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  • Feb 24, 2016

Donna Ong's 'My Forest Has No Name'

DONNA ONG, From the Tropics, With Love (2.1-2.6), 2016, from the series "From the Tropics, With Love", 2015- , mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Installation view for "My Forest Has No Name" at Fost Gallery, Singapore, 2016. Courtesy Fotograffiti (John Yuen).

DONNA ONG, installation view of Gift #02, part of "Gift Series: Pluvia Silva," 2016. Courtesy Fotograffiti (John Yuen).

In his novel Heart of Darkness (1899), writer Joseph Conrad described the jungle as “vengeful” and an “implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” But because jungle hyperbole can be as promising as it is threatening—think long-lost tribes and ancient cities of gold—it is rather more entertaining to turn threats of the unknown into untamed exoticism (consider Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan) or half-wild jungle girls (à la WH Hudson’s Green Mansions, 1904). Even artist Henri Rousseau (who never left France during his life) was jungle-struck by the tamest of botanic gardens and imagined only sweetly naïve, malleable jungles.

Singaporean installation artist Donna Ong is fascinated by the identities that generations of artists, writers, explorers and colonials have subjectively imposed upon “the jungle,” and the malleable process of its meaning. Ong is best known for her idiosyncratic neo-Wunderkammer, which includes alchemical constructs of bell jars stuffed with dolls, or illuminated cabinetry brimming with miniature worlds that she uses to draw connections between colonialism, cultural artifacts and Southeast Asian identities. At Fost Gallery, in her current exhibition “My Forest Has No Name,” Ong introduces the curious wonders and detritus of "exotica" and "the jungle" in several new series of photographs and installations.

Visitors first enter into a fusty Victorian parlor, complete with oriental carpet and ersatz ferns, orchids and birds-of-paradise cascading from massive vases. This installation, From the Tropics, With Love (2.1–2.6) (2016), loads a dozen antique-style tables with an eccentric assortment of tchotchkes—“native” (i.e., nude) statues, friendly-looking porcelain tigers and impossibly colored birds—which collectively embody the standard template for commercial jungle exotica. Scattered amongst this plasticized vivarium are five exquisite light-box dioramas from Ong’s “Gift Series: Pluvia Silva” (2016). Inside these heavy ornamental wooden boxes, Ong assembles paper tableaux cut from copies of 19th-century natural history illustrations. The resulting lightscapes involve layers of delicate palm trees and foliage suffused with a golden glow. The lovely hinged boxes suggest formal altars to an ideal Nature, an aspect also explored in Ong’s ongoing photo series, “My Forest Has No Name” (2014– ). Shown here are some dozen unframed images depicting lifeless, man-made tropical habitats, barely glimpsed nets in an aviary and groomed foliage, which implies that nature can be successfully restrained. Her witty series “Postcards from the Tropics” (2016) involves over a dozen small theatrical “sets” mounted on individual shelves along one gallery wall. The artist simply props up small diasec prints of old postcards and archival images (pith-helmeted explorers; docile natives) as “backdrops” for various kitschy souvenirs and reboots them all as perky little tropical ironies.

Ong’s installation Deep Calls to Deep (2016) is contained within an inner, dimly-lit black room of the gallery, where the artist has positioned a giant black box of glittering black sand. In this odd “heart of darkness,” the walls are printed with reams of tiny, jungle-centric text from around the world, culled by the artist from writings, newspapers and online reports dating from the 1800s to present-day. These make for a fascinating read: a certain 19th-century journal tells of a lurid tiger attack; another describes an awed “feeling of inhospitable wildness”; there are portrayals of surreal follies constructed in the Mexican rainforest; and a vision-inspired “chicken church” in Indonesia. By the early 20th century, there seemed to be nostalgia and heady romanticism for the jungle (before so many animals were hunted): naturalists gush of “an enchanted lake” and nights that were “thrillingly alive.” Within the wall text, Ong also includes current reports on modern Singapore’s clandestine “forest brothels” used by migrant workers; stories of people-smuggling and mass graves in the woods; destruction of animal habitats; and loss of tribal heritage. All of this artist-curated narrative is as dense and perplexing as any jungle, and though these stories propel Deep Calls to Deep, they are literally obscured in the gallery's low light, where only scraps of sentences can be read. In an act of elucidation, Ong loads her giant “sandbox” with faux debris and fragments culled from the narratives themselves—chains, condoms, tools, bones, a whiskey bottle—which bemused visitors may unearth as objective “truths” of the jungle accounts.

DONNA ONG, Postcards from the Tropics (x), 2016, diasec print, wooden shelf and tropical souvenirs (clay pitcher plant on wood, antique ceramic parrot and vintage miniature ceramic bird), dimensions variable. Courtesy Fost Gallery, Singapore. 

DONNA ONG, Deep Calls to Deep, 2016, black sand, black acrylic box, miscellaneous ready-mades and text on vinyl sticker, dimensions variable. Courtesy Fotograffiti (John Yuen).

If the dismal souvenirs and amorphous narratives in the installation seem evasive, and if Ong’s blatant tropical mementos seem transparent, look to one salient observation in Deep Calls to Deep made by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009), who writes that light, sound and true perspective are lost in the jungle—which is “immersed in a medium denser than air.” Ong defines jungle identities through invention, imagination and memory—mediums which, in her hands, become organic, inscrutable Wunderkammer.

Donna Ong: “My Forest Has No Name” is on view at Fost Gallery, Singapore, until February 28, 2016.

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