At the Shanghai art scene in July, where social issues and perceptual emotions enveloped everything, visitors to the solo exhibitions of Cao Shuyi and Long Pan at the “Hive-Generation” Shanghai Space and the New Timeline Media Art Center (CAC) respectively, may have experienced a brief shock. Perhaps this shock came from the conscious experience of these two artists who put their “human” identity behind and sank into the unfamiliar forms and methods, which replaced the familiar objects related to the self, humans, and even living beings, as well as the utilitarian demands, with walking and traversing in the forgotten or expected-to-be-forgotten places such as heavy metal pollution areas and garbage landfills (although they often last longer than most of the buildings that people are busy constructing), interweaving with minerals, microorganisms, and ancient bacterial communities in time and intestines, in a vague state, always ready to collapse, decompose, and generate anew in the next second.
As Cao Shuyi wrote in a long essay for her narrative film “The Endless Light Penetrates Everything,” quoting the geologist and paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz’s imagination: “Future alien excavators facing our geological heritage may not, like us, rebuild the Jurassic landscape and place giant dinosaur skeletons in the center of museums, carefully restoring and worshiping humans as the rulers of the Earth. Perhaps these future explorers are more concerned about the roles played by countless tiny invertebrates, bacteria, and their older cousins, the ancient archaea, in maintaining a stable and complex ecosystem – without them, life would not exist on the planet.”
Cao Shuyi, “The Endless Light Penetrates Everything,” film still, 2022
Both artists coincidentally chose to focus on the changing and indeterminate state in the selection of exhibition titles. Long Pan’s solo project “Dust Flowing in the World” reveals the interpenetration between life and non-life through the flow of metal between technological objects, land, and plants, as well as the contemporary alchemy behind it – the logistical infrastructure of geographical dispersion under chemistry and capitalism. Cao Shuyi’s solo exhibition “Soft Flow” uses the “soft flow circle,” a zone of plastic flow that occurs at an average depth of 70 to 220 kilometers underground, to suggest the splicing and mixing of different spatial and temporal scales in her creation, as well as the entanglement between deeper geology, history, living and non-living beings.
At the exhibition “Dust Flow” are two works by Long Pan, “Thousand Leaf Collection” and “Fireworks,” which originated from a series of investigations that began in 2020. Long Pan focused on Guiyu Town in Guangdong Province, one of the world’s largest electronic waste processing sites, where electronic waste has been received from overseas since the 1990s. Through crude metallurgical techniques, heavy metals, chemical substances, and organic pollutants are released into the environment. Despite nearly a decade of remediation, Long Pan still found traces of pollution in the form of blank areas on satellite maps, old mounds of soil waiting (or never to be) removed, and rusty reed roots.
In “Thousand Leaf Collection,” Long Pan pulled plant roots from the soil in Guiyu Town, burned them, and used the resulting ash glaze to coat porcelain tiles in the shape of leaves. The metal particles in the plants were transformed into visible, colorful gradients, which were then reduced to shimmering dust under a microscope. “Fireworks” presents copper, which has been refined and liquefied, returning to the land in the form of traditional Chinese iron flower-making. Unlike the fleeting sparks in the film, copper, as a heavy metal, remains in the natural world for generations after being scattered by humans, requiring consideration on a larger time and space scale.
At the “Dragon Anticipation: Dusty Flow” exhibition at the New Era Media Art Center in 2023, Cao Shuyi’s work focuses on the exploration of human civilization through documentary and on-site actions. She follows the global capital flow, traversing different planetary systems, and then returns to the visualization of natural mineral narratives. Through the use of flowing materials and texts, she tells the story of the wandering and frozen moments of natural and technological objects from a deep temporal perspective, interweaving evidence, deduction, news, accidents, and chance.
In “Offshore Shapes,” the delicate and exquisite sculptures resemble glass crafts with smooth and shiny surfaces. By picking up the most common green beer bottle shards from the edges of the sculptures, one can quickly find the clues left by the artist. They were all picked up by Cao Shuyi from the abandoned beaches of Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn, which used to be an industrial site for processing animal carcasses and urban waste, as well as a former landfill. Over the decades, due to climate change, storm erosion, and rising sea levels, as exposed landfill materials, animal remains and debris buried half a century ago have reappeared on the coastline of Dead Horse Bay. As radioactive materials were detected in some of the exposed artificial objects, the area was closed to the public in 2020.
