The Shanghai Project, Chapter 2: Seeds of Time

Shanghai Himalayas Museum, China. Until 30 July.

By 2050, much of central Shanghai will be submerged. By 2116, the city's contours will be unrecognizable. This is the genesis of the Shanghai Project, a collaboration of science and art whose second installation, Seeds of Time, focuses on climate change in China's boomtown — a timely reminder of a disturbing prospect.

Imaginary Geography by Qiu Zhijie envisions a new world. Credit: Qiu Zhijie

The project, described as an ideas platform focusing on near-future sustainability, was kick-started in 2016 by the Shanghai Himalayas Museum; Seeds of Time is curated by the museum's executive director, Yongwoo Lee, with Hans Ulbrich Obrist of London's Serpentine Galleries. There is a utopian cast to the wide-ranging research on show, comprising live events, artworks, workshops and publications that collectively imagine a future Shanghai of harmonious coexistence between nature and humanity — a condition known in Chinese as “home garden” or “peach blossom spring”. China has, after all, unique traditions centred on this relationship and stretching back thousands of years.

Yet this is a project that vaults far beyond the local. Joining Chinese artists and scholars including Huang Rui, Qiu Zhijie, Qiu Anxiong and Kaimei Wang are the likes of US physicist Peter Galison and French social philosopher Bruno Latour (lecturing on how we might “reset modernity”). Experiments in how Western thinkers might be inspired by geographic otherness are just part of the cultural interplay in Seeds of Time.

In Route of the Future, artist Qiu Anxiong (perhaps best known for his animated 'woodblock-print' bestiary New Classic of Mountains and Seas; 2006) offers visitors a guided tour through the future city by bus. Science-fiction writer Ken Liu provides the script: a 48-hour itinerary for visiting the drowned metropolis of 2116. Satirizing lifestyle-trend pieces, Liu's text breathlessly describes the nightlife and cuisine for post-apocalyptic tourists, and portrays central Shanghai as a realm in which the elite inhabit underwater bubbles, while much of the population has moved to suburbs. Its optimistic vision of climate adaptation echoes Kim Stanley Robinson's sci-fi novel New York 2140 (Orbit, 2017).

A documentary film, also called Seeds of Time, traces the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen. Here, the most prized crop varieties from countries around the world are banked in controlled conditions to safeguard them against climate impacts: intertwining the portentous with the pragmatic, the vault might be a monument to our times. (Interestingly, the financial metaphor is not retained in the facility's Chinese name, which translates as “seed research unit”.) Artist Maya Lin's memorial to species extinction, What is Missing? Empty Room, is viewed on optical plates of glass in a darkened room, allowing a digitized, interactive encounter with disappearing habitats and animals. These works are all gripping, but they sit cheek by jowl with opportunistic pieces, as if a celebrity was told, 'Shanghai, ecology — go'.

Recent years have seen China's scientific community gaining ever more international prominence through significant upticks in papers and patent filings, as well as the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou. The country's technocratic system profoundly values science as it confronts environmental issues from air pollution to rising tides, and the Shanghai Project reflects a growing trend in artistic grappling with these challenges. China is, of course, no stranger to vast human–environmental dramas: the culture is rooted in such titanic interactions, and in technological solutions to them. The legendary first emperor, the Great Yu, was supposedly an engineer who tamed the waters of the Yellow River — an exploit that explicitly inspired twentieth-century leader Mao Zedong in his South–North Water Transport Project and the Three Gorges Dam (see A. Janku Nature 536, 28–29; 2016). China's pioneering status in science and medicine is also renowned. An ancient text on geography and botany (and the inspiration for Qiu Anxiong's piece) was the fourth-century BC Shan Hai Jing, or the Classic of Mountains and Seas. And dating to roughly the same era, the medical textbook Huangdi Neijing, or the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, is still used for practical applications. (Tu Youyou was famously inspired by ancient medical texts.)

Chinese society is gearing up to save itself, from the experimental architecture schools of Shenzhen to the massive subsidies the Chinese government has announced for sustainable energy — with 2.5 trillion yuan (US$363 billion) to be invested in research, innovation and infrastructure by 2020. The diverse range of visions in the Shanghai Project, whether inspiring or annoying, are never boring. Let's hope that they are another step along the way to a zero-carbon China.