New York-based artist Shuyi Cao synthesizes various organic and inorganic materials, natural and artificial processes in her mixed media sculptures and installations. She is interested in the diverse entanglements, connections, and overlaps between the human and non-human realms and what relationships, similarities, and dependencies link these domains together. In the article the artist wrote for V/A’s ongoing thematic focus “Fabulating,” she describes and protocols the research process of some of her recent works, which essentially revolve around the question of how human-made contaminants and pollutants – such as plastic or fuel – may relate to organisms and life forms. How can these materials thriving in the Anthropocene be understood? What do their material residues allow us to see? What conclusions can we draw from them, and what stories do they tell?
In the early spring of 2022 I was commissioned by curator Ying Ye to create artwork for an exhibition, “The Languages of Mushrooms,” at Contemporary Gallery Kunming (CGK) in Yunnan. In the mountainous southwest China bordering other Southeast Asian countries, Yunnan’s varied landscapes, climates, and soil environments nurture the country’s most diverse plant life and fungal habitats. During my initial research in preparation for a field trip to Kunming in the summer, an article on plastic and rubber-eating fungi recently found in Yunnan by South African mycologist Peter Mortimer caught my attention. With the CGK team’s help, I soon contacted Peter and his laboratory at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Science, and initiated a collaboration on this artwork. Their research provided me a clue to unfolding the peculiar worldmaking through fossil-fungal-fabulation.
Since its emergence from twentieth-century technoscience, the invention of plastic has been celebrated as an industrial triumph over the natural forces of decay and symbolizes the promises of modernity: perfection, efficiency, abundance, and unrestricted production. The recent decade started to consider plastic as a technofossil that marks human technology on the geologic record. One example is plastiglomerate, a novel geologic stratum consisting of plastic and sand conglomeration. Plastic’s omnipresence is inscribed in rocks and microplastics dispersed in the soil, water, and air, beneath our skins, and inside our blood. As the first fossil fuel-derived materials to be chemically engineered through molecular manipulation, as scholar Heather Davis describes, plastic matter can transform the vitality of the earth’s matter into almost any shape while persisting within the earth’s organic and inorganic bodies.
Diving deeper into the more-than-human origins and afterlives of plastic, we will find different material narratives spanning multiple temporalities: from ancient sunlight and atmosphere and compressed remains of plants and animals to petrochemical industries and mining technologies in relation to colonial extractive capitalism; to geopolitical and economic dynamics underlying global production, consumption, and waste management; to plastic pollution and its unevenly distributed ecological consequences which researcher Max Liboiron calls as a contemporary form of colonization.
There are few places on Earth where fungi cannot be found, which is to say that they are just as ubiquitous as plastic matter. The two have long been inextricably linked in the planet’s history. Without fungi there would be no fossil fuels from which plastics originate. Before the first ancestors of all land plants – green algae – moved out of the water onto the land, fungi had been breaking down rocks and minerals, making soils, and serving as alternative root systems for plants to provide nutrients for tens of millions of years until plants evolved their own roots. Through the symbiosis between mycorrhizal fungi and plants inorganic matter entered the organisms and, eventually, the Earth cycles that reshaped the land and climate systems. The different life spans of plastic particles and fungal spores that circulate in Earth systems converged through the newly discovered metabolic processes of plastic-digesting fungi.
Researchers have reported a fungal species in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, Pestalotiopsis microspora, capable of breaking down and digesting polyurethane. A new bacterial strain was found in garbage dumps in Japan that evolved into using PET as its energy source. Peter and his lab, as he later told me in an interview, have encountered different species of plastic-eating fungi in various sites such as a landfill in Pakistan, a remote cave in Yunnan, a discarded plastic bag in the farmland of Xishuangbanna, and even one living in the stomachs of crickets. The organisms found in these specific locations within their unique ecosystems dissolve the universality of plastic matter at their independent evolutionary rates.
I had to cancel the field trip to Yunnan due to the increasingly intensified lockdown policies in China, and my collaboration with Peter and his lab continued remotely. To synthesize my interview and data collected from their current research, I created a video installation, “To Wander Beneath and Beyond.” The sculpture “Horizonless External Gut” is based on scanning electron microscopy images of mycelium sprawling in the air and partially merging into the wall as it blends into its surroundings. Mycelium is how fungi feed. Unlike animals who find food and put it inside their bodies where it is digested and absorbed, fungi put their bodies in the food. Therefore, mycelium is an infinite shape-shifting body that embeds itself in an irregular and unpredictable food supply.
