Elemental Constellations


Artists: Syahrul Anuar, Ursula Biemann & Mo Diener, Julian Charrière, Ane Graff, Guo Cheng, Louis Henderson, Chia-Wei Hsu, Hanna Ljungh, Otobong Nkanga, Alain Resnais, Riar Rizaldi, Oscar Santillán, Maarten Vanden Eynde & Musasa, Wang Sishun, Zhan Wang.

Curator: Yang Beichen

As we all know, elements are the fundamental units of the world, serving as the basis of all things and life. However, they have also come to symbolize an intangible “nature”, or a certain kind of mythological and magical “science”. Elements may be seen as a “medium” from such perspective, constantly shaping the culture and the technology, whether in the time of Empedocles or Taoism, or after the periodic table having been established. Within the framework of New Materialism, “the elements are as restless as the human imagination,” as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen notes. This restlessness is not only rooted in chemical or industrial processes but also tied to various alternative ontologies and cosmologies from the pre-Socratic period to the modern age.

In the era of ecological crisis, we are noticing the dynamic entanglements between seemingly separate entities, and many of these once invisible connections can be traced back to the elemental level. Passive, inert and non- intervening elements are at the same time active, vibrant, and even destructive. As a machine that mixes object, body, and power, elements transcend various entities, from the inorganic to the organic, from the environment to life, from nature to discourse. The world under such influence is presented as a material assemblage constantly being reconstructed. It is in this context that we, as humans in the Anthropocene, can finally contemplate our embeddedness in the planetary ecology and the possibility of forming alliances with the elements.

Inspired by Primo Levi’s novel The Periodic Table, we seek to activate the narrative and material imagination of elements in the exhibition “Elemental Constellations”, creating their images and sensory values, and thus constructing an alchemical constellation. Continuing the reflection on species in “Multispecies Clouds”, the first chapter of the exhibition series “Who Owns Nature?”, we hope to define the element as an indeterminate, unpredictable, and ever evolving being, not external but intrinsic to us. The exhibition is akin to a “parliament” as described by Bruno Latour, an assembly between humans and non-humans, a debate between different cosmologies. As nature gradually reduces to lifeless resources due to colonialism and extractivism, we, in the name of “elemental poetics”, attempt to reinvent the emotions and justice related to water, fire, land, and minerals.

“Elemental Constellations” is curated by Yang Beichen, director of Macalline Center of Art, and presented by Huang Wenlong and the Exhibition and Research Department. The special public program “Periodic Table” will be launched while “Elemental Constellations” is on view. Macalline Center of Art extends special thanks to Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Swiss Arts Council and Office for Contemporary Art Norway for their support of this exhibition.


Research-based Curatorial Project “Who Owns Nature?”

“Who Owns Nature?” is a research based curatorial project with three chapters at the Macalline Center of Art. It must be acknowledged that the answer to Who Owns Nature? has been different at every period of History. For an 18th-century acknowledged that the answer to “Who Owns Nature?” has been different at every period of History. For an 18th-century Western colonizer, “nature” meant territory and the possessions therein, representing continued appropriation and plunder in the name of “the earth as a commonwealth.” In the eyes of the home-bound or green room-bound naturalists, the exotic flowers and animals that arrived in Europe from the far corners of the world were gifts from God, and all they had to do was to use nomenclature and taxonomy to sort them out and integrate “nature” into the knowledge and trade landscape of the Empire.

In turn, we discovered that objectifying “nature” led to huge historical debts – which certainly explains the double entendre of the question (Who Owns Nature?). We owe something to “nature” precisely because “nature” is seen only as a resource to be transformed and accumulated, and is exploited and expropriated as a pure object until it is exhausted. This is a linear, “progressive” cosmological framework that clearly fails to account for the complex entanglement between us and “nature”. In the Anthropocene, we have long been a multi-scaled existence, just as “nature” has become a multinature at the planetary level, rather than a collection of homogeneous and unchanging entities at the ontological level. “Nature” is both within and beyond us, and our relationship with it is not human versus non-human, but intimately intertwined and interdependent, based on true diversity.

It is precisely in this sense that “Who owns nature?” seeks to re-examine our historical debt with “nature” and to explore a new non-linear cosmological model. This is an interdisciplinary project, in which we will work with different artists, scholars and cultural practitioners to stimulate lively and serious discussions on different issues.

The first chapter, “Multispecies Clouds” has already taken place in the first half of this year. “Elemental Constellations” marks the second chapter of the series.


About the Curator

Yang Beichen

Dr. Yang Beichen is a researcher and a curator based in Beijing, China. He is the director of the  Macalline Center of Art, and one of the members of the Thought Council at the Fondazione Prada.

His research examines the agency and potentialities of the moving image in the context of contemporary technology and ecology, deploys media archaeology as a radical framework to excavate alternative modernities, and ultimately aims to re-interpretate history and geopolitics from a New Materialist standpoint. His curatorial practices grow out of and attest to his multidisciplinary academic approaches. Notable curatorial projects include “New Metallurgists” (Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf), “Micro-Era” (Kulturforum, Berlin), the Guangzhou Image Triennial 2021 "The Intermingling Flux" (Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou), “A MOON WRAPPED IN BROWN PAPER” (Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai) , etc. Between 2019 and 2021, he also led a three-year research project focusing on the art of moving image in China at the NCAF, for which he curated three research-based exhibitions: “Anti-Projection: Media Sculptures in Early Chinese Video Art”, “Embodied Mirror: Performances in Chinese Video Art”, and “Polyphonic Strategies: The Moving Image and its Expanded Field”. 

He has planned a new research exhibition project "Who Owns Nature? ” at Macalline Center of Art, the first chapter of which, “Multispecies Clouds” was exhibited in the first half of 2023.

He has also contributed critical essays for the catalogues of the artists such as Cao Fei, Laure Prouvost, Omer Fast, Antony Gormley and HO Tzu Nyen, etc. His academic monograph Film as Archive will be published soon.

The Macalline Center of Art (MACA) is a non-profit art institution located in the 798 Art District of Beijing and officially inaugurated its space on January 15, 2022. Occupying a two-story building with a total area of 900 square meters, MACA unites artists, curators, and other art and cultural practitioners from around the world. Through its diverse, ongoing, and collaborative approaches, the Center establishes a new site on the contemporary art scene. Guided by the “work of artists” and backed by interdisciplinary research, the Center aims to bring together a community passionate about art and devoted to the “contemporary” moment so as to respond proactively to our rapidly evolving times.