Published August 29, 2023
Studio In Situ and Ecological Equilibrium: Interview with Artist Duo Alchemyverse
Alchemyverse, the NYC-based artist duo, was founded in 2020 prior to Yixuan Shao and Bicheng Liang’s graduation from Columbia University's MFA program. Their multisensorial installations, rooted in extensive field research and production in remote locations, trace passage of time and the history of the earth. When we connected for the interview, the duo had just started the artist residency on Rabbit Island, Michigan. Their background on the video call was the blue Keweenaw Bay, forest and the exposed sandstone surface of the island.Their most recent installation Messa in Luce (2023) stems from their research trip to the Atacama Desert, Chile in 2022, as part of the DESERT 23°S artist residency.
Yihsuan Chiu: Glad that we can speak during your residency, especially considering that field research is such a major part of your practice. Given this opportunity, I would love to hear about your thoughts and process in the field at this early stage. Would you tell us where you are now, and what you are doing at the location?
Yixuan Shao (YS): Today is our sixth day on Rabbit Island, and we will be here for a little bit over two weeks. This is a collaboration between Alchemyverse and a paleontologist whose research focuses on the rodent community in the Appalachian region dating about 5 million years ago.
Bicheng Liang (BL): We have always been interested in collaborating with scientists. Once the opportunity of the residency on Rabbit Island arose, we invited them to join us on this trip.
YS: We are fascinated with the research methods in geology, anthropology, and paleontology, especially the hypothesis of how a piece of rock or piece of fossil may construct very ancient pasts. A lot of what we know about nature and nature’s history actually depends on speculation, and depends on the scientist's experience of interpretation. Scientists may start building a narrative based on the material findings. The aspect of story-telling is central. That really speaks to what we do. In our work, we look for evidence of time, things that represent the passage of time, and create works that evolve around them. I think there is a common presumption that science is absolute objective and the hard truth, and art-making is subjective. However, in our collaboration, we see much overlap in our approach as the research stages are both full of speculation. We try to cross paths here.
Could you tell us what the past six days have been like?
YS: It’s a total surprise, but we have found and collected a variety of bones from animal carcasses on the island. It began on our first day on the island while we were hiking in the woods and learning about the environment. We located parts of a snowshoe hare not far from the nest of a Bald Eagle, which are the main predators on the island. They are sacred to the Anishinaabe people, therefore we only observe from afar. Some of the bones appear to be a few years old, but in general they are very fresh. So they are right before the stage where they enter back into the island's natural system and start decomposing.
BL: [video showing the bones they have collected] These are the bones of the eagles’ prey. We think this is the skull of a lake sturgeon, one of the most long-lived fish and the slowest to mature. It can live up to 150 years old and grow up to 240 lb. It is also threatened by overfishing and poor water quality. These are the ankle bones of a mammal. All these long ones are from birds.
YS: We spent the first few days learning about the environment. We walked half of the island along its shore. On the island there is only one human-made trail and two shelters. Most of the landscape is covered by dense forest and giant rocks that sometimes create natural obstacles. We did try to explore ways in or around them. We also took the boat around the island to search for bones, to record sound, and also just to be there. That’s an important part of our process, to spend time with the environment. And the ideas usually start to get rolling from there.
How would you describe the current stage of research? Do you have an idea what the project is going to look like already?
BL: Honestly, before we arrived on the island, we didn’t know what we were going to encounter.
YS: We only had a brief idea of the activities we’d like to enact on site. We did bring equipment with us, but nature will always and eventually disrupt that plan. So we improvise. Now as we are working with a paleobiologist, our conversation benefits a lot from their knowledge of the anatomy of animals. We also observe how they clean and treat the collected bones for study. As we walked the terrain of the island together, we started to have a conversation about how the microscopic and inner structures of an animal will eventually return to the island by entering the cycle of decay and growing the landscape. Equilibrium and exchange in nature is always an aspect we like to look at through our practice.
On top of that, we have never worked with beings that were once alive before. Centering our exploration and research on life this time, we see the potential of anthropomorphic metaphors.
How do you see the relationship between your field work and studio production?
YS: When speaking about our process in the field and how that process translates in the studio, I first think of the process of learning, studying and collecting, which are part of the artistic process. And the relationship between time spent in the field and the studio work is not equally divided. There are a lot of overlaps and fluid states between them.
BL: We work collaboratively, not just between two of us, but also with individuals and groups from other backgrounds. So no matter if it is in the field or in production, we are in constant conversation amongst ourselves and with our surroundings. Also, even if we were not intentionally emptying ourselves before entering the field, we always encounter things we didn’t expect in the field, which again and again renews our ways of seeing and creating works.
