Art as Environment: A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek

By Reiko Goto, Margaret Shiu and Wu Mali

Mending the Broken Land with Water” is a sub title of this project. It means water is essential to life, and it has the ability to cross borders, connecting and gathering people who are concerned about the land we live on, as well as issues of urban development and boundless expansion.   —Wu Mali


FOR THE LAST THIRTY YEARS artists have been working on rivers and streams as the focus of environmental and ecological art all over the world. Some important examples include Dominique Mazeaud’s The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande in Santa Fe New Mexico (1987–1994), Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Breathing Space for The Sava River in Yugoslavia (1988–1990), PLATFORM’s The Delta Project in London (1993–1998), Betsy Damon’s The Living Water Garden in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China (1995–1998), Robert Bingham, John Stephen, Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s Nine Mile Run Greenway Project in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania U.S.A. (1996–2000), Shai Zakai’s Concrete Creek near Beit Shemesh in Israel (1999–2002), Ichi Ikeda’s Shibakawa in Kawaguchi City, Japan (2007–2008), and Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Suzanne Lacy and Yutaka Kobayasi’s Blue Line Trail in Elkhorn City in Kentucky U.S.A. (2000–2004). Through these projects artists demonstrate that it is not about the difference between human and nature but how artists contribute to the integration of these ideas in specific communities.

I was invited to visit the Plum Tree Creek project site a few times over the past three years. The last visit was just after the project received the Taishin Arts Award, one of Taiwan’s most prestigious honors in the field of arts and culture. As a result of this project the Zhuwei district and Plum Tree Creek have become models for how awareness and education within a community, can change thinking and perspective and restore a natural treasure, Plum Tree Creek. To help restore the ecology of the creek, large rocks were placed in the concrete channels to reduce the effect of stormwater flow, and small detention ponds were constructed upstream from the main channel to manage water quality runoff from farmland. The re-establishment of natural biodiversity was one result, with insects and other living things becoming more apparent with the increase in surface water. I also visited the National Science Education Centre in Taipei to see an exhibition of the project. This project supported collaborations with different groups including universities, community colleges, water conservation units, the Green party, environmental groups, urban farming associations and the women’s association for sustainable ecology.

In this article Wu Mali, the chief artist/curator of the Plum Tree Creek project, and Margaret Shiu, the director of the Bamboo Curtain Studio, talk about why this small creek has become the focal point of the project, and what each artist has done to encourage the cultural actions that convince people to attend to the creek. I am interested in the ideas that drive each activity. I have come to understand the Plum Tree Creek project as a restorative bioregional effort. It works to rediscover and find new application for “ideas that have developed overtime about how to live in a given place,”1 intending to re-establish a self-sufficient and productive community.

There are three philosophical ecologies, ecofeminism, social ecology and deep ecology. Ecofeminism is a movement and theory of women’s oppression and a critique of the idea of human domination of nature. Carolyn Merchant emphasizes ecofeminism as both a political and social movement. She categorizes feminism as liberal, cultural, social, and socialist. “Weaving together the many strands of the ecofeminist movement is the concept of reproduction construed in its broadest sense to include the continued biological and social reproduction of human life and the continuance of life on earth.”2 Val Plumwood takes a position of self and its relationship to the other. In her book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) she focuses on the dualism between human/reason and nature. Her ideal liberation is not aimed towards “equal participation or absorption in such a male dominant culture,”3 , but rather integration of the dualism between human and nature. This takes two steps (1) critiquing deep ecology as an idea that merges the self and the world and (2) extending the self with virtue based concepts such as “empathy, nurturance, and co-cooperativeness.” Plumwood seeks a balance between culture and ecology by addressing the community, re-establishing their relationship to the Creek.

Social ecology is described as “first nature rendered self-reflective, a thinking nature that knows itself and can guide its own evolution.” First nature is the outer physical world, which in this context is given voice and intention through the gifts of second-nature humanity understood as “sociability, communication and intelligence as if we were nature rendered conscious.”Social ecology is about the integration of human interest with nature in the production of everyday life.

Deep ecology rejects the idea of dominion over nature. It is about human potential in relationship to the world and all living things. Merchant describes it as a “cosmic/ecological metaphysics” that stresses the “relationship between humans and nonhuman nature and the integrity of person/planet.”5 In the continuum between humanity and nature, deep ecology leans toward an autonomous natural environment. I think about Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopard, who provide foundational ideas in environmental ethics.

