Post-Reading/Opening at Black Sesame

Update on last month’s exhibition opening at Black Sesame Space, IFP. Members of the Extinction Club Reading Group read aloud passages from selected texts, everyone drank tea and ate homemade black sesame crackers and black sesame brittle.

A version of the reading group’s setup was installed in the gallery, with a folio of all our printed materials (stamped with the group’s new stone seal!), audio tapes and a player to listen to them on. Elsewhere in the room was a display of research relating to the book-in-progress, a cabinet of drawings and various materials associated with specific Chinese extinctions, another player with a tape containing the sound contributions so far – from Yan Jun, Jaakko Junnila and Ake – and a few smaller interventions in the space.

We also took the opportunity to read+record a (short) new cassette tape, ‘The Amazon of the East’, part of a chapter about the life of the Yangtze River from Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin by Samuel Turvey. It now joins the other nine tapes in the cassette library.

Above: Those that from a distance look like flies, 2019, wooden tiger’s head and binoculars

Photos by Augustina, Dandan & me

This project was assisted by a grant from Create NSW, an agency of the New South Wales Government. The NSW Artists’ Grant is administered by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).

EXHIBITION OPENING AT BLACK SESAME SPACE | The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge: An Unfinished & Incomplete Inventory of Extinctions in the People’s Republic of China | Tessa Zettel

SATURDAY 12 January 2019 15:00 // readings at 16:00
Black Sesame Space, Heizhima Hutong 13, Dongcheng, Beijing

‘Each time an existence disappears, it is a piece of the universe of sensations that fades away

[Vinciane Despret, ‘Afterword: It Is an Entire World That Has Disappeared’, in Thom van Dooren, Deborah Bird Rose and Mathew Chrulew (eds.), 2017, Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations] 

Biologists suggest we are now entering the sixth mass extinction event since complex life evolved on earth. Extinction however, is no singular phenomenon, but rather is ‘experienced, resisted, measured, enunciated, performed and narrated in a variety of ways to which we must attend’ (van Dooren, Rose and Chrulew). With increasing heat, pollution and toxicity putting pressure unevenly on all forms of life, how might we now learn ‘to live and die well with each other in a thick present’, as Donna Haraway puts it? What does it mean to cohabit with other species in such a thick, entangled present, where multiple times overlap and intersect, and those of many entities and assemblages as we know them are approaching an end? What are the politics, poetics and affects of more-than-human finitude? And how to collectively acknowledge or commemorate the loss to our own ‘universe of sensations’ when one piece of it disappears?

During six months in residence at IFP, Australian artist Tessa Zettel has hosted an extinction club study group as a way to think together with local participants on these and other questions. Over a series of irregular meetings and field trips, the group recorded a mini-cassette library of their extinction-related readings – covering amongst other things fossil nihilism, passenger pigeons, database aesthetics, de-extinction and cosmoecologies – that is now ready to be shared.

Littorea flammea

The Extinction Club Reading Group forms part of research for a longer-term project by the artist to make a handmade, riso-printed book + cassette about extinctions in China, telling speculative stories of a variety of nonhumans (animals, birds, gastropods) but also technologies, languages and ways of living) facing permanent erasure. Many curious tales of past and impending loss weave through this rapidly transforming landscape, like the 80-million year old pangolin (the most illegally-trafficked and only fully-scaled mammal); the functionally extinct baiji or Yangtze river dolphin, and the Père David’s deer, once extinct in China but today flourishing again in Beijing’s Nanhaizi Park. Borrowing its title and categories from the fictional Chinese encyclopedia in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’, the book is a kind of delirious compendium describing how different beings, ecologies and histories are entangled together in webs that are both material and ethical, and borne across time and space by the dynamics of colonisation, extraction and exchange. Its cassette tape component will include sound pieces by contributing artists responding to figures of extinction here in China, from the dǎkǒu or cut-out CDs (Yan Jun, China) and a certain thing (Ake, China) to the prehistoric Chinese paddlefish (Jaakko Junnila, Finland).

IFP and Tessa Zettel invite you to see and hear this collective work-in-progress at IFP’s Black Sesame Space. With tea, texts, sounds and black sesame snacks.

