Tony Twigg

Tony Twigg

Nine

Australian sculptor Tony Twigg was the Australian resident artist of the year-long Malaysia-Australia Visual Arts Residency in 2005.

Bio

Tony Twigg has produced over 40 solo exhibitions of wall-based objects and installations in Australia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore and the U.S.A., and has been included in group exhibitions across Asia and Europe. He received his Master of visual Arts from the City Art Institute Sydney in 1985. He lives and works in Sydney, Australia and Manila, Philippines.

Tony’s numerous exhibitions have been presented in a variety of  disciplines including, performance, film/video, installation, painting and sculpture, as well as curatorial practice. He is represented in private collections and public collections in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines including: the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Ateneo Art Gallery Manila and the BenCab Museum, in the Philippines.

Tony Twigg in conversation with Gina Fairley. Rimbun Dahan December 2005

How did your journey to Rimbun Dahan, from Manila to Ho Chi Minh, up the Mekong to Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, colour your arrival in Malaysia?

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur with certain expectations of an Asian experience built around the places I’ve gravitated to over the past decade. These are places where people quickly adapt ‘things’ – found objects – into life’s necessities, objects I see as ‘accidental art’. There’s an intuitive creativity in their making which speaks to me passionately of the human spirit. K.L. is a first world city, complete with all the accoutrements of now, where the prerequisites of “life-style” decide how things look rather than human need. Somehow, the first marks I made were ruled lines and then a lot of time was spent looking for a mark that comes from here, that is Malaysia, not just K.L.

Where did you find that Malaysian mark?

Here, along Jalan Kuang, at a demolition site, in discarded fish boxes beside a pasaraya and as crazy looking bottles of Chinese liquor from Kuang. It turned out that the Malaysian mark, for me, was the fish box. I started working with the ‘physical’ line of the object rather than its inspiration. The major impact was the surface. I found the subtle and random shifts in colour and texture of the timber aesthetically moving, so I began using thinner and thinner paint until I had the courage to use none. For me these fish boxes engaged the spirit of the original maker. There are two hands at work in my pictures.

Clearly you have a passion for the found object, but this feeling of a dialogue with the ‘original maker’ is a new development.

It occurred to me while making the works called 30 Fish Boxes. My proposition was simple: join three fish boxes together vertically to make a construction. As I worked the possibilities multiplied and I felt like I was jamming with the guy who made the boxes. The piece MT Madras was an amazing find and the most extreme relationship with the original ‘maker’. I found it in Brickfields during Deepavali and photographed it. The crate collapsed neatly enough to make it back to the studio. Not only did it not need paint, it didn’t need any carpentry either. My role as artist was limited to identifying the object, and conservator. This piece is the end point in the show and it has necessitated relinquishing certain controls over my surfaces and the arrangement of my constructions. Slowly, I’ve become aware of how subversively an object can be spirited. Accidental art has a great deal of beauty that I try to emulate by considering the making process rather than considering what beauty ‘looks’ like. The result is a set of elementary forms that have a certain universal understanding common to places like Chau Doc, Pasir Mas or Manila – the bird cages of Kelantan are a good example of this – but put them in cities like Sydney or K.L., they become exotic.

A dialogue with space is a constant in your work: architectural space, conceptual space, personal space, cultural space – it’s not static. Do you perceive an ‘Asian’ space?

I find the sensation of space physically exciting. I’ve come to realise that the way we perceive space governs our proximity to the objects we encounter. You and I might see U-shaped canyons walking through the city, but a town planner or crane driver would probably see it differently. In that sense, the way we perceive space becomes the operating system of our aesthetic. The idea of stacking space, and how that establishes illusionistic depth without referencing perspective, I think, is essentially ‘Asian’. Seeing Gao Xingjian’s recent show at Singapore Art Museum underlines this and it was also the big discovery for Ian Fairweather, an English artist who worked through Asia in the ‘30s on his way to becoming Australia’s pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist.

Do you consciously push the parameters of space outside the edges of the work to engage the gallery wall?

