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Displaced Trees: A Conversation with Boedi Widjaja

Chief Editor Christina J. Chua speaks to artist Boedi Widjaja on dislocation, memory, and the persistence of history.

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Boedi Widjaja, Path. 6, Unpacking my Library.

Boedi Widjaja, Path. 6, Unpacking my Library。书城, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

I sat close to the glowing cube with my chin in my hands, my eyes filling with tears, as a girl with hair as black and straight as my own sang into my reflection. She offered me a melodic question: When will I know my history? When will I know myself?


Her temples and pavilions, the rural land she traversed, the palace she attacked — these were the features of the motherland I perceived. And although it was a caricature, a mere line drawing, it seemed to be true. The television transposed my vision, and thus expanded it beyond the borders of an island whose Chinese immigrants’ skins had tanned under the Pacific sun as they worked the sugarcane plantations. Here on my island, I knew that Chinatown was a place for Sunday dim sum and the lonesome homeless with their shopping carts. I knew that my mother could still find the ingredients she needed to cook teochew porridge in a specialty supermarket of some estranged Western nomenclature, Ranch 99. Here, I had memorised the songs that Disney had strung together to voice a lowly replacement or substitution, or even a distant longing, for what I thought was China.


My Beijing-born grandmother was given a Christian and Western name when she met my grandfather, the third-generation son of Cantonese immigrants in British Guiana. He named her Ruth and took it upon himself to redeem her along the lines of the Old Testament narrative. He discipled her in the faith and taught her a meagre English. Ruth followed him south and away from her home, the capital — pressured by the onslaught of the Red Army — all the way to Singapore.


I do not know her Mandarin name, and even my mother forgets it. Perhaps, when I wonder about a girl named Mulan , I want to ask her the same questions. When I would fly from Hawaii to Singapore for an annual visit, Grandma Ruth would only sit in front of another television screen, staring blankly and battling dementia.


---


I reread a diary entry I produced for Boedi Widjaja’s exhibition at I_S_L_A_N_D_S art space three years ago. The show was tucked away in an unexpected corner of a zombie mall called Peninsula Plaza. Even now, the feelings still arise. I recently watched the controversial updated version of Mulan on Disney+, and it still triggered the same thoughts. The experience of a family and a home is so deeply lodged in our hearts and minds, and the narratives that are woven into those formative memories — however trivial — are inextricable from one’s adult identity. 


Boedi’s work harkens back to these generational reflections, but never in a straightforward manner. He works with detailed rubbings and pencil drawings, installations, video and sound, recomposing the interlaced threads of his heritage and his hybridity. The artist weaves a wide net, sifting through how these memories are codified and interconnected — whether through our very DNA, our language and distinct dialects we may have adopted as children, inherited familial tokens (our names) objects (books, journals, photographs), or belief systems, superstitions, and the political ideologies that have profoundly shifted our families’ journeys. 


Boedi Widjaja, Kang ouw (一), 2018.

Boedi Widjaja, Kang ouw (一), 2018. Copy prints of scanned drawings, each 150 x 195cm, series of 6. Solo presentation, Peninsula Shopping Centre, Singapore, I_S_L_A_N_D_S curated by Tan Pey Chuan. Image courtesy the artist.


CJC: Boedi, you begin with architecture, cross over into DNA and sound, and yet continually return to your grandfather. Can you tell me a bit more about him? 


BW: My paternal grandfather was born 施成聚 (Shi Cheng Ju in hanyu pinyin ), in 红岱村 ( Hong Dai Cun ), Fujian, China. In his youth, he was adopted by a relative and renamed 黄梧桐 ( Huang Wu Tong ), taking on their family name Huang or Oei (in Hokkien) so that he could qualify to migrate to Solo City, Indonesia with her as family. I was about five years old when he came to live with us, a few years before he died of an illness. I vaguely recall him pottering about in his thin, white cotton shirt and tie-dyed sarong, his serious face dramatically transformed into a laughing one when he called for me, “Superman!” (a nickname he gave me).


