An installation along Taiwan’s east coast examines language and typhoons

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Filipino artist Christina Quisumbing Ramilo's project in Taiwan examines the typhoon-prone east coast, and how it relates to the similarly storm battered areas of the Philippines. Photo courtesy of CHRISTINA QUISIMBING RAMILO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Between May and July 2017, artist Christina Quisumbing Ramilo embarked on a project that considers the natural environment of Taiwan’s typhoon-prone east coast.

For the third annual East Coast Land Art Festival, hosted by East Coast National Scenic Area (ECNSA), artists were invited to create installations that “combine the natural environment, geographic landscape, and spatial aesthetics” of ECSNA, a land mass that extends from Hualien and Taitung, and is located south of the Taiwanese capital city of Taipei.

Of the submissions, four proposals were selected, with two international artists invited to create their installation work onsite. The project was made in an attempt to promote the East Coast of Taiwan, as well as seeking to involve the entire environment by way of local participation and creating a dialogue between cultures and the natural “climate and ecological context of the East Coast.” The installations, roughly classified as “land art,” take into account the geography of a place, the final versions dictated by the elements around the said place.

Quisumbing Ramilo’s submission, “Mata,” was one of the selected — a response to the festival’s theme, “Mother Island,” referring to the land mass that’s home to the site of Paleolithic Chanbian culture (present between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago), which presented the earliest evidence of human activity on the Island of Taiwan.

LING Q "I have recurring themes in my work. Mostly it has to do with fragments, something you piece together," says Quisimbing Ramilo. Photo courtesy of CHRISTINA QUISIMBING RAMILO

Today, ten indigenous groups (along with Han Chinese and a “significant number of new immigrants from around the world”) have settled in this space. The geography — a long and narrow patch of exposed coastal land situated between the mountains and the ocean — almost mimics the diverse and “unique symbiotic relationships” between the local Amis people and the other different groups.

The area is also known as the “intertidal zone” and is prone to exposure to typhoons and frequent earthquakes. Still, it is this harsh environment that “bring[s] forth tremendous bounty,” granting Taiwan’s east coast the reputation of “the last paradise,” having created a singular almost otherworldly landscape, and where the symbiotic relationship between nature and humans is made apparent with the coming and going of the waves.

As a response to this, Quisumbing Ramilo’s “Mata” confronts the subject in a way that communicates with the area’s relationship with typhoons — a phenomenon with which they’ve learned to coexist — and, at the same time, comments on the similarities between this region and her own home land.

Ling Q Quisumbing Ramilo's work somehow communicates with the site’s natural landscape, while it pays respect to the heritage and culture of a people. Photo courtesy of CHRISTINA QUISIMBING RAMILO

“Mata,” in both the Amis language and in Filipino (as well as the “entire Austronesian language family of the Pacific region”), means “eye.” Similar to Taiwan’s east coast, the Philippines is also exposed to the often devastating effects of powerful typhoons, creating a sort of familial bond between the two cultures.

Quisumbing Ramilo’s installation is made up of bricks, laid down in the shape of an outward spiral, a storm. The work, she says, is a tribute to the powerful women “who have survived and thrived through the forces of nature,” as well.

Amis women play an important and powerful role in their community, as a life-giving force. In her statement, Quisumbing Ramilo writes, “The stones in this spinning wishing well are markers of the cycle of nature and life.” For the installation, visitors are welcome to leave their wishing stone “as an offering on this Amis site,” which overlooks the Pacific ocean and is located under the Dulan mountain range.

Known for her knack of imbuing quotidian “found objects” with magic, Quisumbing Ramilo has created a wonder, which somehow communicates with the site’s natural landscape while paying tribute and respect to the culture, history, and heritage of the people she has come to know.

CNN Philippines Life caught up with Quisumbing Ramilo over email to learn more about the process of creating a site-specific work in a foreign environment. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Who are you working with on this project? How did this come about?

TEC Land Art, which is based in Taitung, Taiwan asked [the Manila-based artist collective] 98B to recommend artists. Of the three, they picked me.

LING Q Amis ritual offering: rice wine, tobacco, betel nut. Photo courtesy of CHRISTINA QUISUMBING RAMILO

What is the project's relation to Taiwan, as a place? What kind of conversation are you trying to have with the environment?

The project is funded by Taiwan’s Department of Tourism to promote the East Coast of Taiwan. There are about 16 Indigenous groups in the East Coast. The project is geared to promote the East Coast but also to acknowledge and celebrate the indigenous groups in the area.

The project combines art installations from five local artists from the area and two international artists. This year, from Indonesia, Arya Pandjalu and the Philippines [me].

There is also a series of music concerts every full moon during the months of June, July and August. The event is free to the public! The performers are from the area, from different indigenous groups. They’re amazing! I was so blown away!

I was thinking of an installation that would somehow blend with the environment.

"I needed to create a work that could withstand the strong typhoons there. It was challenging to think of something that could blend well with the ocean and the mountains, that wouldn’t disrupt with its already beautiful surroundings." - Christina Quisimbing Ramilo

From your social media, we were able to witness the gradual completion of your piece, as well as your personal survey of the environment, through, for example, an examination of the different kinds of rocks found there. Would you say that exposure to this new place affected the initial vision you had for your piece?

I always immerse myself in any work that I do depending on where and what I am surrounded by. There were several things to consider. The location, what materials were available, and what I could finish in a month.

The site that they assigned to me was in an elevated area, the Pacific Ocean below and then the mountain range above. The site was on Amis land, it was an open field with no trees, so I needed to think of a work that could withstand the strong typhoons in the area.

I needed to go around the area and see what materials were available, what was the significance of the location, its history, the people who lived there. Then combining all these elements and how the surroundings affected me, what I could possibly create in this already beautiful environment.

Ling Quisumbing Quisumbing Ramilo’s installation is made up of bricks, laid down in the shape of an outward spiral, a storm. The work, she says, is a tribute to the powerful women “who have survived and thrived through the forces of nature." Photo courtesy of CHRISTINA QUISIMBING RAMILO

How do you think this piece relates to the rest of your body of work? Does it continue or stem from an existing piece, project, or exploration/investigation?

I use different materials depending on what I want to say in a work and what material is best to convey it. Sometimes, the material or found object/s dictate what it wants to say. There is always a story there. The objects you find, the materials you use.

My process is very organic, so in site-specific works, it depends on several factors. In this case, it was what was available in the area. Rocks, driftwood, found objects from the shoreline, bamboo, bricks for construction and pieces of bricks (sometimes fragments of brick walls) that have been burnished by the constant crashing of waves through the passage of time.

I needed to create a work that could withstand the strong typhoons there. It was challenging to think of something that could blend well with the ocean and the mountains, that wouldn’t disrupt with its already beautiful surroundings.

It’s always exciting to come to a place or situation with fresh eyes. Your senses, sharp, searching for possibilities.

I have recurring themes in my work. Mostly it has to do with fragments, something you piece together. I’m preoccupied with memory and how many stories evolve from one thing; weather conditions, geography, travel, portals, containers/vessels ...

The work is also a tribute to land art artists, Richard Long, Robert Smithson, even Carl Andre.

Do you think it's possible to stage a similar type of work in Manila or the Philippines?

I hope so. Creating a site-specific installation is always exciting and challenging, especially when it engages with the community.

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For the Taiwan East Coast Land Arts Festival, Artists in residence were given between June 1 and 30 to create their artwork onsite. The work will be on display for five months after, at the designated location, from June 10 to October 31, 2017.