An entryway leads to a darkened room with a floor that slopes upward on both sides to meet the two videos, projected onto opposite walls. Scenes that the artist filmed at dusk unfold slowly on each wall: Rats scurry over what appears to be a drained riverbed; fishermen cast lines into puddles while holding cigarettes tipped with incandescent orange; a calf is chained confusingly to an industrial washing machine; clouds and moon hang in the sky. These vignettes form an impressionistic picture of a land in distress, pierced by nature, alternately thriving and dying; and of people, some of whom eke out what the environment still has to offer, while others carry out the very work that chokes it.
In a gallery one floor above Zhou Tao’s meditative piece, a crazy sight rears up in front of viewers. A frenetic robotic arm buzzes, whines, dips, and stretches inside a clear box whose walls are splattered with a bloodlike liquid. A pool of this liquid surrounds the base of the arm, which works ceaselessly, at times even seeming to pant with exhaustion.
This is Can’t Help Myself
(2016), a project by Beijing-based duo
. Their overburdened arm is taken from an automotive assembly line. A precise, versatile machine, here the arm responds to the artists’ programmed commands to contain the liquid forever spreading away from it. The scene suggests an aftermath. Is this what will come of the ongoing arms race—now ratcheted up by AI technology—between China, Russia, and the United States: a machine left to clean up humankind’s mess?