Yes, it is absolutely vital. It is not a question of an object surrounded by space, it’s a composition of positive and negative space. So, like a doughnut, the defining feature of the work could be an empty space. As a result my works are often multi-panelled because there are moments when the negative space is stronger than the positive space and consequently the work splits in two or perhaps fails to join. In this kind of work there are no right or wrong decisions, and the final relationship of the parts can change as they adapt to the constraints of a location or reflect the taste of a new owner. However, the drawing of the work – its lines, its spaces and its surfaces – remain unchallenged.

Birdwing

About the Work

 Thompson Birdwing Butterfly (above), exhibited at the 2005 Art for Nature exhibition.

Shortly after arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I found a very appealing broken wooden box in Chinatown. Back in the studio, I put it together as an ordinary looking thing that I then tried to liven up with yellow paint. A month or two later, I was on a demolition site and found two pieces of circular something in wood. Back in the studio it was a match for my yellow construction. Once it was together I started wondering if a butterfly might be a solution to the picture, inspired by the Art of Nature show. Bee Ling came to my studio and said that I had a word on my box, and it was butterfly. Next Angela was looking at this piece and said, “Look, a yellow and black butterfly,” just like my work, outside the studio, in the garden. It is Troides aeacus Thompsonii, a male Thompson Birdwing.

A Gardener’s Review

A Gardener’s Review

A variety of Eugenia, showing white flowers. A common belief among naturalists is that white flowers attract moths, yellow ones attract butterflies, and red ones appeal to birds.

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 3, 2001.

I was a rank beginner when I started writing on landscaping with indigenous species. Since then my interests have broadened, and my garden has become an obsession, but why did I choose indigenous, and how far am I in achieving my goals?

The common stem fig is rarely seen ripe: as soon as it is edible it is plucked by bats.

My broad ideas were initially inspired by gardens in Australia, where there has been a growing interest in Australian plants over the last three decades. There, gardeners use local plants to create a specific sense of place, to conserve water and nutrients and to encourage native birds and animals. This same sense of place is special to me here in Malaysia, because I want my garden to reflect the fact that I am here and not in Australia, nor just in some unspecified tropical country. The garden had to assert the whole history of the place and the plants that were on the site for thousands of years before it was cleared for a coffee plantation just 70 years ago.

As well, the conservation of water and nutrients presented a challenge. An organic approach seemed the most appropriate, so we set up systems to compost and mulch, and selected hardy species that can naturally withstand insect attack or drought. As in the Australian example, this choice of local species simultaneously created an instant pallet of colour and form that is particularly Malaysian.

Here there is no drought as in Australia, but everything is relative. Deplete the soil of organic matter, expose it to the tropical sun and soon the situation will resemble drought or flood. With nothing to retain moisture and nutrients, plants have to cope with extreme conditions that flatten all but the hardiest. The instant gardener would intervene chemically to help his plants: fertilize, pesticide, herbicide and fungicide. A sure step to suicide…. for the planet, if not for the gardener. Far better, surely, to choose a wider species mix and conservative gardening techniques to create a naturalist’s garden.

In my previous garden in Kuala Lumpur, a neighbour prided herself on her roses, beautiful tall bushes that produced an amazing crop of flowers considering our location just 3 degrees from the equator, but to me the price was unacceptable as several times a week the unmistakable smell of agrocide came floating over the fence.

At that stage, I had a small garden that was low maintenance, of hardy species that screened us from the neighbours. It just required an occasional pruning, and apart from the aesthetic value of looking at green rather than street, I didn’t really think about it much. When we decided to move to our 14 acre dusun, or village orchard, the garden became a major element that had to be taken more seriously.

I wanted shade most of all, and was inspired by the arboretum at FRIM, where the massive dipterocarps soar a hundred feet overhead. Planting fruit trees was not a priority as there were already plenty, and although I had a brief fling with ‘cash crops’, like sweet corn, the returns did not justify the effort. The nice thing about trees is that once they are established they need little attention.

Once the dipterocarps were on the way, I needed bulk underneath to give form and volume to the planting, so then began the hunt for local ferns, gingers, palms and ground covers.

