National Museum of Ethnology, Japan "TRAJECTORIA"

Call for Articles
2023 Vol.4

The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald - Letter to / from a barkbeetle

Nina Willimann Faculty of Transdisciplinary Studies, Zurich University of the Arts
Mayumi Arai Faculty of Fine Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts
(Published March 31, 2023)


In this article, Willimann/Arai would like to present a collage work consisting of the script of their lecture performance/video voice-over and screenshots, as well as several documentation photos of the workshop/lecture performance. The still images are taken every 20 seconds from the film work The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (Willimann/Arai 2021). This video captured a close shot of a situation in Sihlwald, Zurich, Switzerland in which a person was rubbing on the surface of a fallen spruce tree trunk which was eaten by a bark beetle, with paper and a pencil. At the end of the video, the person takes out the paper and shows a trace of the bark beetle. On the auditive level, the audience can hear the voice-over by Nina Willimann and Mayumi Arai reading the script of a lecture performance which is shown as a text work in this article. The script comprises a text collage created with writings by Nina Willimann and Mayumi Arai. The text in right-aligned format was originally written by Nina Willimann and the left-aligned text was written by Mayumi Arai. After they wrote each text separately, they created a text course and edited it together. They used alignment differentiation to show the two different contents of the texts instead of using their name on top of each text to make their identity less significant.
Willimann/Arai suggest that showing the overall process of this project through visual images, especially the frottage work, allows them to include the bark beetles’ voices as non-human actors and create a polyphonic narration.
Key Words more-than-human history: bark beetle, climate change, anthropocene, frottage, hospitality



Nina Willimann and Mayumi Arai met through a semester residency program in Hong Kong in 2015. Since then, they have been working together regularly under the name Willimann/Arai. Their work involves questioning modern and colonial dichotomous narratives, such as West/East, Self/Other, and Nature/Culture. In collaboration with visitors, local communities, and experts, they create arrangements and narratives of the ‘in-between’ in context-specific and research-based working processes.


Since 2015 Willimann/Arai has been developing four main research-based ‘umbrella’-projects which are interconnected. These ‘umbrella’-projects are How to disappear (completely), Swiss Gymnastics, The gif exercise, and Avatar tours.


In the framework of the long-term project The gift exercise, they investigate hospitality, and more particularly, the reversibility of the roles between the host and guest, as well as the power relations inscribed in those roles (cf. The gift exercise:, The gift exercise / Invitation 1: Romainmôtier:, The gift exercise / Invitation 2:, The gift exercise / Invitation 3: Taipei:, The gift exercise / Invitation 4: Taiwan:, The gift exercise / Invitation 5: Xintiandi, Shanghai:, The gift exercise / Invitation 7: Swiss National Park: Willimann/Arai is interested in the relations between guests and hosts, both human and non-human, and also in questioning those categories to unravel the entanglements of generation and extinction that occur in the intertwining of those relations.


In 2017, Willimann/Arai was invited to an artist-in-residency program in Taiwan, called Tree Tree Tree Person - Taroko Arts Residency Project (森人−太魯閣藝駐計劃) and have started to work together with the Taiwanese indigenous community Truku (or Taroko) based in Taroko National Park. Since then, Willimann/Arai has stayed there annually to continue their research until 2020. During this process, they have been questioning the concept of ‘Nature’ and nature protection embodied by the National Park.


The gift exercise/Invitation 6: Sihlwald, which they share in this article, is the continuation of reflections which they had developed during their work in Taiwan. In this project, they juxtapose the binaries “human/culture - ‘nature’” and “guest - host”, setting the bark beetle as the main protagonist.


In Sihlwald, a protected forest today and a former plantation forest in Canton Zurich, Switzerland, many fragile trees have been significantly damaged by these insects, similar to many other ancient monoculture forests. Moreover, as the population of bark beetles has rapidly increased in the last few years because of climate change and temperature rise, they have gained the power to invade healthy trees and cause their destruction.


Because of their impact on the lumber industry and the economic environment, bark beetles are considered pests. However, when Willimann/Arai interviewed the park rangers in Shilwald about the subject, they discovered that they were rather welcoming the bark beetles since they considered them as ‘Architects of Change’. The park ranger explained that because bark beetles feed mainly on spruce trees, which were planted as cheap and fast-growing lumber in the last centuries, they help the ‘primal’ trees grow back and thus help recreate urnatur (meaning ‘original nature’ in German).


This project aims to investigate the guest-host relationship through the concept of ‘Nature protection’. In order to create speculative entanglements, Willimann/Arai used two different methods. First, a text collage which consists of a personal letter addressed to the bark beetle and a narration of the history of printmaking. Second, rubbings/frottages as an act of ‘reading’ the traces created by bark beetles as ‘messages’.


The most common type of bark beetle in this region is called the European spruce bark beetle, called Ips typographus in Latin, named after the typographer, since his seizure marks are visually reminiscent of ancient book prints. All bark beetle traces have a common pattern and remind us of human sign systems and characters. If we consider the traces of bark beetles as writing, the following questions arise: How these signs can be read? What do bark beetles write about? To whom are they speaking?


While conducting the frottage of those traces, the act of reading a letter overlaps with the act of writing, and simultaneously, refers to the reversibility of the roles between the host and guest.


Willimann/Arai developed this project as part of a broader collective research project entitled School of Forest, which was coordinated by the Chilean historian/curator, Jose Cáceres Mardones, the Mapuche artist, Paula Baeza Pailamilla and the Italian curator, Domenico Ermanno Roberti. Based on collective fieldwork in and about Sihlwald, the artists investigated different topics using different methodologies, while all the participants discussed and exchanged their perspectives, perceptions, and research about, within, and with the forest. In October 2021, as a conclusion to the project, an exhibition in the art space la cápsula in Zurich and a performative walk in Sihlwald were held1). In this frame, Willimann/Arai exhibited their video work in the art space, organised a frottage workshop with the participants in the forest and performed a lecture of the collaged text, which was also the voice-over part of their video work2).

Figure 1 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 2 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 3 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 4 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 5 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 6 Photo documentation of a lecture-performance The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 7 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Figure 8 Photo documentation of a workshop The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (October 17, 2021, photo by Jana Figliuolo)
Film 1 The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald (Willimann/Arai 2021)


We would like to acknowledge the support provided by the School of the Forest (Swizerland), the I LOVE YOU Project 2021 (Japan) and the Pola Art Foundation (Japan), which funded the creation of the images and text shown in this article.


The exhibition is called ‘A Forest of Many Worlds’ which took place from 9 - 30 October 2021, in the art space la_cápsula in the city of Zurich, Switzerland. All participating artists showed their work on the site. A performative walk, FROM THE IN-BETWEEN, was organised in the frame of this exhibition in Sihlwald, Swizerland on October 17, 2021. Three artists, including Willimann/Arai, showcased their performances/workshops.
Both the workshop and the lecture performance were presented at Sihlwald, Zurich, Switzerland on October 17, 2021.


The gift exercise / Invitation 6: Sihlwald. Zurich, 15:02. (Retrieved December 12, 2022)


Willimann/Arai (Retrieved December 12, 2022)


Willimann/Arai (Nina Willimann & Mayumi Arai)