The Sixth Element

Joshua Lewis Goldstein

The art brought together in this volume reminds me of an experience I had at a memorial service that changed how I think about what artists do. The brilliant young woman who had died—thirty-seven years old, mother of two, an aerialist dancer and actress—had her athlete’s body laid waste by a vicious cancer that devoured her life in a matter of months. She was deeply loved. One of her friends since they were kids, now a professional musician, played a song on the guitar and sang—I don’t remember what song. What struck me as I sat crying like everyone around me was the incredible strength of this singer. He had known this woman since high school, and his singing made everyone in the room weep, yet his voice was steady. He felt every bit of what we all did, but he was a musician and he could sing through it. It was something obvious I never quite appreciated: how artists, in the honed talent of their craft, can wield an almost super-human emotional strength, entering that perilous space where most people experience a kind of self-annihilation, stand there and create.

The work here reverberates with a similar bravery, to create where others might not have the strength. Whether it is Michael Cherney literally dangling off cliffs to bring the Yangzi’s enormity to us, or Bovey Lee’s imparting through her inconceivably fragile creations the spidery entanglements of nature and industry in which our survival suspends, the artists here wield the mastery of their various media to communicate from the verge of ecological crisis.

In a stroke of curatorial inspiration, Lisa Claypool has arranged these works of environmentally engaged art along the fluid armature of the five elemental phases. The five phases evoke the deep ecological truth that all being(s) on our planet is/are connected, that the living and non-living are bound in processes of becoming, decay, and transformative renewal. There is a specificity in these elemental transfigurations. The five phases relate to one another in specific patterns, cycles of generation or overcoming—water nourishes wood, wood feeds fire, fire deposits earthen ash, and so on. Everything is included and connects through webs of specific transformations, even, the art here reminds us, the specific forms of persistent pollution we are weaving into our ecologies.

But it strikes me that, if we are using this framing to understand today’s ecological art of China, there is an element missing, a phase that is not included. This sixth elemental phase excels in transformations. Like the other phases, it too obliterates borders and boundaries and merges identities through generative destruction, turning each element into all the others. But it does so differently than the other five. The transformations induced by this phase are not specific, they are not constrained by the cyclical pattern the other five phases follow. Rather this phase transforms each of the elements into all the others willy-nilly; it is transformation abstracted, transformation as both means and ends. The sixth phase, of course, is money, capital.

Capital is what drives the ecological crises that inhabit these works of art. Finance capital, GDP targets, currency trades, export-led growth—the inexorable push to turn some money into more money, to turn M into M. And how is that done? By making some commodity C at one price and then selling it for a profit, a process Marx summed up in the familiar: M-C-M. And what is C, the commodity, in this process? It is merely a conduit to make capital grow. It doesn’t matter what the commodity is, what it is made of; all of the five elements and their subtle combinations are fair game. Take any of them—metals, woods, products of the earth, and water—combine them with labour power (the cheaper the better) and produce a commodity to sell. What elements are best to use? Whichever makes the money grow fastest—blue jeans, steel, athletic shoes, underwear, flat panel monitors, solar panels, cell phones.

This, of course, is the story of China’s economic miracle, its three decades of spectacular sustained GDP growth and the accumulation of trillions in currency reserves. China’s expansion of capital has been built on its prowess as the world’s factory—turning material inputs, cheap labour, and dirty energy (mainly coal-generated electricity) into commodities for sale internationally. At the same time, on the domestic front, China has plowed the five elements into massive infrastructures intended to grow capacity to produce yet more commodities for more profit. The drivers of capital accumulation behind China’s environmentally catastrophic growth and those that, starting somewhat earlier in modern history, propelled the United States and other OECD countries to the forefront of humanity’s headlong charge into ecological collapse, are more or less the same. Still, capital always manifests in unique and specific forms. In China these reflect the territory’s unique factor endowments, form of government, its rapidly shifting relationship to global value chains, and Chinese state-capitalism’s distinctive approach to land and debt. It is not accidental that these processes figure prominently in the art collected here.


