Alternative Futures and the Arts of Staying with the Trouble

“Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.”
Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

Ecological awareness and the concept of universal interconnectedness is becoming more and more prevalent in artistic discourse and beyond. Scientists and some politicians (like Al Gore) have been talking about climate change for a long time, since the 1990s, when things didn’t look as dire yet and when there still would’ve been a better chance at gradual action shifting the ecological landscape of the planet. Things look much more radical now and environmental activism is at the centre of public life, political discourse and party politics, as well as cultural production and activist culture with popular protest movements like Extinction Rebellion and binge-worthy series like Our Planet by the infamous British narrator David Attenborough. In Attenborough’s words:

“We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely we all have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity and indeed, all life on earth, now depends on us.”

Photograph of Extinction Rebellion protest via the Londonist, credits to Ruth Davey

With political, economic and ecological systems crumbling before our eyes, it might be difficult not to completely succumb to escapist nostalgia or a resignant and ironic dystopianism. But what other toolkit can be at our disposal to brutally face the present? Speculative thought and writers like Donna Haraway and others encourage us to think beyond the limitations of the language and the rational, anthropocentric world that we know and attempt to reconstruct our notion of the universe and all kindred beings within it through a combination of magic and reality in order to form new kinships and challenge existing hegemonic structures. This includes making ontological leaps from one discipline, species, material and mind to another and thinking through and with other inanimate and organic beings and networks like plants or animals. Magical and speculative thinking might help us perceive both ourselves and the world around us as one web of interlinked creatures that all have a shared relationship and responsibility towards one another and towards our planet we inhabit. Forging these unexpected kinships might’ve never sounded more relevant than in such a challenging time for all kinds of intimacy -when we have felt even more alienated as usual, but more so perhaps the pandemic has simply revealed and exaggerated a lot of harmful symptoms of our current capitalist society that we have been able to keep at bay through distractions and quick-fixes. Our alienation and distant-ness has never been this clear.

Image: Still from Fabrizio Terranova’s Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival (2016). Via Viewpoint Magazine.

Like Donna Haraway says in her book Staying with the Trouble, instead of thinking in a linear way about history and narratives, we must learn how to think in terms of interwoven connections, as well as ‘stay with the trouble’ or constantly taking responsibility and actively agitating the forces of the current system of reality we live in. We must embrace the unsettling, the catastrophic, the uncomfortable – we must look it in the eye and face it instead of escaping into a nostalgic past or techno utopian future. Staying with the trouble is staying with the present.

Such ideas of environmental awareness, universal interconnection and alienation are all present in the vibrant figurative portraits of Jingyi Wang. Her canvases are populated with anthropomorphic cacti that appear against glossy icebergs, empty deserts and grey cityscapes depicting a kind of magical world that oscillates between utopia and dystopia. The titles of some works are telling of Wang’s interpretation of cacti – Don’t Touch Me is a good example of the fact that the stingy skin of cacti can be interpreted as a symbol for a kind of inability to have intimacy and for a resulting collective alienation as well as having direct physical impact on our environment and things that come in contact with us. Much like the ice bergs, the humanoid cacti are also drifting apart, unable to coexist without hurting each other, which says a lot about the ways we currently inhabit our planet. Wang’s figures have bright coloured clothing and characteristic features and accessories that mirror the identity-driven individualistic attitude of people in today’s society.

Jingyi Wang-Capricorn Cactus, 2020-Oil on canvas-61 x 51 cm

The canvases are all individual portraits, capturing the essence and unique personality of each cactus-person. Another painting the Wandering Earth Ball #3 represents the planet as a deflating balloon at the edge of a picnic table against a desolate background, which points to Wang’s timely interest in the prescience of environmental catastrophe we are heading towards. She shows how our collective individualism and narcissism is destroying the planet, represented by the deadly skin of the cacti embracing the fragile inflated earth-balloon in the painting Wandering Earth Ball. While still maintaining a playful edge, these paintings have a dystopian tone and capture the sense of alienation we experience vis-a-vis each other and also ourselves, as well as the responsibility and perhaps subconscious power we have over our environment and planet as a whole. Their charm and character does however carry a positive message and a kind of naive innocence, capturing humankind’s eternal yearning for network, friendships and intimacy and staying with the trouble.

Jingyi Wang Wandering Earth Ball, 2021 Oil on Canvas 150 x 150 cm

The paintings also meditate on the idea of ruins and what will be left behind or what will a new kind of humanity look like after a catastrophe. How will we be able to keep living the ruins, both physically and psychologically, as well as with each other? What will these new hybrid landscapes and peoples look like? Wang is bringing different natural, artificial and human landscapes into conversation with one another to speculate on this entangled future world. This is a great example of speculative thinking through other species, like cacti in her case, to envision alternative futures and reflect critically on our present moment.

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