Zheng Mahler is a collective formed by artist Royce Ng and anthropologist Daisy Bisenieks. In their collaborative examination of global trade, the relational networks connecting nature and technology, and more-than-human geographies, they explore the flows of their mutual influence and the environmental architectures they produce. Using digital media, performance and installation, they develop speculative scenarios and immersive, sensory encounters that explore the limits and potentials of their respective disciplines.
Over the past three years, while unable to travel, most of Zheng Mahler’s works have been reflective of the environment where they live, Lantau Island in Hong Kong.
Soilspace continues this approach, being a reiteration of a work Zheng Mahler created remotely for Singapore, which explored a speculative archaeology of East Asian urbanism taking Singapore and Hong Kong as two diametrically opposed exemplars. The new work for Helsinki acts as a subterranean window into the idea of cities built on graves and burial sites as part of wider ‘soil communities’. The 3D representations of a folkloric, historical, and biological cross-section interact across multiple temporal axes of the site. It becomes a form of ancestor worship dedicated to the multitude of spirits in the soil that have shaped and continue to shape the spaces we inhabit.
The work was installed in a cyclist and pedestrian pathway ‘Baana’ that leads from HAM towards Vallisaari Island. Soilspace remains installed on Baana until spring 2024.
We started tending a garden plot during the last lockdown. This shaped our lives and got us thinking about how ‘soil communities’ and histories embedded there affect the plant communities. We took our garden patch as a metaphorical framework for approaching the artwork and the area around Baana, looking into its soil histories and how they intersect with human histories and ultimately affect the development of the urban landscape; the ‘gardens’ that grow out of those subterranean interactions. The lens through which we wanted to research the Helsinki archipelago is based on its resonance with the archipelago we ourselves inhabit.
The first step involved tilling the ground, preparing and aerating the lumpy, clotted soil by pushing the shovel through the dirt and then smoothing it with a rake. Considerable construction detritus was unearthed and removed in the process, telling the story of the ground’s previous life.
Sometimes those histories involved decay and death, the decomposition of flesh and life. Sometimes viruses arrived from afar, a piece of porcelain, a grain of rice, a scrap of fabric, traded through multi-hued hands, carrying its own scents and messages. Sometimes a soil community told a story of violence, murder and ghosts.
At one point, a line was traced through the soil in one of the garden’s trenches that the public often traversed, extending to the edges of the island. It had once been a trade route for ants, insects and other citizens and led directly to the harbour, which in this case was a basin of disease.
Along the trench, a mural was designed which told the story of the soil and its secrets, a subterranean genealogy of microbes that stalked the archipelago in primordial timescales.
Zheng Mahler’s work has featured in various international solo and group exhibitions including; ‘A Season in Shell’ at the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, Switzerland in 2014; PERFORMA: New Visual Art Performance Biennale in New York City in 2015; ‘Mutual Aid’ at the Johann Jacobs Museum in 2016, screenings for Artist Film International (AFI) at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, UK in 2017; ‘Sci(No)-Fi’ at the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne, Germany and ‘Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future’ at Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong in 2019; ‘Bodies of Water’ at the Shanghai Biennale XIII in Shanghai, China and ‘Eurasia: A Landscape of Mutability’ at the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, Belgium in 2021; Lonely Vectors’ at the Singapore Museum of Art, ‘Liquid Ground’ at UCCA Dune in Beidaihe, China and ‘Rat! Rats! Rats! The Poetic Grammar of the Hack’ at Caixa Forum in Barcelona in 2022. Their multimedia project ‘What is it like to be a (virtual) bat?’ commissioned by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) was presented on the online platform ‘ARE YOU FOR REAL?’ in 2022 and at Kunsthalle Mainz in Germany and PHD Group, Hong Kong in 2023.
3D computer generated images digitally printed on vinyl mesh
Courtesy of the artists.