Meeting #10: SUN 6 JAN 1 – 4pm

**Next (& final!) meeting at IFP on Sunday afternoon, 6 January 1 – 4pm**

Ursula K. Heise X Ursula K. Le Guin

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies Homo sapiens under Least Concern, as ‘the species is very widely distributed, adaptable, currently increasing, and there are no major threats resulting in an overall population decline. … Humans are present in numerous protected areas throughout their range,” including not only all continents on Earth but also the International Space Station ( ).

‘It’s the story that makes the difference … Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it’, Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Carrier-bag Theory of Fiction’ (1989)

In Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (2016), Ursula K. Heise writes that global biodiversity databases such as the IUCN Red List can be understood as a new variant of the modern epic or world text, a cultural form of storytelling emerging from ‘an encyclopedic, centripetal impulse that reaches back to the Enlightenment and seeks to inventory the entire known world’. Considering database aesthetics, science fiction and other narrative modes, she asks ‘how might we acknowledge the realities of large-scale species extinction and yet move beyond mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia to a more affirmative vision of our biological future?’

In this final meeting we’ll consider encyclopedias, elegies and epics, and of course eat cake.

Suzhou Zoo ~ Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle

Last month I made a trip to Suzhou Zoo, Jiangsu province, to meet Susu and Xiangxiang, China’s only remaining Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles, the largest and rarest freshwater turtle on earth. There is just one other known individual of the species, a wild male in Xuan Khanh Lake, Vietnam, where the animal is considered to have supernatural powers and represent the Golden Turtle God.

My visit was mostly spent with the human who has been responsible for taking care of them for the last decade or so. As the weather was dismal – freezing cold, windy and bucketing rain – Di Min cheerily confirmed that we didn’t stand much of a chance of seeing the creatures in person, since they’d likely be ensconced in the muddy banks of their respective pools. On such days the turtles are usually monitored via a 5-camera CCTV display in an indoor observation room.

Yangtze Giant Softshell turtles once ranged between the Red River and the Yangtze lower floodplains, losing their habitat inevitably to industrial interventions like sand dredging, dam construction and pollution, and subject also to hunting for food and for their bones and shells, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Individuals held in a handful of Chinese zoos died in the early 21st century (one in Beijing in 2005 and another in Shanghai the following year), leaving only Suzhou’s Susu and Xiangxiang, whose names eventually slipped away. Now known simply as ‘the male’ and ‘the female’, these two are plodding on into middle age (110 and 90 years old) in relative comfort in separate muddy pools not dissimilar to the nearby Lake Tai, one of the last places their wild ancestors were found in China.

Despite years of unsuccessful artificial insemination efforts, leading some conservationists to label them a ‘zombie species’, Di Min is optimistic about Susu and Xiangxiang’s chances of (assisted) breeding. She tells of swishing oversized cooking chopsticks in the water to call them to dinner, and simply can’t conceive of the species ending here. Before we leave, Susu makes a brief surprise appearance, popping up his head by the water’s edge before disappearing back into the grey.

Thanks to Augustina for translating!

Meeting #9: SUN 30 Dec 2 – 5pm

**Next meeting at IFP on Sunday afternoon, 30 December 2 – 5pm**

“The pika is a small, rather cute mammal that looks a bit like a hamster. … Since they depend on cool, high-mountain habitats to survive, pikas have been coping with the higher temperatures caused by climate change by moving up mountain slopes at a rate that has increased eleven-fold over the last ten years. Pikas eventually arrive at the top of their mountains; at this point, they have nowhere left to go to escape global warming.”

The rare and endangered ili pika, endemic to the Tianshan mountains of northwestern China and listed by he IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, has been described as ‘an unbelievably cute mammal with a teddy-bear face’. What do seductive start-up terms like ‘de-extinction’, ‘biogenesis’ and ‘ecomodernism’ have to do with our plucky little climbing pika? How do arguments for a techno-engineered biodiversity prop up the old myth of endless growth continuing to drive our planet to the brink of disaster? In his book Extinction: A Radical History (2016), Ashley Dawson calls for an anticapitalist movement against extinction, one that rejects ‘capitalist biopiracy and imperialist enclosure of the global commons’. We’ll read a chapter from the book and share some cake.

Shanghai Natural History Museum

Shanghai Natural History Museum is quite a different beast to its counterpart in Beijing. Shaped like a nautilus, the shiny new building sits partly underground in Jing’an Sculpture Park, asking serious questions throughout its 479,180 square feet that circle back and forth around extinction. 

are these gas mask boxes part of The Elapse of Life display..?
gliding into extinction history, the latest star

Sharing of scientific research is clearly emphasised, and there are special sections on Holocene extinctions at a global level (above), disappearing wildlife of Shanghai (‘the Former Shanghai “Residents”‘), and the big five mass extinction events.

