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Collectors Contemporary
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The Botanist
by Collectors Contemporary
Location: Collectors Contemporary
Artist(s): Alexander LEE
Date: 7 Nov - 17 Dec 2014

Collectors Contemporary is proud to present THE BOTANIST: a new solo show by contemporary artist Alexander Lee. 

Born in California to Hakka parents, Lee grew up in Tahiti, French Polynesia. He earned his BFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York; his MFA from Columbia University, New York; and an MPS from New York University. Lee worked as Studio Manager to Matthew Barney, before gaining recognition for his own unique practice. He is based in New York and Tahiti, and has exhibited to critical acclaim throughout Europe and the United States. The Botanist will bring the work of Alexander Lee to Singapore for the first time.

Lee draws on his rich cultural heritage to explore individual and collective narratives in a multimedia practice that includes drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and performance. A storyteller, Lee amalgamates personal memory, popular culture and history into a rich symbolic visual language. In The Botanist, Lee continues his investigation into cultural narratives, and issues of migration, colonialism and cultural hybridization. Through the plant motif of the breadfruit (uru), the artist conveys themes of sustenance, life, and transformation. 

For The Botanist, the artist has collected uru leaves from the neighbourhood tree where he grew-up and hand pressed them into compositions reminiscent of tapa (a traditional Tahitian barkcloth). As a child the artist would rake the fallen breadfruit leaves and burn them, the smoke from the fire warding off mosquitoes and evil spirits. To this day he continues this practice, raking and burning the leaves of an ancient tree that has stood in the same spot since long before his birth: a ritual that reconnects the artist to his fenua (homeland). 

Breadfruit is an essential component of Polynesian culture and history. In the Tahitian legend of Rua-ta’ata, a man transforms his body into a breadfruit tree in order to feed his starving family. Breadfruit also appears in colonial narratives of exploration and discovery. The botanist Joseph Banks took part in James Cook’s first Voyage of Discovery (1768-1771) and in 1789, fostered the HMS Bounty’s expedition to gather breadfruit plants to cultivate in the Caribbean. The HMS Bounty expedition was popularised in the 1932 Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel Mutiny on the Bounty, a now famous Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando. The breadfruit tree unites and interweaves cultural narratives that permeated Lee’s Hakka upbringing in French Polynesia. 

The breadfruit leaf has a formal beauty that Lee works with to create powerfully entrancing and poetic images. The artist has created a series of unique handcrafted artworks by dipping uru leaves in ink and hand-pressing them on polypropylene. He also employs different hand printing and transfer processes reminiscent of the monotypes of Gauguin, creating hauntingly ethereal images that have the quality of a weathered artifact. Lee demonstrates his artistry by using different media to explore his ideas. The resulting artworks suggest myriad associations, including Chinese ink paintings, Polynesian head ornaments, Tahitian bark cloth (tapa), celestial maps, traditional tattooing practices and botanical drawings. They form part of Lee’s wider endeavor of compiling his own “herbarium of post-colonial cultural motifs. At the same time these lyrical compositions are open to interpretation, combining the abstract and the organic, they encourage the viewer to read their own narratives in the work. 

Lee’s practice could not be more relevant to Singapore and a contemporary moment defined by globalisation and cultural hybridity. In the artist’s work the breadfruit becomes symbolic of knowledge, learning, discovery, creativity and the international travel of ideas and cultural meaning.


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