Myth and Precarity: A Review of Patty Chang’s The Wandering Lake

Queens Museum, September 17, 2017-February 18, 2018

…these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin [1].

-Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

We moderns tend to think of landscapes as bounded terrain. And in our reflexive search for edges, we also tend to draw distinctions between eco-systems and cultural ones. These distinctions have their uses, but as Tsing suggests, landscapes are in fact crossed over by systems that are planetary and hybridized, such that whatever categorical frames we overlay them with are only purposive abstractions. This has always been true, of course, but what has changed in this phase of things — call it the Anthropocene — is the reach and depth of human-technological impact upon the global whole. Coming to terms with that impact means, perhaps, awakening to a “nature” that both constitutes and exceeds us.

A 2017 conference led by Peter Galison explored what he has called “technical lands,” alive but distressed and often toxified places, neither “wild” nor fully subordinated to human ends,

sites where global knowledge practices and aesthetic categories have converged to literally transform the physical geography of the land, where conventional terms like ‘nature,’ ‘culture,’ ‘value,’ ‘capital,’ ‘territory,’ and ‘site’ no longer exist as clearly delineated categories (indeed if they ever did) [2].

Exciting work has come from several artist’s recent explorations along these lines. A. Laurie Palmer’s photobook In the Aura of a Hole, for example, documents the staggering breadth and strangeness of mining sites across the United States. DJ Spooky’s sound piece Arctic Rhythms was inspired by his many visits to the fast-transforming Arctic Circle. Cecilia Vicuña’s Read Thread “conveys the tension of ecological disaster and reparation as well as a bodily sense of the cosmic scale of landscape, history, and time [3].”

These are not wilderness studies of a kind that push the human imprint out of frame. Rather, they register a new sublime, one of unblinking immersion within these “technical lands,” while gesturing to other ways of being human in a world without edges.

I recently saw Patty Chang’s The Wandering Lake at the Queens Museum of New York, a show in which Chang presented works of film, photography, watercolor, glasswork, and found artifacts spanning three separate galleries within the museum. Objects made and curated, including homemade urination devices and footage of the artist washing the carcass of a beached whale, formed a resonant constellation around the theme of water, and bodies of water, and the transit of water through bodies both human and geological. The effect was one of a mythical presence overflowing frames; the persistence of elemental patterns across bodies and scales of time and space.

In one gallery, Chang’s work lines the walls surrounding a relief map of New York City’s water supply system circa 1938. Built by the Works Progress Administration for the ’39 World’s Fair, the 540-square foot model sprawls across the gallery floor. Curiously, the verdant upstate hills of New York are rendered in the model as dune-like undulations painted the color of sand, while supply routes cut across the its surface like sutures. Behind is a stark but entrancing photograph of what an interpretive plaque describes as “the world’s longest aqueduct,” the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, which connects the Han River to drought-prone Beijing. Furrows of bare land in the picture match to mineral tones in the model below. A film in the adjacent gallery explains that the aqueduct-in-progress was forbidden to the public and heavily guarded at the time of Chang’s visit. Around the water supply model, a metal fence iconically reinforces this theme of occlusion and inaccessibility.

In the same room, opposite wall, is a photograph, framed and mounted, showing a spread of disposable plastic water bottles on a table in what looks to be a person’s home. They are filled to varying levels with fluids ranging in color from clear to rust-yellow. The exhibit pamphlet explains that this is Chang’s urine, which she collected on her travels along the Chinese aqueduct “to draw parallels between controllable and uncontrollable ‘flow’ as commentary on the scale of infrastructures in relation to the human body [4].”

On the wall just to the left of this, a cryptic verse inscribed in runny black ink ends with the words pictured above. The afterimage of the script pulsed at length behind my eyes. It seemed both ecstatic and ominous, the way the word boom holds GOD and HUMAN in a tense parity that breaks of a sudden with “judgement.” The text apparently comes from Google Translate’s rendering of “the oldest known document in any Finnic language,” being a birch-bark manuscript discovered in the 1950s “off the coast near Novgorod in western Russia [5].” Beside the invocation is a Song Dynasty-era bowl (12th-13th c.) impressed by its maker with a birch leaf in “protophotographic” form, which Chang’s interpretive text describes as “conjuring a dangerous mimetic magic.”

