29 Lebuh Melayu, the venue for Tan Lay Heong’s new art installation A Real Fake Forest, seems highly unassuming: without signage, the building appears just like the other heritage houses it is sandwiched between. Finding the small yet other-worldly installation that is contained inside, therefore, has great impact.

As the name describes, the general idea of this installation is a forest made entirely out of reused synthetic materials: structured with papier-mâché before being covered in cardboard and paper, the towering trees are marvellously crafted, their shapes feeling very organic. Not only this, but the walls and ceilings are entirely covered in a semi-transparent plastic sheet — a material created by Heong intricately stitching together plastic sheets from the dry cleaner’s.

As well as an inspirational demonstration of sustainable art practice, A Real Fake Forest also packs a punch in its subject. Despite their tall heights, each tree is more aptly described as a tree stump, for each is missing their top and branches. Not merely suffering deforestation, each tree has also undergone a specific kind of violence: one is burnt, another strangled by rope, while another has been stabbed by some wire, and so on. Nature has been violated by human action to create a dystopia. Perhaps this is not done with the greatest subtlety, but this is not the point of A Real Fake Forest.

The second and final room bears a single tree, which, as Heong pointed out to me, actually has a base of a real tree trunk, which then transitions to a papier-mâché structure to match the others. The seamlessness with which Heong has done this makes it unclear where the wood ends and the papier-mâché begins: thus it is neatly implied that in our ecological disregard, we can no longer identify the difference between the natural and man-made. By ending her installation with this decisive transition from nature’s materials to human’s trash, the artist closes her artwork on a potentially pessimistic (but very relevant) note.

Importantly, the installation creates an immersive experience to go hand-in-hand with its ecological rhetoric. The plastic sheets that contain the installation signal immediately that this is a different world, yet their semi-transparent nature ensure the heritage building’s crumbling walls remain traceable: although different, this world is not all that different, not totally beyond the realm of reality. Told to leave your shoes at the door, walking barefoot into the installation — while of course protecting the artwork in a practical sense — ensures that you quite literally engage with the cardboard-patchwork floor and crispy dead leaves that are strewn on top. Eerie, almost threatening music adds to the effect: I can only wish that the lighting was also eerily dim.

I recommend you pop into this small but effective installation. As part of George Town Festival, it’s an artwork that works nicely in conjunction with the Gerimis Exhibition at The Whiteaways Arcade, which also problematises deforestation yet focusses on its social impact. It’s great to see that not only is George Town Festival 2019 promoting heritage and arts within Penang, but also bringing attention to more global issues.

Where? – 29 Lebuh Melayu
When? – July 11th – 28th, 2019 (Weekdays: 2PM – 8PM // Weekends: 10AM – 8PM)
How much? – Free
For who? – Everyone

There will also be a talk and sharing session held by Lay Heong and her partner Chet Wah, a landscape architect, on the social responsibility of human beings toward nature and the possibilities of creative reuse and upcycling with participants. This will be held at 29 Lebuh Melayu, on July 14th 2019, 11AM – 12:30PM. Pre-registration is required here: https://georgetownfestival.com/more/a-real-fake-forest/

Written by: Eleanor Ohlsen