Planting art for the family

The hibaku seedlings originated from a camphor tree that went through the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

There are four perky camphor seedlings growing on my family's patio, not entirely out of place in my father's well-tended patch of potted plants.

Except, of course, for the fact that these seedlings were never expected to live in the first place.

They came from a camphor tree in Hiroshima, Japan, one of thousands of so called hibaku trees that were burned and broken during World War II. Hibaku roughly translates to "something that has survived a nuclear bomb".

A few months ago, I met the Japanese artist and film-maker Hiroshi Sunairi, who was on a press trip to Singapore as part of the upcoming M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January. After the festival's media launch, we talked about his Tree Project, a tender, life-affirming artwork that brings together nature, history and people.

Sunairi was born in Hiroshima, but currently lives in New York, where he teaches and works. In 2006, while driving through his home town and pondering an art installation that had reached an impasse, he came across a pamphlet advertising a talk by botanist Chikara Horiguchi, who specialises in caring for hibaku trees.

Intrigued, Sunairi went for the lecture. He found himself profoundly moved by the stories of these silent survivors.

"Dr Horiguchi talked about how trees have no ideology," he said to me, "they don't talk about nations or gender. It's a silent testimony."

Sunairi immediately asked the botanist to collaborate with him on an art project commemorating Hiroshima's experience of the atomic bombing. And then he asked Dr Horiguchi for a handful of seeds as a souvenir for his friends and students.

On impulse, I asked: "Do you have any seeds left?"

Today, four seedlings have ended up in my family home, turning themselves towards the sun each day, their leaves a deep, brilliant green - and they show no signs of slowing down.

We are one of dozens of families who have planted hibaku seeds native to their country (gingko and camphor seeds, for instance, grow comfortably in Singapore) all over the world, from the United States to Peru, from Argentina to Norway.

And it is also the first time that my family, as a whole, has become so emotionally invested in an art project.

Arts practitioners and observers often discuss the transformative power of art, and its near-magical power to draw emotions from the deepest parts of the human soul or to rehabilitate and heal through therapy.

I have read about these experiences, have felt transcendent after particularly stirring theatre productions, and enlightened after walking the halls of museums and art galleries.

But I also think there is a certain beauty in the unexpected, in the sort of art that does not shock and awe, but instead, worms its way quietly into your heart.

My mother collected the seeds from The Necessary Stage, the festival organiser, in a tiny plastic packet. My father, the green-fingered member of our family, insisted on planting them himself, patting them into the moist soil with a trowel.

For two weeks, they sat in the pot and, to me, at least, did absolutely nothing.

My heart crumpled a little each day as I examined the pot for signs of life. They had probably decided not to grow, I thought. It's nature, I convinced myself, some things grow and others just don't.

When leaving the house one Saturday morning late last month, I bent over to examine the empty pot. I blinked. Could it be? A tiny shoot, barely 3mm in length, had pushed its way out into the light. I had to stifle a shriek.

What I felt was, perhaps, something similar to what the American botanist Peter Del Tredici had felt when he wrote about the hibaku trees for the magazine of the Arnoldia Arboretum at Harvard University. His words bore a palpable tone of awe: "These are the true survivors, plants that can withstand the worst humanity has to offer."

Scientists studied Hiroshima's hibaku trees for years after the bombing. They found that the trees had grown larger trunk rings around themselves from 1945 to 1948, almost as if to protect themselves from the fallout of the blast and to spend time on the mend. After that, the trees resumed their normal growth. They put out leaves and flowers, and produced healthy seeds.

I began to document the growth of our seedlings every morning before heading to the office. They became our own personal symbols of unflagging determination and hope. How could a plant such as this, its history so deeply riven by war, continue to reach for the light?

The most effective artistic metaphors are, perhaps, those that accomplish the task without flashy fanfare.

While transplanting our four seedlings into separate pots, we were astonished to see how much their roots had grown. The tiniest sprout was barely 3cm above the soil, but its roots had gone down at least five times that length.

"It's always like that," my dad mused, trowel in hand. "Your foundation must be strong."

If our seedlings are hardy enough, you might spot one of them at an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore from Jan 8 to 19 next year. And so far, they seem to be doing well.

After a particularly heavy monsoon rainstorm, I went out to check on our seedlings. Their leaves were sagging a little morosely after the lashings of rain.

"They're drooping!" I told my mother in dismay.

She laughed. "They've survived radiation - I think they'll be okay."

She was right.

corriet@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.