The second chapter of the Shanghai Project continues on the “Envision 2116” theme, with an exhibition entitled “Seeds of Time”.
From 22 April to 30 July 2017, Shanghai Project Chapter 2 runs at Shanghai Himalayas Museum, Envision Pavilion and Zendai Zhujiajiao Art Museum.
The Shanghai Project is an unclassifiable cultural enterprise. Even its name is unsettled, inexplicably translated from the Chinese, ‘Shanghai Seed’ (种子). Where a project suggests something planned out, seeds are potential for impetuous development. The Chinese title captures a different idea as well as resonating with the ecological imperatives asserted by the organisers, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yongwoo Lee. ‘Root researchers’ have been charged to explore present impasses, such as human migrations, extinctions, extraordinary weather events and environmental vulnerability.
In common with activities, such as the New Museum’s Ideas City and Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen), the Shanghai Project is discursive, self-confessedly international and interdisciplinary, despairing of short sighted urban development and the denial of the Anthropocene, the age of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
The intentions are earnest but for a Project testing new paradigms of green urbanism the Himalayas Art Museum is an imperfect venue, located above a designer mall. Although the district is called Green City, it is an area favoured by expats, adjacent to the Lujiazui financial centre. It is far removed from both downtown Shanghai’s urban equilibrium and the larger Shanghai municipalities’ sprawling community conurbations. In Shanghai, reliance on bicycles, obsession with recouping the value of anything that can be recycled, and the profusion of networked small scale private enterprise under a government for whom “Development is meaningful only when it is inclusive and sustainable,” as Xi Jingping stated in his speech to the UN general assembly, looks like a practical model worth thinking about.
There is a pervading spirit of loftiness, more than simple ambition, to this show, exemplified by curator Yongwoo Lee, when in the foreword of the handsome exhibition catalogue he makes “straightforward suggestions for practically impacting the environmental calamities”, including perhaps with irony: “Make sure your dishwasher is full when you turn it on. Make sure your automotive air conditioners are up to date.”
A paper chase
There is a lot going on in the Shanghai Project behind the scenes but for the general public, “Seeds of Time” looks much the same as some other international biennial exhibition. The visitor experiences research outcomes born of collaboration between artists and other academics in the circuit of universities and museums.
Access to the research work of the Project is everywhere in the exhibition from Reset Modernity! Shanghai Perspective (2017), philosopher Bruno Latour’s shelves of books, and occasional handwritten dictums, described as “accumulated references about the question of Modernity in China and Europe” to Dai Zhikang, Founder of Shanghai’s Zendai group, and Lin Shumin’s Information Field (2017), a mysterious circle of stone seats coupled with interactive bio-diagnostic apparatus.
In this work a central projection of iridescent blobs and ripples responds to the diagnostic information, and “will help audiences detect, prevent, and recuperate both physically and spiritually”. Details of all works are provided in massive quantities of paper, piled up encouraging each visitor to gather a thick dossier of the exhibits, a footprint of the exhibition to take home. These sheets explain the works and provide biographical information about the people involved. QR codes also lead to fulsome audio files that flesh out the ideas.
Documents and poems
Described as a Chapter, this is the second exhibition continuing the “Envision 2116” theme. At its most simple “Envision” is an edict to imagine 100 years into the future starting from our “time of deep ecological mutation”. The title “Seeds of Time” is taken from Sandy McLeod’s 2013 documentary, which is on show in the exhibition. The film focuses on the work of food security evangelist Cary Fowler and a seed repository in Svalbard, Norway. The film enlightens on how the political economy of food production has led to a narrowing of crop species, shoring up economies of scale and distribution logistics but creating vulnerabilities in bio diversity.
Elsewhere the information can be poetic. Yoko Ono is an ideal artist for this context. She offers an iteration of her celebrated and often replicated Wish Tree (c. 1981-present). In a simple procedure, a tree native to the exhibition location is planted for people to hang their personal wishes on its branches – growth and future possibilities are elegantly combined. Another potent work by Ono takes the form of a song that is heard within a circular cubicle with a gentle yellow sound-absorbing interior. Ono sings:
We are all water in this vast, vast ocean, someday we will evaporate together.
