Interviews

Artists Interpret a Colonial Collection of 125,660 Indonesian Specimens

Curatorial assistant Alifa Putri giving a tour to students during the public exhibition program at Salihara (photo: Etienne Turpin). The program is available online at: 125660specimens.org/Program
Curatorial assistant Alifa Putri giving a tour to students during the public exhibition program of ‘125,660 Specimens of Natural History’ at Salihara (photo by Etienne Turpin)

Archives all have a politics embedded within them. Intended or not, the words used to manage collections set agendas, and what is collected and what remains absent is always political. Furthermore, many collections were outright stolen from cultures of less military might or economic power. To consider this thoroughly demands a reconsideration of the archive not as a dusty storage unit of finite objects, but as a deeply complex and living intersection of histories. It is with this understanding that Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin curated 125,660 Specimens of Natural History at Komunitas Salihara, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

125,660 Specimens of Natural History is an evolving curatorial and research project that looks at Indonesia’s colonial legacy as embodied in natural history collections. In particular, Spring and Turpin have focused on Russel Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin. In his research, Wallace amassed a collection of 125,660 natural specimens from the region and which Springer and Turpin invited 13 Indonesian and 13 foreign participants to explore. The exhibition includes 10 new artworks, zoological specimens, books, archival materials, and a collection of negatives documenting the Indonesian archipelago’s changes at the turn of the 20th century.

For those of us who cannot stop by Jakarta, the two are collaborating on a book series Intercalation: Paginated Exhibition (which Hyperallergic already covered) that deals with disparate cultural and environmental histories through experimental curatorial work. Springer and Turpin’s forthcoming third volume looks further into Alfred Russel Wallace and the legacy of colonial science in Indonesia, further extending the 125,660 Specimens exhibition, and includes many of the artists and zoologists involved.

Palm oil plantation in Bengkulu, South Sumatra, Indonesia (photograph by Etienne Turpin).
Palm oil plantation in Bengkulu, South Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by Etienne Turpin)

Ben Valentine: How did this project come to be?

Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin: There are multiple strands that led us to engage in the project together, which we first started to talk about around May 2013 — more than two years ago by now. The idea itself developed in the context of a week-long workshop in the framework of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, as part of “Das Anthropozän Projekt.” This is where we met, in the context of a discussion regarding curatorial agency in the Anthropocene. Etienne was about to move from the US to Indonesia to take on a new project [Peta Jakarta] about climate change, urbanization, and environmental change. Anna-Sophie had already engaged in a series of previous book and exhibition projects dealing with cultural archives, colonialism, geopolitics, and the museum. The concept of the “archipelago” was something she was already exploring in her work about curatorial practice.

Beyond these personal elements, Alfred Russel Wallace’s chronicle, The Malay Archipelago — which was published in 1869 after his return from his eight years spent in Southeast Asia — remains one of the most popular travel books of all time. Nusantara is both one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots as well as a region with the highest and fastest rates of environmental destruction. We became increasingly interested in how we might investigate contemporary land use against the background of Wallace’s detailed descriptions and collections. We thought that it would be a fertile starting point for a curatorial project to visit “the collection” of the famous 125,660 specimens he gathered on his expedition. One of the first things we learned, however, was that unlike in the context of many anthropological or ethnographic collections from the colonial period, natural history specimen collections rarely remain a coherent whole because they tend to be reassembled according to taxonomic classification systems (where the collector plays an insignificant role).

We also engaged in curatorial fieldwork, both by visiting dozens of natural history collections which hold specimens from Wallace’s eight years in the Malay archipelago, as well as traveling to some critical sites to consider land use transformations in Indonesia. The multi-arts center Komunitas Salihara, in Jakarta, became our host for the project, and later we partnered with scientific curators from the Indonesian natural history museum (MZB), which is part of the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI). These institutional collaborations gave us a platform to enter into dialogues with more than 20 artists. Half of these artists are from Indonesia; we are very proud that the exhibition presents 10 new works, which were created in conversation with us and with the scientific curators from LIPI.

Opening of exhibition, (photo by Sonja Dahl), all photographs courtesy the interviewees.
Opening of ‘25,660 Specimens of Natural History’ at Komunitas Salihara (photo by Sonja Dahl)

BV: What relationships between the archive, environmental degradation, and colonialism did you uncover in the research for this exhibition?