At the “Cao Shuyi: Soft Flow” exhibition at the Hive-Generated | Shanghai Space in 2023, visitors can experience the artist’s exploration of the relationship between natural and artificial materials through her use of flowing materials and texts.
Cao Shuyi’s “Offshore Shapes” is a mixed media sculpture created in 2023. The porous rocks, shells, beer bottles, plastic, rubber, and leather fragments eroded and washed up on the shore are intertwined and consumed, as if they were born symbiotically or have already become fossilized sedimentary layers of contemporary life and death that have solidified and compressed over time due to external forces. The translucent plastic fragments embedded in the leather, which have been deformed by long-term compression from external forces, are the size of fingernails. When viewed from a high point, they resemble a lake between rocks in the distance. This also reminds people of the first time humans discovered a small shell from the ocean in the mountains, realizing that the ground beneath their feet, which was thought to be solid and immovable, was also in a state of constant change.
The “Pabulite” series anchors the entanglement between organisms with more visible evidence, recording an incredible moment when ancestral traces and continuous transformation meet radical metamorphosis in the environment. “Pabulite” is a term proposed in paleontology to describe a mixed fossil from the early Jurassic period, in which crustaceans, flatfish, and vertebrates were solidified into a nested whole due to mutual consumption and digestion under external forces. The natural erosion landscape simulated by the fallen animal skin imprints and the mushroom-like folds form the wrinkles of the skin, and the digestive organs of unknown origin are assembled into an undefined body. They, along with the scales, tendrils, gills, barnacles, and seaweed presented at the end of the “When They Fold and Leak” series sculptures, constitute an unconscious sense of threat to some viewers, despite their small and delicate appearance. This may be due to the flowing body that implies symbiosis, mutation, parasitism, or hyperplasia, which offends the affirmation of humans as independent and self-sufficient beings.
Cao Shuyi’s “Pabulite (Curled Teeth)” is a rough glazed pottery created in 2023.
The narrative film “Endless Glowing Threads” tells the story of the entanglement of materials that were once considered to be on the edge of “life” (the work also points out that the definition of life based on “carbon imagination” itself has huge limitations), through the crossing between microorganisms and geological structures. It also points out that “whether we accept it or not, these forces exist before us, and they evolve or decay due to the acceleration of human material practice, and will not end with our disappearance.” Under the logic of transcending human centrism, the fantasy of infinite progress of modernization and the apocalyptic tragedy of the end of the world are invalidated and liberated. However, the irresistible anthropomorphic perspective given to the photosynthetic bacteria that brewed planetary life 2.5 billion years ago and the microorganisms that re-entered the biosphere after a million years of interruption caused by the melting of glaciers, which were marginalized in the entanglement of multiple times and species in “Endless Glowing Threads,” casts a lyrical and firm light on the film. Perhaps the human beings marginalized in the work are also the creator’s own search for self-identity as an Asian female working in the European and American systems.
In fact, the space left by Cao Shuyi’s work for human beings may be gentler than the perspective of de-centering human beings to understand its expression in a general way. In Cao Shuyi’s own narrative, her works often present a sticky, fragile, and penetrable wet surface, which comes from her nostalgia for the humid air in her hometown of Guangzhou, where she has not returned for seven years while living in the United States. In the exhibition hall, the floor-to-ceiling glass facing the main road of the Bund is covered with semi-transparent colored film, and the images come from the same-named image of “Offshore Shapes.” In it, the garbage pushed back to the beach is observed from an extremely microscopic perspective, entering and observing the shadowy alien world. Accompanied by the roar of traffic outside the exhibition hall, under the amber-colored microscope lens, Cao Shuyi simulates the boiling sound of magma at the beginning of the earth’s gestation in her studio, like a whisper and resonance from deep time.