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Diller Scofidio + Renfro's large curved-screen video titled EXIT shows how human migration today has reached unprecedented levels.

Huang Rui's Earthquake is made up of heavy beaded curtains with images of cute giant pandas. But when one walks through the curtains, they swing, heave and rattle - a reminder of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake disaster that killed 69,000 people.

Route Of The Future by artists Qiu Anxiong, Li Qian and Yang Lei uses animation to let viewers see what Shanghai might look like 100 years from now when it is submerged in seawater, with marine life swimming around its skyscrapers.

Rockbund Art Museum's survey of Song Dong's art spans his early art school paintings and his latest installations.

Art ponders a world in crisis

An exhibition in Shanghai curated by Han Ulrich Obrist and Yongwoo Lee looks at how we're destroying ourselves.
28/04/2017 - 05:50

IF an apocalypse occurred and wiped out the entire human race save for a few survivors, the best bet these people have of resetting the Earth is to break into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. There they would find nearly a million different types of plant seeds to help restore life on Earth as they once knew it.

Located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built by the Norwegian government a decade ago for precisely this scenario and other large-scale crises. The rapid loss of plant variety around the world - scientists estimate about a dozen species go extinct every month - makes the facility possibly the last hope for reversing a dire situation.

Now, the Shanghai Himalayas Museum is hoping to drive attention to this global crisis with its exhibition Seeds Of Time, which references the Seed Vault. The exhibition in China is part of the multi-year Shanghai Project helmed by the world-famous curators Yongwoo Lee and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Setting the exhibition in Shanghai partly stems from the worry that a hundred years from now, the city will be submerged in water due to rising sea levels. Other cities such as London, New York, Mumbai, Sydney and, of course, Singapore, will suffer the same fate. At no more than 15 metres above sea level, Singapore will be one of the first on that list to disappear.

The exhibition, spread over 2,000 square metres, doesn't look for just artists to present their perspectives and solutions for the future. It also invites architects, philosophers, environmentalists, scientists and other experts to put forth their views in this multi-disciplinary exhibition, described by its two artistic directors as "an emporium of ideas".

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Co-artistic director Ulrich Obrist says: "We're in the midst of a mass extinction of species, languages and cultures, and we need a new alliance in the 21st century. It's essential to bring all the disciplines together to make new bridges and produce a new reality. To quote the late artist Gustav Metzger: 'We have no choice but to follow the path of ethics into aesthetics. We live in societies suffocating in waste'."

The roster of artists is sterling, with big names such as Yoko Ono (Japan), Etel Adnan (Lebanon), Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (France), Cai Guo-Qiang (China), Liam Gillick (UK) and Qiu Zhijie (China).

One of the most compelling works in the exhibition is Maya Lin's What Is Missing? The Empty Room. Lin is the Chinese-American artist most famous for having her design chosen in a 1981 national competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. She was only 21 and studying in Yale University then.

For Seeds Of Time, she has installed a small dark room with seemingly nothing in it except brightly-lit rectangular cut-outs on the floor. The visitor is given a screen which he can hold above the cut-outs to watch moving images of species that are endangered or extinct.

By asking the viewer to gauge how close or far he must hold the screen before the image appears in focus, the work quietly suggests how far in the back of our minds most of us put the issue of environmental devastation. The room, after all, is dark and nondescript enough to overlook.

Lin says What Is Missing? The Empty Room is a "wake up call and a call to action. It shows us how we can protect and restore nature, reimagine our relationship to the natural world, showcasing how we could live in ways that balance our needs with the needs of the planet."

Another sobering work is Diller Scofidio + Renfro's large curved-screen video titled EXIT. The New York-based design house has compiled some pressing data on human migration and animated it in a 45-second clip. The figures show how human migration due to political, economic and environmental reasons has reached unprecedented proportions. These movements often follow large-scale disasters, both natural and man-made, that result in the loss and destruction of entire landscapes, histories and cultures.

Elsewhere, veteran Chinese artist Huang Rui has created an almost mischievous artwork that is charming and playful despite addressing a major human tragedy. His installation, titled Earthquake, is made up of beaded curtains that show rows and rows of cute giant pandas, an animal synonymous with the province of Sichuan.

