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Culture Clash: Nature and Civilization Face Off in the Art of Michael Wang

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"Drowned World," 2018. Michael Wang

By Patrick Rogers

The rooftop garden of the Swiss Institute Contemporary Art gallery in New York looks much like you'd expect of a newly renovated former bank building in lower Manhattan. Rows of simple aluminum planters line the small rectangular space, sprouting leafy greenery that frames views of the busy streets below.


Yet this ordinary-looking urban garden is actually a work of art with something to say about the troubled relationship between nature and human culture. Artist Michael Wang chose each of the four varieties of vegetation now growing on the institute's roof for a very particular reason: All of the plants are in trouble. One of the species, franklinia alatamaha, is classified by The International Union for Conservation of Nature as "EW," extinct in the wild.

"Extinct in the Wild," 2018, Swiss Institute installation, by Wang.Michael Wang and Foxy Production, New York

Wang sometimes describes these species as "homeless." They are nature's orphans—plants that wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for the care of their human handlers. Ginkgo biloba, for instance, began dying off in the wild thousands of years ago in the mountains of central China, probably when human hunters wiped out whatever large animal had been spreading its seeds. Those same people, however, valued ginkgo trees so much they had already begun cultivating them, often planting them at temples and in cemeteries. "Today we know the ginkgo from cities almost all over the world," says Wang, "and wherever they are found, even trees that are centuries old, they are associated with human planting."

Wang's rooftop Extinct in the Wild installation is the latest in a series of projects that explore the impact of disruptive "global systems," such as trade, industrialization, colonization and climate change, on the natural world. "I wanted to trace the passage of these species from nature into culture," he said. In the process, he highlights the contradictions of the power we wield. We push flora and fauna to the brink of eradication only to put them on life support—sometimes for centuries. He asked, "How can you cause the extinction of a species in one context while also allowing its propagation beyond what would be purely natural in another context?"

Wang casts an almost microscopic gaze on this fraught relationship in another exhibition currently on view in Palermo, Italy. Carboniferous, a series of exquisitely detailed photographs, showcases samples of delicate fossilized ferns and tree bark discovered in coal deposits in Poland and the southern U.S. The ancient plants, now extinct, survive only as inert imprints in the toxic fuels that have powered commerce and industrialization.

"Carboniferous," 2018, by Wang.Michael Wang and Foxy Production, New York

In another part of the Palermo project, Drowned World, nature wreaks science fiction–style revenge on the industrial world. As visitors to the city's botanical garden climb a stainless-steel staircase, they peer over a high wall into an industrial site that was once the coal-gas plant powering the city's streetlamps. There, Wang has installed a forest of plants similar to the ones that grew around 300 million years ago, in the Carboniferous era, and eventually became coal and other fossil fuels. Thirty-foot araucarias trees, towering ferns, cycads and epiphytes flourish among rusted machinery and gas tanks.

"Drowned World," 2018, by Wang.Michael Wang

Wang wants to make visible again the lost forest that made the fossil-fueled modern world possible. "The imagery of industrialization has been dominated by inorganic materials, concrete or steel or glass, and I wanted to bring its organic origins to light," he said. At the same time, the artist, who takes meticulous care of the plants and animals he uses, imagines a world in which vegetation from hundreds of millions of years ago somehow restores the atmosphere that we have polluted with our daily lives and activities—including art itself.

An artist's impact on the planet is more than aesthetic. For his provocative and ongoing Carbon Copies series, Wang calculates the carbon footprints of works by well-known contemporary artists. First he measures, for example, the energy needed to mine the diamonds of Damien Hirst's 2007 skull-shaped sculpture For the Love of God or the emissions expended by all of the people who flew to the 2005 opening of Elmgreen & Dragset's iconic Prada Marfa installation in West Texas. Wang then makes small paper "stand-ins" of the art and uses the proceeds from their sale to buy carbon offsets that "erase" the original works from the atmosphere.

"Carbon Copies," 2012 — installation view, by Wang.Mark Woods

Wang, of course, is himself an active part of this complex relationship between the art world and the physical environment. "Personally, I most often find myself in the environmentalists' column and on the side of nature conservation," he said. "But in these artworks I'm trying to always find places where it's hard to know what side to be on."

Michael Wang's Extinct in the Wild is on view at Swiss Institute Contemporary Art in New York; Drowned World is on view at Manifesta 12 in Palermo, Italy, through Nov. 4.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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