WNC Projects Turns Plants into Art at the Manila Biennale

Artist Wawi Navarroza talks about using plants in her artwork at the Manila Biennale.

Interview by Yvette Tan

WNC Projects is a collaboration between international contemporary artists Wawi Navarroza (Manila, Philippines) and Nicolás Combarro (Madrid, Spain) who have worked regularly since 2011 in various exchanges that combine photography with intervention and installation, anchored with a backbone on research.

We talk to Navarroza about WNC Project’ work, “VISIBLE: Self-Construction and Wild Growth,” which plays on the Filipino idea of house and plants, currently on display at the Manila Biennale.

‘“VISIBLE: Self-Construction and Wild Growth” can be seen at Plaza Moriones in Fort Santiago until March 5, 2018 as a site-specific installation/sculpture/bricolage made with repurposed wood from past Intramuros dismantled buildings, and botanical samples transplanted from wild growth spurted from the walls of Intramuros, crevices of cement, the interstices and abandoned historical sites.’

What are you currently up to?

I just moved to Makati finally after a year of being partly nomadic, coming back and forth travels and work here and abroad since the unfortunate fire at my former warehouse studio. At this moment, now after the Manila Biennale piece, I’m busy preparing for ArtBaselHK and ArtFair Philippines. Silverlens is presenting my new body of work “Medusa” from my last solo exhibition. I’m thrilled ArtFair Philippines is going to highlight a special section on Photography this year. Long time coming and it’s good to bring a deeper appreciation of photography to the public.

What attracted you to working with plants?

When we see plants, we always associate them as pleasant, something that brings us closer to nature. More than this, I was intrigued by a parallel context that plants exist as quiet witnesses unfolding in our surroundings. Eventually, in 2013 when I did a hybrid project and an artist book called “Hunt & Gather, Terraria” (where I gathered plants, weeds, soil from the contributions of urban citizens in Manila, which I carefully arranged in terrariums, photographed, then displayed as botanical prints in art exhibition), I also sought to the belief in the capacity of plants to be active signifiers, a focal point to contain and reflect on contemporary issues.

In the case of weeds and wildgrowth, I chose to cast a spotlight to the forgotten and the small, to see tenderly, then think about larger issues of the day which tend to be really problematic and hard to put on the table. I like the ‘neutrality’ of plants as a medium that can be both literal, poetic, and critical at the same time.

Please tell us what inspired VISIBLE: Self Construction and Wild Growth, your piece at Manila Biennale?

“In response to Manila Biennale 2018 “Open City”, WNC Projects (the collaboration between Filipino artist Wawi Navarroza and Spanish artist Nicolás Combarro) presents a site-specific work bringing focus towards two presences very much alive surrounding Manila: local architecture (mostly self-constructed) and urban nature (spontaneous plant growth). The artists highlight these two rampant realities of the city, although often ignored, as a starting point for rethinking about our place in it.”

The resulting piece is a dialog between what we explore in our independent art practices, and in here fused together with a particular localization to Manila . Nicolás Combarro’s work has a focus on built structures particularly auto-construcción. His trips to Manila have expanded this by observing the way people build their homes in the city, the array of forms and materials, and also upon closer inspection, how it carries a reference to folk architecture, the story of the people, only this time ‘of the city’. And on my end, offering up a view of the urban seen through the prism of emergent plantlife growing in concrete and the unlikeliest of places.

What do you hope for people to experience upon encountering your piece?

I hope viewers can start to pay attention to what really surrounds us in Manila. To think of regarding the ‘ugly’ as something to be reflected on, observed, and eventually maybe learn to understand.

Are you a gardener yourself? What is your relationship with plants?

I’m pretty keen with plants. Although to be honest, I didn’t know it until I got deeper doing Hunt & Gather, Terraria. Since then, in my studio, I’ve grown a small edible garden, herbs, veggies, lots of ornamentals too which I placed everywhere, for a time the studio was like a forest you know. I grew pechay from seed and it was an obsession watching it everyday. The great thing about building this relation over time is I start to understand the plants just by observing the way they ‘like’ or ‘not like’ things. Many can be quite intimidated handling plants but the truth is plants can take much more than you normally expect. I had a stubborn calamansi who refused to not stop being so prolific! 😉 We shouldn’t forget we’re lucky we’re in the tropics, plants are very happy about that.

In general, my artworks explore ideas on contemporary landscape. And really, a lot of it is about retelling the things that grow beneath our feet. Plants, mineral, the conversations on territory, migration, identity. And also on a sensorial level, what we eat and drink. I’ve been passionate about Gin cause it summarizes my relation to botanics, the way herbs, fruits, flowers, roots, can introduce the concept of land. Ask any of my friends, I’m quite a nerd about this. You should try my Gin Pomelo!

What do you wish for Metro Manila, greenery-wise?

More community (edible) gardens, parks, green roofs. Abolishment of useless/costly beautification aka “greening” projects like some of the “plant walls” in EDSA, instead need to think of smart choices for plants/trees that minimize the noxious gasses. For real estates, less ‘landscaping’ but more permaculture. A girl can dream.

What can we expect from you in the future?

I’m quietly working on my projects now back here in Manila though I still travel regularly. I have exhibitions coming up: Mar 1-4 ArtFairPhilippines, Mar 28-31 ArtBaselHK in HongKong, in May, I’m in ArtJog in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and the rest I can’t mention yet. My band The Late Isabel has a new album out called “Imperial” is now in iTunes, Spotify. Other than this, more Plant-ing.

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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