Intermission

Michael Wang

The Drowned World
Reading time 2 minutes

The mechanism of climate change can be reduced to a series of material transformations : air becomes living matter becomes air again.

Burning fossil fuels reverses the chemical transformations of photosynthesis. Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria change carbon dioxide into the living matter of their bodies. Carbon, reconfigured and recombined, moves from gas into solid. As the physical remains of ancient photosynthesizing orga- nisms burn, the carbon locked within them transforms again into air, and the energy captured from a younger sun is released.

“The Drowned World” (2018–) names a series of works that engage the orga- nic origins – and the ongoing biological

consequences – of industrialization and cli- mate change. The works appropriate living matter and the chemical operations of pho- tosynthesis as artistic media. The found ruins of fossil fuel infrastructure and the ubiquitous atmospheric effects of carbon emissions form their site and context.

In First Forest (2018), a forest assembled from plants closely related to those of the Carboniferous period grows from the ruins of a gasworks. These plants once formed vast swamplands that stretched across the globe – the Earth’s first forests. Over mil- lennia, their buried remains hardened to form coal. As at thousands of industrial- era gasworks, the gasworks that form the site of the work heated and burned coal. First Forest suggests a speculative cli-

matic future. By returning carbon to the atmosphere, the climatic conditions of the Carboniferous period might be restored. Here, a Carboniferous forest engulfs the coal gasworks, and a 300-million–year pro- cess comes full circle.

The photographs that comprise the series “Carboniferous” depict the fossilized forms of plants from coal deposits around the world. The images offer a glimpse of the ancient forests that, as coal, would fuel the industrial revolution. While the mate- rial imaginary of modernity is dominated by inorganic matter – steel, concrete, and glass – these photographs, produced in a modernist idiom, reveal the hidden organic origins of the modern world.

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