AS & ET: While the devastating effect of contemporary deforestation on species habitats is relatively well known, one of the most interesting stories regarding 19th-century collecting practices is their less obvious implications in earlier forms of resource extraction and deforestation. Wallace’s expedition was unique in the sense that he traveled as a commercial collector, not a well-funded scientist with a big team (as Darwin had on the Beagle, for example). He reached many very remote areas and discovered countless species that were new to science, including, famously, at least one bird-of-paradise species that was later named in his honor (Semioptera wallacei). However, Wallace also often benefitted from already existing logging roads. He also realized that there was hardly any better place for gathering a lot of insects — like the large beetles he so favored — than recently felled trees. For this reason, one of the most profitable collecting sites was an active coal mine in Northern Borneo.

Realizing that there existed such an active relationship between historic specimens collections and earlier levels of colonial resource extraction was a powerful mechanism for us to research natural history exhibitions along the lines of what Rob Nixon has termed “slow violence” — the relatively invisible and incremental processes of ecological destruction.

Exhibition view, (photograph by Etienne Turpin).
Installation view of ‘25,660 Specimens of Natural History’ (photograph by Etienne Turpin).

BV: You write that the project “explores how trans-cultural collaborative approaches to artistic and scientific practice can address urgent environmental questions.” How does this exhibition address those questions? 

AS & ET: Wallace was a British collector who sent a massive collection of specimens to Europe. Based on this material, he began to understand and formulate a theory of biogeography and a theory of evolution by natural selection, which he would co-publish with Charles Darwin in 1858 while still in Nusantara. Both the material itself and the knowledge embodied in the collection have a relation to Indonesia that hasn’t been very clearly articulated. We wanted to emphasize Indonesia’s geography, biodiversity, and transformation in this first iteration of the project. It was for this reason that it was important to stage the initial exhibition in Indonesia and later travel it back to Europe while giving it a different form. In Indonesia, as guest curators, our role was to instigate connections between artists and scientists; we were permitted a certain flexibility with respect to disciplines, and this enabled us to make certain connections through the exhibition. 

Regarding the second part of your question, something which drives our collaborative work is an interest in the creation of spaces that disregard and/or go beyond established boundaries. In the exhibition, this is pursued through the overall exhibition design, as well as in the way materials are distributed in the space across an island landscape of viewing tables. While 125,660 Specimens of Natural History is staged within an art gallery, artworks are presented alongside a number of other artifacts, objects, documents, and reproductions; these include scientific artifacts such as MZB’s zoological specimens, historical documents such as maps, and other documents such as excerpts from historical publications, as well as contemporary scientific and environmental studies. We made a choice not to foreground the distinction between which objects might count as art and which objects could be read as scientific. Instead, thanks to their diversity of media and materials, we hope that all the elements in the exhibition can co-produce a lively landscape of positions, stories, and connections that viewers move through in order to discover a variety of different possible itineraries and readings (rather than following one defined narrative route).

Exhibition view, (photograph by Etienne Turpin).
Installation view of ‘25,660 Specimens of Natural History’ (photo by Etienne Turpin)

Meanwhile, a second iteration of the project is planned for late April 2016 in Berlin, where we will partner with the Humboldt University and the Museum fur Naturkunde. Many of the artworks created in the context of the Jakarta show will travel there and some will be further developed. The curatorial perspective will expand to include the narrative of Wallace in South America (where he spent four years collecting specimens prior to his Asian expedition) as well as a discussion of the role of Prussian forestry science in the development of the mono-cultural plantations as well as address anthropogenic species extinction.

BV: What are some lessons learned during creating this exhibition?

AS & ET: As in any large project in the arts you always have to learn a million new things to make everything happen. In a way, this is why we enjoy this kind of work so much — to a certain degree the rules aren’t completely set yet. Outcomes are never completely clear or predictable for a very long time, and yet you keep the momentum going and eventually the elements start to come together, including the collections, archives, research materials, and artworks. The exhibition begins to take shape from the years of work that created its parameters or contours. The fact that we have the opportunity to produce the upcoming Berlin version of the project also means that we have the rare a chance to actively reorganize and expand the material for another show. This is very exciting, but there will be completely different challenges coming our way and we will again have to figure out many new things. 

125,660 Specimens of Natural History continues at Komunitas Salihara (No. 16 Kebagusan, Pasar Minggu, Daerah Khusus Ibukota Jakarta, Indonesia) through September 15. 

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