NParks does U-turn on art project to colour trees blue after backlash

NAC, botanist say paint is environmentally safe, but conservationists raise doubts
NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 13 Nov 15;



Blue Trees at the Vancouver Biennale, Cananda. Photo: Konstantin Dimopoulos


Trees at Dhoby Ghaut Green. Photo: Daryl Kang

SINGAPORE — In an about-turn, the National Parks Board (NParks) said yesterday that the bark of the trees at Dhoby Ghaut Green cannot be coloured blue, as it withdrew support for a community art project that had been slammed by some members of the public.

The well-travelled installation by Australian artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, called The Blue Trees, aimed to raise awareness of deforestation. It was to have taken place last weekend, with volunteers helping paint the trunks and branches of the trees with a water-based colourant. But the National Arts Council (NAC) postponed it to give the trees time to recover from the recent haze episode, or to find alternative solutions.

NParks initially agreed to support the use of the trees after the NAC’s assurance that the colourant had been used on trees in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Testimonials by overseas tree organisations and arborists said the colourant would not harm the trees.

NParks said it told NAC last Wednesday — a day before NAC announced that the event would be postponed — that it would not be supporting the installation.

“NParks should have been mindful of the sensitivities of the community towards our trees and the potential impact on insect biodiversity,” said Ms Kalthom A Latiff, NParks’ deputy director of arts and heritage parks. “It has therefore reviewed this and has conveyed to NAC that it will not be supporting this project.”

NParks’ permission was needed for the installation as the trees are on park land.

The NAC’s director of arts and community Chua Ai Liang said it respects NParks’ latest position and will discuss it with Mr Dimopoulos.

“We hope we can find a way to collaborate even as the project evolves from its original concept,” said Ms Chua.

Mr Dimopoulos could not be reached for comment by press time.

The art installation had sparked robust debate here, with disapproving comments posted on the event’s ticketing website.

“Trees host whole ecosystems of algae, lichens, fungi, ferns, ants, woodlice, insect larvae, mantis and birds, such as woodpeckers which feed on insects,” wrote Mr Lee Kee Seng. “It’s very bad for nature, very anti-nature.”

Mr Marcus Ng wanted to know how long it would take for the trees to revert to their natural state and the exact composition of the colourant used. Another commenter, planning and urban design strategist Choo Meng Foo, 51, told TODAY he was invited by NParks to a meeting last week with the NAC and Mr Dimopoulos after he made his concerns known. Mr Choo, who considers the colouring of the trees a “violent act against nature”, said it would also encourage participants to disrespect nature and think of nature as being at man’s disposal.

In a list of frequently asked questions put up on the ticketing website, the NAC said the colourant was developed by the artist for the installation and is “biologically and environmentally safe”. The colourant has been used in 14 cities around the world, with tree organisations and certified arborists attesting to its safety for the trees and other living organisms.

The colourant is not paint and consists mostly of water and 100 per cent organic material, “some of which can also be commonly found in children’s face paint”, the NAC said. It can be easily removed with water, the council said. The NAC had also conducted tests with specialists to ensure the health of the trees and other living organisms would not be compromised, said Ms Chua.

The Blue Trees was launched in April 2011 at the Vancouver Biennale and has travelled to countries like the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand. According to a 2012 report by The Seattle Times, the colourant is made from azurite (a blue copper mineral) and water.

Conservationist Tony O’Dempsey said natural pigments are not necessarily harmless. “How do we know (the colourant) won’t harm the fungi, lichens, and insect life that live on and inside the bark of the tree? Our concern is that the colouration materials suspended in the paint (will) clog pores in the bark as well as the breathing pores on the abdomens of insects and spiders,” said Mr O’Dempsey, chairman of the Nature Society Singapore’s Plant Group, who was speaking in a personal capacity.

But Professor Evan DeLucia of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Plant Biology said water-based paint that is diluted will not choke off all the ability of the bark to exchange gas from the atmosphere to the living tissue within, and would have no effect on the tree. The painting of stems has long been used in the horticultural and forestry industry, for purposes such as the reflection of light (by white paint) and to stop frost damage in winter.

Colouring of the bark will damage the insects and spiders that live on it, but “it’s hard to imagine those would not re-establish very quickly after all the paint is washed away”, said Prof DeLucia, who studied forestry and plant physiology. The colourants, however, should not be painted near the tips of the trees’ buds, he said.

