Cary Fowler is the subject of Seeds of Time (2013), a documentary film directed by SANDY MCLEOD. Courtesy the Shanghai Project.

Seeds of Time

Shanghai Himalayas Museum

Two resounding messages were loud and clear in “Chapter 2” of the Shanghai Project at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum: the first was that planet Earth is a terrible mess and we are facing horrific environmental consequences unless we do something soon and fast. The second message was equally apparent: this isn’t really an art exhibition per se, but more an experimental, multidisciplinary think tank cooked up by co-curators Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, and Yongwoo Lee, the director of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum. For the Shanghai Project, the pair has blurred the line between curator and activist.

The Shanghai Project Chapter 2 elaborated on some of the central ecological themes about survival and sustainability from its first iteration, “Envision 2116,” that focused on climate change and its effects a century later. This year’s chapter was subtitled “Seeds of Time,” after the documentary film featuring Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who spearheaded the Svalbard Global Seed Vault located in the far-flung Arctic region of Norway, which aims to conserve and secure the world’s food supply by collecting more than 880,000 seed samples from 233 countries and storing them in a heavily reinforced tunnel inside a frozen mountain. The film could be read as either an ode to a mind-boggling scientific achievement, or as one of the more apocalyptic propositions in the Shanghai Project’s presentation.

GUSTAV METZGER, “Extremes Touch: Dancing Tubes, Mica Cube, Drop on Hotplate, Untitled,” 1968/2017, mixed materials, dimensions variable. Courtesy the Shanghai Project.

The 61 individuals and groups participating in the Project and its interdisciplinary exhibition are referred to as “Researchers.” Among the group was a consortium of international artists, a good many of which are from China. There was the young conceptual artist aaajiao, veterans Cai Guo-Qiang and Qiu Zhijie, and “Root Researcher” Qiu Anxiong, whose team comprised of members from various fields beyond art. Hans-Ulrich Obrist described the overall endeavor as producing a “new reality, new alliances in the 21st century, and bridging disciplines.” Special mention was made by Obrist in his opening keynote address of Gustav Metzger (1926–2017), a pioneering environmental and political activist and artist who in 1958 was championing anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist movements and was involved in the early Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, serving a short stint of jail time for advocating mass civil disobedience. Sadly, Metzger passed away a month before the Shanghai Project launched its second chapter, but his radical, experimental work felt like the presiding spirit over the entire exhibition.

On view were works conceived in 1968 from Metzger’s series “Extremes Touch: Dancing Tubes, Mica Cube, Drop on Hotplate, Untitled.” Elemental materials are at the core of Metzger’s experimental works; here, he uses compressed air to make plastic tubes suspended over a long trough of water “dance,” while silvery slivers of mica flakes that swirl within a clear plexiglass box mounted on the wall reflect light. Metzger explored empirical knowledge and phenomena based on experimentation and observation rather than purely theoretical laws of nature, but the artist was just as concerned about chaos, randomness and nature’s irregularities that straddle order and disorder. His first manifesto Auto-Destructive Art (1959) was a call for social and political action against what he believed to be the driving forces leading to global annihilation.

Another successful presentation in the show was aaajiao’s Body Shadow (2015), for which the artist developed an algorithm to scan the human body for 3D imaging and track the activity in meridian pathways, tapping into the belief in traditional Chinese medicine that qi flows within the human body. Aaajiao combined his algorithm with the art of tattooing, and presented Body Shadow as a video-projected diptych, mapping an internal micro-universe directly onto his own body in an attempt to portray the energy flowing in his own meridian system.

This smartly complemented Information Field (2017), conceived and created by Dai Zhikang, the well-known entrepreneur and founder of Shanghai’s Zendai Group, along with his collaborator Lin Shumin. The artwork is meant to respond to the electrical currents within a visitor’s body when he sits in designated areas within the multimedia installation. Information Field centers on the same concepts that are in aaajiao’s presentation, and explores the relationship between the universe and man, as well as the exacerbation of human health problems due to what are expected to be poor ecological conditions in the next 100 years. However, on a positive note, the collaborators assert that though humans appear to exist independently, we are actually in constant interaction with one another.

Installation view of AAAJIAO’s Body Shadow (2015) at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, 2017. Courtesy the Shanghai Project.

Installation view of AAAJIAO’s Body Shadow (2015) at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, 2017. Courtesy the Shanghai Project.

Installation view of AAAJIAO’s Body Shadow (2015) at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, 2017. Courtesy the Shanghai Project.

DAI ZHIKANG and LIN SHUMIN, Information Field, 2017, dimensions variable. Courtesy the Shanghai Project.

That is the point where Body Shadow departs from Information Field. Aaajiao asserts that ever-changing energy channels constitute our individuality. Collaborating with a traditional Chinese medicine doctor and a tattoo artist, aaajiao advances a holistic philosophy and approach to Chinese medical practices. The understanding and treatment of illness caused by deteriorating environmental conditions is indisputably part of today’s reality. To heal ourselves, as the artist states, we must first comprehend the many systems of our bodies, and not just those found in Western medicine.

In keeping with the idea that we need to heal ourselves in tandem with healing “Spaceship Earth,” as the architect and evolutionary strategist R. Buckminster Fuller coined it—though the visionary was conspicuously absent from “Seeds of Time”— Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, from an ongoing series she began as early as 1981, was placed on the third floor’s entry rotunda. However, it appeared like a potted plant sadly deprived of water. A scant number of handwritten wishes hung from its branches among brittle leaves. Perhaps, in 2017, human wishes are also on the endangered species list.

“Seeds of Time” is on view at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum until July 30, 2017. 

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