Tong Wenmin, Branch, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 53 minutes 8 seconds.

Tong Wenmin, Branch, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 53 minutes 8 seconds.

Tong Wenmin

“One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides,” according to James Lovelock, the scientist and Futurist best known for proposing the so-called Gaia hypothesis, according to which the earth is a self-regulating system, “is the richness of their wildlife.” When environmentalists were still bemoaning the “despoiling” of the earth, Lovelock recognized that life flourishes because of—not despite—catastrophe.

For her exhibition “Emerald,” Tong Wenmin presented videos documenting a group of durational performances that are founded on this Lovelockian insight. In Squid (all works 2019), for example, she holds a freshly killed specimen on her palm, waiting for its bioluminescent body to slowly drain of color. The dead animal conforms nearly perfectly to the contours of her hand, reminding viewers of the biological origins of our most mundane “materials,” such as pigments derived from crushed insects, or petroleum from zooplankton and algae.

Tong’s practice challenges the illusion that nature means pure, unspoiled wilderness and pushes viewers to think of the natural world as constituted by the labor, inventions, and by-products of human and nonhuman beings. She draws attention, often humorously, to the ways in which organic life possesses agency. For the video Branch, for example, she draped her body on the boughs of an irradiated tree in Fukushima, Japan, for hours. Such action inverts the old cliché of environmentalists hugging helpless trees: In Fukushima, as in Chernobyl and other catastrophic sites, the trees thrive, while humans grow sick with radiation poisoning.

To suggest that Tong’s concerns are purely ecological would be misleading, however. On the contrary, her work is guided by a fascination with formal limitations that is practically Oulipian—it just so happens that she frames these endeavors with materials that evoke the environment. In Island, realized during a residency in Dinawan Island, Malaysia, the artist lies prone and spread-eagle on a pool table, her arms and legs tied down by a rope strung through the table’s corner pockets. Awkwardly restrained, she then uses her hips, knees, and elbows to nudge the balls into different pockets. Placed on the edges of the table are pieces of coral, ornate and garish; what is being framed here is not a rugged human hero, singlehandedly saving the environment, but a creature bound up with other beings and forced to plan her actions alongside theirs.

For Grandmother, 2019, the artist embroiders a story in Chinese onto a blanket woven by her own grandmother. The artist’s tale—loosely informed by the discussions of the incest taboo in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s texts—tells of a grandmother who suffocates her grandson to punish her daughter-in-law for her crime of incest. For those fluent in Chinese, this story will, in turn, call to mind the title of the show: The characters for emerald, or zumulü, literally mean “grandmother green.” Here, the green grandmother is like a jilted force of the earth, punishing a child for the mother’s transgressions against nature—a not-so-subtle allegory for the way in which nature today is punishing us for the sins of our parents’ generation.

In Wave, the sight of Tong’s body tossed around a beach depicts a union with “nature” that is far from harmonious—the artist gasps as water rushes through her nostrils. The footage dispels the idea of nature as pure “over there” and shows us how tangled, messy, and painful political action can be in a world where not one species, but millions, live.