‘Mutual Aid’ by the collective Zheng Mahler is the latest exhibition in the Johann Jacobs Museum’s current programme of art and research focused on transnational trade. The show has the air of a pleasant but disordered storage area: flat screen monitors are propped against shipping crates amid an army of ceramic objects – some curved, others angular – lining the walls or piled atop the crates. Perspex vitrines contain refined porcelain vessels and three Chinese translations of a book by Russian activist and philosopher Peter Kropotkin, while several prints sourced from these same publications are draped, alongside reproductions of late-18th century Chinese paintings, over rudimentary glass tables, or pinned imperfectly against the wall, edges curling.
This is the museum’s second exhibition by Zheng Mahler, a Hong Kong-based collective comprising anthropologist Daisy Bisenieks and artist Royce Ng. Their first, ‘A Season in Shell’ (2013–14), documented a complex process of trading and transporting two tonnes of abalone shells, which were bought in Hong Kong then shipped to Germany via Somalia. Representing that process was simple in comparison with the boggling tangle of narratives buried within their current project. Taking as its point of departure the Swiss watchmaking industry’s use of mother-of-pearl from abalone shells (a fact discovered late in their previous project), this exhibition draws links between the anarchists of the Swiss Jura Federation; the division of labour in manufacturing and the associated principle of mutual aid; Kropotkin and his 1902 tract ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’; the Chinese porcelain industry and the city of Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province; and the historic and contemporary exchange of mechanical watches and ceramics between China and Europe. These links are conveyed through interviews, retellings and poetic imaginings in Zheng Mahler’s film The Mountains are High and the Emperor is Far Away (2016). In the film, narrative voices hop from screen to screen while, on other monitors, Chinese potters are seen throwing clay while ibex graze on a narrow mountain ridge above striated rock faces. Elsewhere, watches are inspected, automatons write and play instruments, and a mill churns away. A sack of shells calls back to the collective's previous exhibition.
In comparison to the video works in ‘Mutual Aid’, the ceramic pieces are nearly inscrutable. The forms – some symmetrical, some oblong – are sourced from Swiss timekeeping parts. The artists brought technical drawings of watch parts to Jingdezhen, where they were recently in residence, and had the forms enlarged and fabricated in porcelain. Here, the initial precision of these shapes is rendered in a lumpy, off-white glaze containing calcium carbonate (ground from the shells in the previous exhibition).
In ‘Mutual Aid’, the historical and the contemporary cross-pollinate, though often not at face value. When Zheng Mahler examine the routes taken by consumer goods or raw materials, they expose the unseen narratives behind these transfers. In the context of the Johann Jacobs Museum’s programme, I wondered, might these goods ultimately enter the network of the art market? How can an exhibition aiming to be an object of study, a means of learning and exploring complex viewpoints, vie for a place in today’s economy, one that sees education and culture become more monetized than ever before?