Cities are a nexus for creativity but draw energy from the surrounding earth for sustenance. Instead of emitting only waste into the environment a metabolic city creates an emergent living system. Home to 6 billion people by 2050, cities brim with people, energy and capital, connecting veins of traffic, moving tributaries of living data across the earth. The air one breathes flows with plumes of dust and smoke swirling above these creative forges across a thin skin of biosphere heedless of geographic and political borders. The fluid dynamics of oceans, atmospheres and solar-terrestrial relations may collide with big data clouds and create cascading effects. A solar storm can torch a city’s transformers; disturb satellites, atomic watches, and cause traffic and financial systems to fail. Catastrophes like wounds require collective healing for a shared planet’s health.

The bio-mimicry of the Metabolist architects and the utopic models put forward by Archigram in the 1960s experimented with continuous renewal and organic growth of a city but failed to fully explore the sources of energy and bio-fuels supplied from the exterior world needed for the material regeneration of a city, which is the essence of metabolism in organisms. In contrast, mimicking ecology or eco-mimicry is a way of viewing cities as ‘living structures’ that provides life support for its inhabitants integrating energy, food and waste production.

Each of the artists in this exhibition has touched on our urban identity in relationship to the planet, and their perspectives guide us through the exhibition.
In Anish Kapoor’s Underground, a magma-like lump appears interrupted mid-flow between constraining walls. The movement of metabolic forces inside the earth is in continuous tension with the stability expected from cities. The chthonic or subterranean world represents the hidden world of spirits and the mystical earth, trapped or suppressed by our rational imperatives.

Maya Lin’s Wave Field embeds a linear wave pattern underneath the earth that merges and transforms it from within. The city can sit as an uneasy parasitic graft, its concrete paving sealing and inhibiting the earth’s living components. Lin’s art experiences the landscape by merging with the terrain. Lin’s work has also engaged with the city’s history in time: In her ongoing project ‘What is Missing’ she creates a living memorial of the loss of natural habitats as experienced by individuals recording their memories of change in cities all over the world. Reducing diversity reduces resilience. Her project maps these memories of loss, as it evolves through time.

Andy Goldsworthy’s work also is a record of time, and he uses organic matter, temporal elements in nature to construct ephemeral installations that decay or dissipate.

In Hanging Trees, the trunk of a tree fused with a manmade stonewall holds its shape in temporary symbiotic stasis.

As an artist Mark Dion is interested in the interrelatedness of things and how it impacts the broader world: The deserts of Arabia were once forests, and the fossilized carbon of their remains produces the oil fueling today’s global warming. This piece is Vivarium, entombs a tree, and in Dion’s words, "the tree is essentially an optimistic organism, giving life through its death... It's a memento mori, an appreciation of decay as a process, and a tool for discourse."

A record of our past cultural imprint on the natural world was the object of artist Mark Dion’s interest when he salvaged refuse from London’s river Thames as a way to look into the city’s past.

Our obsession with the production of objects has created mountains of waste that Edward Burtynsky has explored in his film the Manufactured Landscape. In his Shipbreaking series, the discarded appear like monuments in the landscape. Where natural biodegradation is impossible, it is replaced by a manually laborious process, and broken down slowly into smaller recyclable components by hand.

Scientists often see waste as a core component of archaeological enquiry. The discarded and disused rejects, the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on shores – is one way to understand what was important to a culture in the past.

But many of the artists in this online exhibition create experiences rather than objects

Urs Fischer's excavation at Gavin Brown’s gallery creates a schism in the fabric of the city, in a direct inversion of the culture of seeing – and viewing art within confines of white cube galleries. The deconstruction of the space is a reminder of the artificial contexts in which we revere objects.

Carsten Höller’s metal slides have the means of ‘transporting’ people through environments that defy linear pathways in favour of surprising twists and bends to challenge routine expectations. Höller has used carousels, mirrors, hallucinogens, and even upside-down goggles to modify visions that create alternative realities transporting us physically as well as emotionally.

Just as pathways carve out cities from its surrounding land, gardens and manicured lawns curb the unruly landscapes of the natural world. Philippe Parreno has cited that when the forests were burned at Mont Sainte-Victoire, they were replanted according to Cézanne’s paintings.

