A Time Between Ashes and Roses

How can withered trees blossom?
A time between ashes and roses is coming
When everything shall be extinguished
When everything shall begin again*

After the Six Day War of 1967, the modernist poet Adonis lamented the environmental destruction of his surroundings, questioning the overwhelming presence of ashes in the Arab World. Ash, in Adonis’s poem, is not generated through general decomposition but as a result of human activity, in this case through senseless acts of violence, war and carnage. Visualising the War through its imprints in the environment, he signifies its legacy through a geologic and everlasting time view rather than immediate causes-and-effects or a present-day understanding of territoriality. In this way, it is not all gloom for Adonis, as after extinction comes blossoming.

This sentiment illustrates a common psychological concept: for renewal and rebirth, destruction and doom must precede it; for humanity to prevail, horror must be endured and take its course. Adonis grapples with feelings of hope and despair to envision a new future, a future freed from horrors tied to the present and the past. In his extrapolation of war from the national, ethnic, tribal, and the human-centred towards a collective environment, he foregrounds the multiplicitous expressions of war: the human-made war, the war on the planet, the war within ourselves, the war with others as well as the symbolism of the war on hierarchy, subjugation, oppression, famine, hunger, exploitation; the war on resources and energy; the war of possession and authorship; the war for hope, dreams and imagination.

The political context of Adonis’ writing of the poem, who experiences states of war and destruction as an observer and witness, is grounded in our experience of the present and expanded upon in this triennial. In A Time Between Ashes and Roses, I chose neither binary extreme of ashes nor roses as ultimate frontiers to conceive of the entangled relationships of the human-made environment. I question the boundary between them–inherited from Enlightenment knowledge cultures–and posit states, conditions and spectrums of human-environmental pathways. Rather than polarities, the triennial acknowledges extremes of our environmental condition, between war and hope, and explores decomposition possibilities of the two-way street conceived between humans and their environment.

In A Time Between Ashes and Roses, I question lines of inquiry separate from the canonical framing of the human-nature relationship: Are humans decomposing nature nor is nature decomposing humans? Are humans biomatter? Are there clear distinctions between the interior, psychological human, and the exterior, botanical world? Must we accept and critique canonical concepts–from the Anthropocene to Capitalocene to Plantationocene to Chthulucene–when addressing contemporary relationships between the human and the environment? Can art and exhibition-making approach the environment as a place of the unknown and to unearth new narratives and observe alternative perspectives?

For the sixth edition of the Aichi Triennale, I wanted to look at the relationships between human beings and the environment to unearth alternative land-based and indigenous assemblages. Prior to the mechanisation of agriculture and financialization of territory, communities from around the world stewarded nature and developed reciprocity with their environmental landscapes, conceiving of rights and protections of nature, as well as building paths of kinship, reliance, nutrition and replenishment with their surrounding habitats. This triennial hails this framework as part of contemporary artistic practices.

This curatorial approach builds on while also fostering a different imagination about contemporary imagination of the environment as a portmanteau of the human’s imprint on it, not with it. It is cognizant that human activities such as agro-farming, fossil-fuel extraction, deep-sea mining, exploitation of raw natural resources as well as growth-centred mentalities inherited from imperial structures, have created a system in which the human has no respite over the environment and developed dangerous structures of dependence. Additionally, our knowledge about the environment is human-centred, placing us as superior to nonhuman lifeforms, able to alter and modify it for our benefit.

Not only is the human a technocratic engineer flattening the environment into spaces for the appropriation of raw materials, it also re-enforces the inequalities which exist within human species. The environment we occupy today is orientalised, speciated, classified and modelled to benefit some communities over others and to enhance some communities’ quality of life over others. Current discourse of greening energy also seems reserved for those who are positioned in different hemispheres with many communities from around the world unable to benefit from critical environmental rehabilitative strategies. Thus, much of today’s human-environment practices reiterate racial, social and discriminatory knowledge and thinking.

Consequently, a large proportion of the globe lives and inherits centuries-long extractive colonial empires and finds their present condition calcified by multinational food, energy and agriculture corporations. Many of these communities are disproportionately affected by these human-environment relationships created by virtue of the western world’s colonial legacies whose current urban and civil structures are overwhelmingly responsible for the global changes we’re now seeing. It builds on the continuing genocide of indigenous people and their territories, the decades-long nuclear tests on colonised territories, legacies of violence and trauma in plantations and mines where forced labour has resulted in devastating loss of environmental life and indignity of people. This has changed and continues to change the geology of the planet in ways that will be felt beyond our lifespans, with severe implications for humanity’s survival.

While acknowledging the formidable narratives and research about the human-environment relationships of the present, in this triennial I aim to decenter both the apocalyptic and optimistic extremes we find ourselves compelled to run to. I find it is only through layering complexity in our dialogue about environmental justice can we face our responsibilities and realise our complicity. To avoid imposing a hierarchy or preference for one reading over the other, this triennial invites artists and collectives from all over the world to realise existing and unknown narratives about the environment in which we occur. Is nature resilient because of how it is tested, and endures death and destruction as imagined by Adonis? Or are the dystopian, apocalyptic cli-fi futures which are void of life, mechanised and made superficial, a truly lived reality?

Rooting the triennial in Aichi Prefecture, Japan’s own environmental imagination, between ashes and roses, will also be embedded in the exhibit. Aichi is a locus of ceramic production and Seto City is famous for the fabrication of Setomono. These local industries which work with the surrounding environment’s materials and resources, will feature in the artist commissions. Since these industries are a source of local pride, they support the triennial’s exploration for alternative models of human-environment relationship. As an example, in Aichi, historic photographs and archives which depict ashy black skies generated from the production of ceramics signified prosperity rather than pollution and destruction. Thus, what conceptions of technology, locally-based knowledge, imperial history, environmental imaginations come up when we decenter the universalist Anthropocenic critique? Do such local industries and heritage pave way for alternative and spectral thinking about the human-environment entanglement?

Additionally, various moments and instances of Japanese popular culture, its fiction, films and music will also be referenced, such as Nextworld by Osamu Tezuka. In the novel, the USA and USSR are competing with each other in the atomic bomb race–a history deeply intertwined with the modern making of Japan and its environmental condition–and accidentally creates a race of mutant animals known as Fumoon. They are gifted with psychic powers and intelligence beyond humans who formulate a strategy to evacuate hundreds of animals and a small group of people off planet Earth. The Fumoon, a byproduct of nature-human species come to save the day.

Resonating with the theme of this triennial as well as Adonis’s poem, Nextworld is a traversal between apocalypse and blossoming. Altogether, these references, the locality of the Aichi Prefecture, writers such as Adonis and Tezuka, as well as the participating artists, A Time Between Ashes and Roses is an triennial which shows that in adopting the spectral, limited and in between, assumed positionalities and hierarchies can come undone.

Aichi Triennale 2025, Artistic DirectorHoor Al Qasimi
  • *Adonis, “An Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings,” A Time Between Ashes and Roses, 1970.