Gleaning in Taipei

by on Wednesday, 02 September 2009 Comments
For eRenlai’s September Focus, Benoit Vermander uses the story of Hercules and the Hydra with Seven Heads as a metaphor for the global crises. In a personal reflection, one concept which I thought attacked several of the hydra’s heads at the same time was that of ’gleaning’.

I was inspired after watching French director Agnes Varda’s film "Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse." This touching documentary which reflects on a legendary old Jean Francois Miller painting ‘Les Glaneurs’ takes us on a trip across France to follow different modes of gleaning - from traditional gleaning at the end of the harvest, to urban gleaning which recycles garbage and waste, the victims of consumption. Thus, in the film, Agnes interviews people of alternative lifestyles (whether out of necessity or choice) where she incorporates concepts of non-waste, austerity, recycling and new age living and looks into French laws in a time of impending environmental crises.

Bringing this concept close to home, one year ago, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay lent the National Museum of History in Taiwan Jean-Francois Millet’s painting, Les Glaneurs (Gleaners). The image of gleaners collecting the leftovers of a harvest in times of austerity initially came across as boring and simple to my untrained eye. However, after watching a French film directed by Agnes Varda called ‘Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse’ (The Gleaners and I) I was inspired and began to understand the depth of meaning and present-day relevance of the painting in the age of waste and triumph of consumption. Suddenly, this was a work of art which captivated and re-instilled faith in our ancestors.

In the film, Agnes briefly focuses on Alain, an urban glaneur who feeds himself from vegetables and fruits left by grocers when markets end. Despite holding a Masters in Biology, he chose to live in a refuge, teaching French to immigrants living off the market’s leftovers.

Alain’s story inspired me in my research on gleaning in Taiwan, and in my personal lifestyle. I searched around my room, after almost a year of living here, and I noticed that it is rampant with gleanings. Though not all of the collections can be considered as ’gleaning for a better world,’ even in the more modern sense, they all fit into a rather waste-less and thrift lifestyle. Certainly, gleaning for reasons of short or long term poverty is as credible as gleaning out of principle. Furthermore I felt a revelation that it’s natural human and animal activity. We are the hunter-gatherers.

Thus from this point onwards, I’ll cover a series on different manifestations of a gleaning nature in Taiwan and Asia. From gleaning in its purest form - like a farm in Pingdong, Southern Taiwan which allowed neighbours and a neighbouring villages to glean from their own fields, due to the fall of beans prices, to more modern and urban manifestations of gleaning, where we see the ’shi huang’ people (拾荒者), the ’bottle collectors’ who pick empty bottles from the parks and the sidewalks often able to make a living. For example my spiritual home in Shida park, where under the watchful eye of the squirrel of hope who is leaping towards the sky, are various bottle collectors and recyclers of different forms who are the critical link in the journey of the Taiwan Beer bottles’ journey from the last remaining local newsagent in the Shida night market, to our mouths, through the recycling plant and all the way back such is their circle of life

Such examples remind us that alternative, environmentally sustainable lifestyles are available to us, and we will search out examples that could inspire reflection and action.

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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