To the left of this is a montage of images behind a glass case of decrepit boats perched in sand, and in the bottom left corner of the case, what could be dried seagrass. An adjacent photograph shows the interior of a roadside museum. In the foreground, a woman studies yet another collection of images of boats, these too on the verge of being grounded by receding waters. The faded, hand-painted sign above them reads “ARAL 1960–70 JILLARDA.” Below, one sees an odd array of relics, including “canned fish stacked in pyramids.”

The photo is of the “Museum of Local Lore” in the town of Muynak, Uzbekistan. Muynak was once sustained by “the world’s fourth largest inland sea,” the Aral, before a Soviet irrigation project diverted eighty percent of its water through a vast network of “canals, dams, and reservoirs” to support new cotton plantations across Central Asia.

Further along the wall is a display case of maps and other artifacts relating to Lop Nur, The Wandering Lake, and a first-print edition of the eponymous book by German explorer Sven Heiden (published in 1938, the same year that the NY water supply map was fabricated). A plaque reads:

Lake displacement is a phenomenon that occurs in the flat desert regions where sedimentation from rivers occurs over time. The sedimentation eventually alters the paths of the rivers, thereby creating new lakes. Historically, Lop Nur in western China migrated because of silt buildup from deforestation, which ended up displacing entire cities. The unknown elusive position of Lop Nur fascinated nineteenth-century explorers and scientists.

Time prevents me from detailing Chang’s work in the adjoining galleries (and anyhow, they are better seen in person), but the resonances multiply as I think back on the sundry objects in her show. There is the pervasive theme of water diversion, from the urination devices to the state-directed megaprojects. There are epic displacements: the towns submerged for New York’s tap, the 350,000 people uprooted by China’s South-to-North aqueducts, the desertified town of Muynak, and the ghost cities of Lop Nur. There is also a resonance of water-worn topographies, from the valleys of upstate New York to the massive whale carcass, all exposed by receding waters as geological-scale events play out in single lifetimes. There is a motif of surveillance and secrecy — to photograph the aqueduct, for example, Chang’s guide had to stand in the lone spot where security cameras wouldn’t reach.

Wandering Lake defies categorization, but for this very reason, I think it might serve as a source of inspiration for we practitioners of “public history,” even as it collapses the epistemological divisions between a then and a now (as well as a here and a there). Chang makes abundant use of historical material (and performs due scholarly diligence in doing so), but ““unencumbered by the simplifications of progress narratives,” she does not bracket the past as such [6]. Instead, the exhibit’s time-and-place-spanning objects are sympathetically brought together within a jetzeit, an eternal present. It is mythological, not historical, in that it testifies to what Viveiros de Castro calls “the turbulent mythic flux” that “continues to rumble beneath the apparent discontinuities between types and species [7].” As an embrace and, indeed, generation of myth — that “magical thinking” we are taught to distrust and take it upon ourselves to “dispel” — Wandering Lake reveals the past to be familiar (as in proximate) and the present strange (as in exceeding what we take it to be).

Flushing Creek, Near the Queens Museum, December, 2017.


photographs by author.

[1] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life After Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, 2015), 6.

[3] “Technical Landscapes: A Graduate Conference at Harvard University,” April 6–8, 2017. See http://techlandscapes.com/. Accessed 24 December, 2017.

[4] Cecilia Vicuña, Read Thread:The Story of the Red Thread (Sternberg Press, 2017). See http://www.sternberg-press.com/index.php?pageId=1741&l=en&bookId=634. Accessed 23 December, 2017.

[5] from the exhibit pamphlet.

[6] Chang’s interpretive text reads: “Three interpretations of the birch-bark manuscript exist. According to Google Translate, they roughly translate as follows:”

[7] Tsing, Mushroom, 6.

[8] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, translated by Peter Skafish, Cannibal Metaphysics (U Minn: Univocal, 2014). 68