Searching around the nurseries in Sungai Buloh and everywhere I traveled in Malaysia became an opportunity to find new and unusual plants that had some relevance to a regional garden. My most recent find is the mauve seeds of the fish tail palm Caryota rumphiana from Gua Gomantong in Sabah. I had never seen them in fruit although this magnificent solitary palm has become common in KL planted by the roadside.

The search for plants has sharpened my awareness of species in the forest, and I was delighted to recognize, also in Sabah, the beautiful palm Arenga undulatifolia, growing on the limestone outcrops along the Kinabatangan River. I have tried to germinate seeds of this rare species that I collected from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, but failed. Now at least I know its natural growing conditions so can try again to replicate the alkaline, well drained habitat.

While many bananas are considered inedible by humans, they make excellent food for wildlife: insects visit the flowers, and birds, mammals and bats take the fruit. This Musa sp. called pisang belali gajah in Malay provides hundreds of fruits that ripen progressively over months, providing a stable food supply.

An important continuing project is the herb garden, which is more a spice garden with lots of ethno-botanically relevant plants: toddy palms, cinnamon, cloves, nutmegs, meninjau, pandan, chillies, vanilla orchids, lemon grass, pepper, turmuric and tamarind, as well as local medicinal plants. Organic vegetables make the garden useful, while the fragrant blooms of gingers and creepers provide the atmosphere of the ‘exotic East’ which is actually the here and now, not the remote and romantic.

We started Taman Sari by taking a leaf from the Chinese vegetable gardeners’ practice. We burned the clay left over from the house excavations, and if one can talk of a transforming experience, verging on the religious, this was it. Creating a garden is all about making something beautiful and productive that wasn’t there before. Burning clay, the worst kind of soil one could be blessed with, transforms it into a soil that is porous, retains and releases water slowly, that crumbles easily and is sterile and ‘sweet’, blessed as it is with charcoal fragments from the burning. Transubstantiating fire converted my gardening into a religion: to do everything as naturally as possible.

As I became more aware of birds in the garden and the processes of establishing plants, I realised how rewarding it is to share my space with other creatures. I am delighted to say that in the last month I have seen in my garden a pangolin, a two-meter keeled rat snake, chestnut bellied malkohas, crested serpent eagles getting their daily lift from the hot spot on our plaza, a blue winged pitta, large biawaks, a pair of hill mynas calling from the fruiting kenanga trees, and millions of iridescent flies attracting masses of swifts as the flies fed on a flowering Terminalia bellirica. I look forward to the spectacled leaf monkeys feeding on the Terminalia fruit in a few months time.
Not all is resounding success, though. Despite my mix of species I have recently had a plague of white ulat bulu, hairy caterpillars, that have completely defoliated several of these Terminalias. Without spraying, I just have to pray for some natural predator to arrive, but am none the less anxious about the monkeys’ food supplies. They must find enough forage elsewhere in the kampong, where trees are being cut every day to make way for more houses.

I experience a real sense of urgency about wildlife, not unlike worrying about one’s children, so I continue to plant as many species as I can to supplement available food sources. So rather than farming for people, which was the original objective of our dusun, I am now gardening for wildlife, and the animals make the seasons of my garden just as much as the plants do. When we have come full circle, I hope my garden will resemble the forest that was here for thousands of years before it was thoughtlessly replaced by a mono-cultural farm that was destined to fail.

I have one relic of that pre-agricultural era, a worn stump that has eluded all attempts to remove it, and it silently reminds me every time I pass of my mission.

A Tropical Fragrant Garden

A Tropical Fragrant Garden

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 1, 2000.

Perfumed plants should be included in a naturalist’s indigenous garden to make up for the lack of colour in Malaysian species. Fragrance adds a delightfully unique character to a tropical garden, but the plant’s utilitarian ‘objective’ for creating perfume is to attract pollinating insects, justifying the complex chemical process.