Yao Lu’s whimsically dystopian landscapes adeptly deploy tropes from Song period landscape painting, but replace their magnificent and expressive mountain and rock formations with shrouded heaps of waste. Spliced into these panorama, icons of traditional scenic appreciation cavort with emblems of contemporary toxicity: a solitary pavilion, a belching smoke stack, a waterfall, a spilling heap of plastic garbage. Manic consumption has laid waste and overwhelmed the land as far as the eye can see. But there is one form of waste, a very particular form, that dominates and shapes the compositions—construction waste. The green tarps that mould vistas are a common sight to anyone familiar with China today; they are used throughout the country as ground cover for excavation, construction, and demolition sites. When the Beijing government forcibly evicted about one million migrant residents in the freezing months of November and December 2017 on the pretext that their unpermitted apartments and houses were imminent safety hazards, it was these green tarps that were strewn about city’s periphery to hide the debris of their demolished neighbourhoods.

Construction waste is a specific manifestation of China’s reform-era growth, unmistakably connected with the coercive expropriation of land from common citizens for use by the state and local governments. “Although China’s real estate industry only emerged after the privatization of housing in 1998, many of these companies have since grown into powerful behemoths and influential proponents of urban expansion. Conversion of rural land for urban development now accounts for over half of local government revenues…[T]he huge difference between the low rates of compensation offered to villagers and the ultimate value of the land once it is converted to urban uses creates great indignation” (Andreas et al. 2020, 1114, 1129). From 2005 to 2014, around 50 million rural residents were evicted for urbanization and manufacturing development; during that same decade, land loss was the leading cause of rural protests (Chuang 2014, 650). Many of these protests, in particular the famous collective resistance by farmers in the village of Wukang in 2011, refuted the very idea of compensation for dislocation. Basing their claims on state laws (a process dubbed “rightful resistance” by researchers Kevin O’Brien and Li Lianjiang [2006]), residents insisted, to put it in the terms of this essay, that a particular manifestation of earth, water, wood, etc.—this house of my childhood, this village, and these fields—will not be abstracted into a monetary sum and demolished for profit. But by 2013 researchers throughout China were finding that “existing legal bureaucratic institutions [were] coopting contention by absorbing the aggrieved into state-society interactions calibrated to supplant talk of rights with negotiations over economic concessions”(Chuang 2014, 651).

A similar story emerges from research assessing how villagers respond to industrial poisoning from pollution. By the 2010s, China had hundreds of “cancer villages,” rural communities where recklessly polluting factories, often protected by local government agents, are associated with devastating trends of disease, cancer, birth defects, and so on. But researchers have found that in many instances, rather than collectively demand remediation and the removal of the polluters, most farming communities seem resigned to living with the pollution. Rather than organizing in collective protest, most chose instead to negotiate terms for monetary compensation (Lora-Wainwright et al. 2012). Everything can be transmuted into a money equivalent.

Overcapacity/Debt’s Eternal Return

Zhao Liang’s choices of sites for the images in Black Face White Face (taken from his film Behemoth)—a coal mine, a steel plant, and the “ghost city” Ordos in Inner Mongolia—are hardly incidental. These are not just any sites of ecological devastation and sacrificial labour. Nor has this follow-the-supply-chain story—tracing coal’s journey from smothering mine to blistering steel furnace and then to shiny uninhabited city—been chosen at random. Behemoth is an unblinking look into the maw of excess capacity and rampant debt accumulation, twin economic pistons driving what Richard Smith (2020) calls China’s engine of environmental collapse 1.

