Michael Wang (born 1981) is New York- based artist, writer, and researcher. He is also teaching at Columbia GSAPP alongside his writing and artistic practice. Wang holds a BA in Social Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University, an MA in Performance Studies from New York University, and an M.Arch from Princeton University. Selected recent solo and group exhibitions include: Elevation 1049, ‘Interstices,’ LUMA Foundation (Gstaad 2023); Solastalgia, Kalmar konstmuseum (Kalmar 2023); Lake Tai, Prada Rong Zhai/ Supported by Fondazione Prada, (Shanghai 2022); The Planetarian, 751 International Design Festival (Beijing 2022); Vulnerable Critters, La Casa Encendida (Madrid 2022); Biocenosis21 / Art of Change 21, IUCN World Conservation Congress (Marseille 2021); Extinct in New York, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island/ Organized by Swiss Institute (New York 2019). Wang has also written for Artforum, Art in America, Texte zur Kunst, and Mousse.
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Could we open the conversation with your multifaceted educational background with a BA in Social Anthropology and Visual & Environmental Studies (Harvard University), an MA in Performance Studies (New York University), and an M.Arch (Princeton University). What attracted you to each field, and how did they shape your artistic practice?
MICHAEL WANG: I have always been interested in the role of art in everyday life. Combining art and anthropology in my undergraduate studies was one way I sought to understand these connections and cultivate new relationships. Performance studies was a natural extension of this: a discipline that understands how performance is embedded in culture. Certain kinds of performance art also appealed to me – in which a body’s real actions are given a symbolic and representational force. Finally, architecture seemed to promise to bring art into the larger “out there” of the real world. All of these disciplines laid the foundations for an enlarged view of the space of artistic production.
LŠ: The complex relationship between nature and culture is the basis of your artistic practice. How and when did your interest in global ecological issues start?
MW: I have always felt the boundary separating the human and the nonhuman as something extremely tenuous. I first read a book on climate change in my first year of high school, in the mid-1990s, and the logic of CO2 emissions deeply affected me. This global-scaled effect of industrialization made me feel the finitude of the terrestrial world. While I have always been interested in how nature is produced and represented in culture, climate change made me understand how much industrial culture could directly impact the natural world (as a driver of extinction, most ominously). From at least that point on, art as pure representation always felt inadequate. It was in my series Carbon Copies that I finally found a process to make some of these connections visible, and, more importantly, where I began to propose artistic gestures that aim to directly impact supposedly natural phenomena like climate.
LŠ: You are also a writer for numerous publications such as Artforum, Mousse, and Texte zur Kunst. How does your writing practice feed into your artistic one?
MW: Ideas are central to my practice, and writing is, for me, an ideas-centered process. While the balance of my work has tilted away from criticism and theory, words, texts, and of course, concepts are always a part of my work. Even if you don’t immediately see a text on the wall or within a piece, I often create appendages to a work: books, checklists, and short films, in which the textual underbelly of a visual, sculptural, or performance work might appear. By creating these peripheral documents, I am also questioning the boundaries of an artwork. A work extends into its media representations, the criticism surrounding it, and the larger discourses it enters into. While I don’t seek authorial control over these processes, I see them as viable sites for a work to grow into. The line between a work and its reception is blurry and mutable.
LŠ: Your first solo show, Carbon Copies, tangibly addressed twenty contemporary artworks through their environmental impact by materialising them via cubes (differing in size and corresponding with their ecological impact). Each cube represented an impact of specific artwork and its support systems, such as Richard Serra’s steel works or Marina Abramović’s lighting. How was the project created?
MW: When I learned about carbon offset programs, I was struck by this rationalization of emissions (rationalization in both senses of the word). This project of measuring and tracking emissions (both positive and negative) broke down a macro process into micro components. It suggested a new way of seeing climate everywhere and in nearly everything—especially anything connected to industrial fabrication techniques, logistics, or the built environment. These were some of the first areas where emissions tracking tools were developed. In the expanded art market of the early 21st century, the art industry was clearly connected to all of these processes.
I realized that the tools developed to measure a building’s carbon footprint, or the carbon footprint of a trans-Atlantic flight, or the embodied carbon in a ton of hot-rolled steel could often apply to some part of the “life cycle” of an artwork: its creation, transport, or display. I also realized that well-known contemporary artworks could lend visibility to their unseen carbon footprints.
I chose a unique calculation for each work – not a work’s entire footprint, but some portion of it. For Abramović’s piece, as you mentioned, I chose the floodlights which illuminated her durational performance, something generally seen as outside the work itself but for which I could determine a carbon calculation. I’ve noticed many people see Carbon Copies as a condemnation of artists, art, or the art world. This isn’t what I intended (though some works I examined are certainly guilty of various kinds of excesses). Instead, I wanted to show, firstly, that all artists are in some sense “air artists” – their works have this invisible impact on the atmosphere. But the sale of the works—that is, of the maquettes that I call “Carbon Copies,” each scaled according to the carbon footprint they represent–was the real heart of the project. These were sold in exchange for carbon offsets to “erase” the footprints of the originals.
Through this gesture, I wanted to propose a new mode of working as an artist or as an “air artist.” Instead of thinking of carbon emissions as just an unfortunate and unseen part of an artwork, I saw emissions–or, importantly, their erasure–as a possible new artistic medium. If technology fuels climate change (and some technologies might also reverse or mitigate it), these technologies could also become tools for art.
LŠ: Could we look at the long-term project Extinct in the Wild – which looks at the dramatic effects of human technology in restructuring the biological world? How was the project created, and how were the artworks collected? The project also looks at the role of museums – how do you see their future?