Fragrance advertises free nectar, a cheap commodity for the plant to produce, being just sugar syrup, and it is enough to attract insects, bats or birds. Often the plant is choosy about the pollinator and will release perfume only at certain times of the day or night when the desired visitor is around.

Fragrant plants include climbers, shrubs, trees and palms. Many have white or cream flowers that suggests that they are pollinated at night, and for most fragrance does seem more pervasive then than in the full heat of the day.

Jasminum sambac, the popular jasmine (pictured above), ‘bunga melor’ or ‘melati’, was brought from India, and is a restrained creeper that likes full sun and support for climbing. A recent perfume success in my garden is the very robust vine Chonemorpha macrophylla (left), just two plants would be enough to take care of a tennis court fence, so it needs lots of space and a strong support to climb on. Another popular and fragrant climber that is not so invasive is the drunken sailor or Rangoon creeper, Quisqualis indica, whose drooping fragrant flowers are red in bud, appearing white when first opened, before aging to pink and crimson.

The ‘chempaka’ tree (Michelia champaka) has ivory flowers (the orange variety is not so fragrant) that offer another exotic scent. This tree could be planted as a roadside tree or in a smaller garden, being a slower grower. Not so for the huge Dryobalanops aromatica, or ‘pokok kapor’. I planted a row nine years ago along the front fence, they are now 40 feet high with trunks about 6 inches in diameter. Fortunately the tree retains its lower branches as it grows, thus providing a good screen as well as allowing leaves to be picked and crushed, releasing the camphor fragrance that has made the tree an object of desire since the Arabs traded for it in the sixth century.

Perhaps my favorite fragrant tree is the ‘tembusu’, Fagraea fragrans (above). It is a tall forest tree that provides not only fragrant flowers that attract insects but also a red fruit that feeds bats, birds and other mammals.

The ‘kenanga’, Canangium odoratum (pictured above), is not so handsome a tree. With its drooping branches and habit of constantly dropping leaves it looks a bit unkempt, but its fragrance is the epitome of the ‘exotic’ east. The flowers are greenish, but fully fragrant when more yellow, and although it is hard to reconcile the two perfumes, apparently ‘ylang ylang’, or ‘kenanga’ oil, is a principal ingredient of Chanel No. 5. There is a dwarf variety of the tree that is good for mixed hedging and in smaller gardens.

The most successful hedge plant for fragrance must be ‘kemuning’, Murraya paniculata, its only disadvantage being unpredictable flowering. Left alone it will form a small tree with branches arching out and up, but planted densely in a trench and then pruned to create a fence, it creates a beautiful dark wall of foliage that is periodically lit by panicles of star-like white flowers with the sweetest of perfumes.

Vallaris glabra, or ‘kesidang’ (left), is more ‘oriental’ in character, and perhaps a liking for it is acquired. Burkhill describes the smell as ‘mousy, but agreeable to the natives of the east who like it’! To me it has the perfume of cooked pandan, and certainly when in bloom (once again an inconspicuous panicle of small white flowers) visitors exclaim at the smell of pandan, planted just beneath as a perfume puzzle. An essential ingredient of the ‘bunga rampai’, the finely sliced pot-pourri of fragrant plants used for Malay weddings, ‘kesidang’ is now unfortunately replaced by cheap scent.

For a cut fragrant flower, nothing is quite as spectacular as the entire inflorescence of the common coconut, and it makes a beautiful sculpture laid on a table. This flower may well have been the original ‘bunga manggar’ (right), tied at the top of a bamboo pole and carried at the head of a bridal procession.

Herbs and spice plants also have strong concentrations of the essential oils that make perfume. Crushing leaves of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, or plucking the many varieties of basil whose perfumes range from lemon to aniseed, tearing citronella and lemon grass, turmeric and ‘kesum’, all make for a heady experience. After inhaling several it becomes increasingly difficult to identify anything, but having such plants adds as much to your life as to your garden. With plants like these, one should never need aroma therapy!

Gardens and perfume are about reinforcing a sense of place. A Balinese statue garlanded in jasmine recalls our common Hindu traditions and the many fragrant and useful plants that have been brought to Malaysia by migrants from all over Asia.

