Featuring: Michael Wang, Taihu (Stones) , 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
On ViewPrada Rong Zhai
Michael Wang: Lake Tai
November 10th, 2022 – January 8th, 2023
The concept of youyuan, that is, strolling in a garden, has always been inspirational for traditional Chinese intelligentsia. Thousands of creative works—paintings, literature, music, and poetry—are fueled by a love of natural beauty. Michael Wang, a New York-based artist, takes on this spirit of the intelligentsia in Lake Tai, his debut solo show in China at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai. Wang’s sculptural installation engages with the traditional Chinese appreciation of scholar’s rocks (unusually but naturally-shaped stones) and scholarly flower arrangement that were once prevalent in Chinese art and celebrated the human relationship with the natural world. By re-contextualizing the experience of youyuan into contemporary art discourse, Lake Tai offers a guide to reflect upon massive environmental disruption and climate change in the era of accelerated globalization, and grapples with the fundamental re-ordering of the human and the natural.
The significance of titling the exhibition Lake Tai is multifaceted, strongly linking to the concept of locality that Wang values in the process of exhibition-making. Home to many of the most celebrated historic gardens in China, the Lake Tai (Taihu) area connects to Shanghai via Suzhou Creek and is a spiritual center of Chinese landscape traditions. Enlightened by the stained-glass panels Creek in the sun room of Rong Zhai celebrating the natural beauty of Lake Tai and Suzhou, Wang articulates what Lake Tai and the Chinese garden meant to Rong Zongjing (1873 – 1938), the early twentieth-century industrialist and one-time owner of this residence. Originally from Wuxi, on Lake Tai, Rong and his business enterprises first tied the lake to Shanghai in profound historical, cultural, economic, and hydrological ways. Lake Tai at Prada Rong Zhai could be conceived as a metaphorical water body that mobilizes the histories and cultural identities that flow through this architecture.
Featuring: Michael Wang, Taihu (Crabs), 2022. Courtesy the artist.
This sense of locality is extended to the audience via “Taihu” and “Artifacts,” two sculptural series (all works dated 2022) that facilitate dialogues between human versus non-human species, and traditional versus new artistic materials and craftsmanship. In “Taihu,” using bioplastic transformed from biowaste derived from Lake Tai itself—algae, invasive plants, and crab shells—the artist creates two sets of sculptural objects based on 3D scans of actual scholar rocks and hairy crabs, a species native to the lake. Wang strategically welcomes his audience with Taihu (Crab) (2022) inside the meeting room, the exhibition’s opening gallery. People’s memories of enjoying tasty, fresh, hairy crabs in autumn almost immediately conflicts with the musty, fetid scent emitted from the 3500 blackish-blue, lifesize copies of hairy crabs made from the algae that now blooms on Lake Tai, polluting its waters. Wang has situated these ersatz crabs in an abandoned boat found on the lake. With this in mind, one soon encounters Artifacts (Yixing Clay) in the tea room, a miniature of Lake Tai reconstituted in a car tire sculpted from Yixing Clay that hosts a pool of living cyanobacteria, which in large quantities are a main cause of toxic algal blooms.
Featuring: Michael Wang, Suzhou Creek (Piles), 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
From a deserted fish boat overflowing with uneatable hairy crabs to an algae-contaminated miniature of Taihu, Wang offers an inside-out approach, from the sensory system to the ecosystem, looking at how the intervention of urbanization and industrialization has altered our ways of making, living, lifestyle, aesthetic judgment, cultural heritage, and conservation. Other works in the “Artifacts” series visualize these interruptions, using a local nephrite jade and/or Yixing clay to remake industrial tools and equipment. On the other hand, Suzhou Creek (Piles), produced from salvaged rebar and recycled concrete from demolished buildings, are transformed into the fir trees that once protected the habitats on the lake. Parallelling and contrasting ways of living in pre- and post-industrial Lake Tai, Wang puts forward a new way of thinking about technological and industrial detritus. Taihu (Stone) is an exemplary example. The artist takes on the native rocks, beloved collectibles of the Chinese intelligentsia, to advocate for the beauty of capturing biowaste. By collecting it from Lake Tai, and repurposing it into sculpture that references the scholar stones, he participates in a lake clean-up process in which we will become the stewards, as long as the work is collected and cared for. Unveiling the double-edged sword of relationships between human and non-human species, Wang’s works also induce us to think deeply about the impacts of science and technology in sustaining cultural heritage.
The exhibition closes with Shanghai Swamp, an installation in the outdoor garden at Rong Zhai. This, perhaps, is also a farewell to the forever-gone Shanghai swamplands and the marsh that once abounded on the site of Rong Zhai. The recreation of a fragment of this lost ecosystem highlights the importance of a curator’s true care. The journey of strolling through this profound exhibition literally comes to an end in a garden, and it is our time to show care for the world’s well-being. We are all life curators.