by Dilpreet BhullarOct 02, 2022
Artist Michael Wang, who describes his practice as using systems that operate on a global scale, with examples such as global warming, multispecies and ecosystem decline, and resource allocation as the material for his artistic practice, presents his exhibition titled Lake Tai at Prada Rong Zhai. At the centre of this art exhibition is the eponymous Lake Tai, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China with 90 islands, serving as a prime example and metaphor for the ecological impact of human industrial activity. Having been a spiritual centre for Chinese landscape traditions and home to several historic gardens, the solo exhibition investigates and pays homage to the lake’s cultural history and exports.
When asked about the mytho-philosophical reading of Lake Tai, the New York-based visual artist tells STIR, “Lake Tai, in classical art and poetry, is a site of picturesque beauty. But it became, around the turn of the millennium, a symbol of environmental degradation. And more recently, it is being held up as a symbol of successful environmental remediation. Its story captures many sides of the aestheticisation of the natural world, and of the relationship between humans and natural worlds. I am drawn to these highly ambivalent sites, and my work seeks to make this multivalent relationship between the human and the natural more felt, or more visible.”
Due to lack of sustained efforts to curb environmental toxicity as a result of industrial pollution in the 20th century, the late 90s saw the exponential growth of algae (known as an algae bloom) and the spread of toxic cyanobacteria in the lake, later declared as a ‘natural disaster’ by the government of China, despite its man-made origins. The year 2014 witnessed a week-long shutdown of water supply for a population of two million people in Wuxi city, due to the spreading cyanobacteria. The year 2022, itself, saw the transfer of water from the Yangtze River to the lake, as a response to its declining water levels, caused by low precipitation in monsoon and exceeding heat. As an originator of a number of rivers, the health of Lake Tai affects livelihoods, industrial production, transportation and ecological protection, and has become a case study in the seeming inevitability of ecological collapse with an unchanging global order. Through Wang’s work, the site invites the possibility of technological intervention, or to borrow Wang’s own term ‘remediation,’ where he describes the lake as a “hybrid natural and technological body, a kind of liquid cyborg.”
Speaking of the material occupation within this exhibition, the American artist says, “Each series of works in the show comes out of a line of material research—all linked to the Taihu region, and extending to Shanghai. Many of the works make use of organic waste materials as a medium—the toxic algae that blooms on the lake each summer (reaching a peak in the 1990s and 2000s), the discarded shells of hairy crab (the crab is harvested each autumn in the tens of thousands), and the invasive plant species that are being removed from the lake and its environs (specifically cordgrass and Canada goldenrod). Another series makes use of recycled products such as concrete and salvaged rebar sourced from demolition sites in Shanghai. Other materials have deep roots in the region. I use Yixing clay (a local clay) and even made a small series of works in a brown nephrite—the type of jade used by the ancient Liangzhu people who settled around Lake Tai 5000 years ago.”
The works presented as part of the exhibition are sculptural in form and quality, using materials drawn from the Lake Tai region, after conducting extensive research into the organic and algae wastes that are reconstituted into artistic material. Employing upcycled design, the exhibition draws from organic wastes, which is evident in the collaborative effort around developing bioplastics, with students from Tongji University in Shanghai. Prominently, the exhibition features reproductions in Yixing clay (a locally originating type of clay) of petrochemical waste found disposed next to the living lake, including rubber tyres, plastic waste, soda cans, even a slipper. The transformation occurs upon the casting of these objects as artefacts, a gesture towards Wang’s larger narrative around the petrochemical age, which ensures that no item ever produced in the era is ever lost, simply due to its slow degradation.
Speaking of these works, Wang tells STIR, “These works are based on litter found at the edge of Lake Tai. Most of these objects are made from petrochemical plastics and rubbers which take a very long time to degrade. I see these objects forming a kind of archaeological layer at the lake (and globally), that will become a marker of the petrochemical age.”
Constructed from the waste material drawn from Lake Tai, Wang presents large-scale imitation Taihu stones (also known as Scholar’s rock) as sculptures. The stones are traditionally limestone-like naturally occurring minerals denoted by corrosion that occurs as an impact of water and creates perforations and deformations. These stones, found to have aesthetic and philosophical value, are revered almost as art objects and used for decorating gardens, dating back to the Tang Dynasty.
Blurring the difference between the natural and the artificial, the exhibition includes outdoor installations like that of Shanghai Swamp, which is constructed out of corrugated steel, water, soil, sod and wetland plants—a structure that seeks sustenance. The work questions the historicity of seemingly naturally occurring phenomena and environments and particularly explores Shanghai’s past as a swamp, previous to its emergence as a city, and its present sinking status owing to various factors. Between governmental and technological intervention, the future of the city remains uncertain.