A favourite memory I have of my grandfather has to do with an act of childish drawing. A new bedroom was built to accommodate my grandfather. One afternoon as he slept, I could no longer resist the impulse to mark those freshly painted bedroom walls and made full-sized doodles of superheroes on them. To my relief, I wasn’t reprimanded for the act — hence, I began to imagine that he might have appreciated my doodles.


CJC: It’s incredible how so much art-making actually begins quite simply in the family, through some inherited source. My paternal grandfather kept many bonsais, and this was an art form for him which I’ve only lately appreciated. 


In which language did Mr. Huang write his journals — was it Mandarin? The gaps between languages are much like the gaps in our memories, and it could be said that your work is an attempt to fill in these linguistic ellipses, or palimpsests. 


It's incredible how so much art-making actually begins quite simply in the family, through some inherited source.

BW: I agree. The gap, its liminality, is important in my work. I grew up not feeling rooted; I do not sense any deep belonging to a place or people, and this may explain why I am drawn to the ambiguity of a gap. However, I neither have the intention to fill nor to reclaim it. I see the gap as a clearing or void I’m in, a position from which I may then sense the hybridity between cultures and imagine my art. 


My grandfather wrote in Mandarin. Interestingly, his journal began with its raison d’etre — he wanted his children to understand him, but felt that his spoken Mandarin was poor, with inaccurate intonations and a tendency to break off in Hokkien. Like the gaps between languages that you described, there were cracks for my grandfather between writing and speech.


I too feel the effects of an absent first language, or mother tongue. I was born in Indonesia but had migrated to Singapore at age nine, and while Bahasa Indonesia remains deeply embedded in my heart, I never had a chance to know the language intimately. The cultural closeness to Mandarin comes from my parents. They were educated in Chinese schools before the Indonesian government shuttered them. My parents speak predominantly in Bahasa Indonesia, with the occasional insertion of Hokkien and Mandarin. When I started to contemplate on my ethnic identity, the language underscored, in a sense, the socio-political condition I was in. English is the language that I am most proficient in, but I can’t seem to express my deepest sentiments through it. 


Circling back to your grandfather’s bonsais and the cultural inheritance that each of us receives... reading my grandfather’s handwritten journal always moves me because they bring me so close to him. His marks had given the language its third dimension, beyond the semantic and syntactic. Similarly, if we see each bonsai type as a language, the specific bonsai form is then a type of handwriting — marks of the pruner’s life? 


Installation view of Boedi Widjaja, A tree talks, A tree walks 梧桐语 ・ 菩提径 , 2019.

Installation view of Boedi Widjaja, A tree talks, A tree walks 梧桐语 ・ 菩提径, 2019. Image courtesy Temenggong AIR.


CJC: Yes, as you say in your work: a tree talks, a tree walks . This phrase is a leitmotif that you’ve encoded into an entire trilogy. There is a Chinese parasol tree at the centre of this. Can you tell me more? 


BW: Its full title is Path. 10, 梧桐语 . 菩提径 ( A tree talks, a tree walks ), a contemplation of the migratory journeys that my grandfather and I took. We were named after trees. At adoption, he was renamed after the Chinese parasol tree (梧桐). The root word for my Indonesian name, that my parents by law had to give me, is the Bodhi tree (菩提). 


Two displaced trees. In our migrations, I saw an intersection across space and time — the cardinal points. My grandfather’s North-South journey to Nanyang[01], and for me, the Eastern to Western bloc’s political shift during Suharto’s New Order[02], a traumatic transition of power that brought with it ethnic tensions — the primary reason for my move to Singapore. In my grandfather’s journal, in his handwriting, I read a deeper content, a biological language. 


In my grandfather's journal, in his handwriting, I read a deeper content, a biological language.

I worked with the geneticist Dr. Eric Yap to compose a hybrid DNA of three segments — chlorophyll from the Chinese parasol tree, my Y-chromosome, and an encoded text (the artwork title). The synthetic hybrid DNA was inserted, literally and as a code, across the trilogy. In A tree talks, a tree walks, the DNA was dissolved in ink and sprayed onto a site-specific soil installation by the audience as part of a live artwork. And in the second instalment of the trilogy, the video work A tree rings, a tree sings 树龄°述铃 (2021), the hybrid DNA code was the music score.


