Forêt asiatique – Forêt océanique: Immersed, Entwined, Entangled

“The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible. All the early stages took place in water: the origin of life, the birth of animals, the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and the appearance of the complex bodies that make brains worth having.”[1]

Peter Godfrey-Smith



Forêt océanique is an artistic reflection on today’s world. The installation is based on the historical opera decor Forêt asiatique, painted in 1921 by the influential decorator Albert Dubosq (1863-1940). Dubosq designed the tropical forest for the opera Lakmé (1883) composed by Léo Delibes (1836-1891). The set – a milestone in Dubosq’s oeuvre – was protected in 2018 and is now one of the Flemish Masterpieces. Bruno Forment describes the painted jungle in his study of the historical stage sets of the Kortrijk Theatre: “The set is a picturesque summary of the oriental yearnings of the Belle Epoque. The background canvas presents a hazy, atmospheric watercolor of a riverbank in the heart of the rainforest. In two pairs of carved châssis à brisure and three terrains, tropical trees, flowers and grasses evolve from a palette of greens to purples, with accents in pinks. Three friezes of carved lianas, cut out leaf by leaf and attached to nets, mark the tableau’s top. Every detail, every shadow is included, the illusion is complete, nothing is left to the imagination. The result is luminous and astonishing, just as the bourgeoisie of those days wanted.”[2]

Lakmé tells the story of an impossible love affair between a British officer, Gérald, and Lakmé, the daughter of an Indian Hindu priest. In long summaries, too, people are the protagonists: “We are in late nineteenth-century India. Under pressure from the British colonizer, many Hindus practice their religion in great secrecy. Among them are the high priest Nilakantha and his daughter, Lakmé, who – as fate would have it – falls in love with the British officer.  Nilakantha, sensing treachery, sets a trap: Lakmé must sing a ‘bell song’ in a market square until Gérald approaches; he is to be stabbed. The wounded soldier is cared for by Lakmé and thus survives, yet he answers the call of duty: he promises to rejoin his regiment and leaves his desolate lover behind. Lakmé cannot live with the shame and commits suicide […].”[3]



Focusing on the activities of the plants in the story rather than on the human actions, the scenery shifts from the margins to the center. Already in the libretto, written by Edmond Gondinet and Ph. Gille, the world of plants sometimes, and not illogical in a story set in the rainforest, prevails. While the jungle is an evocation of the East, the exotic and the mysterious, it is also a fellow performer and antagonist. The set description for the first act immediately creates a dynamic environment: “A very shady garden where all the flowers of India grow and mingle.”[4] Some descriptions also refer to a vivid nature. After Lakmé takes off her jewels, she sings: “Come, Mallika, the flowering lianas already cast their shadow on the sacred stream which flows, calm and dark, awakened by the song of rowdy birds.”[5]

The forest is more than a collection of plants. It is an intertwining of various species and specimens, including trees, lianas, ferns and flowers. Some are named explicitly: white jasmines and roses (“où le blanc jasmin à la rose s’assemble” – “where the white jasmine blends with the rose”[6]), blue lotuses, double white calyx thorns (Datura stramonium), pink acacias, yellow tulips. Dubosq’s paintings of plants are realistic and recognizable. The lush oriental setting is partly idyllic and paradisiacal. The vegetal splendor is a dreamy joy. Flowers spread lascivious fragrances and forests sing or, on the contrary, remain mute.[7] Trees create shade, bushes provide hide-outs and the density of the forest offers shelter and protection. At the same time, the beauty is dangerous, even fatal. To take her own life, Lakmé chews on a leaf of the poisonous Datura stramonium. Her death marks the end of the opera’s story.

In the installation Forêt océanique, the impressive decor no longer creates an exclusive setting for human events. (As the set is included in the Flemish Heritage List, it cannot be used for an opera or theatrical performance any longer.) The forest still shows itself, but in the narrative of Forêt océanique it shakes off its painted leaves: ‘exhibited’ becomes ‘exposed’ (“exposées”), exposed to other elements within a dynamic ecosystem. In La vie des plantes. Une métaphysique du mélange (2016), philosopher Emanuele Coccia writes about plants: “They are, and cannot be other than, constantly exposed to the world around them. Plant life is life as complete exposure, in absolute continuity and total communion with the environment.”[8] In his reflection on the world, Coccia gives a key role to plants: they shape the world. It is the plants that give life to other living organisms. During photosynthesis, oxygen is produced. Breathing thus implies being immersed in an atmosphere that penetrates the body with equal intensity (reciprocal mixing). It is part of the essence of the world, an essence Coccia describes as cosmic fluidity. La vie des plantes can be summarized as follows: “In Coccia’s book, the bottom line is that universal mixing is the best way to imagine the world: it is not a collection of juxtaposed objects, nor a fusion in which the autonomy of the individual elements is abolished, but a shared place of constant and reciprocal immersion. In other words, our world has no partitions: everything affects everything.”[9] Through a thought experiment, Coccia compares this fluid world to an immense atmospheric sea.


