Whispering Nature: Crafting Connections through Collaboration

By | Fri 23 Feb 2024

Embodying the program’s focus of “diversity and inclusion and addressing climate change”, the British Council has awarded the Connections Through Culture grant to none other than Chiang Mai’s own Monthatip Suksopha (Tip) and Sujittra Prasert (Pan) of Dhepsiri Creative Space and Wandering Moon and Endless Journey. The UK based sound artist and sculptor Michael Fairfax is set to collaborate with Tip and Pan on Whispering Nature. Sitting down with Tip and Michael, Citylife Chiang Mai has set out to learn more about the artists behind Whispering Nature and about the project itself.

Growing up in a cottage in the middle of the English woods, Michael’s sculpting roots are traceable to his adolescence. Michael recalls making goalposts to play football and cites his upbringing as what developed his foundational understanding of the countryside and its fruitful components:

“I was brought up in a cottage in the middle of the woods in England. Without realizing it, that has probably impacted my entire life because as a kid I would go off into the woods. I’d make goalposts to play football and you just build up this understanding of the countryside and materials of the countryside then you grow up, you go to art college, they tune that all out of you with all the theories of arts, and then you end up living in the countryside again and with the knowledge you have learned and with the knowledge you have of the countryside merged together you try to make sense of it all as a career.”

With a poet for a father, a dancer for a mother, and a family tree filled with painters, writers, and musicians–Michael was destined to become an artist. Michael’s artistic endeavor began in the early 1980s, during a pivotal transformation in the British art scene. The emergence of the Public Art movement advocated for art tailored to locales, rather than generalized sculptures, which provided Michael with an opportunity to find his niche. Drawing on his innate understanding of the countryside, Michael embraced the challenge of bridging the gap between the city and the countryside:

“I was really lucky in that…when I left art college in about 1980, in 1985, they started this whole thing about making art for a place as opposed to making sculptures in public places… I had been working [in] that way anyways and so I started to get work and thankfully it never stopped. Which is just incredible. Its luck, its absolute luck, unadulterated luck that those two forces hit each other at the same time. Through that came Public Art. Public Art used to be going to a studio, you say you want that and putting it in a city center. Then it became this thought of making something for the residences and space in mind. Thinking of how that space is used by the people who live in that area or use that area. So I did that and I really love the challenge of…working in urban areas to make things that have an aesthetic which brings in the countryside’s understanding of place but in a city environment.”

Public Art had no longer been of focus and commissions had dwindled due to the English 2008 Credit Crunch. Thus, Michael’s artistic trajectory shifted towards music and sound:

“Prior to doing sculpture I had actually studied electronic music with my grandfather in London and I thought well if sculpture is not going to work and if public art isn’t going to work, lets see what I can do with music…I just thought hold on, I make sculptures, could I make musical instruments? So I started going down that [path] and researched how people worked with making musical instruments as opposed to normal instruments that you just get… If you take an electric guitar for instance, it’s just a piece of wood. If you put a pick up on it and some strings, until you plug it in it’s pretty useless, and I thought that was an interesting concept so then I started making things with acoustics.”

With a piece of wood, some strings, and a curious imagination, Michael created his renowned ear harps which honed in on the sounds that can be created from nature’s toolkit. “What if I have a piece of wood and put some strings on it and I drill a hole in the wood and I make a little earpiece? What will that do?” The answer, as it turned out, was tuneable music that resonated when played against the ear. “You play with nature, you play with the sound and the rhythm that is being created there and so, once you get into that, you’re in this lovely world of everything I have always believed.”

Tip holding Michael’s ear harp in its proper stance

Kicking off Michael’s collaboration with Tip and Pan was an Artist Talk scheduled for Sunday, February 18 from 13:00-15:00 pm and an Ear Harp Making workshop scheduled for Monday, February 19 at 13.00-16.00. In just three days, the events were fully booked reflecting Chiang Mai’s eager anticipation for not only Michael’s ear harps but for Whispering Nature as a whole. The space responsible for bringing Michael and additional artists and spectators together is none other than Dhepsiri Creative Space. With a long history of putting together educational creative workshops and exhibits, Tip recalls the foundations of Dhepsiri Creative Space along with the beginnings of Wandering Moon & Endless Journey, a puppet show performance company, and draws on their intersection:

“I founded my company Wandering Moon in 1999 and then I worked with many non-government organizations to produce theatre productions, puppet productions, and toured to give workshops. Dhepsiri is my father’s name. My father is a well-known artist but developed Alzheimer so he moved to another province to take care of his health and that’s why Dhepsiri Creative Space was founded. So that people can come together. We were the family whose house was like a public area where all the artists came by and did some performance or [art]. If they were looking for space and couldn’t find anything, they could come here [Dhepsiri Creative Space]. From my father’s generation to my generation people know this place. We let them use [the space] for free to support the network of artists. I am trying to renovate and invest in the space so that we can survive and can keep the space living for a long time.”

