Threats from civilization are bringing about a kind of “new shadow kingdom,” comparable to the realm of the gods and demons in antiquity, which is hidden behind the visible world and threatens human life on their Earth. People no longer correspond today with spirits residing in things but find themselves exposed to “radiation,” ingesting “toxic levels,” and are pursued into their very dreams by the anxiety of a “nuclear holocaust”... Dangerous, hostile substances lie concealed behind the harmless facades. Everything must be viewed with a double gaze, and can only be correctly understood and judged through this doubling. The world of the visible must be investigated, relativized with respect to a second reality, only existent in thought and concealed in the world. (Ulrich Beck, The Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity)
Let us first talk about disappearance – the disappearance of the image. (Julieta Aranda, lip, dip, paint, talk: your mouth is bleeding, video, 8 min., 2018)
There is something extremely captivating and mysterious about fluorescence. Perhaps it lies in the supernatural way in which it illuminates and shines, or the fact that it only becomes visible in the dark. Either way, it is not by chance that its potent glow has long been linked to a certain North American cinematic history — one that draws associations to extraterrestrial beings, strange CIA conspiracies, and ghostly presenc- es. The enigmatic appeal of fluorescent shine is, however, more straightforward than one would be inclined to think, and it is exactly this characteristic that becomes a perfect starting point to start to sketch out the toxic. Picture the story referenced by artist Julieta Aranda’s work lip, dip, paint, talk: your mouth is bleeding about fluorescent paint produced by the US Radium Corporation between 1917 and 1938. The product was used to paint detailing on watches and clock dials in the 1920s, and its luminosity was achieved thanks to a mixture of radioactive radium and zinc sulfide. The job of painting was performed by working class women who were encouraged to lick the brush in order to ensure perfect precision as they painted. The radium in the paint that the women continuously ingested emitted radiation that caused various kinds of diseases, including bone tumors, porosity of the lower jaw, and various other malformations that ultimately led to suffering and many premature deaths.
The toxic trade-off, produced by the desire to obtain the enchanting charm of fluorescent watch detailing, was deadly diseases of which its victims were unknowing and subjected to perform out of mere necessity to pay their monthly bills. This story introduces two important features of the toxic; one being its capacity to hide behind seemingly harmless and often alluring facades; and the second being that the toxic is often produced in an entangled set of conditions of power and precarity – one that counterbalances the greed and vanity of a few with the basic needs to survive of the many.
Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake called Weikuang Dam that has, over the years, been filled with tailings and waste slurry from Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex — the world's biggest supplier of rare earth minerals. The by-product produced by the extraction of, for example Cerium, Neo- dymium, and Thorium — rare earth minerals that make up the base of many consumer electronics like smart phones and tablets, but which are also key components in green technologies such as wind turbines and electric cars that so smugly excite the West — are continuously being dumped into Weikuang Dam. The chemicals and radiation found in the lake have been linked to lower crop yields in surrounding farmlands and serious health problems among local villagers. Paradoxically, or perhaps not at all, the population of the region has grown from a shy 97,000 inhabitants back in 1950 to a population of more than two and a half million today due to the flourishing rare earth industry – a growth primarily comprised of migrant workers drawn from a greater region looking for a brighter future.
Anu Ramdas & Christian Danielewitz. Thorium 232/Weikuang VI, Against The Grain & Black Square | Photo by Hannes Wiedemann
Nona Inescu, Vestigial Structures. Photo by Hannes Wiedemann
Julieta Aranda, Not This. Come With. Fear Nothing. Photo by Hannes Wiedemann
He Xiangyu, Cola Project | Photo by Hannes Wiedemann
The radioactive metal Thorium 232 – an inevitable by-product of rare earth extraction – is not only found on location at Weikuang Dam but is also, in its purest form, a component of the camera used by artists Anu Ramdas and Christian Danielewitz as they set out to capture the post-apocalyptic slopes surrounding the lake. The film is recorded with a camera manufactured in the 1970s when it was common to use thorium to improve the optical capacity of glass. Today, thorium in cameras has been replaced by other rare earth elements, but the socioeconomic and environmental problems inherent to the extraction of these elements in the region are the same and still remain. Through elaborate experimentation with light, temperature, and Thorium, the artist duo fix radioactive disturbances and subatomic collisions onto black and white photo negatives, as seen in the photo series Against the Grain – an attempt to give shape and form to the invisible processes that go unnoticed and that allude to the infinite amount of toxic abuses that continue in the periphery – abuses that span from the molecular to the macro.
Directly east of Inner Mongolia, on the border of North Korea, lies the city of Dandong, hometown to artist He Xiangyu. After a series of experimentations on Coca Cola in his Beijing studio in 2009, He decided to move back north and open a production site on the fringes of the city where he grew up. He employed 10 migrant workers, who, together with himself, worked unremittingly for one and a half years to cook and transform 200 tonnes of liquid Coca Cola into 40 cubic meters of black residue. The work is a product of He’s curious desire to give material form to the feeling of drinking a ubiquitous consumer product that has, along with other cultural artifacts and habits, been flooding the contemporary China in which he grew up. In this project, as in many of his other long-term engagements that the artist has brought forth in the past years, his sustained, al- most anthropological attention to Coca Cola – especially as matter and as a commercial and cultural symbol – opens up broader reflections on complex issues related to capitalism, consumption, globalization, and labor.
In the exhibition, He’s cola residue is dispersed in a large pile next to a wall built out of blue shipping barrels – used in the commercial shipping of yeast – which have also enclosed the cola residue during its multiple intercontinental transports the last 10 years circulating the international art market. Each exchange has proven to be a legal headache as the cola residue always fails to fit snugly into stiff international customs regulations, hinting at all of the limitations inherent in scientific apparatuses and its technocratic logic continually insisting on fitting all matter into rigid and binary classifications.
ARTISTS Boris Anje, Julieta Aranda, Anne Duk Hee Jordan and Pauline Doutreluingne, Anja Kanngieser Jessika Khazrik, Assaf Gruber, He Xiangyu, Nona Inescu, Candice Lin, Christian Danielewitz and Anu Ramdas, Jonas Staal, Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Ashkan Sepahvand, Neda Saeedi Stephan R.Thierbach, Nada Tshibuabua, Zina Saro-Wiwa.
Featured image: Natascha Sadr Haghighian & Ashkan Sepahvand. Dark Loops, Act III of Carbon Theater | Photo: Hannes Wiedemann