Synthetic Elements and the Aesthesis of the Anthropocene

Amanda Boetzkes and Isabel Brandt

ecoArt China brings us straight into the aesthetic and ecological knot that defines the visuality of the Anthropocene. Industrial processes have conditioned the planet to such an extent that the very cornerstones of nature—the five phases of water, wood, fire, earth, and metal—can no longer be said to be elemental. Rather, synthetic materials, toxic substances, and human pollutions have displaced them. To say that the elements have been displaced, however, is to suggest something of the aesthetic paradigm at play in contemporary Chinese art. The world may not at first appear to be so changed; the Anthropocene is not so readily identifiable. This is why scientists debate its primary and secondary marker horizons through the analysis of sediments in the geological stratosphere. Yet, as the artists of ecoArt China show us through their works, while our planetary home has transformed beyond recognition, the appearances of the Anthropocene can be deceiving. Natural beauty has been unsettled and we cannot but look at it differently.

But look we must; ecoArt China leads us to the realization that synthetic elements travel through natural environments aesthetically and not just geologically. The artworks train our eyes to see this tense oscillation between natural life and industrial intervention. By reflecting on this aesthetic movement—the aesthesis of the Anthropocene—we see a changed condition in which water has been poisoned, wood is carbon fuel, fire burns through resources making the air heavy with contamination, mountains of waste have become a landscape, while metal mining is among the most toxic and exploitative resource industries. The Anthropocene is an invasive topology that dislocates nature. While it is undoubtedly the economy of resource extraction that drives the appetite for the elements, the aesthesis of the Anthropocene suggests that the economy moves autonomously, tearing through the earth along vectors of geochemical reaction. As the elements become synthetic, they show that the very terms of the resource industry have overtaken the resources themselves. Their flows and textures have been simulated and, with this change, our access to life itself has vanished. We are left unanchored in a world of appearances, our origin in the elements seemingly forgotten.

Yet it is this quest for an origin in the elements that motivates Michael Cherney’s play on the famous Song dynasty scroll Ten Thousand Li up the Yangtze River. Following the path charted by its forty-two views, Cherney recreates the scroll by photographing contemporary views of the Yangtze. Titled Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River, Cherney’s project involved tracking the river to its source in the Min River in Sichuan Province, as charted by the older scroll. But he also discovered that the river has more far-reaching sources that could be tracked to the Tuotuo, Tongtian, and Jinsha Rivers in neighbouring Qinghai Province. The photographic project thus remaps the Yangtze by tracking it back to its bifurcation at the confluence between the two provinces, and then following the waterways that feed it.

But inasmuch as Cherney offers an alternative perspective of the Yangtze, challenging its mythic totality with the complexity of the waterways that lead into it, his version of the ten thousand li capture the ecological challenges that are bearing down on the ideal views of it that can be traced back to the Song dynasty. Where the latter scroll shows bucolic scenes where the river is cradled by mountains, lush forest, and fertile fields, Cherney shows how the river flows through industrial landscapes: riverbanks have become urban ports teeming with boats used to import and export goods. A grey haze permeates the scenes. Instead of the gentle silhouettes of mountains and plants, the horizon line has been eclipsed by the sharp horizontal lines of a multitude of freight liners. As Cherney captures the river coursing through rocky canyons, the overlap of water and rock calls to mind the toxic runoff from mining, factories, and refineries that have proliferated along the Yangtze. While the Song dynasty scroll revelled in the river’s natural abundance, today it abounds with silent pollution. Cherney’s series highlights the struggle between tradition and modernity, the mighty Yangtze binds China’s present to its past, yet it has permanently changed though the causes remain unseen. The river is no longer just a river; it has become a superhighway of industrial exchange not merely of good but of the element of water itself. The Yangtze is an industrial wasteway.