Fungi’s metabolic intelligence allows them to navigate indeterminate landscapes as living networks, a “speculation in bodily form,” as mycologist and writer Merlin Sheldrake puts it. The video animates a machine-generated mycelial network growing in one direction while pulling back from another. It is created with an artificial neural network trained on a hand-made dataset, consisting of time-lapse videos of fungi growing on polyurethane, microscopic photographs of mixtures of microplastic, mycelium, and idiosyncratic materials found in soil. This amorphous “technofossil” bridges the biologic and machine-learning intelligence, rendering the microscopic infiltration across earth matters, pollutants, and multispecies becoming. The impenetrable inorganic body reopens as it births new strains of fungal and bacterial lives, ultimately returning to its earthy origin through planetary metabolism.
During the summer, as my conversation with Yunnan continued remotely, I left New York to participate in an art residency at Banff Centre in Alberta, Western Canada. Before my Air Canada plane took off, the pre-flight safety video played on the screen in front of my seat, a set of the most famous Canadian sceneries. Among those is the natural grandeur of Alberta: cowboys riding through the open range with Rocky Mountain peaks and glaciers in the distance. Such vast wilderness and geological spectacles have been the popular visual representation of the province since its earliest days, dating back to European contact in the eighteenth century.
The Banff National Park, where the residency is located, is the first national park in Canada, established in 1885. Despite the images of nature in its pristine majesty widely spread as the province’s brand, Alberta is home to two of the biggest producers of petrochemicals in North America and Canada’s oil sands reservoir. Named for the river that meanders through it, the Athabasca oil sand is the largest among the three deposits in the province. The thick layers of porous rocks consisting of muskeg, glacial tills, sandstone, and shale from the Cretaceous period host massive petroleum deposits in the form of bitumen. Unlike manufacturing substances such as tar, the naturally occurring bitumen of oil sand was formed from deposits of marine organisms such as algae and zooplankton at the bottom of the vast sea that once covered ancient Alberta. Oil sand mining activities are very destructive to the environment. Research has shown that toxic residues from tailing ponds have the potential to evaporate or leak into neighboring waterways and forest lands, impacting wildlife and the food sources of local First Nations and Métis hunters and fishers.
Through the layered histories of Alberta – natural, cultural, and industrial histories – we see how geological invention serves the subject and object of knowledge and power production. The nineteenth-century settler colonial imagined “wilderness” as the unknown frontier to be explored, or as untouched, pure nature to be preserved, completely overwriting native lives in the land. The 20th-century nationalist myth is constructed through the specific ethnic or racial identity (Anglo-Saxon male) anchored to the representations of landscapes and the sense of permanence, purity, and heroic masculinity often associated with geological sublimes (the most iconic being white, towering mountain ranges). The colonial geological survey unites geology with state formation, territorial expansion, and value extraction. The development of novel mining technologies relies on the contemporary studies of geophysical phenomena across eons serving socio-political and economic purposes. Yet I saw a different kind of geological speculation in Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd’s story about an ecological disaster caused by an oil spill into the North Saskatchewan River near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border in 2016. She chose to view these fossil fuel-derived contaminants and pollutants as a paradoxical kind of kin: the long-dead flora and fauna returning to Earth manifesting their presence in polluted water, soil, and atmosphere, through petro-capitalist extraction and production.
After landing in Northern Alberta, I asked myself, what else can be sensed from its geological splendor? These soaring mountain peaks were once corals at the bottom of the sea, sediment of organic hybrids, full of holes and fissures, shaped by changing, flowing, ephemeral water and air. Their porous bodies bred the oily offspring discovered millions of years later as bitumen.
I wanted to engage with the earthy materials that embodied living and nonliving histories. I dug out a few buckets of dirt and clay from the Athabasca riverbed and farmland two hours away from Fort McMurray, the heart of Athabasca oil sand production. The local potters called it Athabasca blue clay – you can see with the naked eye the bluish, oily shimmer when it is wet and has a strong scent of gasoline. Through repetitive processes of filtering, sieving, pouring, and straining, it is turned into material for earthenware. I collected ashes of burnt remains of spruce, pine, birch, and poplar, as well as the cottonwood seed and dandelion flower brought by the wind.
