The Case for Casebearers
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee

Living on the ground floor, I have observed my living room becoming a playground for squirrels to run through, my sofa, a place for cats to rest on, and the crevices of cupboards, dressers and doorways, a space for lizards to crawl in between. Within our domestic spaces, we formulate a hierarchical relationship with these creatures, steadying our electric mosquito racquet to hunt and kill whilst gently shooing away the neighbourhood cat and odd squirrel from “our” spaces. But there are many more creatures that go unnoticed, living symbiotically with us within our homes.

In What’s Left for Gathering, artist Tan Zi Hao describes creatures often left unseen or immediately hunted – little insects known as “household case bearers”, and small sea crustaceans called “carrier shells”. In South-East Asia, household case bearers are often found on our walls, camouflaging as a defect or bumpy surface left untreated. Carrier shells are more unfamiliar to me – these creatures amass “foreign matter” as they dwell on the sand and mud bottoms of the ocean floor. Drawing upon stories of these found creatures, Tan addresses the symbiosis of living, shedding and breathing together by citing Scott F. Gilbert, “We have never been individuals,” alluding to the need for us to cultivate a notion to live collectively.

A desk for the curious to investigate, read and play. Courtesy of Mutual Aid Projects, credit Tan Zi Hao

Climbing out of the womb of Movement Control Order (MCO), it was as if I was being reintroduced into the world – my human body inoculated into the city centre of Kuala Lumpur as I made my way to see the exhibition at Mutual Aid Projects. I was greeted by the by-now too familiar desk-chair set-up, to yet again sit in front of a computer surrounded by books. These books include “Staying with the Trouble by: Making kin with the Chthulucene” by Donna Haraway and “How Forests Think” by Eduardo Kohn, both of which infer a symbiosis of our lives with creatures that are often left unnoticed. Next to these lie a few petri dishes encasing specimens such as “dead lizard” or “household casebearers” and random shells not unlike those we would find by the sea, perhaps 15 years ago. The specimens are available for any budding wannabe-scientist to put under a digital microscope set up to zoom into the surfaces of calcium carbonate, flecks of paint and the all-encompassing word, dust, which is made up of shed human skin, hair, paint chips and other domestic waste.

I found myself sitting there zooming in and out for an hour or so, and referencing back to the dog-eared pages of the books set within an arm’s reach. These creatures embedded themselves in the stuff of our world – a manifestation of the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. They live, leaving a small footprint, collecting, maneuvering, barely visible and bear witness of the stories of the immediate environment through their very bodies. In an accompanying zine, Tan describes their movement as “not leaving a trace”, camouflaging and embedding into their environment.

Desk full of Carrier Shells. Courtesy of Mutual Aid Projects, credit Tan Zi Hao

On the walls were a series of illustrative pieces – the artist’s first efforts in this medium – that speculate on imaginary carrier shells and casebearers, or what Tan describes as “superfictions”. These creatures draw a connection between their case bearing shells built out of “anthropogenic wastes” and the global entanglement the creatures are situated in. On a table lay a collection of carrier shells procured from the Internet, flown over to land on a timber laminated surface, pristine. I envisage innumerable amounts of sea creatures flitting between the crevices of the calcified shells, building and growing to hunt and kill. The juxtaposition of the pristine carrier shells and the new possible future of anthropomorphised hybrid creatures reminds us to be aware of our terrestrial ties – that the boundaries between humanity and nature is fiction.

I sat back down at the desk. When I put the case bearers under the magnifying glass, echoes of domesticity are shown immediately on the screen. Invisible to the human eye, the live feed showed fibres, human (and animal) hair, flecks of chipped wall paint. One of the found household case bearers is framed in an ornamental frame that echoes the colour of the walls of Tan’s home – both a distinct and bright lime green. These creatures remind us of our environmental refractions where the tiny shards of living, like tiny piles of hair or plastic wrappers swept aside, are collected like treasures by these creatures.

Overall Exhibition. Courtesy of Mutual Aid Projects, credit_ Tan Zi Hao

As we are increasingly unaware of the collective impact of our actions, Tan ends his short essay by asking “How do we foster hospitable spaces in a world that is becoming perilous?”. I reflect on our modern cities, where nature and humanity are distinctly separated, a constant compartmentalisation towards a gleaming contemporary life constantly yearning for growth. As I reflect on the question, more begin to bubble to the surface. How do we shift away from consumption and towards degrowth and more inclusive spaces? Where have the stakes of communal gathering dissipated to? What’s Left for Gathering offers a larger cautionary tale for our near and upcoming future if we forget to turn to the creatures with whom we so lovingly share the earth.

The exhibition is currently at Mutual Aid Projects until April 10, 2021. All quotes are taken from What’s Left for Gathering, Tan Zi Hao exhibition zine.

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Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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