In a similar vein, Zheng Chongbin’s practice features the element of wood and the way its textures offer a fractal view of forests, trees, and the root systems that connect them like the ventricles, veins, and arteries of an earthly respiratory system. But Zheng’s installations show how wood has been drained of life. Drawing from the Light and Space movement on the American West Coast and traditional Chinese ink painting, Chongbin creates wall-sized prints of his paintings. But his landscapes disclose a sobering reality. Like an X-ray image, Chongbin’s landscapes show a negative image of the forest. Against the light that shines through the wall hanging, the bones of the forest—its tree trunks, spreading branches, and roots—show wood in its ruined form. Deforestation, whether due to clear-cutting or wild fires, is implicit in these scenes of denuded trees. The installation situates the viewer in a microcosm, standing at the very base of a towering treeline. But from here, the microscopic views of wood reveal a scorched terrain. Watermarks look like blights, clouds of smog that hang amid thinned trunks. Rather than showcasing the technical foundations of ink painting, Zheng Chongbin illuminates a forest shrouded by an invisible condition that has leached the forest of life and growth.

A global form of fire underlies the corruption of all five phases, for it is fire, and its deployment in the burning of fossil fuels, that drives the global economy into the global ecology of climate change. As the atmosphere heats up, it leads to desertification, rising sea levels, extinctions, and more. This unmitigated burn of carbon resources is the fulcrum of the aesthesis of the Anthropocene. Carbon burning now mediates how we see one another, both as living organisms and as fellow social beings. The air is now replete with chemical microparticles, industrial miasma, and flu viruses and yet we all draw breath and confront one another in this heated ethos. Wen Fang’s Maskbook demonstrates how any defence of our bodies against the carbon regime requires that we intercede on our most recognizable human features: our faces. The work is participatory, comprised of tens of thousands of portraits of people with masked faces from around the world. Participants were invited to create and photograph their own works or participate in Maskbook workshops across the globe. Each mask was crafted from recycled materials, which inform the character of the masks and denote something about the place and culture of the wearer. But it is precisely from these recycled materials that we see the anxious global condition. While the portraits show smiling eyes, the masks seem to overwrite the expressivity of the face. Maskbook shows how all social relations are mediated by the accumulation of industrial pollutions. More subtly, the defence against pollution—the mask itself—appears as both a symptom of the toxic global condition and the protection against it. The appearance of repurposed garbage bound to the face is off-putting, to say the least. Yet Maskbook works to combat the anxiety and helplessness that many people feel when confronted with environmental crises by giving participants a vehicle by which to offer an individuated expression at the very moment when people are being forced to cover themselves due to the pressure of global health security measures. The participatory action also creates an opportunity for different cultures and communities to engage in a dialogue on climate change and air pollution. The images of the masks highlight the creativity that exists within these communities and the range of responses to environmental crises. After all, masks seek to preserve both wearers and those who surround them.

If garbage has attached itself to the faces we see and mediates the terms of our social expressivity, so also has it burrowed into the land, emptying it out and replacing the very element of earth. Yao Lu’s digital chromogenic photographs of mountains of trash make this predicament explicit. Yet he captures them in traditional style of the Song dynasty landscape. Manipulating images of garbage mounds held together with green netting, he repositions the heaps of garbage as pine forest mountains, cliffs, and rolling hills. He therefore reframes our perception and understanding of waste as material that can be eliminated from the environment and shows it to be an integral component of the earth itself.

The landscapes look dreamy and ethereal at first glance, the mounds embraced in a soft green ambience that resonates with the iconic pine trees. But upon closer inspection, the images disclose a haunting displacement. The viewer confronts the reality that the ground of existence, the earth itself, has been emptied out and replaced with a manufactured terra firma. We walk with our own garbage underfoot. Yao therefore brings industrial waste out of invisibility and into view as a primary component of the land. The oscillation between earth and garbage is difficult to reconcile. The tin figures in the foreground communicate the colossal scope of the problem of global waste accumulation. Like Cherney’s landscapes, the clouds and atmosphere no longer yield a sense of mystery but instead interrupt the ecology of mountains, trees, and water with a tense concern for the suffocating smell of landfill as well as the dust and particulate debris that surely issues from these entities. One comes to an abrupt realization of the proximity of these mountains of trash to the river and trees. Leachate must surely be contaminating the surrounding soil and groundwater. If the earth itself has been replaced by garbage, then what source can living beings draw from?