Deep ecology is related to the eastern philosophies Taoism and Buddhism. I recognize that there are temples, shrines, the smell of incense, and sound of chanting embedded in this landscape. Margaret Shiu and I have talked about praying for self, others, and the environment. This broad scope of Asian spiritual interest includes families, friends, or other than humans and the immediate environment such as the Plum Tree Creek, as well as the places where ancestors have been buried. Humans, non-humans, and place begin to connect through this simple but important act and belief through out the valley of Plum Tree Creek.

The Project Site

PLUM TREE CREEK IS ONE OF THE tributaries of the Danshui River. It is approximately 12 kilometers long and flows from its source on Datun Mountain, then through a golf course in the upper watershed, emerging amongst remnant agriculture and residential areas that increase in density until they dissipate at the bottom of the watershed amongst the mangrove wetlands on the banks of the river. The project site is about 2.4 kilometers upstream from the mouth of the creek.Plum Tree Creek acquired its name from the abundant plantation of plum trees (it is similar to strawberry tree Arbutus unedo) around this area. “The area used to be filled with green rice fields, and the local people relied on the rich local produce from both the mountain and the sea.”6 During Japanese occupation (1895–1945), the area was developed for agriculture.

After the war industries and workers moved to the area, and commercial activities and development began. After the completion of the MRT metro line (1997), the population significantly increased, and the old industrial buildings were rapidly replaced by tall condominiums and commercial buildings. In the 1960s, the population was under 1,000; by 2005, it had increased to over 30,000. Zhuwei became all of a sudden a bedroom town for people who commute to Taipei. These significant changes affect Plum Tree Creek. The water quality has been seriously contaminated by various sources of wastewater: industrial pollution, businesses and residential sewage, golf course and agricultural waste. Floods are caused by concrete channels, culverts, a major freeway, and metro lines.

The Origin of the Project

IN 2006, WU MALI STARTED By the River, On the River, Of the River, inviting people to trace the Danshui River as the origin of northern Taiwan—all people entered via this gateway at some point in time, whether from China or the west. The river is formed by four smaller rivers and flows into the South China Sea. The project was about inviting people to come closer to the river and changing their relationship to it. Wu Mali took this environmental change as a cultural issue. It was a good start, but it would require long-term commitment in order to bring actual changes.

Wu Mali lived by Plum Tree Creek. One day in 2009 Mr. Wu Chung-Ho, a local historian, told her the creek was the mother river of the Zhuwei District. People used to live on the creek (cooking, washing, and swimming). She was amazed, because the creek was filthy. She realized that if she wanted the Danshui River clean, she should work from this small creek, and she started developing the Plum Tree Creek Project with Margaret Shiu and Professor Jui-Mao Hwang. The project was funded by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (2011–2013) and consisted of three components: (1) eco education, (2) urban planning, and (3) local harvest and breakfast meetings. Each component was organized by artists and the action team.

The Organization’s Statement

BAMBOO CURTAIN STUDIO AIMS to promote cross-cultural exchange by providing a meeting point for national and international artists to engage with communities of interest in Taipei and beyond. After nineteen years it is the oldest artist residency program in Taiwan. It is situated at the mouth of Plum Tree Creek, along the Danshui River in New Taipei City. The organization has witnessed major changes to local ecology and riverside development.

Being an economist myself [and] the founder, I have been keenly aware of the creative contribution of the arts in asking the inconvenient truth, seeking the impossible goal and providing creative solutions to our daily lives.   —Margaret Shiu


FUTURE CLASSROOM IS AN ECO EDUCATION program organized by Margaret Shiu and managed by the Bamboo Curtain Studio. It consists of three activities: “Community Theatre,” “Local Eco Life: Colorful Affairs with Plants,” and “Future Classroom.” Shiu and two other educators worked together with three schools.

In 2002 the Bamboo Curtain Studio organized an environmental project called “The Zhuwei Eco Art Festival: Landscape of the Danshui River.” After the art project, understood the community was very reactive and passive, accepting the creeping infringement from developments in the district. I realized I must work with children and rely on their sensitivity to appeal to their parents and grandparents to open up new possibilities for change.   —Margaret Shiu

The Community Theatre
Rong Shu-Hwa, Department of Art and Humanity Education at the Taipei National University of the Arts and Tzi-Chang Branch at Zhuwei Elementary School and Fu-Te Community.