Tip highlights the significance of Chiang Mai as an epicenter of art and culture and notes the city’s ability to combine tradition and innovation. “Chiang Mai is the art and culture city,” she declares proudly. “It blends in old wisdom and contemporary art living in the same area. We are very special and very rich in terms of art. It is the magnificence of Thailand. I try to keep Dhepsiri Creative Space accordingly.”

Yet, challenges exist in attempting to integrate the old and new generations within the ongoing artistic scene. Tip has made it her mission to create a place where artists of all calibers can take up space, solace, and camaraderie. In the face of external pressures and societal upheaval, Tip fosters a sense of community:

“I feel like the world is running very fast…I found that we have a generation gap between my generation and the young generation and I try to create a space by being spiritually nurturing. When people come to Dhepsiri Creative Space they feel safe, more comfortable, they want to sit and talk with themselves…I spent a lot of time with myself as well before I felt like this is the direction I want to go [towards].

Receiving the British Council’s grant will allow Michael and Tip to explore the full potential of cross-cultural collaboration. “We wouldn’t be able to do this full stop,” Michael affirms. “It is the most enabling thing of the whole thing. The notion that we can now do this workshop so that other people can make these [ear harps] and enjoy them and expand them. There is something different about collaboration over time and in person. People being in the room together, meeting, and enjoying each other’s company. Michael and Tip holding current programming for Whispering Nature in front of Dhepsiri Creative Space

Whispering Nature is a living project shaped by the anticipated artist, participants, and reception. A palpable excitement exists surrounding the project as the public awaits additional workshops coming about in the next few months. The final presentation of Whispering Nature in October will not only be comprised of Michael, Tip, and Pan, but will also be co-created by five additional artists: musician Thitipol Kanteewong, filmmaker Chaweng Chaiyawan, writer and illustrator Sakunee Nattapoolwat, media artist Setthasiri Chanjaradpong, and mix media sculptor Kittiporn Kittipongpaisarn. Various individuals and artistic mediums correlate to fresh perspectives and creations.

Whispering Nature is ultimately a collaborative endeavor encompassing multiple moving parts interwoven through the mutual connecting point of nature. As Tip explains, “Collaboration is new and we just met… The point is that we work on the spiritual and nature and we will find out…There are 5 artists for the final presentation but for the workshops you will see more people that are interested in the same thing. They are interested in nature, how nature talks, and how the artist works through nature. This is the point that these people want to apply to their work.”

Whispering Nature’s Final Presentation Collaborators

Nature acts as the overarching theme of the project, but there is a specific focus on addressing air pollution in Chiang Mai which is both timely and urgent. Tip notes, “Everyone in Chiang Mai experiences it…There is an awareness of it, the bottom line is man and nature and what that dynamic looks like.”

“Trees breathe through their leaves. The trees will be suffering.” Michael states in relation to the effects of air pollution on nature. How Whispering Nature hopes to address air pollution, Michael connects to his ear harps, “These instruments can almost be telling that tale [of air pollution] because they are the legacy of all those burnings…You know what happened in history when you cut through a tree and the more I think about it the more relevant this project becomes. Beauty can tell a story if you are aware and it’s all about that awareness.”

Michael further emphasizes taking a mindful approach towards interacting with nature through slowing down and listening to nature’s sounds, stories, and the interconnectedness of all that is living:

“Another thing that is really important is the nature of slowing down. When you make your ear harp, when you play it, it’s about listening. Listening properly is one of the most wonderful gifts you can get. Just to slow down and hear… [the] tapestry of sound out there…Many people miss that but you can slow them and make them listen by doing something like this.”

As the vision for Whispering Nature takes shape, Tip and Michael are optimistic and hopeful of the possibility of expanding the project’s duration to encompass performances for the Loy Krathong festival in November. Tip envisions a gathering that brings together villagers, artists, and environmental activists in a celebration of art and nature. With a wildlife reserve just a few meters behind Dhepsiri Creative Space, the location is optimal and atmospheric for Whispering Nature. Nevertheless, the timeline and continuation for Whispering Nature ultimately depend on a positive reception from the art community, nature lovers, and the general public.