The museum has stuffed specimens of several animals only found in China: Panda, Chinese Alligator and the Chinese Giant Salamander, all of which are (or have been) on the edge of extinction.

Milu or Pere David’s deer
normally known as the Sacred ibis…

No Yangtze River Dolphin here either.. just an empty display cabinet for the baiji skeleton, with a tiny label: ‘specimen temporarily removed’.

There’s also a wonderful slab of the Cambrian strata of Chengjiang, ‘one of the most amazing scientific discoveries in the 20th century’. Chengjiang region (Yunan province) was a warm, shallow sea area during the Cambrian Explosion, a profusion of sea life 525 million years ago. The formation was famed for containing so many excellently-preserved fossil metazoans, covering every phylum of extant species and many extinct groups.

Meeting #8: THURS 20 Dec 2-5pm

**Next meeting at IFP on Thursday afternoon, 20 December 2–5pm**

‘Couldn’t ticks be just a little extinct?’ Tom Horton 

We meet again this Thursday at IFP to read ‘Blood Intimacies and Biodicy: Keeping Faith with Ticks’ by James Hatley, which comes from the journal Australian Humanities Review no. 50 (2011): ‘Unloved Others: Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinctions’. Though a figure of revulsion to many, the tick is ‘one of our many co-evolved Earth others’, as much part of the messy tangle of life as we ourselves are. In this essay, Hatley asks: how we may love that which causes us to suffer?

All welcome, no preparation or expertise needed.

RSVP by email

Meeting #7: SAT 22 DEC 12pm // Day Trip to Milu Park

Saturday 22 Dec** [Note new date!!] | Leaving from IFP at 12 pm, back sometime in the afternoon (possible also to join us in the park)

The Fengshen Bang, a classical text from the Ming Dynasty, tells the story of a horse, a donkey, an ox and a deer meditating together in a cave in the forest while the tyrant King Zhou of Shang wreaks havoc on the land. The unlikely troupe decides to enter society as humans, whereupon they transform themselves into one super-animal combining the abilities and body parts of each. Galloping to the Kunlun Mountains to obtain the Primeval Lord of Heaven’s blessing, this hybrid creature – the milu, or Père David’s Deer – then joins nobleman Jiang Ziya to overthrow the king and found the Zhou Dynasty.

By other accounts, wild milu roam the swampy grasslands of South-eastern China for two million years before they are hunted more or less to oblivion, a thousand years ago. Just one captive herd remain then behind the walls of Beijing’s Nanyuan Imperial Hunting Garden, until floods and starving humans take care of them too, leaving the species teetering at the edge of extinction. After a few more curious twists of fate, these days milu can be found thriving in the very same garden, now known as Milu Park (also home to the ‘World Extinct Wildlife Cemetery’). Could the milu be a symbol for those pockets of refugia in which unlike species can flourish in dark times?

Join the Extinction Club Reading Group on a day trip to visit the milu and the monument to extinct wildlife. We’ll read for them some new poetry by Australian poet Aden Rolfe, and drink hot tea.

Wear warm clothes & bring binoculars if you can! / Please RSVP via wechat or by emailing.

Meeting #6: MON 19 NOV 4 – 7pm

“As the ecological crisis grew, the schema of zoo as Eden was soon replaced by that of the Ark. If the former offered its animal charges leisure and security over inhospitable wilderness, the latter offered refuge from apocalyptic destruction. Their human visitors were now also their rescuers; to communion was added redemption.” – [Matthew Chrulew 2011]

Following a trip south to Suzhou Zoo to visit two of only three remaining Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles in the world and the extinct-in-the-wild South China Tiger, this week the group will read Matthew Chrulew’s essay ‘Managing Love and Death at the Zoo: The Biopolitics of Endangered Species Preservation’ (Australian Humanities Review, 2011), which delves into the contemporary biopolitics of zoological care. While many species are left to slip away unnoticed, what of those that we insist on keeping alive at all costs? How to love in a time of extinction?

New readers welcome, as always. RSVP if you can (and we’ll send you the text beforehand), or just turn up. This time we’ll also make soup!