Professor Rong sought stories of the community upper creek. She and her students organized workshops for a group of ladies, semi-retired and willing to learn and share their life stories together. When the team approached a local elementary school they found the children and grandchildren were attending the school. The ladies finalized their community story with a creek story for the students to perform. They also produced songs and dancing. Recycled materials were used to make props for the children/grandchildren on stage. At the graduation the ladies and the students shared the platform together.

Local Eco Life: Colorful Affairs with Plants
Felix Chang, Pei-Chin Hsin, and Zhuwei High School

This project was organized by Felix Chang Hwei-Li, an environmental activist and educator working at local community universities and colleges. She worked with the Hsin Pei-Chin, teacher of Zhuwei high school. This activity intended to open up the awareness of health through hands-on experience cooking and other daily-use of various wild herbs from the area and along the creek. They taught people how to cook traditional foods that contained these plants as ingredients, and how to use them to invent new western snacks such as cookies and muffins.

There Is a Creek in Front of My School Gate
Margaret Shiu and Zhuwei Elementary School

I realized the massive ditch near the school was actually the Plum Tree Creek.   —A student from the Zhuwei Elementary School8

The program began with one of the sixth grade classes, then, expanded to all 250 students. The effort was as collaboration between artists and teachers. It was a carefully planned full academic year program. As a method the “children’s five senses” were emphasized through art activities. In the first semester the students were invited to a walk—to have a physical experience of the creek and the environment: the water flow, the farming along the slopes—through an old pathway through the heavily polluted and densely populated places near their home. After the fieldtrip they were asked to discuss what had an effect on them, and to record their observations in different formats such as drawing and writing. They then chose partners joining groups to make theirown storyboards. The second semester was designated for a final graduation project with the teacher and artists’ support.

The process was inspiring as an alternative way of eco education through direct experience and joint discussion. I sincerely believe this is the better way to open up the awareness and understanding of their environment. The graduation-show had a palpable authenticity. It genuinely touched the VIP representatives who were there at the ceremonies, and promised the changes would come. It was a beginning of dialogue with the local authorities.   —Margaret Shiu

Jui-Mao Huang and students from the Department of Architecture, Tamkang University

AN ONGOING URBAN PLANNING PROJECT described as the “Shaping of a Village: The Nomadic Museum Project” evolved research-oriented architectural practice by Professor Hwang and his students. The team focused on the lifestyle of the communities. They chose a communal space in the local neighborhood as a site for intervention. Since the housing costs in the heart of the city had increased, a lot of people moved to this area, and a thriving community gradually appeared. The residents still persist in working in “handicrafts,” a word understood locally as support for home life. Based on these observations the idea of an “urban village” emerged. The team developed a temporary installation to promote the “Handcraft Market” to enable dialogue with the residents. They invited cobblers, appliance repairmen, and plant specialists. The intention was to bring hands-on practices back into everyday life through practical actions of “recycle and reuse,” reconsidering how open spaces in a crowded city can be utilized, reconstructing the connection between people, city, and landscape reigniting imaginations for a different lifestyle. Through the activities, dialogue, and sharing ideas, they provided opportunities for community building and neighborhood development.

The interaction changed the form and function of the community. The residents were given opportunities to be involved and imagine what the new community would look like. “Handcraft Market” was also about the new/old practice of sustainable living (green living/eco living) that could connect the Plum Tree Creek and the community.

The community-oriented work required a long period of observation time. Whether the work turns out “good” or “bad” does not matter. What matters most is the question of “has the community changed?” There are a few moments of achievement during the execution of this project that are worth sharing: The Handcraft Market in the community space created an interactive site for place making and gathered together the residents living in the more peripheral areas. Moreover, therepairssection of the Handcraft Market responded to the residents’ habits and lifestyles. Besides promoting and sharing our ideas, we were able to understand more about the residents’ lives and thoughts through this event.   —Jui-Mao Huang

Wu Mali and the Plum Tree Creek Project Team

WU MALI AND HER TEAM HOSTED a local harvest and breakfast meeting on the last weekend of each month in different places—among senior communities, in vegetable fields, small farms, at the Land Piety shrine, in the public spaces of residential buildings, and along the wild creek upstream. The project intended to bridge everyday personal experiences and local produce. Through informal conversations over breakfast she tried to investigate the human and environment relationship. In addition to harvesting food each month, every breakfast meeting focused on a different theme for discussion: such as recycling rainwater, food safety, water sampling, enzyme production, natural farming, organic fertilizer, eco pig farming, and flood detention. Experts were invited to exchange their experiences and knowledge with local residents. The purpose of the Breakfast meeting was to find out who lived here, what was their experience like and how they could respond to the living environment.