Parreno’s Continuously Habitable Zones is a film combining six monochromatic landscapes, with no edits, instead, “only stretching and folding of the landscape,” explains Parreno. By placing microphones in the earth, he was able to convey the impression of slow tectonic movements of a landscape continuously evolving, of which the film acts as a temporary record.

Continuously habitable zones are the ‘goldilocks’ orbits around the sun where life can thrive. Shifts in climate are frequent occurrences in geological time, but our short lifespans give us an illusion of stability.

In Altered Earth, Doug Aitken used the landscape of the region of Camargue, France as his backdrop, where Nazi bunkers have been reclaimed by indigenous animals, amidst brackish salt mines and mountains of salt baking in the sun. Using multiple projections, Aitken explored the landscape and deep ecology that lay in contrast to the built-up world, creating what he calls "an almost holographic view of the physical landscape."

Nomadic artist Not Vital creates site-specific architectural constructs from Patagonia to the deserts of Niger. His migratory life has given him an appreciation for the nomadic tribes that once freely roamed the planet. Today the semi-nomadic Tuaregs are forced to compromise the flow of their meanderings in the African deserts due to north-south national borders. His buildings of indigenous materials are outposts to observe natural phenomena, and the stars, sandstorms and sunsets that had always linked people to landscapes before cities.

Adrián Villar Rojas forges fantastical future landscapes out of humble materials like mud and clay that circle back to our prehistoric past and point to the fragility of our time in the sun. He creates fossils of our modern cities, making our current monuments appear like ruins, the relics of a future time.

Alastair Mackie renders the Capitol building, the seat of government and emblematic of political power – out of clay and mud – conveying the impermanence of civilizations.

Olafur Eliasson brought back centuries-old icebergs from the melting glaciers of Iceland to give city dwellers a chance to witness the passage of geological time in relation to one’s own lifetime. While one watches, the water that had stayed frozen for eons melts before us in mere seconds. Eliasson makes the vast expanse of time through our direct witness, a tangible experience. In his many experiments with spatial, temporal and light perception, Eliasson’s art would exceed the limited scope of this exhibition.

Katie Paterson took a large meteorite that had been fallen to earth after 4.5 billion years of travelling through space, and melted and recast into a new version of itself that retained its original composition. “A newly formed yet still ancient meteorite still imbued with its cosmic history. The iron, small rocks, metal and dust inside becomes reformed, and the layers of its cosmic lifespan - the warping of space and time, the billions of years of pressure and change, formation and erosion - become collapsed, transformed and renewed.” She plans to eventually re-launch it into space.

Here is her video of the transformation.

Richard Long inscribes geometries of pathways and stone circles in the landscape denoting the markers of human presence. His art balances the patterns of nature and the hand of humans that create lines, circles and abstract forms. He explores how human formalism intervenes with the natural forces that shape the world.


Tacita Dean has explored the depiction of accidents, disasters and the consequence of time’s passage on cities. The title for the series of prints Russian Endings references a convention by the Danish film industry where stories were produced with alternate endings, one happy and the other tragic – for American and Russian audiences respectively. Dean builds fictional narratives to support the tragic denouements – the final scenes of these films in each print. In Beautiful Sheffield, with chimneys billowing smoke into a sooty sky, her narrative is about the loss of pastoral England. In another postcard series c/o Jolyon she superimposes the modern city of Kassel over old postcards of the town before it was destroyed by war. She uses these images in her film JG, which links J.G.Ballard’s The Voices of Time to the land art Spiral Jetty, referencing time’s arrow as it spirals inwards towards its final extinction.

The metabolic city is not about hard endings, but resilience. Cities can learn to self-modify, and after any natural or manmade catastrophe the resilience of a city is measured by whether it collapses, is ductile, or better adapts.

Our world is hyperlinked – we are wired to the environment as much as to technology. In categorizing knowledge, everything we know must be defined in reference to something else – which leads ultimately to more things yet undefined. Jacques Derrida theorized that a thing exists only when one relates it to other things, and underscores why it’s different from them, thus making it unique and meaningful. Outside this world of ordered, unique things we consider the world of unknowns.