But when one walks through the beaded curtains, they swing, heave and rattle threateningly - a reminder of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake disaster that ravaged south-western China and killed over 69,000 people. "Delightful" has just become "deadly".

Route Of The Future by artists Qiu Anxiong, Li Qian and Yang Lei is more direct. Using animation, the artists envision Shanghai submerged in water with whales, jellyfish and turtles swimming around the skyscrapers. The artists plan to install interactive video technology in a local Shanghai bus and attach transparent screens to the vehicle's windows. The screens allow the bus passengers to see present-day Shanghai through the prism of its underwater future.

Co-artistic director Lee, who is also the museum's executive director, writes in the exhibition catalogue: "Ecology is more than romantic whimsy or the trepidations of an overly sympathetic minority; the movement questions our societal systems, values, and autonomous consciousness."

Quoting French philosopher Felix Guattari, Lee adds: "The environmental crises threatening our planet are the result of our expanding political desires and consumerism . . . Guattari believed that it was illegitimate for profit markets to regulate humanist activities with financial and performance-based rewards, for there are a range of value systems that ought to be considered, including social and aesthetic 'profitability'."

During a healthy discussion prior to the exhibition opening, references to Donald Trump and Brexit inevitably popped up. With these partly in mind, the esteemed French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour is hosting an upcoming series of workshops and brainstorms within the exhibition space to discuss how to "reset modernity" in China and Europe.

The idea behind the workshops is that the "compass of modernity has gone haywire and needs to be reset so it can capture signals accurately again", says artist Martin Guinard-Terrin, one of Latour's team members. "We hope to see how China and Europe are both responding to the ecological situation, and through that also reassess their trajectories of modernisation."

Amid these sobering efforts, one work stands out like a beacon of lunatic glee and optimism. Ever the outlandish dreamer, Qiu Zhijie has created a large new painting titled Imaginary Geography that fantasises a brand new world altogether. He's envisioned a map that has continents and countries with playful names such as Cloud Cuckoo Land, Here Be Dragons, Kafka Castle, Retreat Of Mirth, Plato's Republic, Land Of Longing, Pokemon Forest and Terre Libre.

Perhaps, if an apocalypse does wipe out much of the world one day, the human survivors could be this creative in renaming the new world.

  • The Shanghai Project: Seeds Of Time exhibition is now on till July 30, 2017, at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, 869 Yinghua Rd, Shiji Gongyuan, Pudong Xinqu, Shanghai, China. The exhibition ticket costs RMB120 (S$24.35) for adults.

Exhibitions not to miss when in Shanghai

IF you're visiting Shanghai soon, here are four other exhibitions to catch:

Song Dong: I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven
Rockbund Art Museum
Till June 4

VETERAN Chinese artist Song Dong holds his first major survey in mainland China in eight years. It spans his early art school paintings and his latest installations, including a portion of his 2011 Venice Biennale showcase. The exhibition title is a cheeky reference to Confucius' famous aphorism: "At 50, I knew the mandate of heaven." Song, now 50, finds himself still perplexed by the world, and his art expresses his memories and anxieties of China eloquently.

James Turrell: Immersive Light
Long Museum West Bund
Till May 21

THIS is one of the most talked-about exhibitions in Shanghai. American light wizard James Turrell presents 13 of his famous light projections and space installations, including three immersive light experiences. Each one of them is quite mesmerising, challenging your ideas of light, space and perspective. If you missed his spectacular 2013 show at the Guggenheim, catch this.

Julian Opie
Fosun Foundation Art Center
Till Jun 10

HOT British artist Julian Opie makes his debut in Shanghai with over 50 of his iconic graphic works.

With portraits and figures presented in minimal outlines and simple fields of colour, his art has become one of the most recognisable in the world.

KAWS: Where the End Starts
Yuz Museum Shanghai
Till Aug 13

FANS of American street artist KAWS might want to catch this show spanning 20 years of his pop, graffiti and commercial design work.

Several of the works take his trademark human-cartoon hybrids, with their criss-cross eyes and big boneheads, and merge them with other iconic characters such as Snoopy, The Simpsons and the Michelin Man.