On the 17th March 2020, one week before the UK national lockdown, I decided to photograph a single rhododendron tree every other day at half an hour before sunset, for a year. Anticipating a long disturbance of our life caused by COVID-19, I wanted to make this walking and photographing piece as the centre of my artistic enquiry for the foreseeable future.
Rhododendron was chosen for many reasons. Introduced to the UK by colonial botanists in the late 19th centenary as an ornamental plant, it is now seen as a highly invasive species by ecologists. Although most rhododendron species here are from southern Europe, they are also a much-loved plant in China — my motherland. ‘Nature and nation are very closely intertwined’ (Morton, 2007:15). Living as an immigrant in a country going through Brexit, I feel a strong personal connection with such invasive plants. They remind me of my homeland as well as the complex perceptions around nature, national identities, landscapes and migration.
The area, Shedden Clough at the outskirt of Burnley, was an open-cast limestone mine 400 years ago. Nearly 200 years ago the local landowners planted rhododendron and beech here, in an effort to change it to a hunting estate. Now it is an ‘ecological wasteland’, colonised by these non-native plants and by sheep-grazing farms. Hidden in the heartland of the South Pennines, the local landscape is simultaneously post-industrial and post-colonial. Yet the ecology can also be said as being cosmopolitan. This particular rhododendron tree happens to have a natural shape of a love heart. An alien species sending out love—it can be a rich metaphor to anchor my investigation towards the above-mentioned issues around landscape and identity.
The repetitive photographic act over a year allows nature to run its own course. And this has been the year of the global crisis caused by COVID-19. To date, over two million people have died from the virus. A natural disaster has also become a political issue, in which racial tensions re-surface over and over again. Yet the rhododendron carries on with its own rhythm of growing, flowering, seeding, and growing again. The art piece is therefore becoming a space — a context for us to consider such political issues within the context of nature. The fact that this nature is made of unwanted species further complicates the issues at hand.
While the photographic visits to the rhododendron are the centre of my embodied investigation, I am working with a sound artist, Monty Adkins, to compose a soundscape for the piece. Meanwhile, I have developed a group of core collaborators, particularly non-native British residents, to explore our complex sense of belonging and our shared experience of racial discrimination. Experiments are being made to incorporate materials generated from the conversations into the art piece. The work is expected to be completed towards the end of 2021.