In a recent essay addressing the intersectional frictions of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis, and recent microbiome research, the philosopher Tobias Rees remarked, “We humans are really little more than a multi-species ecosystem among multi-species ecosystems — ponds among ponds.” Borrowing this as an umbrella term for rethinking the relationship between organisms and their various endo- and exo-somatic ecologies, ponds among ponds: an exhibition of threshold behavior & nested life proposes an alternative approach to the presentation of natural history. Instead of beginning from the assumption that the organism is the basic unit of evolution, what if we consider the multi-scalar, nested ecologies of life as symbiotic sequences that challenge ideas of competition and survival of the fittest? The fundamental proposition of ponds among ponds is that the current concept of organismic life is insufficient for thinking with and adapting to contemporary climate and biodiversity crises.
Thinking with the pathbreaking work of evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011), ponds among ponds presents objects, images, texts, performances, and movements through artistic points of view, troubling current forms and proposing other organizations of life. The concept of “threshold behavior” contends that all organisms are ecologies unto themselves that operate as assemblages ordered and kept alive by various environmental gradients. While “nested life” challenges the predominant image of climate change as an eventuality wherein an organism (typically, a human organism), as a unit of coherent and sovereign volition, struggles against the outside forces of nature. Such an impoverished sense of threshold behavior leads to a repetition without difference. Instead, in order to begin to conceive of, and thereby adapt to, the massive challenges of climate change (and the no less imperiling situation of biodiversity destruction), it is necessary to imagine the human, and the organism, as ecologies within ecologies, or ponds among ponds.
Central to the exhibition, in its performance-installation, Brussels-based Agency calls forth gatherings and discussion around controversial intellectual property cases, raising questions such as: are living things patentable subject matter? A video by Maximilian Prüfer explores the consequences of environmental destruction upon the pollination process within agriculture, while Berlin-based artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan, in her collaboration with Pauline Doutreluingne, has developed a multimedia wedding bed-installation, opening a nonlinear perspective on species migration and the botany of desire. Shanghai and Yueyang-based artist MAO Chenyu’s further invokes the figure of the agricultural worker and space-time of Chinese rural society in two films, one of which will premiere at the close of the exhibition. Extending the exhibition out into the city, walking maps designed by Zaanheh Project’s Monika Lin invite visitors to key areas around Shanghai to think with the emergent ecologies of the local watershed. Finally, the curatorial project of Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, Reassembling the Natural, frames the exhibition, conceptually and materially, with traces of Lynn Margulis and her collaborators, including a documentary film directed by John Feldman exploring her life and ideas.
Reassembling the Natural is an ongoing exhibition-led inquiry, co-directed by Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin, into the role of natural history collections in a time of climate crisis and biodiversity collapse. In its final iteration as ponds among ponds: an exhibition of threshold behavior & nested life, Springer and Turpin have worked with the ICA at NYU Shanghai to engage with local collections, museums, and related sites of scientific research, as well as artists and cultural producers. By bringing these respective objects of research together in one exhibition space, their project continues to work across disciplines and develop new modes of spatial juxtaposition and curatorial montage that enable scientific and aesthetic practices of inquiry to inform one another.
Reassembling the Natural takes as its objective a serious, transdisciplinary review of the concept of nature—including its role within the knowledge infrastructure of the sciences, its elaborate housing of myths and cultural heritage, and its consistent place within the arts and humanities—in the context of our accelerating planetary extinction. How can those fields of inquiry through which nature came to be shared, studied, and conserved in human cultures begin to reassemble knowledge among the fragmented worlds threatened by anthropogenic transformation? How can new forms of inquiry and collaboration begin to unground the assumptions of knowledge, futurity, and security which limit the discourse of our contemporary environmental crisis? How can we reassemble and exhibit an exemplary plea for a reconsideration of the natural and its vital role in visual culture, design, science and beyond?
ponds among ponds: an exhibition of threshold behavior & nested life is accompanied by related events, including:
Symbiotic Earth & roundtable
a virtual screening by John Feldman with Lynn Margulis, followed by a roundtable discussion with the curators, artists, and scientists
20 Mar-29 May (virtual screening) - Online
English with Chinese subtitles
Sat, 27 Mar, 16:00-17:30 CST (roundtable) - Online
Chinese and English
Assembly (ponds among ponds)
performative assemblies called forth by Agency around cases of “boundary things”
Sat, 17 Apr, 16:00-18:00 CST - Online - CANCELED
English with Chinese interpretation
Sat, 15 May, 16:00-18:00 CST - ICA Gallery - CANCELED
Anti-Rural China & conversation
a film premiere by Mao Chenyu, followed by a conversation with the filmmaker, curators, and LU Xinghua
22-29 May (virtual screening) - Online
Sat, 29 May, 15:00 CST (in person screening) - ICA Gallery
Chinese with English subtitles
Sat, 29 May, 16:00-17:00 CST (conversation) - Online & ICA Gallery
Chinese with English interpretation
As with every season, the ICA will host Study Sessions on 8 April and 29 April at 13:00 in the ICA gallery. ICA Study Sessions are guided conversations focusing on one work in one hour, based on curious exploration, critical reflection, and collective meaning making.
Registration is required for all events.
Scroll down to “Related” below for more information on each event.
ponds among ponds: an exhibition of threshold behaviour & nested life and its related events are presented as the final season of The (Invisible) Garden, the ICA’s 2019-21 artistic research program that inquires into the garden as a method that shapes our understanding of Nature and our relationships to other species. From Fall 2019 through Spring 2021, the ICA at NYU Shanghai presents artists, thinkers, and practitioners, through exhibitions and events, to consider the garden and ask how might we denature Nature?
Select artworks and projects in the exhibition have been generously supported by: in part, the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Flanders Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Media; and, in kind, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
ponds among ponds is the final iteration of the international exhibition-led inquiry—Reassembling the Natural (2013– 2021)—into the role of natural history in a time of climate crisis and biodiversity collapse.
ponds among ponds was curated by Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin, and was organized by Michelle Yeonho Hyun with Zhu Sicong, who were assisted by Chen Yijiao, Wang Yuxin, Chen Yindi, and Qin Xiaoyan.
Additional assistance by Lina Jin from NYU Shanghai Teaching Labs and He Zhuqing from the Biological History Museum of East China Normal University. Design by the curators in collaboration with Wolfgang Hückel and The Exercises / Lu Liang with Selina Landis. Additional support generously provided by the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany Shanghai, Flanders Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Media, and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
We are most deeply grateful to the artists and scientists who inform and inspire us.