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Zheng Mahler_Mountains of Gold and Silve

2020. Mountains of Gold and Silver are not as Good as Mountains of Blue and Green, 3D Animation, 9 holographic ventillators, blue tooth sound, 10:41


In their work ‘Mountains Of Gold And Silver Are Not As Good As Mountains of Blue And Green’ Zheng Mahler revisit the themes of their 2016 exhibition ‘Mutual Aid’, dealing with automatons, rare earths and trade wars, as a palimpsest for reading the present, drawing historical symmetries between the geopolitics of the 18th century and the present. The trade war between China and Europe in the 18th century which focused on the trade imbalances that resulted from European desires for Chinese commodities like porcelain prefigured the current trade war between the US and China, fought over currencies, technology and rare earths. In the 18th century these geopolitical and material flows intersected through kaolin, the secret ingredient of fine bone porcelain which mystified and eluded European traders, whilst in the 21st century similar desires circulate around the scarcity of rare earth elements, mined from the very same vast quarries around Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, like cerium [Ce], lanthanum [La], gadolinium [Gd], neodymium [Nd]+ used in both electronic and green tech industries.


This ongoing historical and contemporary relationship between China and the West, where the mutual preoccupation and desire for goods beholden with magical properties, whether of earth or technology, draws in a new urgent concern for ecological impacts of the rare earth industries. We examine the relationship between the state sanctioned ‘Rare Earths Kingdom’ of Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, whose countryside has been contaminated with poisonous chemicals used in both state owned and illicit rare earth mines that ensures Chinese dominance of the global industry, together with global appetites for rare earth elements and environmental technologies within free trade practices. The global ecologically-conscious drive for environmental technologies (wind turbines, engines of hybrid and electric vehicles, solar panels) is predicated on the essential role of rare earths in this economy, which creates a circular logic of complicity and exploitation that is the paradox of contemporary capitalism. However, it’s within this paradox that Zheng Mahler unearth bubbles of protest for ecological re-valuation (the title of the piece is taken from a protest slogan of villagers affected by the rare earths mining industry in Jiangxi) and alternative mining practices in partnership with symbiotic entities that could aid to engender a radical rethinking of what ‘economy’ could mean.


The work explores the human, bacterial, mineral, chemical, technological and economic roles of actors within these relations in which chemicals used to leech rare earths from the soil become a toxic effluent contaminating waterways and bodies which belie their instrumentalisation in ‘environmental technologies’. Taking the notion of surveillance, an underpinning feature of the state apparatus, as an artistic strategy but widening its temporal and ontological scope, Zheng Mahler present an experience of ‘listening in’ on a conversation between a series of porcelain pots produced in Jingdezhen and an installation of 3D technological and mineral objects generated by holographic fans as examples of Chinese indigenous shanzhai technology. The work conjures a ghostly object-opera that morphs and sings through text to speech generators the strands of intersecting narratives within Zheng Mahler’s research as they devise clandestine strategies to escape current modes of ‘production-extraction’ through speculative reorientations towards ‘caretaking economies’. 

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