Common fragrant trees, such as frangipanni or Plumeria, are only rarely planted in Malay gardens because of their association with burial grounds, where they readily strike in exposed and open positions. This Mexican tree, brought by the Spanish, has been known in South East Asia since the seventeenth century when it was noted by the botanist Rumpf. Even I have accorded a place to this tree in my ‘indigenous’ garden, as its flowers dropped on the footpaths of PJ formed one of my early impressions of Malaysia when I barely knew one plant from another.

Certainly perfume can provide an intriguing trail through the plant kingdom, and a developed nose can analyze the characteristics of smell for yet another key to identifying plants that may otherwise be difficult to place. Specific species in the family of Zingiberaceae, the gingers that occur throughout the Malaysian forests, are particularly difficult to identify because they only occasionally flower, but the essential fragrant oils may provide a clue for taxonomic identification.

For anyone interested in fragrant plants, an indispensable reference is the Dictionary of Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula by Burkhill, who was Director of Gardens in the Straits Settlements between 1912 and 1925. With 2,400 pages its coverage is encyclopaedic, and includes information on perfume extraction. Priced at only $150 for both volumes it is matchless value. A limited number are available at the Malaysian Nature Society bookshop.

The Interactive Garden

The Interactive Garden

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 52 no. 2.

Gardening is essentially a manipulation of the natural environment. We elect to save or eliminate, plant and nourish or neglect, and the result is a man made garden. For the naturalist, there is the added objective of nurturing as much of nature as possible, and this includes species other than plants. I have managed to educate the rest of the family that one does not have to kill snakes, bats or lizards; they do more good than harm, but at the same time I keep a close eye on the new puppy to make sure she isn’t taken by the biawak, the large monitor lizard that lives near the pond.

A large biawak, or water monitor, on the steps by the pond.

Birds win people over much more easily and do not evoke the same primal fear as reptiles. The brilliant flashes of colour as they swoop through the garden and fill another dimension with song ringing back and forth arouse a reaction in all humans, whether interested in the natural world or not.

I have perhaps thirty varieties of birds in my garden and they provide me with the greatest delight. The largest is probably the crested serpent-eagle, although the fish owl would be a close second. The eagles regularly launch themselves on the heat generated from a large paved area by the house, whistling to each other as they glide the thermals. The fish owl’s tawny beige is noticeable in low light and can sometimes be seen perching on the house beams over the fish pond or in the top of a flowering durian waiting for bats. Much more common are the white breasted waterhens who inhabit the pools and drains and are fascinating to watch as they hide their coal black young in bushy cover while both parents hunt for food. They breed prolifically, but numbers never seem to increase so the monitor lizards must be harvesting their share. These interactions between species make the life of a garden so interesting and reminiscent of our own lost habitat that we must unknowingly miss.

My early garden planting failed to consider other life groups so much, keen as I was to plant a forest of dipterocarps, the tallest fo rest giants. Unfortunately, most of these huge trees take years to mature and the seasons of flowering and fruiting are so irregular and unpredictable that they cannot be relied upon by wildlife for a regular source for food. Perhaps the plants that encourage birds most would be from the Ficus family, they fruit early and constantly and are sought by bats, mammals and birds. Unfortunately most planted by landscapers tend to be hybridized varieties that don’t fruit, wasting a great opportunity. Feeding animals can make a mess, but if they are well established they can also help with insect and pest control. With more predators to keep down the pests, plants and people suffer less from insect damage than they would otherwise.

Swifts and bats alternate between day and night harvesting flying insects, and the change of guard at dusk is remarkably precise: one never sees swifts in the sky with bats, nor is there a moment when there is nothing flying and swooping.

A reticulated python, in the well at Rimbun Dahan. Pythons help control the rat population.

The naturalist’s garden has to develop on the awareness that we share our space with other creatures. I may own the land, but other residents predate my claim so allowances have to be made. All species are an asset in one way or another, even the weeds in the vegetable garden can camouflage tender species. Snakes keep down the rat population and birds harvest insects and fruit, spreading seeds and fertilizing as they go as well as providing an important dynamic aesthetic. The final result may seem a bit chaotic but a growing understanding of the interactions greatly broadens the definition of ‘gardening.’