Expressing his personal opinion, Prof DeLucia said: “As a global society, we should do everything we can to support artistic expression. And even when it makes us uncomfortable ... we should be very protective of that right to communicate through artistic expression.”

Mr O’Dempsey questioned the need to change trees to an “unnatural” colour to generate discussion about deforestation, when there is already sufficient beauty in natural flora. Evidence is also needed to show the critters will indeed re-establish themselves, he said.

“There are more than enough professionally edited documentaries and media reports regarding deforestation, not to mention scientific information, which should be more than sufficient to evoke meaningful conversations regarding deforestation,” he said.


Blue Trees art canned
NParks withdraws support after tree lovers' protests against artist painting trees
Lea Wee Straits Times 14 Nov 15; and AsiaOne 15 Nov 15;

Nature lovers have embraced the cancellation of an art project that planned to colour trees blue.

The Blue Trees, an installation by Egypt-born artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, was supposed to take place over the weekend of Nov 7 and 8 at Dhoby Ghaut Green.

Volunteers were meant to paint the trunks and branches of about 20 trees with a blue water-based colourant to draw attention to the importance of trees and inspire conversation about deforestation.

Following protests by tree lovers, the National Parks Board withdrew its support and the event was cancelled. As the trees are on park land, NParks' permission was needed for the event to proceed.

Artist and urban design consultant Choo Meng Foo, 51, says he is elated by the news.

"I consider the colouring of the trees a violent act against nature," he says. "It would also encourage participants to disrespect nature and think of nature as being at man's disposal."

He was among the first people to raise his concerns about the project. He wrote two letters, including one to the National Arts Council, the event organiser.

Environmentalist Ria Tan, 54, who runs wildlife website Wildsingapore, also cheered the news of NParks' decision on her Facebook page.

She told Life: "Trees are not something lifeless like furniture that you can go and paint. They are part of a living web of life consisting of birds and other creatures.

"Each tree is home to tiny plants and animals living on and under its bark. Even if the colourant does not harm the tree, how do we ensure that the colourant does not harm other organisms?"

There has been disagreement on exactly how environmentally detrimental the blue paint is.

The National Arts Council said the colourant was developed by the artist for the installation and is "biologically and environmentally safe".

It has been used in 14 cities around the world, and the artist has provided testimonials by overseas tree organisations and certified arborists vouching for the safety of the colourant with regards to the trees, the surroundings and other life forms.

The colourant is not paint and consists mostly of water and 100 per cent organic material, "some of which can also be commonly found in children's face paint" and easily removed with water, the council said.

Nonetheless, NParks, which had initially given the green light for the project, decided to withdraw its support, as it wants to be "mindful of the sensitivities of the community towards our trees and the potential impact on insect biodiversity", says Ms Kalthom A. Latiff, deputy director of Arts & Heritage Parks at the agency.

The Blue Trees is a project under the National Arts Council's Arts in the Neighbourhood programme. About 150 people had signed up to be volunteers in the tree-painting sessions.

When contacted yesterday, the art council's director for arts and community Chua Ai Liang says that while it respects NParks' latest position, it will "discuss this with the artist and hope to find a way to collaborate even as the project evolves from its original concept".

The artist, who was in town last week, has since left. His latest post on his Facebook page shows a photograph of the Blue Trees project in Germany.

Attempts to reach him were not successful.

The Blue Trees was launched in April 2011 at the Vancouver Biennale and has travelled to countries such as the United States, Britain and New Zealand.

It was named one of the Top 100 Activism Trends for ideas that changed the world in 2012.

Singapore is not the only place where some members of the public had expressed unhappiness with the installation.

In Squamish, a city in Canada, newspaper editor Christine Endicott wrote in the Squamish Chief in April this year that "Squamish is a unique place, where visitors come to escape to nature... It's baffling that we have a plan to alter (local) nature, based on the vision of an artist who does not live here".

Dr Shawn Lum, a botanist and a lecturer at the Asian School of the Environment at Nanyang Technological University, says painting the branches and trunks of the trees is unlikely to damage the tree as a whole.

Dr Lum, who is also the president of Nature Society Singapore, says: "It will likely hurt or even kill some of the tiny oganisms living on the trees, but these organisms are likely to regenerate or return over time.

"The question we need to ask as a community is whether we want to risk this short-term impact on these micro-ecosystems to make an artistic statement, which may turn out to be a powerful one affecting many people."


Related links
No 'Blue Trees' please. We are Singapore. on the wild shores of singapore blog

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