Shuman WANG: weeds growing out of cracks

Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Art+

Note : Cet article n’est disponible qu’en anglais.

In June 2023, Shuman WANG [China] was granted a research trip to develop her current projects, which revolve around the tension between the self and the multiplicity of power and the proxy rules run during the exercise of power. Here’s her takeover story reflecting upon this experience.

After the covid, words written by Gregor Mobius in 2022 often came to my messy mind: Between the Cambrian explosion of 530 million years ago, when new animal species proliferated, and the literal explosions of today, the world “has gradually turned from a well-organized 3D structure into a flat, chaotic 2D universe” (*1). Such a feeling derived from the world right in front of me, but in the meantime, also aroused a sense of déjà vu. Heidegger wrote in 1949 that “all distances in time and space are shrinking” (*2). When travelling in China in 1974, Roland Barthes noted that wherever he went, everything seemed to have a centre of meaning; when things that didn’t have meaning were imbued with certain meaning, everything became void. I list the specific years here, on the one hand, to show that I still have memories of the past (historic) time; and on the other, to reflect on at what point time lost its validity. This sentence is in itself paradoxical. To avoid further confusions, the question here should be simplified as how come time at the present becomes stagnant, disoriented and flat to the point where it eventually loses its validity as measurement.

Art Basel, Unlimited

black and white video about a group of people standing before net by Diamond Stingily
Diamond Stingily, How Did He Die, 2016, photo by Shuman WANG

Bearing this question in mind, I begin to recall my trips in Switzerland. My first stop was Basel. In Basel, my sense of time seemed to be chaotic, especially after visiting two art fairs and four art museums in one day. High intensity of viewing and uneven time distribution inadvertently deepened my chaotic sense of time. I stayed less than two hours at Art Basel, and most of the time was spent on two videos at Unlimited sector. One was How Did He Die (2016) by Diamond Stingily and the other, Jester (2022) by Anne Imhof. The former was a single-channel, black-and-white video. A mesh wire grid was erected in front of the screen, visually cutting the moving images into pieces and poignantly referring to the racial divisions in the United States. The latter was a performance riddled with pop cultural symbols such as hypnosis, ecstasies, nihilism, sexuality and riots. Both works seemed to have cast light on the hesitant attitudes contemporary art in Europe showed in face of today’s so-called “political correctness”, but it’s undeniable that both works managed to arouse a strong and emotional sense of connection, to individuals and collectives alike. I went to France shortly after I left Switzerland. Before I arrived, a 17-year-old French Algerian teen boy was fatally shot by the French police, leading to nationwide riots. I arrived in Marseilles, epicenter of the riots, days after the shooting incident. Before my arrival, I’d been worried all the way, even if my fear mostly came from my imagination affected by outside information. Media study has always been a focus of my research. But when real violence was lurking around, the instinct of fear eroded rationality. When talking about How Did He Die, Stingily said violence, as a matter of fact, was a part of many people’s everyday lives; those who didn’t live in violence were the privileged. “Privilege” is in essence a fluid concept. As Imhof put it, “architecture is the skeleton. When walls are removed, the beams and columns exposed seem so thin as if they are in danger; and architecture becomes extremely fragile”. In this circumstance, how can people who live under the architecture keep themselves sound and safe? That marks a point of departure for my trips in Switzerland. It all starts with a weed that no one recognizes and is deprived of any privileges. And from there I try to see into the residues of power: in what forms do the unrecognized and affected ones exist and how they change.

video by Anne Imhof showing a performance with male actors in jeans
Anne Imhof, Jester, 2022, photo by Shuman WANG

Artist studio visits

After Basel, I started to visit artist studios. I met about ten art practitioners whose research interests overlapped with mine. Some of them were artists I had worked with, such as Uriel Orlow, and some were artists whom I’d been paying close attention to in recent years, like Ursula Biemann. What I looked forward to seeing the most was new, or to be more precise, ongoing explorations rooted in the present context. I did something ridiculous on the day I was about to meet artist Monica Ursina Jäger. Monica’s new studio was quite far from where I lived, so I decided, on a whim, to take a ride on a shared skateboard. The scenery along the way was fabulous. But after some twenty minutes, I realized that I had gone far beyond the allowed riding area so that I could not lock the skateboard. What’s more ridiculous was that the map showed that I had to climb over a mountain to find the nearest parking spot. That was beyond my “urban experience”. Before I was under the impression that the boundaries of the area available for shared bicycles marked the boundaries of a city; but the boundaries of a city could not be measured by a bike (geographically and politically). It described how I felt when seeing Forest Tales and Emerald Fictions (2019) at Monica’s studio. The densely packed skylines, a typical feature of the metropolitan landscape, penetrated deeply into the network consisting of primary forests, leading to brand-new world imagery in which city and nature were blended. In this heterogeneous and interdependent hybrid landscape, it’s hard for us to tell whether it was the forests covering the city or the city transforming the forests. In another of her work, RRETE MIRABILE (2020), Monica submerged half of her camera lens into the lake to capture a dynamic symmetry of reality and reflection. This symmetrical structure, however, appeared extremely complex and changed constantly within the flowing water. In this imagery, living objects, fantastical creatures and light spots were intertwined and formed an imagery with multiple layers of time and space. I mention these two works because they both indicated that boundaries set by men had been blurred. Moreover, men’s control over boundaries had also been broken, leading to cracks. It was these cracks that allowed the emergence of heterogeneous and interstitial space in which new vitality was brewing.

video by monica ursina jager showing skyscrapers
Monica Ursina Jäger, Forest Tales and Emerald Fictions, 2019, photo by Shuman WANG