Nevertheless, as though we are still in denial that the earth’s resources are limited, extraction industries have driven the global perspective deeper into the ground in the pursuit of metals, oil, and rare earth minerals. Among these coveted resources, metal brushes so closely with the economy that it became a standard of value (the gold standard) over the course of the Industrial Revolution until the mid-twentieth century, after which it was replaced by finance capital and energy resources such as oil. Yet the history of metal mining still holds sway in the global economy, serving as a stable preserver of implicit value while the stock market rises and falls. The substructure of metal mining, the exploitation of racialized labour and slavery, has become increasingly more visible and contentious. Kathryn Yusoff makes the relationship between mining, slavery, and the Anthropocene explicit in her recent book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019). To speak of the Anthropocene in its topological movement, one which displaces the elements and renders the five phases as synthetic forms, is also to acknowledge that while the Anthropocene is a totalizing phenomenon, it comes into existence in the processes of drawing energy from the exertion, and emiseration of a multitude of particular lives.

These lives, these people, their suffering, their faces underlie the pursuit of metal. Such is the reflection at stake in Zhao Liang’s three-channel video installation, Black Face & White Face. While mining penetrates the earth, empties it out, and drives human equipment ever deeper, the miners themselves are touched and enfolded by the materials they uncover. On the left, one miner is covered in dark coal ash; on the right, one is covered in white limestone dust. In the middle is a migrant worker seen only from the back of his head, his hair blowing in the wind. The footage comes from a longer documentary, but here Zhao asks viewers to simply look at their faces, to see their skin covered in mining residues. They are not merely marked by their labour; they are enveloped by it. They have breathed it in and it enfolds their appearance. The artwork includes a statement from them: “I am gazing at you, you cannot ignore my existence.” While the dangerous working conditions of mining are understood in the abstract—it is no secret that mining causes chronic illness and cancers—Zhao suspends the fatalism of the industry to cultivate an encounter between viewers and these individual miners. The miners look evenly at the camera and allow themselves to be seen, offering a chance to be acknowledged. We hold their faces in view and experience their specific struggles, which register against the schemas of injustice that put them on one side of the chain of labour and us on the other. Zhao therefore invites our eyes to entangle with theirs, across the dust that mediates their faces.

ecoArt China takes us from the intimate encounter with the substructure of mining to the macrocosmic view of extraction in its most destructive forms: carbon emissions and nuclear power. Bovey Lee’s elaborate paper cut-out works visualize the tension between scenes of technological development and the desire for nature. Picturing lively cities, power lines, factories, and skyscrapers, her intricate landscapes capture the intermingling of the industrial complex with natural forms: the outgrowth of a metropolis from a bonsai tree or a congested multilane highway peeking through from behind a screen of foliage. But despite the serene beauty of the natural components, this intermingling is unsettling. As nature gives way to the telling forms of the industrial cities, the energies animating the image spring from a human origin. One image summarizes this state of affairs: a powerplant billows a panoply of clouds, lightning, parachutes, jellyfish, airplanes, and a rocket. All are bound together in a holey butterfly net from which several butterflies have escaped. Nevertheless, all appear together in a tangle of weather, atmosphere, pollution and anxiety. Where nature ends and industry begins is indiscernible.

The curatorial rhetoric of ecoArt China reveals how the disruption of one element overflows into the disruption of another. As Wen Fang’s Maskbook shows, people from around the world have had to adapt their lives, and even our very means of breathing, to preserve ourselves from our own pollutions. Contaminated air from the burning of carbon fuels rains into the world’s waterways, as does industrial wastewater. As Cherney’s work indicate, such poisons alter the landscape, killing the flora on the once bucolic shorelines of Yangtze River. Where water is poisoned, plants and trees draw from a contaminated source leaving wood a ruined trace of vegetal growth as we see from Zheng Chongbin’s installation. Once mighty forests are now drained of life and growth. The intersection of water and rock in Cherney’s handscrolls further calls to mind the toxic residues from mining—matter that clings to the bodies and faces of miners in Zhao Liang’s video installation and mediates the ways we confront industrial labour forces. Through Bovey Lee, we see the transformation of natural forms into urban spaces that are dependent of carbon and nuclear power to fuel their own proliferation. Thus, viewers are invited to span a perspective of our toxic genesis from up-close to the planetary. The displacement of the elements is complete and we look at a synthetic world with one totalizing phase: human waste.