China’s prodigious debt and environmental devastation are inextricably linked. Investments don’t always turn a profit and M does not always grow into M; capital follows its own cycles of generation and destruction. Sectors that prove highly profitable become flooded with investments causing excessive growth in the form of asset bubbles, excess capacity, inflated prices. When these bubbles pop, prices tumble, debts cannot be paid, investors lose their money, and firms that cannot survive the collapse die. If such a collapse is large enough—if the sector losing value is intertwined with other sectors and/or the assets involved are leveraged to fund other assets—the cascading collapse can trigger a national or global economic crisis, as happened when the subprime mortgage crises of 2008 triggered the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the US’s fourth largest investment bank, setting off an international financial crisis and global recession.

Though business cycles are universal and bad debt inevitable, China can never have a “Lehman moment.” The government will never let its state-owned banks and corporations go bankrupt. The result is expansion without contraction, which manifests in the form of uncontained industrial overcapacity.

In the first two decades of China’s reform and opening up, building this overcapacity was advantageous, as Victor Shih (2019) explains: “One could say that China expanded through the systematic production of over-capacity in line after line…This dynamic of over-supply generated trade shocks for industries and workers in advanced countries, as fixed investment soared and lower-cost Chinese goods squeezed the profits of producers abroad. But workers and corporations in China benefited mightily from it, as it detonated an unstoppable process of expansion that allowed China to avoid recession and unemployment for decades” (71). But overcapacity is by definition inefficient and unprofitable, resulting in oversupply, declining prices, and waste; over time, such enterprises will amass bad debt and eventually go bankrupt and die. But death is not an option; instead, state banks roll over the distressed debt of state-owned enterprises, often year after year, until they become “zombie enterprises,” a term even Chinese state media has come to use. And this problem is not confined to a few enterprises or sectors. It is systemic. In 2008 China’s total non-financial sector debt was only about 140% of its GDP, which was nearly US$5 trillion at that time. Today China’s GDP has risen to US$14 trillion, but China’s debt has grown about three times faster, topping US$40 trillion in 2020, over 300% of GPD (Lee 2019; IMF 2017). Other large developed countries have huge piles of debt, but none that grow so rapidly. And each new tranche of loans sets off another round of infrastructure expansion.

The government recognizes the urgent need to rein in credit and shift to a sustainable development model. Xi Jinping, China’s president since 2013, has pledged to build an “ecological civilization” that respects the five elements and the humans and biomes they sustain. But the state is trapped in its debt spiral. In 2019 the South China Morning Post reported, “Beijing launched a deleveraging campaign more than two years ago aimed at reducing debt and reining in risky lending, but as the economy has slowed amid the trade war with the United States, the government has eased credit conditions and pushed fiscal spending on infrastructure projects to support growth” (Lee 2019). In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic provided a similar excuse: “Local government debt…ballooned this year after Beijing raised its fiscal budget deficit level and local government debt quota for infrastructure investment funding to steady the coronavirus-hit economy…[L]ocal authorities relied on ‘new borrowing to repay old debts’ in about sixty per cent of cases” (Lee 2020).

The eternal recurrence of bad debt—incarnated as ghost cities, industrial parks, disused airports—propels China’s unrelenting and destructive “growth.” Take cement, one of the most carbon-polluting industries in the global economy: China produces over half the world’s cement, ten times more than India, the second biggest producer. In the three years from 2009 to 2011 China poured more cement than builders in the US poured during the entire twentieth century (Smith 2020, 55). In the case of steel, in 2016 China’s planners vowed to cut the nation’s capacity by 15 percent (about equal to Japan’s entire steel output) by 2020, but instead output went from 808 million tons in 2016 to over 990 million in 2019 (Myllyvitra 2020). Coal is even more problematic; China has committed to slowing carbon emissions, yet 2019 saw restrictions on building new coal plants loosen, with over 50 gigawatts of new capacity entering construction, all despite the fact that over half of these companies are losing money and most coal plants operate at under 50 percent capacity (Myllyvitra, Zhang, and Shen 2020). Zhao Liang never names the behemoth that presides over the inferno he documents, and it likely goes by many names, debt being just one of them.