MW: The work began with a fantasy image. I considered what it might mean for a work – consisting of species that only persist through dedicated conservation – to be acquired by a large museum. I thought of all the new skills required of art conservators today: preserving rare video formats, or works made from food, or experimental plastics. And I now imagined that this conservation department would be tasked with preserving a species. Nature conservation and art conservation are merged. In this sense, I was envisioning an enlarged role of the museum, though this has not yet happened.
All the species I include in the various iterations of Extinct in the Wild persist only in relation to cultural practices—agriculture, horticulture, scientific research, the pet trade, etc. They no longer exist in nature. So according to this definition, I felt they were now cultural artifacts, like museum objects. Following the logic of the readymade, I felt they could also be elevated to the status of fine art, through their exhibition in art spaces. To accomplish this, I have to re-envision what art spaces are for. Instead of housing dead materials, they must be modified to accommodate living beings. I often use greenhouses as substitutes for vitrines. Equipped with misters, LEDs, and fans, they sustain the conditions necessary to nurture specific organisms, maintaining proper humidity, light, and ventilation.
While on occasion I have worked in close collaboration with botanical gardens to facilitate the loan of rare plant species, I usually include species that are relatively common in cultivation or captivity. There are some species that thrive under human care, even while other human actions have changed their natural environments so that they can no longer survive there. The story of the aurochs, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle, was the first extinction in the wild I researched. The aurochs went extinct in 1627, even while under royal protection in what is now Poland. They were over hunted and, likely, contracted diseases from domestic cattle. And yet cattle—which are, in fact, the same species as the aurochs—have become the most common large mammal on earth.
LŠ: Extinct in the Wild also opened a “new dimension” of your practice – that of an art curator. How do you see the role expanding into the future?
MW: I took on the guise of a curator for this work because I wanted to borrow from and update the curatorial role. Curation means “care.” In Extinct in the Wild, the curator no longer cares for rare books or artworks, but for living things.
LŠ: Furthermore – the project looks at possible future scenarios for cities – where we hopefully live in larger harmony with endangered organisms. What are some of your visions for this “co-habitating” environment?
MW: In New York, I realized a site-specific version of Extinct in the Wild, looking at local extinctions. This work was called Extinct in New York (It was shown at the LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, and organized by Swiss Institute). Here, I cataloged all those species of plants, lichen, and algae, historically known from what became New York City, which are no longer found growing autonomously here. I cultivated these species (which persist elsewhere) at my studio and garden just upstate.
For the exhibition, I brought these back to New York—a kind of homecoming. After a temporary installation indoors, they were distributed to city greenspaces and placed under the care of professional gardeners. I saw this gesture as a bittersweet return. They can only survive in a changed New York when given close attention and care by these skilled horticulturists. Their homeland is not truly a homeland anymore. But at the same time, I wanted to envision a version of New York that could adapt to accommodate these living things – living beings that the city’s growth originally displaced.
I would love to create permanent versions of Extinct in the Wild, or Extinct in New York, or Extinct in “x” city. The Swiss Institute roof garden, on St. Mark’s Place in New York, is one such garden already. I should note that many of the species that meet the criteria of “extinct in the wild,” or which are regionally extinct, are not considered globally endangered.
LŠ: A lot of your work is made with technological tools, and through collaborations with scientists – biotechnology or geo-engineering are some examples. How do you hope to expand on these collaborations?
MW: My practice is very much concerned with expanding the domain of artistic activity. Bringing in technologies (or expertise) from outside the traditional spheres of art is a major way that I try to do this. Some of my earliest works use this strategy. Future works will surely continue these engagements.
LŠ: The work Lake Tai (presented at Fondazione Prada in Shanghai) looked at the natural landscape of the famed gardens and the state of the water and the efforts to preserve the lake. Could you tell us more of the project? And some of the complexities of conservation – you identified.
MW: I was drawn to the story of Lake Tai because it encapsulates both extremes of ecological disturbance and intense efforts of remediation. I am most interested in ambivalent relationships between nature and technology. While industrialization and urbanization were largely responsible for the toxic algal blooms on Lake Tai, lake remediation also relies on industrial technology for algae removal and water inflow management (such as the diversion of freshwater to Taihu from the Yangtze River). My work seeks to uncover these more complex and even contradictory relationships between nature and technology.
One series in this show recreated the Taihu stones of Chinese gardens, the famous twisted stones sourced from Lake Tai since ancient times. But I remade these out of the lake’s organic wastes: algae, invasive species, and discarded crab shells (crab is a major product of the lake). These Taihu stones reveal the partly natural and partly artificial nature of the lake today: a lake whose ecology has been and continues to be modified by industry, agriculture, and the anthropogenic redistribution of species. At the same time, the stones are part of those human-directed efforts to restore the lake’s ecological balance. By capturing the lake’s wastes, they are in fact, part of a process of lake remediation. The works, as static objects, sequester these wastes outside the chemical cycles of the lake.
LŠ: Your latest project is called Mirror Moon – could you tell us more about it?
MW: Mirror Moon is a projection piece that I showed earlier this year in the mountains of Gstaad. The piece appears to “rise” each evening over the course of a complete lunar cycle of 29 days. But instead of showing the familiar “near” side of the moon, the work reveals the moon’s unseen “far” side: the back side that is never visible from Earth. I was thinking about speculative plans to extract helium-3 (a potential fuel for fusion reactions) from the moon’s far side and about the first spacecraft landing on the moon’s far side in 2019. This unseen world is already coming under the sway of technology—and could soon be a site of extraction. The work was an attempt to give this unseen world greater visibility: to give it a place in our everyday rhythms.