Artists such as Ono with well-established reputations are empowered to be relaxed in their response in the academic milieu. Gustav Metzger’s (1926–2017) Extremes Touch: Dancing Tubes, Mica Cube, Drop on Hot Plate, Untitled (1968/2017) is most oblique and most affecting, whereas Otobong Nkanga’s Landverstation (2016) is earnest. Nkanga’s project references the “lasting impression” left by conversations that took place over three tables of diverse “locally sourced materials” in September and November 2016.
Fragility, impulse, as well as cause and effect are expressed in Metzger suite of situations. In one work, for example, two tubes hang limp over a large tray of water. Sporadically they are brought into violent twitching animation by compressed air. The aggressive effect barely disturbs the water’s surface. Without resorting to specific examples, the work tells of scale and the subtle and unsettling damage caused by imperceptible interferences.
Metzger’s directness is refreshing. Some works, such as Miriam Simun’s Agalinis Dreams (2014-17), are not so concise. In this work the audience is invited to sample a scent by donning the wearable sculpture entitled Adoro – adapted spectacles that dangle an essence in-front of your nose. You can wear these as you look at a suite of monoprints entitled Traces of Traces Erased.
Both elements are concerned with a protected plant species from New York State. To grasp the point demands recourse to printed explanations claiming that the work is “an ode to the continued tenuous existence of the Agalinisacuta”. The allusion of a fragile ecosystem is at odds with the pungency of the distilled aroma and the contraption required to experience it.
A feeling of lumbering sincerity is perhaps a symptom of artists working in teams. Some of these ensembles feel overcharged with possibilities, such as former neuroscientists Adrian Hon and Chen Xi. Hon provides short speculative texts about futures at the threshold of truth and sci-fi, while Beijing-based Chen Xi pairs these with ambiguous paintings and digital animations.
Route to the Future (2017) by a group comprising Qiu Anxiong, Li Qian and Yang Lei includes live film and digital animation of Shanghai as a city flooded by rising sea levels, alongside a fictional guide book to the aquatic Shanghai of 2116 by Ken Liu. There is a lot going on in the work but beyond the initial proposal it seems like excess bulk. The extensive notes, suggesting that the work is to be mounted on the windows of buses in the public transportation system, contribute little but further intricacy.
In his introduction to the show Hans Ulrich Obrist offers an intricate play of references by quoting Gustav Metzger misquoting poet WH Auden, “We must become idealists or die.” The line is adapted from Auden’s prescient poem, September 1, 1939, composed in response to the start of the Second World War:
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
His lines remain resonant in the contemporary era. But it is a sombre mantra for renewal, especially as Auden, feeling the sentiment was dishonest, was to later revise the line to “We must love one another and die.”
On 20 May 2017 the Svalbard seed vault, featured in the Seeds of Time film, designed to be shielded from global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply forever, was breached by melting permafrost. On this occasion the seeds were unharmed but the event demonstrates the volatility of the planet, and the perils that need to be addressed.
Looking forward to future Chapters of the Shanghai Project, which are as yet unconfirmed, it would be good to see it fulfill its promise to get out of the laboratory and into the places in Shanghai where people live, study, play and work, to learn from experience.
- “Turtle, Lion and Bear”: Chinese artist He Xiangyu at Qiao Space, Shanghai – May 2017 – the major exhibition of He Xiangyu’s work features traditional paintings and drawings as well as an immersive environment with multiple screen projections
- “The New Normal”: examining art’s place in China and the world today at UCCA, Beijing – May 2017 – “The New Normal” at UCCA tackles a range of global and topical issues
- “Is Film Over?”: American artist Jennifer West at Yuz Museum, Shanghai – May 2017 – American artist Jennifer West’s first exhibition in China features projections that evoke a formative era of experimental film production
- “After Us”: Avatars in art at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai – May 2017 – “After us” asks what we can learn from Avatars
- Art in the Digital Era: MoMA PS1 and K11 Art Foundation (KAF) co-present “.com/.cn” in Hong Kong – April 2017 – “.com/.cn” showcases artistic practices in China and the West that respond to, or are affected by, our digital ecosystem
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