During my residency at Banff Centre, I created a series of earthenware sculptures with these locally sourced materials. These imaginary fossils are reminiscent of single-cell organisms such as cyanobacteria, algae, marine worms, fungal networks, and plant genitalia, as well as residues of vertebrates, tentacles, gills, scales, limbs, or claws. The hybrid forms reference paleontological studies and various indigenous creation myths, alluding to the planetary metabolic systems and unimaginable ancestral liaisons extending to first life forms. Experimenting with a mixture of clay bodies, foraged glaze ingredients, and firing techniques, the making of these works approaches elements as re-organizations of matter, energy, and life. The mineral and chemical composition of the soil and raw ashes from organic vegetation, along with the varying atmosphere during different firing processes, collectively enact the inextricable yet unpredictable relations between substances, residues, and impurities.
While in Canada, I visited the Royal Alberta Museum, hoping to learn more about the organic remains that made up the geological formation of ancient Alberta. Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the museum collection was, as it has always been, dinosaurs. These masculine, intimidating, giant skeletons are praised at the center of the fabricated prehistoric landscape in a way that humans would imagine themselves to be: the dominant force of the planet.
The Anthropocene is a geological speculation. As a theoretical framework that integrates anthropic influence into the Earth’s deep history and views human as the driving forces of geologic change, the Anthropocene indicates a process of re-mineralization that encapsulates our present into the future fossils of humanity. However, this seemingly universal geological term homogenizes “human” as a whole, obscuring the differentiated histories of responsibilities in petro-capitalism and the consequential uneven distribution of impact among geography and population.
Geology is never neutral, as Kathryn Yusoff pointed out. Instead, “It is world-making, subject deforming and future building.” My works approach geological speculation to contemplate our current environmental precarity as the ongoing reorganization of matters in the aftermath of colonialism, productivism, and capitalist extraction. With ecological fiction involving more-than-human pasts and futures, I attempt to navigate the ethics of incompatible scales and relational affinity across various networked life forms. Especially those who are often neglected have long predated, and will outlive us – the myriad of fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms.
In a video work earlier last year, “A Vast Shimmer Spans All”, I imagined indeterminate worlds where rocks, minerals, bacteria, and animal remains enmeshed with one another in layered temporalities. The video reconstructed two fictional landscapes in a virtual worldbuilding engine. One is a desolate underground structure in the desert, referencing the actual site located in a Sedimentary Basin in southern New Mexico, where salt bed formations from the Permian period have been stable for 250 million years and were therefore chosen for building the deep geological disposal plant to store transuranium waste from nuclear weapons.
This waste will be radioactive for approximately 24,000 years, more than all human artifacts have sustained. Another scene illustrates a poisonous, acidic lake formed in an abandoned open-pit mine, based on Berkeley Pit Lake in Butte, Montana, where tens of thousands of migrating snow geese were accidentally killed after landing to escape a storm. In this lake, and at various other sites with oil spills and nuclear radioactive contamination, scientists have discovered extremophiles that proliferate and flourish from our waste. Extremophiles are microorganisms that can thrive in extreme environments; most of them are archaea: a domain of single-cell organisms whose lineage may be the most ancient on Earth. Aside from extreme conditions, they are also found in almost every habitat from ocean to land, including the human microbiome in our skin, gut, and orifices.
These stories unravel monstrous intimacy and queer kinship across multiple forms of beings, between humans and others, including our liquified or molecular ancestors and contaminating progeny. The plastic-fungal-entanglement renders stories alternative to the Anthropocene and its techno-heroic tales, which grant humankind the position as the dominant agent of transforming Earth. Ancient microorganisms metabolizing our toxic legacy in incomprehensible timelines in which humans are absent bring forth a planetary logic of the inhuman. By unearthing muddy remains of biologic, geologic, and social histories, material “residues” are re-activated as generative elements to the making and unmaking of worlds. Stories moving across such enormous and microscopic scales can be disorienting, as they seem to remove the “human” which is distant from realities we ground our experiences in. The invisible imprints of our existence on earth reflect the realities to which we were not attuned, manifesting in the form of speculation. We are all inhabitants of this speculative landscape, in which our lives are composted in constellations of paradoxical kinships.