YS: I don’t think we are here without a studio, and I also don’t think the sites were lost once we return to the studio. So there isn’t really a clean cut between studio work and field work.
BL: True. Studio-in-situ.
YS: I guess when someone is engaging in land art, but the work is not displayed in a natural setting, it could feel like their practice is then divided. But leaving the sites doesn’t mean the end of the field work, just like finishing an installation for an exhibition also doesn’t mean the end of a project. And more importantly, neither of it means the end of our relationships to a place.
I agree with you that the display or the presentation of art could contribute to the division.
YS: Is it the gallery display that creates the division, or the current discourses and art industry that are doing so? I think we need to recognize more artistic practice that is not conducted in the traditional sense of studio practice. When I was asked in the field, “so where is your studio” or “so what is your studio practice” …
BL: “Well, this is our studio practice.” [Laugh]
What are some fundamental mediums and the equipment you bring with you to a trip despite all the unknown?
BL: We usually bring our equipment for sound recording, print-making, drawing, ceramics. Salvaging and collecting specimens are central for our practice. And we also use 3D-scanning applications on the phone. It helps to document and engage in an act of archiving without physically extracting the object.
The first time we used 3D scanning was to record the eruption of Kīlauea Volcano in Hawai‘i. Data also became an essential way for us to learn and respond to the hidden layers of time.
YS: Fundamentally, our tools came from our respective backgrounds and skill set, which are print-making and sound. I was just reading Robert Smithson’s writing A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Project (1968). He mentioned this idea of “dumb tools,” which I really resonate with, for those things that aren’t necessarily counted as artistic or craft tools. In Chile, we had the idea of making ceramic tablets and imprinting the solar irradiation in roman numerals onto them. In order to do so, we would need to make letterpresses. However, we couldn’t find any wood and wood carving tools there, because we were in the middle of the driest desert. We eventually found some clay rocks and Bicheng used a paper-cutting knife to carve into them. (Photo documentation of the Atacama Research Trip)
This time on Rabbit Island, we didn’t think we would find this many bones, and we didn’t bring the sanitizer and other cleaning equipment. So we used a cooking pot! Back to the idea of "dumb tools," artists will not only utilize the "right tool" but will also improvise in a really elastic way depending upon the environment. The results may look nothing like what would be involved in a traditional studio practice, but it is what keeps testing our boundaries.
Another work that came out of the trip to Atacama Desert is “Every Floating Matter Has Their Own Fingerprint (2022).” Compared to some of your larger installations, this work seems to reveal more of the experimental process. I’d like to think there's a certain playfulness to it, would you like to speak more about this work?
YS: That piece emerged from observing the field, the salt pans in Atacama. In this process, salt-saturated water is evaporated by the sun and eventually crystallizes in a certain way to become rich in lithium, a valuable mineral used in batteries. The process of salt-saturated water being evaporated by the sun and eventually crystallizing in a certain way and becoming rich in lithium, a valuable mineral used in batteries. The salt pans are now protected as a natural reserve with metal barriers set around the salt pans to prevent people from trespassing. But I witnessed the salt breaching this man-made boundary, corroding not only the supposedly strong and modern material, steel, but also the excursion of control, confinement, and normality. The playfulness you mentioned perhaps lies in the process of translation or transformation from an immediate experience with nature to an artistic vision. And there is a lot of experimentation, a lot of trial and error in that as well.
BL: There’s also an audio component to this work. It tells a fragmented story of two fictional characters tracking water and discovering salt in the middle of an anonymous desert. The text was derived from our personal travel log in the Atacama desert, and the dialogue was recorded on an airplane. Our memories were animated and distorted into something surreal, without locations and limits.
From our conversation over the years, I know encompassing the diasporic or immigration experience is in the back of your artistic practice. Now, given your collaboration as Alchemyverse, do you have further reflection on it, after several trips and projects?
YS: As we travel to foreign lands, again and again we situate ourselves among different environments, as well as the entangled, non-linear strings of time. It helps us mediate the question of who we are in the contemporary social context. I enjoy how Jess Wilcox, the curator, wrote about our show Messa in Luce at ISCP. She mentioned that the slowness we practice both on-site and in our process is an alternative activist approach to better cope with the current ecological and political state. Geology to us is not only a speculative study on the past of our planet but also a concept, an aesthetic approach, to peel open the surface and view the passage of time not as a horizontal line but as overlapping strata of constant motion and transformation. When we look into the earth, it is also gazing back at us as a species and as a collective whole.
BL: We live in a society that values immediacy more than depth and rewards efficiency over slowness. For me, it is important that in our practice, we jump out of ourselves, our own timelines. Being in the field requires being in sync with those around me. It is about empathy, not only towards the living but also towards our materials, minerals, soil, and the spiritual world in its multiplicity.