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The Metro Green Thumb Club: Contemporary Art, Environmentalism, And Personal Reflection Collide In Poklong Anading's Living, Breathing Pieces

No matter how small and how delicate, life in all its forms is a work of art

Contemporary artist Poklong Anading has staged numerous art exhibits.

His work has traveled to many places the ordinary person only can only dream of visiting (think the US, France, Austria, Italy, Slovakia, Portugal, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Australia), he's completed local and international residencies, he's mastered many forms of media, and overall, he's an accomplished artist with a lot to look forward to. And yet, even with hands as skilled as his, he can't seem to keep a plant alive.  

It's almost comical when he tells us, "...They keep dying."

"I think I lack the attention or focus needed to keep the plants well taken care of, that's why this is a continuous learning for me," he shares. 

Rather than beat himself up for a browning green thumb, he used the experience to launch an exhibit guided by a metaphor. 

See, Poklong's studio has no soil and it's fully cemented walls block, rather than invite, natural light to filter in. The very environment in which he tried to grow living things was unconducive to sustaining small, fragile lives—but so was the city in which he lived and so were the lives of the people that existed alongside his in this city. Maybe, it wasn't that he didn't have a green thumb; maybe society itself had simply moved so far away from what would have come naturally to it—the ability to plant, to live off the land, to commune with all life, humble and magnificent—in the name of progress and urbanization. 

"We have been focusing on progression for the majority of our lives that we're becoming oblivious to the possible effects of this progress we want to attain. This progress can be in the form of cementing the soil for road systems, cutting trees for accessible transportation, and covering more ground for building essential spaces," Poklong muses.

It's why he remarks on how the return to gardening, no matter how small the effort, over the last 12 months has been nothing short of wonderful. It marks a return to what we once were built to do for us city folks, a chance for us to reconnect with our natural environment and hopefully, never again be severed from it.

"...It makes me think that we're looking back to nature, making us close to our roots. It served as an awakening for many, probably because plant is organic. It is natural and taking care of them speaks of sustaining life," he adds. 

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This New Public Art Installation by Toym Imao Is An Emotional Tribute To The Fallen Frontliner

These musings of his culminated in the recently concluded exhibit staged at MO Space: colorless green ideas sleep furiously. 

The exhibit played on Poklong's strengths as a contemporary artist; he used plastic that he accumulated in his household over the last two years as the basic materials for the exhibit, transforming them into planters and parts of light fixtures whose illumination would substitute sunlight. The real crowning glory, however, were what he filled the planters with: actual plants grown by different people that Poklong invited to participate in the project.

"Planting requires patience, attention, and a lot of care, which I think I do not possess but [am] willing to learn," he reveals.

"The fact that the professionals I invited, and even those who chose to grow plants during lockdown, have full-time jobs yet have the time to learn how to care for plants interested me because this is the kind of survival they chose to progress. This is how they grow as an individual, and this kind of relationship with nature and people is very interesting," he shares. 

For his project entitled growing sound, Poklong invited a range of individuals to participate, including a pathologist and an art curator, a priest and a child therapy center manager, a farmer and a museum director, among others. 

"The participants have something to grow, to take care of, aside from their career. Despite of being busy with their full-time jobs, they found time to slow down as planting requires time. This inspired me to take a step back. One has to grow from the ground up to be a professional, just like a plant that sprouts from the ground up and finds its way out to grow."

The takeaway from his interactions with them and this display of green thumbs was clear. Regardless of what you do and who you are, all humans share a connection with nature and it's only when we take a break from 21st century "progress," that this relationship flourishes. And, really, if there's anything that ongoing events have taught all people, it's that we may have mislabeled progress somewhere along the way in our shared history as humankind. Perhaps we were wrong to think of progress as our ability to raze life-giving earth at will to make room for modernization, instead of defining it as sustainable, mutually beneficial co-habitation today and for millennia to come. 

Our disregard for the natural world might not be progress after all, but our demise. 

Or as Poklong himself puts it, "Plants or nature can grow without people but people cannot grow without the natural resources," Poklong states

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If Your Kids And Vegetables Are Like Oil And Water, Monique Santos-Roxas' Urban Gardening Story Can Help Fix That For You

Examining the relationship between people and nature and the power imbalance between the two has always been something that has piqued Poklong's interest. 

In his paintings in the exhibits, we see the presence when it's disappearing and falling and growing focus on the exploitation of natural resources—not as a problem of the modern world, but as a question of how necessary it is for human beings to dominate the earth, or for the earth to overwhelm human beings with its uncontrollable might, for either one to prosper. He uses cement—an ubiquitous symbol of human expansion at the cost of the recession of the natural environment—in his paintings to communicate this thought. Cement covers the wooden baseboard, much like signs of human development cover swaths of land. Poklong goes as far as using urine on the cement to "highlight waste as an inescapable part of consumption and creation," the downward flow of the liquid recalling "the shapes of trees--growth as the mirror-image of decay."