The birds are definitely the star performers. A huge colony of yellow vented bulbuls nests happily in a grove of red sealing wax palms and sends squadrons out each morning. A more individual character is the pied triller chooses to call from under a roof where its voice is effectively amplified, as it (presumably male!) competes with its own kind for dominance. The black-naped orioles offer flashes of brilliant yellow as they carol and swoop through the trees, and the white-throated kingfisher provides the contrasting blue, accompanied by its typical raucous shriek. A seasonal visitor is the tiny blue-eared kingfisher, arriving in pairs and identifying itself by its whistle but difficult to see. Only once have I seen the stork-billed kingfisher. Two varieties of woodpeckers and bee eaters, owls, swifts, spider hunters and sunbirds add to the population.

There are many shy small varieties that we occasionally glimpse but can rarely identify, and they tend to be eclipsed by the louder more spectacular species. Seeing a pair of racket tailed drongos cavorting around an old durian tree as their tails wove patterns in the air is an indelible memory. We also have a family of hill mynas, only visitors before but now resident, whose calls whistle and echo throughout. I occasionally see malkohas and the greater coucal, the former very discrete, the latter lumbering through the foliage in a rather ungainly manner. Often we get swooping formations of long tailed parakeets, shrieking loudly, and reminiscent of my ‘great parrot homeland,’ as David Attenborough called Australia.

Recently I visited Endau Rompin and was overwhelmed by the vegetation in the forest, especially seeing trees that I have as saplings and being able to identify the mature specimens. Bird life, though, was not visible although very much in evidence from the morning calls; the forest was too dense for a good view. A well established garden can be very rewarding for bird watching, especially if it is close to forested areas. Recently a sighting of a vigorous patch of brilliant red feathers sent me scrambling for the bird book; I fear I saw a trogon, an inhabitant of primary forest, and I can only surmise why it was in my garden. I have not seen it since and fear for its welfare, but I guess I must focus on what I can provide and keep planting as much as possible.

So many ills of living in a developed society seem to stem from losing touch with natural surroundings in terms of sharing one’s habitat with other species. Whether it is the occasional whiff of perfume from a flowering tree, the sight of a biawak catching the morning sun on a coconut trunk, the texture of a leaf or the flash of a bird swooping past, the experience tends to place one’ s sense of being into primal mode; another part of the brain takes over when recognition takes place.

The solely urban habitat does not seem varied enough for healthy populations of birds or humans. To belong to a place that i s sufficiently diverse and to interact with our environment seems to be intrinsic to the healthy ‘lifestyle’. How I hate that word, but perhaps it reflects the loss of our own habitat, to be replaced by a mere style, a loss that takes its toll on us as much as it does on the rest of creation.

Naturalist Gardening Tips: I have had trouble establishing a Cassia fistula for its wonderful cascades of golden flowers. Every time a new show of leaves sprout, white moths appear and lay eggs. Within days the leaves are destroyed by caterpillars. For some reason the garden birds have shown no interest in grooming the tree or catching the butterflies, but a recent innovation at organic pest control was to introduce a nest of kerengga, the large red ants that inhabit fruit trees. The ants attack the caterpillars and although there is still some damage, the trees are doing much better.

To move a kerengga nest requires determination, as they bite. Our method is to pull it off the tree with a fruit harvesting hook, and tie it in a plastic bag (as quickly as possible!) Hang the bag in the caterpillar infested tree and then break it open. The ants will quickly establish their territory. Should you wish to remove the ants, the nest can be burned by tying oils oaked rags on a bamboo pole, and setting it alight under the nest.

Birds are just as useful, but they cannot depend on a few plant species as food supply is too cyclical. A good variety of birds requires a wide variety of plants. The booklet produced by WWF Malaysia, ‘Bring Back the Birds’, is an excellent guide on what species will attract birds, either because they provide nesting materials, fruit or insects on which the birds can feed.