CJC: It’s true that the original language that informs our being and our behaviour is actually our DNA, with what we now know about epigenetics. But I didn’t know that text itself can be encoded into a DNA sequence! There are so many moments of translation in your work. How is it technically possible to turn hybrid code into a musical score?  


BW: You are right about how translation between languages, systems and semiotic modes is indeed a recurring gesture in my practice. Perhaps due to my uprootedness, thinking about and sensing the world linguistically through multiple semantics, syntax and sounds comes quite naturally.


The idea of using DNA as a music score was inspired by Brian Eno’s generative music[03], the idea that music which is capable of endless variation can be made through a fixed, rule-based system. I was drawn to how similar it sounded to DNA replication and mutation, a process that gives rise to genetic variance and is essential to evolution. To turn the hybrid DNA into a music score, I first imagined the triple-base codons (in the hybrid DNA) as three-note chords before the logic was then written into an algorithm that composes dynamically and endlessly by drawing from a library of more than a hundred inverted gamelan sounds. On a related note, to encode text into DNA, 20 amino acids in the human body were matched to the same number of consonants in the Javanese language, which then enabled me to write any text in DNA language. 


Boedi Widjaja, 我喜歡這樣想你 (I LIKE TO THINK ABOUT YOU THIS WAY), 2015.

Boedi Widjaja, 我喜歡這樣想你 (I LIKE TO THINK ABOUT YOU THIS WAY), 2015. Graphite on paper, 57.5 x 30.5cm. Image courtesy the artist.


CJC: 20 and 20 — this is the first part of your “encoding key”, which opens up the peculiar symbology you’ve invented. The next part of this are the 64 I Ching hexagrams, which are matched to 64 possible combinations of those amino acids, when written according to their nucleotides. Why did you choose these hexagrams? They’re so ancient, and commonly associated with feng shui[04] and divination. 


BW: I trace it back to 2012 when I was in the city of Yinchuan, located along the ancient Silk Road in Northwest China, for an art project. Over there, I discovered a variant China. I saw for the first time the Tangut script of the Western Xia kingdom (Yinchuan was the capital), which shared the strokes of Chinese characters but which used very different methods of forming characters. It was also at Yinchuan where I encountered lakes and wetlands where the Yellow River flowed through the Gobi Desert and was gripped by the dissonant sight of fertile life in an arid environment. The experience led me to conceive the Yellow River as a vital, living source for imagining new intercultural narratives. 


It’s interesting that you mentioned feng shui and divination because my exploration into the I Ching[05] hexagrams started from metaphysical speculations. The hexagrams were drawn from the figure of Fu Xi, co-creator of the world with his sister Nuwa, and the “original man” in Chinese mythology. He derived 8 sets of trigrams (a pair of trigrams forms a hexagram) from the Yellow River Map — a numerological diagram of lines and dots, symbols of the cosmos that were patterned on the back of a dragon horse which emerged from the Yellow River. In my research into the Yellow River Map for the algorithmic, generative work He Zhi Chu, 2012 (“at the river’s beginning” in romanised Chinese), I had learnt of Gottfried Leibniz’s binary numerical encoding of the I Ching hexagrams and his speculation about the binary code as a divine universal language; I found the cross-cultural moment of the hexagrams to be particularly interesting to my diasporic story. 


CJC: In a sense, the Yellow River is an Axis Mundi, a cosmic centre of the world, from which beings and the Chinese peoples find their origins. Your work can come across as very scientific, but it’s also deeply encoded with metaphorical and spiritual significance! 


Let’s cross over into how your exploration of this Imaginary Homeland (that is, Greater China) has inevitable political implications. In your solo exhibition Declaration of at Helwaser Gallery two years ago, you presented negative drawings of an important meeting between Sukarno and Zhou Enlai in 1965. It was a pivotal moment for the Chinese population of Indonesia, who would see the violent aftermath several decades later. Can you speak about the lingering shadow of communism, say, in your family?