Giant tentacles

Forêt océanique integrates moving images and light in a well-thought-out installation of the set components. Thus, the landscape becomes a cave-like wilderness in which octopuses swim. Their unexpected presence can be a non-committal game. Or does it become a scene in another story? It might be the story of a ‘terrapolis’, as described by Donna Haraway, biologist, philosopher and historian of science, in Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016): “Terrapolis makes room for ‘unexpected companions’ and for ‘multispecies storytelling’.”[10] With ‘oddkin’, Haraway defends the principle of strange collaborations and combinations.[11]

These are new forms of human and non-human entanglements with chtonic beings: “Chthonic ones are beings of the earth, both ancient and from today. I imagine chthonic ones as replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whiptails, spider legs, and very unruly hair. Chthonic ones romp in multi-critter humus but have no truck with sky-gazing Homo. Chthonic ones are monsters in the best sense; they demonstrate and perform the material meaningfulness of earth processes and critters. […] they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”[12] Like spiders and corals, octopuses are chtonic creatures. With their tentacles, they are a metaphor for the tentacular thinking that Haraway herself practices.

Modern thinking of being able to control nature has been replaced by a vision in which humankind is only a small part of a complex biotope. The focus on non-human entities is steadily growing. Those creatures have always been there, but come into the spotlight. Science philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith concludes his book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016) with the observation: “When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all.”[13]



The squirming of the octopuses mirrors the complexity of the exotic forest. The reflection of colors, shapes and the flow of movements create an immersive environment in which things are constantly changing: an unstable and lively world. The strange entanglement is a dreamlike image of a paradise that just is, and even literally unfolds, in the here and now. In 2020 – the year of the theater’s 100th anniversary – the seating area was converted into a large ballroom. Until 1968, it was possible to transform the ground floor into a ballroom by raising the entire floor to the same height as the front stage with aid of an ingenious lift system. The floor will remain raised for a while (until the construction is demolished after the summer). Sarah Westphal takes advantage of this intervention. In Forêt océanique, the playing field extends far into the dark hall. Whether the spectator keeps distance (Dubosq’s set is made to be seen from a great distance) or approaches the new hybrid landscape, he or she is willingly or unwillingly included in this moving world. The visitor becomes one of the many players. The new perspective is one without any barriers: paradise lies at our feet, fragile but full of energy. The unusual scenography creates an openness to new scenarios. They place Dubosq’s set in a new light. Forêt océanique quotes Forêt asiatique but also rewrites the scenario. Which stories we tell in order to tell other stories, is of importance. As Haraway writes: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”[14] But it is also a demand for new frames of thought, which a philosopher (and anthropologist-sociologist) like Bruno Latour expects to create stages “to multiply the characters that will play parts in the plots to come”.[15]


“[…] we need another frame to situate all the phenomena critical for us – that is, we humans and all the other life forms!”[16]


“As soon as we wish to represent what it could mean for organisms to be entangled with one another, we are at a loss. So today, much as in other earth-shaking periods, we need aesthetics, defined as what renders one sensitive to the existence of other ways of life.”[17]


Lut Pil


1 Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, New York, 2016: 200.
2 Bruno Forment, ‘Zwanenzang van een illusie. De historische decors van de Kortrijkse Schouwburg’, in STEPP, 1, 3, 2012: 28.
3 Bruno Forment, Zwanenzang van een illusie. De historische toneeldecors van de Schouwburg Kortrijk, (Handelingen van de Koninklijke Geschied- en Oudheidkundige Kring van Kortrijk, 80), Kortrijk, 2015: 138.
4 Edmond Gondinet, Ph. Gille (text) and Léo Delibes (music), Lakmé. Opéra en trois actes, Paris, 1921 (?): 1: “Un jardin très ombragé où croissent et s’entremêlent toutes les fleurs de l’Inde.”
5 Gondinet, Gille and Delibes, 1921 (?): 5: “Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs jettent déjà leur ombre sur le ruisseau sacré qui coule, calme et sombre, éveillé par le chant des oiseaux tapageurs.”
6 Gondinet, Gille and Delibes, 1921 (?): 5.
7 Gondinet, Gille and Delibes, 1921 (?): 21, 46: “Les bois ont des chansons nouvelles”, “Le grand bois silencieux”.
8 Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, Medford, MA, 2019: 5.
10 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham-London, 2016: 10-11.
11 Haraway, 2016: 4.
12 Haraway, 2016: 2.
13 Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, New York, 2016.
14 Haraway, 2016: 12.
15 Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, ‘Seven Objections Against Landing on Earth’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds.), Critical Zones, The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, 2020: 5.
16 Latour and Weibel, 2020: 2-3.
17 Latour and Weibel, 2020: 8.