"Naturally, we must live in balance with our natural environment not overpower it, or we will perish same as how we treat nature. Science’s advancement is becoming highly sophisticated that there’s always hope in how we can improve our behavior towards the use of modern technology in order to achieve a sustainable ecosystem," he states. 

Painting from "we see the presence when it's disappearing"
Paintings from "falling and growing" series and "we see the presence when it’s disappearing"

His 2019 project, seawall, was a collaboration he initiated with other artists featured at the the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Bulwagang Fernando Amorsolo that tackled similar themes.

Poklong, as one of the millions of admirers of the postcard-perfect Manila Bay sunset, observed how there is likely enough garbage, enough human waste from our uncontrolled consumption, to cover the entire stretch of the bay's seawall meant to protect the city from extreme weather. The irony is that this seawall, supposedly an indestructible structure made by people to protect human lives, requires constant repair and reconstruction and to build it, and an entire mangrove forest first needed to be destroyed to make way for it. Right now, the seawall (and surrounding garbage) aren't just an eyesore, but a jutting reminder of our inability to think big and in the long-term, choosing options that cause the least destruction possible. 

To add insult to injury, decades after the seawall was erected, scientists have come to the conclusion that a mangrove forest is unquestionably more superior than any manmade structure.

"Manila used to be protected from typhoons and flooding by bakawan (mangrove trees); in fact, its name came from 'may nilad,' where nilad is a mangrove species called Scyphipora hydrophyllacea that grows beside the water, protecting coastlines from storms and erosion," Poklong says. 

In the end, what do we learn from this? That all along, we were better off allowing nature to do what it does best, sans human intrusion. 

seawall features collected refuse material in Manila Bay formed into a different kind of "wall"—not a protective structure but a blockage, one that disrupts the natural ebbing and flowing of rivers and ocean alike. Think deeper and perhaps we see how this "wall" is the same invisible barrier we've put between ourselves and the earth; both are equally more harmful than they are helpful. 

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Poklong's support of environmentalists is reflected in much of his work.

Just as environmentalists work to conserve the natural environment, artists like Poklong work to preserve what we as living, feeling, and thinking beings hold dearest to us. 

He shares, "I see (the work of environmentalists) as a parallel way in preserving the ideas and memories that takes place in the process of art-making, as art-making can also be about conservation of our valued thoughts and deeds towards our lifespan. Being conscious about what we do correspond to the conservation of the place where we live in"

"Throughout my experiences as an individual and as an artist, it led me to the idea that the personal is actually connected with nature. There are many connections that we can make in our lives with nature as our life stems from it," he states a matter-of-factly. 

"seawall" created in 2019

His latest series, study for planters and lighting fixtures, also meant to send another message.

Aside from telling the story of how we, during the hardest of hard times all of humankind has seen in the last century, are returning to our beginnings of being one with nature, Poklong also wanted to spark dialogue about the series being a "home essential." The gallery which housed the series being located in a furniture shop offering luxury items for the home was the perfect juxtaposition.

In a world where we prize things that money can buy, how much do we value the small and simple and seemingly ordinary—like upcycled materials and the delicate life they hold within them? 

When COVID had blown over and the world has caught its breath, both literally and figuratively, Poklong hopes to visit places that allow him to be surrounded by nature. Anywhere with clear waterways he can wade in the same way he would a meditative labyrinth would be great. He also thinks of "blue zones" described in the 2010 best-selling book, The Blue Zones. They're places that sit off the beaten path and away from many of us would call developed establishments, and yet are home to some of the planet's oldest people—keepers of the secrets of longevity and wellness. 

"For me, it is important to see the relationship we have with nature. Just as a full grown tree with its branches spread out, humans are connected to one another and we all grow from one ground. This consciousness keeps us grounded and takes us back to our roots as humans," he leaves as a message. 

At present, Poklong might be falling behind in gardening 101, but it would be good to keep in mind that even the brownest, driest plant beds can support life anew with a little TLC and tilling—the same way a green thumb can sprout with a little practice and patience. 

Poklong Anading

Poklong Anading has also worked on the exhibit colorless green ideas sleep furiously that features pieces of art that spark conversation about "how we, as humans who came from nature, deal with plastic use, planting, waste management, consumption and what can we do from it," as he says.

He has also shared every water is an island. Incorporating videos in the exhibit, Poklong describes it as, "a four-channel video installation that shows my hand in front of the lens of the camera, enclosing the image of water. These bodies of water are sewage system treatment plants across countries I've been to. The idea of having these manmade activities (the things we do at home or wherever we are) hidden underneath, unseen by majority's eyes, brings a sense (as if) humans can control nature."

"This curiosity and awareness made me think of how to be mindful of our activities and being one with the place where I am, the air I breathe, the water under my feet, and the sky above me," he ends. 

Artist portrait courtesy of Poklong Anading / Additional opening images and all gallery images from @mo_space