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Zheng Mahler: Soilspace, 2023. You may not use this photo for commercial purposes. Photo: © HAM/Sonja Hyytiäinen.


© Artists

Baana, Helsinki

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 is installed in a cyclist and pedestrian pathway ‘Baana’ that leads from HAM towards Vallisaari Island. Soilspace remains installed on Baana until spring 2024.

The artists write:

“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 Johann Jacobs Museum, PERFORMA, Whitechapel Gallery, the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Shanghai Biennale XIII, The Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, Singapore Museum of Art, UCCA Dune in Beidaihe and Caixa Forum. Their multimedia project ‘What is it like to be a (virtual) bat?’ commissioned by IFA was presented on the online platform ‘ARE YOU FOR REAL?’ in 2022, at Kunsthalle Mainz in Germany and PHD Group Hong Kong in 2023.

The work belongs to the collection of the City of Helsinki, curated and managed by HAM Helsinki Art Museum.

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