BW: Imaginary Homeland doesn’t actually point to a specific place or country; the ongoing series navigates through unlocated geography, a psychological terrain that I chart by way of engaging with media images. In 2015, I started Imaginary Homeland by drawing negative images of press photographs of Indonesian politicians, focusing on the country’s first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto. Like you said, these photographs were harbingers of the deadly violence that gripped the nation in the 60s and 90s. I instinctively knew that I needed to get behind the calm illusion of the image surface. The act of inverting the press photos into negative drawings by looking through the phone camera as I worked gave me the much-needed distance to gaze at images that were otherwise unbearably close. The negative drawings were then shot using analogue lens techniques, returning them to their original photographic state, so to speak, after they had been altered through the artist’s agency. The drawing of Zhou Enlai and Sukarno in Declaration of referenced a press photo of their meeting at the Jakarta airport, just months before the failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965. This failed coup led to the transition of power to Suharto and left an indelible mark on the Indonesian-Chinese, who were seen to be closely aligned with Communist ideology. 


I instinctively knew that I needed to get behind the calm illusion of the image surface.

While I wouldn’t say that Communism — as an ideology — was a spectre in my family, I did strongly sense the invisible image of an idealised Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that my father, together with all the other Chinese-educated students of his generation, inevitably brought home. I can only imagine that against the daily backdrop of Indonesia’s discriminatory ethnic policy post-coup, the perfectly manicured, mediatised image that the CCP projected in Southeast Asia would’ve been irresistibly seductive. 


CJC: Yes, things could have turned out so differently — anywhere , I suppose. Perhaps negative photography allows you to see things in reverse, or as things could have happened. The unseen (the empty space) does become an imaginary. It reminds me of the dystopian future posited in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle [06], in which the Nazis and the Japanese Empire won World War II, and the psychological terrain that is fought between the ruling powers and the resistance is a banned novel (within the novel). 


Chinese are minorities in the Straits of Malacca, and with our closely guarded clans and family businesses, we really overturn common or Western conception that we are the largest people group and population (The People’s Republic, that is) in the world. When living in the United States, I always had to explain to Americans that Singapore was NOT a part of China. But what if it somehow became an extended colony of China in an alternate future? With what’s going on in the South China Sea, it’s not such a far-off imaginary after all. 


Speaking of the sea, can you explain your ongoing installations of flags? All distinctly coded in symbolic colours, they remind me of international maritime signal flags. 


Installation view of Boedi Widjaja, Declaration Of, 2019

Installation view of Boedi Widjaja, Declaration Of, 2019, Helwaser Gallery’s outdoor terrace, courtesy the gallery and the artist.


BW: An important impulse behind the flags indeed has to do with my desire to traverse long distances. In A tree talks, a tree walks 梧桐语 . 菩提径 (2019), the visually coded flags were hoisted on a cross-pole at 28 Temenggong Road, a British colonial government house that was built on elevated grounds at the historic Mount Faber Hill, Singapore. The flags faced Java, an orientation that symbolically addressed Indonesia’s major island in an imaginary correspondence. 


However, the long distances that I’m interested to traverse are also in time. There are histories, even prehistories, that are lodged deep in our hearts; their narratives — images and sounds — looping in our (un)consciousness. My embedded histories would include the Cold War: how it led to the turbulent period between Sukarno and Suharto and the latter’s New Order regime. Speaking of novels, my exploration into the Cold War’s lingering presence in my familial narrative started with books, specifically in Path. 6, Unpacking my library 。书城 (2014) where I imagined an intergenerational continuity across three books that belonged to me, my father and my daughter. 


In the past decade, the Cold War narrative in Southeast Asia has not only resurfaced but evolved, led by the intensifying competition between the US and China that has at times been framed by the media as the irresistible force paradox — a sensational headline that I do not particularly like. 


