Installation view, Aranya Art Center, 2023

The Odont series is inspired by a type of enigmatic microfossil with mineralized teeth-like structures of varying morphology and complexity, widely distributed in marine sediments around the world and extinct at the end of the Triassic period. The chemical composition of these microfossils are primarily made of phosphatic mineral. Due to the absence of identical skeletal structures in extant animals, the evolution and classification of these fossils have not been definitively determined, hence they are collectively referred to as "Conodont." They have been thought to be fish teeth or the jaws of annelids. They have also been found clustered in the digestive tracts of animals or as skeletal elements around the oral tentacles of organisms. This taxonomic ambiguity implies a dispersal of mineralized elements - it could exist in any form in any part of the body.

Spine, 2023, stoneware, phosphorite, phosphate ore, dimensions variable

Foram I, 2023, glazed stoneware, 52 x 19 x 30 cm

foram II, 2023, glazed stoneware, 39 x 30 x 10 cm

foram IV, 2023, glazed stoneware, 30 x 20 x 10 cm
The Foram series is drawn from the single-celled marine planktonic organism foraminifera, which has been living in the open ocean since the Cambrian period. They are capable of secreting calcium or silica to form shells, and their remains contribute to the formation of thick layers of chalk, limestone, and reefs. As one of the oldest protists, their inorganic bodies hold clues to climate and ecological changes.

The original sculptures are digitally modeled based on machine learning-generated hybrid foram species and then recreated through 3D printing, mold-making and casting, assembling, and hand sculpting to create mutating forms.

Odont, Spine, Foram
Stoneware, phosphorite
Dimensions variable

This body of work originates from the tracing of the circulation of matter between inorganic and organic bodies: from free-floating elements in shallow seas billions of years ago, to supporting structures for genetic material and metabolism in living organisms; from teeth and bones gradually emerging inside soft-bodied organisms to the first group of vertebrates venturing onto land; from phosphorite deposits formed by the accumulation of petrified remains to the continuous seepage and return of mining waste in geological strata. It begins with the biological evolution driven by the competition for phosphorus in the Cambrian oceans and continues with the extraction, mining, transformation, and exile of phosphorus in the human era. These two threads intertwine in sculptural form, revealing the unfathomable entanglement of ancient kinship and alienating residues in deep time.

In the process of conceiving the artwork, the artist traveled to Weng'an, Guizhou, to visit a fossil group preserving primitive life from 600 million years ago through phosphate mineralization. In the same region, phosphate ore and solid waste phosphogypsum accumulated from tailings were collected for a series of material experiments. The sculptures allude to a non-linear evolutionary form of life, resembling the rapidly changing landscapes between sea and land transitions, reminiscent of the ambiguously classified extinct or yet to be discovered marine organism skeletons. It implies the diverse environments and adaptive strategies that life has experienced during the evolutionary process. Powder ground from phosphate ores from different time scales and geological environments adheres to the clay body under high-temperature oxidation and reduction atmospheres, undergoing changes in chemical properties and structure, forming new material forms. This process corresponds to the metamorphosis of life, representing the dynamic complexity of interactions between organic and inorganic substances, as well as the interweaving and reconfiguration between them during the transformation. Idiosyncratic matter spanning vast time scales merge once again, and their residues leave unpredictable textures on the surface of the sculpture, simulating the imprints of time and evolution in the fossilization.

This work is commissioned by exhibition “How Far, How Close”, curated by Leo Li Chen and Mijoo Park, at Aranya Art Center.

© Shuyi Cao 2023