We might think of the land outside cities as part of this ‘negative space’, a heterogenous space. In “Heterology,” (1930), George Bataille described homogeneity as the “static equilibrium -- and heterogeneity as what forms from the negative, the “excretion” of accepted forms.” We think of what lies beyond as that which we have discarded – the excretion of cities, the habitation of animals, wastelands – and included in this place of unknowables – is the realm of magic and the unconscious.

Tomás Saraceno explores the possibilities of flying cities in our hyper-connected world, where our existence is increasingly co-dependent. Saraceno suggests models for future cities and re-imagines the possibilities of habitable space.

Urban paths direct people and traffic through them; in between are the unknown spaces, wastelands, sprawl, and wilderness.

Mike and Doug Starn tie bamboo poles together with mountaineering knots to create organically spiraling towers – growing cities like fractals in nature. The bamboo is not a tree but a grass that can reach maturity and be harvested in five years; its extracted fibre has a tensile strength higher than steel. In a reversal of modernism a plant, indigenous to developing countries today, can be used replace steel skyscrapers.

3D printing can create cities quickly out of the silica in uninhabitable desert zones. The art collective Something & Son explored the use of 3D printing and its ability to print ornate objects that might bring back a renaissance in architecture with the use of more baroque style façades. Wim Delvoye has also explored printing intricate sculpted forms with the implication that mass repetition is not necessarily devoid of customizable organic beauty.


 Guillermo Kuitca has drawn from floor plans and maps of aerial views that are abstract or even painterly representations of the way we see space. He says he uses maps “to get lost… not to get oriented.”

Kuitca was fascinated with Denis Diderot’s Sisyphean task of trying to compile all the world’s knowledge in his volumes of 'Encyclopédie', in c. 1770. From papyrus to hard drives, we’ve discarded each medium after we reach the limits of its capacity to access knowledge, and as technologies evolve we find newer ways to collect and sort. Curiator is also one such “collection,” a kind of Wunderkammer for art.


In his 14-minute film Hoist, Matthew Barney explores the relation between mind/body, nature/artifice with a union between man and machine – a man is tethered to the undercarriage of a modified Caterpillar truck - with root vegetables stuffed into his mouth and anus – his body is grafted on as an organic extension of the lubricated mechanical levers, and this union of metallic and vegetal leads to an erotic consummation. The ethereal and mystical chthonic forces of the earth join with inflexible, brute technology.

The deforestation machine is also a subject of Wim Delvoye’s art. He transforms the mundane Caterpillar crane into an ornately crafted decorative object that seems to be spiritually elevated from its purely functional use. The human body is itself a union of mechanistic processes that functions organically. In Cloaca, Delvoye creates uncomfortable mechanistic parallels of our metabolic processes, in which he constructs a machine that functions like a biological alimentary canal, and which when ‘fed’, produces shit.

By structuring light as though solid, creating partitions with it, Anthony McCall’s work in this exhibition makes tangible the invisible energies that surround us, which we may use to make the metabolic city run.

Enough sunlight falls on the earth in one hour to fuel the world’s energy needs for an entire year. The invisible electromagnetic forces, solar and wind energies can sustain us without devouring and deforesting the earth to our detriment.

Photographer Iwan Baan took the image of lower Manhattan after the electrical blackout followed by hurricane Sandy. Even when data is siloed by agencies, cascading collapses of urban eco-systems occur because of our hyper-connected world.

"The day of perpetual night" shows the metabolic city as it thrives on light energy through the night. While electrical light illuminates the small things in darkness it makes us forget the more ethereal cosmic starlight of night skies.

See the video here.

James Turrell’s temple in the desert allows one to experience the natural migrations of the stars, and witness the solar and lunar rotations that connect us to the movement of the earth.


Antony Gormley’s project Event Horizon, in 2010, cast figures against Manhattan’s skyline along perches of tall buildings that interrupted passersby in their daily routines. These observers, archetypal figures, seem to assess our relation to the constructed city around us.
In England, Gormley placed casts of the human forms on the beach so they engaged daily with tidal forces, and again in Horizon Field, in high altitudes. He said they appeared to ask where the human project fit within the evolution of life on this planet – connecting the landscape with our memories as witness.


In Anish Kapoor’s Origine du Monde, a dark depthless hole in front of the viewer takes us back to the beginning, and to the edge of a chasm to confront space – reminding us of our place in relation to the infinite cosmos.