Tides of Sand and Steel
Si Shang Art Museum
Beijing, China
March 19-June 20, 2017

Reviews: Art Forum


Tides of Sand and Steel was developed during site visits in and around frontline communities impacted by desertification in China's interior, specifically Ningxia and Hebei Provinces. Throughout the research process the artists investigated state and non-state initiatives in ecology remediation and extractive economies of the desert. This exhibition operates at the intersection of human geography and storytelling, unpacking the narrativization of disaster ecologies and the historicization of resilience through environmental management.

With a criticality towards the role of journalistic, museological, and scientific practices, this exhibition follows a self-reflective research methodology and engages with the infrastructure and logistics of environmental remediation, and the reification of anti-desertification programs. Composed of large-scale video installations, critical reconstructions, displays, and affective engagements, Tides of Sand and Steel intersects a rigorous material engagement with an articulation of sublime encounter with moving landscapes.

Tides of Sand and Steel
Tides of Sand and Steel is a large-scale kinetic installation of defensive wall architectures that utilizes industrial greenhouse fans to slowly move sections of sand in successive stages across the exhibition hall in Si Shang Art Museum.This work examines a counter narrative to the dominant desertification discourse in Ningxia, namely of how large swaths of desert are preemptively claimed for agricultural expansion. Tides of Sand and Steel references the process by which sand formations are actively flattened and redistributed while artificial environmental systems such as greenhouses are subsequently deployed in making the land yield under all conditions. Through it's architecture the work also calls to mind the various defensive barrier structures that are mobilized on the frontier of desert expansion.

Audition for Permanence, 18:15, 2017

An Audition For Permanence
An Audition For Permanence is a video installation which positions a tiered grow system as the audience for a series of auditions conducted on a 'Stage for Cultural Activities' on the outskirts of Bai Dun Cun. These auditions unpack the competing founding narratives of the valley and the thwarted plan to develop the district as a prefecture level city. Performed by the children of local shepherds who migrated to the city with their parents from the surrounding villages, the spectacle is witnessed by an installation of opposing Ning Tiao shrubs, which have been planted in their former villages and surrounding hillsides as an anti-desertification measure. These shrubs have paradoxically provided a much needed source of nutrition for the livestock of local shepherds and as a result has fomented tensions between ecological restoration and the struggle for a livelihood.

The Usher, 06:00, 2017

The Usher
The Usher is a performance that takes place in the bleachers of a landing strip at the base of Luo Shan Mountain. Adjacent to this site are a series of fences that bar access to a deforested mountain that is now an ecological reserve. The fence both serves as a barrier from further deforestation and overgrazing, as well as a barrier that preserves recently abandoned villages whose population was resettled as part of a 'poverty alleviation measure.'

The Usher.jpg

Land Also Moves, 03:16, 2017

Land Also Moves
This performance revolves around a commissioned mural depicting bulldozers flattening sand dunes in preparation for laying new urban grids. The mural is painted on a derelict water pumping station adjacent to tree plantations near the 6th ring road. The planted tree rows in the foreground and background function as a theatrical stage that situate the “actors” that pass along the road behind the building. The signifiers that are mobilized as actors for this stage are all directly referencing the material resources that contributed to the creation of structures and infrastructures of Hongsibu in the early 2000's.

These symbols include structural elements that are emblems of development in the area, such as solar panels, concrete water tubing, and resettlement houses. The corn, grapes and watermelon are also coupled with these to reference the main crops of the Hongsibu valley, which are cultivated both as a food source and cash crops in the case of grapes for Ningxia’s booming wine industry. Lastly, a sign that reads “Museum for Wasteland Reclamation” is left beneath the mural that is gradually revealed towards the end of the video. This illuminating sign is a prop that is simultaneously presented with the video in the gallery and helps contextualize the entire performance as a critical reading of museological impulses to historicize narratives of rapid urbanization in contrast to slow dune encroachment.

This work consists of a series of mesh banners mounted onto a scaffolding structure depicting a blurred image of a painted cityscape derived from Ningxia's Museum of Immigration. The banners serve to conceal a sprawling parasite garden constructed beneath the scaffolding, mimicking the guerrilla vegetable gardens constructed in crevices of the cities fabric as urbanization consumes viable agricultural space. On the elevated level of the scaffolding is a museological space displaying testimonies of everyday life gathered during a workshop with a high school class in Hongsibu. The work grapples with the competing narratives of a city and its construction and how official narratives are embodied and transformed through lived experience. The english language translation for the letters is seen in the accompanying video.

Elevation, 10:00, 2017

200 RMB
200 RMB is an installation work which pictorially depicts the narrative of a shepherd whose struggle to maintain a livelihood comes into direct conflict with anti-desertification initiatives that have transformed traditional pasture lands into defensive wall plantations to hold back the desert. The work is a sculptural documentation of a staged performance, in which the shepherds of the region reenacted a situation of bribery in front of the camera, creatingimages that are then transformed into sculptures. Materially the work appropriates the narrativization of Hongsibu’s recent history and its naturalization through carvings on marble balustrades lining the artificial lake in the recently urbanized districts of the city.

Shelter Belt
Shelter Belt is a video installation of a performance that took place on a concrete platform on one of the last remaining sand dunes in Shacheng (Sand City), Hebei province, a district which supposedly formerly suffered from sandstorms before the implementation of a large scale afforestation initiative. The performance consisted of a choreographed set of motions by robotically articulated artificial poplar trees, a species used in the region for soil stabilization. The video is viewed in a cinema through fences that are typically used to restrict access to afforested plots of land.