It looks very zen. This justified a premature turn, coming in from the Century Avenue entrance one sun-drenched afternoon. The patches of greenery beckoned through the shining windows, evoking minimalist Japanese gardens, hidden oases in Orientalist tales, a hipster millennial’s succulent collection… And really, what better way to dawdle away the pressures of academia than to indulge in some quality dilettantism? Which is just a roundabout way of saying that I went to the exhibit to procrastinate. But procrastinate productively. Productive in the sense that I have at least cobbled together something to say:
“Why is the world so beautiful? It could so easily by otherwise; flowers could be ugly to us and still fulfill their own purpose. But they’re not.”
— From the chapter “Asters and Goldenrod” in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is one of the books you can find and spend time with in the exhibit, along with its companions The Sixth Extinction, Laudato Si’, and “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report.” Sensing a theme here? In many ways, this quote encapsulates what I took away from the experience. The experience of circling each of the individual islands of the installation, prostrating before troves of the ecosocialist canon, and crawling in through a Wonderland-esque tiny doorway to behold an alternate reality. There is some inherent allure of plants and nature, and it is only magnified by Zheng Bo’s tribute. But I digress–let’s start with the “islands.”
Each individual landscape—there are two, corresponding with two manifestos—seems to be an allegory for an ideal world, or Eden, if Eden were dressed up in moss and plastic figurines and rainbow pom-poms. It begets admiration for resourceful creativity alone. Between them, there are no lack of rendezvous points, scholastic agoras, even sacred shrines. They appear to be well-frequented by the viewers, the alienfolk, and the animal residents alike. Yet they exist in tandem with decidedly more ominous landmarks, such as Death Valley or 2001, servicing as reality-checking reminders that correlate with the line: “Make extinction, destruction, and pollution visible.”
On the opposite wall, there is a daily-updating succession of verb-iage. Modeling the mannerisms of a proud parent who marks their child’s growth through demarcations of time, calendar advancement brings with it a new surprise, another method of interaction. It is like a diary, one that maps out the progress of an intimate friendship.
Or is it lover-ship? Bearing intimacy in mind, enter aforementioned Wonderland-esque vestibule. It was only after the fact that I understood why a friend had a half-embarrassed, half-suggestive facial expression when she asked if I had been yet. Inside is a large viewing screen, replete with a few rumpled beanbags. On projection are recycled clips entitled “Pteridophilia.” It is a neologism, one that basically means a fetish for ferns. Strange though it sounds, it barely takes a minute in there to get it. The clips are, quite simply, pornography. Beautifully-shot, cinematically-perfect, sublimely-sensory pornography. There is something incredibly erotic in the fragile and tender way the pteridophyte plants are filmed, its every delicate trichome, every sensual curl, exposed for voyeurist pleasure. When placed in relation to the erogenous nudity of the male figures, it assumes a phallic image. Homosexually-coded fellatios and wanton moans abound. Past that, the lack of sophisticated communication and the glaring naϊveté in the young men seem to me a comment on human nature, reduced down to its most primal state; in this case, the libido. Moreover, the interconnected relationship of plants and animals is emphasized–coexistence is not only possible, but favorable.
The IMA department here at NYU Shanghai has been responsible for the collaboration, and I personally feel our entire community benefits for it. After all, it wouldn’t do to have a gallery space in the first place if it isn’t going to be used. The formal exhibition, and its intended themes, are all an outward representation of the school itself: our avid patronage of the arts and the environmentalist values we endorse.
This article was written by Michelle Li. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Michelle Li