There are histories, even prehistories, that are lodged deep in our hearts; their narratives — images and sounds — looping in our (un)consciousness

In 2016, when I was invited by artist-curator Bose Krishnamachari to show at the inaugural Yinchuan Biennale in China, tensions were running high at the South China Sea; I felt compelled to contemplate my own politics of being from Southeast Asia. The work I presented was a 20m long outdoor text installation that read, “Art is only a continuation of war by other means”, referencing Zhou Enlai’s “Diplomacy is only a continuation of war by other means,” as quoted by American journalist Edgar Snow. Strangely, I hadn’t been able to find the pre-translated Chinese version. The work was made with out-of-focus photography, and the words were blurry — they compelled visitors to reconsider their expectation for easy clarity and positioning. 


For the exhibition, Declaration of , at the height of the US-China trade war in 2019, I showed “Art is only a continuation of war by other means” as a ten-flag installation at the gallery’s outdoor terrace that faced the streets. I used a colour-based Morse Code to encode the text by transposing the short and long colour wavelengths to the dots and dashes, respectively. Coincidentally, the gallery was located near embassies and the installation resonated strongly with the various national flags in the neighbourhood. 


A most recent iteration of the flags was shown in Bangkok this month in the group show, A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging) , curated by Loredana Paracciani. This time, ten flags encode “A cry a voice and a word that shall echo”, an abridged verse from Paul Revere’s Ride by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that President Sukarno had quoted in his opening speech at the 1955 Bandung Conference. On each flag, one of the ten-point communiques from the Conference was algorithmically encoded using colours from the 120 national flags of the Non-Aligned Movement. In a sense, I conceived the flags as signal receptors of a coded message sent from the past, a message of geopolitical solidarity and global peace. 


CJC: These symbols and ideologies have enveloped and hung over our families; their power is unsettling, even if it originates decades if not centuries ago. Flags can be seen from faraway. 


May I ask something even more personal? Could there be an anthropological anguish to your body of work? Of course, that’s only human, and maybe the most touching part to it. When do you see an end to this asking, Who am I? Where did I begin? When will I fully know myself?  


Could there be an anthropological anguish to your body of work?

BW: Your question reminds me of a friend who pointedly said, “the more I interact with your work, the more painful it feels. It doesn’t seem like that in the beginning though...” It’s not my artistic intent to inquire into pain. And I’m reluctant to claim that my work points to something as profound as human suffering. Instead, I’d say that pain — in its variant forms and intensities — has a way of marking us deeply. It appears that the trauma of displacement, the sadness that I felt as a child in a foreign land and without my parents, has permeated through my artistic thought and material processes. Coming to a decade of full-time practice, I’ve grown to know myself better as an artist and I’m no longer sure that asking those questions of identity and origin is teleological. In the first five years of my practice, I had conceived seven projects in the Path . series, using Live Art as a means to somatically address the discomfort I felt from the heavy yet invisible presence of the void that was a metaphor for my unrootedness. Looking back, the Path . projects enabled me to incrementally face the void and come to terms with its vacuous surface that didn’t bear a clear reflection of my image — the psychological impulse behind Imaginary Homeland ? I’ve now come to think that the void might always be a part of me. Therefore, instead of seeking its terminus, I’m more interested in sensing out the cultural, biological and historical boundaries and networks that are possible from this position.


Editor's Note: The diary extract in the introduction was commissioned by I_S_L_A_N_D_S for the occasion of Boedi Widjaja's presentation at the art space in January 2018, Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (—).


  • 01.

    “Nanyang”, meaning “Southern Seas”, is a Chinese term for the region of Southeast Asia.

  • 02.

    Coined by the second Indonesian President, Suharto, “The New Order” refers to his regime upon his ascension to power in 1966. Suharto used the term to differentiate his rule from that of Sukarno, his predecessor.

  • 04.

    A traditional practice from ancient China, feng shui claims to harmonise individuals with their surroundings through energy forces.

  • 05.

    The I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination text and among the oldest of the Chinese classics.

  • 06.

    Published in 1962, the events in the novel are set in an alternate universe where the Axis powers, who had emerged victorious, are now ruling over the Southern and Western United States.