According to most carbon accounting systems, China today not only has the highest carbon emissions of any country in the world, but also and more urgently, its emissions are still growing whereas in the EU, and even the US, total greenhouse gas emissions have entered a long-term gradual decline. But international carbon accounting is tricky, and a crucial point of contention is how to count embodied emissions—the emissions entailed in production of products, anything from TVs to t-shirts. Most accounting methods just charge those emissions to the manufacturer of the good, not the consumer, but using this accounting method for China (aka “the world’s factory”), which uses a significant portion of its energy (about 50 percent in the early 2000s) to power factories manufacturing goods that are exported to consumers in the US and EU, seems highly unfair and distorting. In outsourcing the bulk of their manufacturing over the last several decades, the US and EU have also outsourced huge amounts of their industrial pollution loads, including the carbon emissions that enable their outsized levels of consumption.

But now that China has risen on the global supply chain, it is getting to do some outsourcing of its own. In 2013 China formally launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, the name “Belt and Road” is an explicit reference to the ancient “Silk Road”—networks of land and sea trade routes that connected China with Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, and as far as Africa. BRI fuses China’s desire to strengthen diplomatic and trade ties with the developing world and China’s own specific economic needs—in this case offloading some of it deadening excess capacity. BRI provides hundreds of billions in loans to scores of developing countries in Asia and beyond primarily to contract Chinese state-owned enterprises to undertake massive infrastructure projects—to use China’s millions of excess tons of steel and concrete to build for foreign friends what Chinese engineers have gotten tremendously good at building: coal-fired plants, dams, ports, bridges, and, of course, New Silk Roads—highways.

Instead of confronting us with the numbing scale of these engineering endeavours and their brutal toll on lands and bodies, Bovey Lee’s paper silhouettes weave images of the industrial colossus we inhabit into patterns of the natural world, reminding us that, for the most part, our entanglements with these industrial infrastructures are not apocalyptic confrontations of nature vs. machine but a relaxed, seamless, even soothing traversal and mixture of both. Every day we effortlessly call on coal-fired power plants to enable the technological magic that makes our work and leisure possible; those thermal-plant towers of billowing clouds are the stuff of both our fantasies and nightmares: rocket ships, butterflies, and a sky raining balls of fire.

There is, without doubt, a good deal of prestidigitation in Lee’s work; the detail and delicacy can be arresting, astonishing. But the overall effect of the design is flowing and the paper-cut medium itself is gently insistent: everything is literally of one piece, everything is on one undifferentiated plane, smooth and inseparable—nature and machine, the environment and the forces destroying it are, in reality, one. In Rake, Lee lays down lane after lane of highway, excessively wide, yet still bumper to bumper with cars. We glimpse the traffic streams, not through belches of smog but through patterns of leaves—maybe tree canopies, or perhaps the title Rake is to imply these are autumn piles? There is nothing in the image that tells us where this highway is; it is as easily a jammed ring-road in Beijing as a freeway in Los Angeles. The highway stretches to the horizon and clearly keeps going, reaching into the far distance, beyond the paper, beyond the borders, not unlike the visions conjured by the Belt and Road concept—highways stretching beyond China’s borders, connecting China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and beyond into one great network of trade, cooperation, and environmental ruin. We usually think of roads as taking us to a different place from where we are, but this road doesn’t seem to do that, it seems to just extend indefinitely but offer no escape. Whether it is through outsourcing our polluting industries, or building landfills and incinerators, or indulging in fantasies that we can create some magically sustainable form of capitalism where the sixth element will harmonize with the other five in forming zero-waste, non-toxic cycles of generation and nutritive degeneration (the utopian notion captured in the recycling arrows symbol—the fantasy of perpetual motion without entropy)—we are deeply attracted to the hope that somehow there is an “away” where we can escape the toxicity and damage and exploitation of our environmental emergency. Rake gently insists, there is no “away.”

  1. I am not equipped to dive into the complexities of China’s financial, trade, and industrial policies, but interested readers could seek out the work of Victor Shih, Michael Pettis, and Julia Chuang, among others.