The Breakfast meeting was quite successful, because we all shared the common interests in food. The food we prepared was from the site. This helped us again to understand where we lived, and how the land and the water related to our daily life and our health. Through these events we got to know the communities from downstream to upper stream. Since the creek was steep, the way people lived there was very different from the town of Zhuwei. This helped us to understand the different aspects of the place. We knew we shared the same river, and we needed to work together furthermore.   —Wu Mali


THE DUALISM BETWEEN HUMANITY AND NATURE is an important perspective in ecofeminism. In this project a duality is also recognized in the past and present. The difference between the farming villages of yesterday and bedroom city of today are defined by lifestyle, local interaction, and quality of the natural environment. People used to sustain themselves mostly from food grown and gathered locally. It is an old economy model where the relationship between human activities and natural environment are harmonized. People who live in the area now consume essential goods brought in from other areas. The artists in this project intended to explore alternatives with communities.

The handcraft market brings “not only home grown and hand made products to sell or trade, but offering skilled services such as electrical appliance and shoe repair and gardening advice, and balcony garden workshop.”8 These kinds of businesses involve service, exchange, productivity in the community, and suggest self-sufficiency among the communities.

The breakfast activities share similar understanding to Professor Huang’s team with a focus on the farming communities. In the valley of Plum Tree Creek “the farmers grow the vegetables for their own household consumption, or as gift for neighbors. A very small percentage of the vegetables are treated in the local market.”9 The farming community is small but still maintains self-sufficiency and by all indications have a happy contented life style. The breakfast activities intended to empower the relationship between the farming community and the larger community. Three ideas are recognized: (1) a dialogical approach, (2) the connection to the farming community, and (3) social reproduction of human life. “Breakfast” consists of local harvest participatory activities, and emphasizes dialogue, inter-subjectivity and empathy. The participants are inspired by the breakfast activities and meeting with the farmers.

The images of the seasonal fruits and vegetables are important graphic components. They are drawn in an old style and evoke nostalgic feelings and imaginations about the past. Enforcing the connection between food and land also enhances women’s skills, knowledge and practical wisdom, the care and support of daily life for families. This social ecofeminist approach expands the individual horizons and gives everyone self-confidence to join in social and political activities.

Eco education activities deal with young students who do not have the past experience of changes and memories of the place. The education relies on aesthetic experience of the environment. This learning is not based on right or wrong.Each student’s experience and “sensing” are prioritized. Shiu hopes the students understand what art is and how it can be connected to life and environment. The students and their teachers learn by sharing and listening to each other. It is different from textbook-based learning. This kind of learning deeply connects to each student’s life and the environment. Teaching is transforming the students, and the students will carry their lesson into the future.


  1. Merchant, C. Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. London and New York: Routledge (1992) p. 218.
  2. Ibid. p. 209.
  3. Plumwood, V. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. USA and Canada: Routledge (1993) p. 30.
  4. Brennan, A., and Lo, Y. “Environmental Ethics,” in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. California, Stanford (2011) p. 24. [PDF online] Accessed 16 April 2014:
  5. Merchant (1992) Ibid. p. 86.
  6. Bamboo Curtain Studio. Art as Environment—A Cultural Action in Plum Tree Creek, Geographical Facts, Introduction.(2011a) [online] Accessed 18 April 2014: Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City: Taiwan.
  7. Bamboo Curtain Studio. Mending the Broken Land with Water: Art as Environment—A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek. Video. (2013) [online] Accessed 18 April 2014: Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City: Taiwan.
  8. Greaves, J. Art as Environment—A Cultural Action in Plum Tree Creek. Curating Cities Database. National Institute for Experimental Arts, University of New South Wales, Australia (2013). [online] Accessed 18 April 2014:
  9. Bamboo Curtain Studio. Art as Environment—A Cultural Action in Plum Tree Creek, Projects, Shaping of a Village. (2011b)[online] Accessed 18 April 2014: Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City: Taiwan.
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