Inside artist Michael Wang’s installations, each plant species is revived and elevated to the status of art. His recent show, Extinct in New York, included an installation of greenhouses at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center at Governors Island in New York City. The exhibition, which was the result of a collaboration between the Swiss Institute and LMCC, displayed four greenhouses preserving 46 species of plants, lichen, algae etc. which once existed in New York. While the exhibition has ended, the work has been kept alive and integrated into permanent collections of various urban gardens across New York. STIR in conversation with the artist.
Sukanya Garg (SG): How did you begin working on this project? What served as the motivation?
Michael Wang (MW): The work Extinct in New York grew out of a related project called Extinct in the Wild. For this project, I worked with species that have vanished from their natural environments globally. These species persist only in cultivation or captivity. They have been uprooted from the environments in which they evolved to exist only within circuits of human culture (horticulture, scientific research, even the pet trade). I worked with several arts institutions to bring these species into gallery spaces —extending the networks of care in which these species continue to exist. I was interested in the root of curation in the Latin “cura” meaning “care”. The curator becomes now a caretaker of living things, even the steward of a species.
Extinct in New York took some of the ideas from this project and focused on a particular site: New York City. I was interested in the condensed impacts of human actions on other species unique to urban environments. In a way, the city becomes a microcosm of ecological catastrophe. There have been dramatic losses of biodiversity within the city of New York. These ecosystem disruptions coincide with New York's colonial, industrial, and capitalist history.
SG: While talking about the show, you said, “I am bringing horticulture into the space of high culture”. How do you think the latter can play a role in ecological conservation and change in this age of Anthropocene?
MW: My practice is always looking outside the traditional bounds of art to bring in new media, new tools, and new ways of thinking. I am equally interested in achieving aesthetic effects outside of the traditional institutions of high art. Horticulture (and other disciplines concerned with non-human species) are ever more relevant fields, as the close connections and entanglements between our species and other species are shown to have ever higher stakes. Or, at least, these relationships are becoming more felt and present in popular and mass culture. Of course these connections have always been there, but the urgency of climate change, as a key example, reveals the pertinent interconnections between, for instance, vegetal processes (photosynthesis), global carbon cycles, fossil fuels, and the extractive practices of some humans.
SG: From an artist’s standpoint, what does the process of working on a project of this nature entail?
MW: For me, as an artist, the aim is always to create new kinds of understanding, new visibilities, and new ways of experiencing and acting within the world. I want to extend the realm within which I and others can operate as artists. I want the often invisible systems in which we are all embedded in a networked, contemporary world, to become more clear and more felt. The process begins by finding a place where I can insert myself into these systems, and finding a way to manipulate the components of a system or systems in ways that are both real and tangible but also have a representational pull. Concretely, I had to acquaint myself with other forms of knowledge (botany, history) and equip myself with new tools (the tools of horticulture and conservation, for example) to create Extinct in New York.
SG: While the project has culminated in an exhibition, a conceptual project as this inevitably ties in with the expectation towards future practical application. Since you mention that you would like to bring these species to urban gardens, how do you envision that ? Is there a plan of action?
MW: The exhibition itself was only one phase of the work. It began a year ago as I collected seeds and seedlings, and began the process of nurturing these species. The exhibition brought these living organisms temporarily into a space of display—a space that highlighted the artificial conditions required to bring these species back to an ecologically changed New York. At the close of the exhibition, the plants found new homes in Manhattan (under the care of the Battery Conservancy) and on Governors Island. They have returned to the spaces they once called home, but remain here now only under the attentive care of gardeners.
SG: What other projects are you working on?
MW: Alongside producing new iterations from existing series of works—including the re-creation of a Carboniferous period forest—I am conducting research into New York City's sources of energy. Specifically, I am looking at the source of New York's electricity in the shale gas from the Marcellus formation. While New York state bans fracking, the city imports fracked gas across state lines—in particular from Pennsylvania. These geological connections power everyday life (charging a phone, using a laptop, turning on the lights), but are largely unseen.