Weed as metaphor

It was from a “weed” growing out of cracks that my research proposal started. In 1989, Felix Guattari cited on the title page of The Three Ecologies a quote from anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson: “There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds” (*3). The capacity for rapid reproduction of weeds was used in this context as an analogue to the constantly growing and expanding desires of human beings. Weed became a metaphor, and its own subjectivity was never noticed or recognized. Arabidopsis is a type of weed. It is a model plant used in laboratories for association research, and a natural being deprived of subjectivity. Its distinct characteristics – clear genetic background, short reproduction cycle and a high number of mutants – all make it an anonymous tool for laboratory research (*4). I got to know this weed through a friend engaging in Arabidopsis-related research. I was immediately intrigued by the natural vitality embedded in a plant that was deprived of its sense of identity; and from there I associated it with more unrecognized subjects such as people without names, minority communities and tested technologies… Could those who are in a marginal position also burst out subjective energy and make inspection and modification to the system of power that is running smoothly? Instead of causing the system to collapse, the process aims to constantly remind the system to recognize the residues of power and request the system to be compatible with their self-growth. Indeed, the systems practice I envisage is under the influence of different theories. The Actor Network Theory (ANT) proposed by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon is one of them. Latour cited French philosopher Michel Serres’ theory of “Quasi-Object” to anchor an intermediate state between subject and object. Based on this, my research intends to focus further on how “object” in the conventional sense is converted into “subject” so as to rewrite the subject-object logic (*5).

visit to monica's studio
Studio Visit, Monica Ursina Jäger, photo by Joel Spiegelberg

ipseria

On the day I visited Isabell Bullerschen, her artist and singer “roommates” happened to go out. The bright and spacious shared studio seemed very quiet. I sat in a pink chair with patterns similar to the skin texture of “ipseria”, a new species created by Isabell, living as a mono-entity or a multi-entity association in the mucus in the vertebral organisms and active in the virtual environment. I wore a VR device to enter the inside of ipseria. It’s hard to put the form of ipseria into words. It’s reminiscent of atom, box jellyfish, myxomycete, leopard slug and amoeba. And in particular, it reminded me of Pimoa cthulhu spider and blue-ringed octopus mentioned by Donna Haraway when she elaborated on “tentacularity”. Their tentacles sometimes extend and sometimes contract, constantly changing and moving their own forms. 6 The ipseria that morphed breath by breath endowed itself with subjectivity and polymorphism, and reconstructed the potential of a species as it’s able to decide what it could transform into. In my preliminary research proposal, I wanted to include a collaboration between artist Diana Policarpo and trans-feminist and bio-hacker Paula Pin. They used self-made medical equipment to extract ergot alkaloids in a mobile minivan laboratory, and promoted a self-made (autonomous) medical approach – you may decide purely by yourself what would happen to your body and what transformations it would go through. Ipseria goes one step further by delving into the body’s self-governance (autonomy) in a non-human context.

shuman in VR lenses watching monica's works
Studio Visit, Isabell Bullerschen, photo by Joel Spiegelberg
Isabell Bullerschen, ipseria, 2023, photo from the artist’s portfolio

AIA and ONCURATING

Before I left Zurich, I visited a “self-governing” organization – WE ARE AIA | Awareness in Art. Martina Huber, the initiator of the organization and curator, told me about their current exhibition, Energy Giveaway at the Hzmuspunk Library. Artists, designers, technologists, farmers and event organizers gathered together to explore the concept of “regeneration” and tried to find possibilities for fluidity in antagonistic relationships (i.e. resistance and integration). The exhibition was closely pertinent to the concept of “fluidity” in terms of both form and approach, which imbued it with more dynamics and rid it from the static nature of an exhibition: the ever-changing kombucha group, plants attempting to protrude out of stools; food liquid that kept fermenting, and companions who kept on joining the workshop… It was a dynamic system co-created by individuals and collectives. The individuals could exist independently and the collectives, consisting of the forms and dynamics of different individuals, adapted to changes accordingly. In a way, it has greatly enriched my thinking on my own research project. It should not begin and end with an exhibition. Instead, it’s supposed to keep growing, like weeds growing into a patch of grass. And that result is not because of the land owner’s laziness but because it is in essence a natural garden that would grow according to its own will. At the end of my trip, I contacted Dr. Dorothee Richter, editor-in-chief of ONCURATING, an independent art institute in Zurich. ONCURATING has always been committed to alternative curatorial practices on the Internet and in print. This I believe would become the direction for me to further work on after this residency. Weeds out of cracks can grow organically and continuously at all places – rock cracks in the physical space, crevices of the digital space and gaps in between lines on texts…

bean sprouts growing in glass containers
“Energy Giveaway at the Hzmuspunk Library”, AIA, photo by Shuman WANG

Notes

1. Gregor Mobius, “Personal Entropy,” E-flux Journal #126 (April 2022), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/126/460209/personal-entropy/.

2. Marin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 163.

3. Felix Guattari, “The Three Ecologies,” trans. Chris Turner, New Formations 8 (Summer 1989), 131.

4. Before arabidopsis is recognized as a model plant, Hungarian researcher György P. Rédei published an article in 1975 on the suitability of Arabidopsis as a tool for genetic research. The article is titled Arabidopsis as A Genetic Tool. Yuan et al., “OSCA1 mediates osmotic-stress-evoked Ca2+ increases vital for osmosensing in Arabidopsis,” Nature, 2014, 514(7522): 367-371.

5. For further readings on “Quasi-Object,” please refer to Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern.

6. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 55

Biography

Shuman WANG, based in Shanghai, specialises in Art Curating and Film Studies, and worked at OCAT Shanghai as the supervisor of the Exhibition Department.

Her focus is on writing and curating the practice of video and media art. Winner of the Curatorial Award for Photography and Moving Image (2022).

More on Research Trips

Applications for can be submitted on an ongoing basis