACE brand as a kind of sculpture. The artworks are somewhat half virtual, where the brand or logo exists and expresses itself in different manifestations, in different artworks over time. I was inspired a lot by Chinese retail culture, like what one sees at Chinese malls. But in Germany, people didn’t see that I was influenced by these. They just thought I was discussing capitalism and expected this kind of traditional mode of art making, which is the critique from mimesis——you mimic capital to dial it up to the point where one reveals its inner contradictions. A lot of artworks in the last few decades have been created under this paradigm. What people expected but missed was a sharp critique from the work, and I wasn’t really interested in that, not to say that form of critique is not important, but I was looking at it more from a zoomed out and ultimately deep-ecological perspective.

What I was interested in was this idea of morphology, the study of the bodies of organisms, such as morphology of plants or animals. Also, I was interested in the morphogenesis of visual culture of human visual culture, thus branding and the advertisement images and all that were part of an investigation of that. This investigation was ultimately about establishing a flat ontology, viewing humans, animals, and other organisms on the same ontological plane, analogous to the new materialist turn in philosophy at that time.

But I think a Western context wasn’t really ready for that idea back then, there were some sort of allergic reaction it caused. People were irrationally detached from nature, they truly believed that, as an artist, if you made work about nature, then you were not fulfilling your duty to create work about the social. They saw the social and nature as being in opposition.

RD: When did this happen?

TSQ: The years leading up to COVID, around 2010 to 2019. It revealed a sort of weird antagonism towards nature in Western culture if you dig just beneath the surface. Then, of course, COVID flipped the script, since then people have realized that talking about nature is actually very important. That nature and the social are connected, which, of course, aligns with the indigenous view that humans are a part of nature. Around 2016, I rebranded Peace to New Peace, I had always seen this as a fun kind of meta-sculpture that could evolve over time and take on different meanings. So, with New Peace, I realized that what I was interested in was spirituality and nature——how do we instigate a spirituality of nature in today’s post secular global society? I began to think that maybe contemporary art is the best vehicle for that. It is already leading in that direction, serving as a form of secular spirituality that we share globally, with its own rituals and broadcasting of values.

I shifted the brand’s focus then, using it as a vehicle to discuss nature-based spirituality. Initially, I believed that philosophy was the right medium to articulate this idea. Today, I’m not so sure. While it might make sense in certain contexts, people may not generally be interested in the intricacies of philosophy. Yet, the concepts of morphology and morphogenesis have always been central to my spirituality, ever since I was a child observing the patterns in nature. Going out into nature and observing all the patterns, I gained a sense that what we perceive as a chaotic world actually possesses a deep, aesthetic order. It’s always patterning itself in really beautiful ways. All we have to do is just leave it alone and to let it do its own thing. If any little piece of the natural world is patterning itself in such a beautiful way, and the largest structures in the universe are also patterning themselves, everything in between is probably also deeply patterned including our individual lives. They’re sort of flowering in a way that there’s an order to it, that it progresses and it has its own embryogenesis in a way. I’ve always thought that’s a very reassuring idea and maybe it’s a way of conceptualising the idea of faith in a contemporary sense. And it doesn’t necessarily even have to be religious. It can be a secular proposition.

So that’s one of the tenets of New Peace: how do we articulate and describe spirituality today in a global post secular society?We don’t really have direct access to indigenous religions and cultures. But if you consider spirituality and religions, they are essentially adaptive meaning systems evolved to help humans meet specific environmental challenges and conditions. In a way, humans already possess mechanisms deeply connected to our cognition and emotions. So perhaps there’s a way to harness that to at least sketch out such a culture.

RD: Speaking of culture, in your previous sculptures you’ve often used a digital structure for support that conveys a new materialistic view of the blending of virtual and real worlds philosophically. This time, however, we can see some visual elements of religion / culture, such as Sanxingdui or Buddhism. What are your concerns?

TSQ: There’s an easy answer that this idea of cultural diversity is important, but maybe that’s more of a stretch. I think I am more inspired by seeing those things, rather than trying to convey some message through them. In a not quite conceptual way, I’m just going with the flow of the morphogenesis of culture to get rid of that distinction of culture and nature. I simply went with what made sense. I visited these specific places last year; they were very inspiring by giving examples of how objects are made in a culture that respects nature or values nature? You can tell there was definitely a kind of animistic nature, religion culture in Sanxingdui. Although buddhism in Mogau and Dunhuang express less about nature, it provides a specific vernacular of the sacred in the Asian context. For me, it’s about tapping into that vernacular——how do you convey the sacred?How do you communicate the sacred?There’s a whole language already out there for that, and I am using that language to connect with people that way.

RD: We can also get some sense of the statue in your sculptures this time, even though the statues themselves are not human figures.

TSQ: I often think of St. Boniface. He was a missionary in 8th century Germany, tasked with converting the Germanic tribes. There’s a famous story about him visiting a tribe in Fulda where they were praying to a holy tree. He chopped the tree down in front of them and replaced it with a cross. This event was symbolic of the moment Europeans stopped worshipping nature and started worshipping a man-god figure instead. So, a lot of my work in recent years, especially the tree sculptures, they are basically trying to reestablish this spiritual symbol of the tree, which is something that all cultures share if you go far back enough in history. We can see this kind of culture in China too, there is a tradition of holy sacred trees. So, for these sculptures, I am using the vernacular of the sacred, as commonly found in Buddhist statuary. To express the idea of the sacredness of plants and nature.

RD: But none of your tree sculptures represent sacred trees in a specific cultural context, right? For example, your ‘Oracle of the Ashes of Plants’ at the Bangkok Art Biennale. It seems that in Peace you are more interested in the common biological tendencies across different cultures, and in New Peace you focus more on indivisual diversity and the sanctity of existence.

TSQ: Yes, it’s not, but it was a special tree for me that it has a unique character and presence, even though it was marred by graffiti all over. It stood along a hiking trail leading to a beautiful, hidden lagoon, which made it feel like a pilgrimage route to me because of its beauty and natural splendor. Technically, it wasn’t on an official pilgrimage route, but to me, it was a special tree.

RD: Can you tell us about your panel work on the wall? We saw this form in Europe last year, it seems to be a new attempt.

TSQ: I’m continuing my practice of rendering nature, which basically means i’m digitally reconstructing a place and scene I encountered in the wild. The scene of panels for the show are from Yading. I have to recreate every plant in the process. It really forces you to look closely, how are these different colors distributed and how do you really capture the quality, the essence of that species of plant? So the panels are an expression of this meditative practice of looking deeply at the natural world.