While everyone was away at Miami having nervous breakdowns and going delusional from the bright lights and sleep depravation I got to enjoy a week of relaxation and focus on writing a small piece on ICP’s “Ecotopia”. Here it is:
The current exhibition at the International Center of Photography features the increasingly catastrophic relationship between human life and nature. “Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video” running through January 7, 2007 combines public discourse and political agendas with artistic statements and aesthetic creation. Many have argued that contemporary art has been displaced by such specificities as politics, global warming and other social/environmental issues, which ultimately questions the role of art either as autonomous and nonfunctional, or a common participant to the everyday workings of society. During an evening discussion held at ICP, a scientist, journalist and photographer came together to share their perspective about the role art plays within the social system. I will attempt to review highlights of the exhibition in a most descriptive and informative manner, then discuss the issue of power dynamics between human and nature, and conclude with the function of art in relation to public discourse, politics and everyday societal perspective.
The exhibition statement blown up and tacked to a grass frame on the wall reads with foreboding fear-inducing vocabulary similar to that of speeches made by government and media imposing paranoia and anxiety onto the public:“…nature has become the focus of increasing cultural anxiety…there is growing alarm at the disastrous consequences of human attempts to harness or exploit nature…The crisis that has resulted from this disruption of the fragile ecological balance between humans and nature require new global consideration”. This narrowing and specified feed-your-thoughts statement was at once repulsive and left me skeptical about the show before even entering the exhibition space. Luckily I was able to put faults aside and indulge in the artificial greenery setting, black Styrofoam bubble layers meant to resemble rocks? and stuffed dodos.
My favorite piece of the entire show was a large panoramic landscape photograph (above) by Clifford Ross who (lucky me) got to speak at the panel discussion this past Thursday. He’s as romantic and delusional as I would’ve imagined, a Jack Nicholson look-alike face wearing a slick black leather jacket with thinning gray hair. He invented a detail-sensitive extreme focus camera labeled “RI” (R for Ross) which allows him to capture an awe-inspiring image of monumental scale with exquisite detail of mountains, forests and sea. A piece such as Mountain XIII reveals Ross’ romantic desire to rekindle human heart with the ancient soul of nature and in his words is “a longing for the past, bringing awe and beauty to the people”. His passion for the environment, the nonessential presence of man within an engulfing and expansive mass of nature is made available to us through the R1.
Another highlight which became an icon of Ecotopia is Mitch Epstein’s Amos Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia. Here the artist photographs various industrial power plants set behind domestic dwellings surrounding them. It depicts a calm and peaceful middle class American home with all signs of comfortable habitation but resides with a looming backdrop of a power plant creating foggy suffocating clouds. This disturbing but all too real image of potential chaos and destruction is foreboding and contemplative, exposing the need for some serious environmental change. It’s a warning that if we continue to destroy the environment we’ll have green mutant babies that survive on pure carbon dioxide
Sam Easterson’s is a less intimidating and a more informative depiction of nature’s furry little animals. Here the artist attaches mini cameras to the bodies of a range of animals, from an Armadillo, scorpion, chicken to a falcon and a pig. The resulting image is a humbling, simple and reflective viewpoint of the natural world compared to our own egotistical power mongering human world.
Mark Dion’s installation The Bureau of Remote Wildlife Surveillance includes a makeshift nature surveillance office with surrounding images taken with a motion detecting camera used as data archiving the lives of animals such as deer and raccoons. This mode of investigation and process of information consumption is reflective of our current political obsession of the “see something say something” attitude within public discourse. I thought it was a rather mocking and comical portrayal of human curiosity and paranoia.
Harri Kallio combines advanced technology, photoshop and scientific data to create life-size models of the now extinct dodos and restore their presence in makeshift natural settings on photograph. It is amusing and informative like a display in the natural history museum, a warning of a future without shrimps, panda bears, whales and ultimately, humans.
The most “Ecotopian” work is Mary Mattingly’s photographs of a fantasy world with humans wearing khaki outfits that control and protect the body from hazardous exposure reeking throughout the environment. Nomads of this imaginary world travel and navigate toward a “water bound Eden” with the help of their all shielding “wearable homes”. This combination of mastered digital technology and childlike utopian creation is at once witty and successful in portraying the consequences of nature manipulation.
Ultimately, this show is a reflection of an ongoing polarization between the selfish and destructive intentions of humans and the responsive even more powerful influence of nature. It’s a war between the two forces according to such a show as “Ecotopia”, the news, the scientific technological updates, and politics (well, government is reluctant to face such inconvenient truths, but it’s inevitable, they’ll have to pay it some respect). And as much as we take advantage of mother earth’s gifts such as oil and ruin her forests and ozone layer we don’t do it with the intention of being sadistic. We are not the antagonist, but rather just trouble-making children trying to fool our paternal superiors (nature) that we are better, we are right and justified in seeping out all the resources possible from our parents. All in all we don’t need to be so reproachful of our own actions against nature, yes it’s naïve and ignorant of us but it’s all in good reason.
So how relevant, if at all, is art within the public discourse? What is its function and how influential is it concerning such issues as the ongoing war on natural habitats? According to the three speakers at the panel discussion at ICP, art is very influential and relevant in exposing environmental issues to the public consciousness, in addition to their autonomous value as a non-functional work of art. Sanjayan Muttulingam of the Nature Conservancy explained the double role of nature as protector and provider and the need for fields such as art to expose and make the connection to the public, to convey the complex ideas of nature and human interaction and use its power to move people in large numbers and maintain a dialogue with science, politics, and other forms of cultural discourse.
At first Clifford Ross, photographer of the large landscape photographs made with the R1 camera, clearly separated his art making process as first being a passionate aesthetic statement before becoming any sort of political/environmental statement but corrected himself in dividing the two agenda after an audience member commented it made him sound insecure about his work. He defined his photographs as a longing for the past, a “feel for something” rather than a creation of a specific message, a desire to bring his work originating from an experience of awe and beauty in nature made available to the public, his appreciation, passion and adoration for nature brought to the people through the photographic medium. When asked to what extent artists engage in public or political discourse he reiterated being pulled backwards into the environmental movement through his images, starting off with passion and artistic creation which ended up merging with environmental groups who used his passion to reach the public. He emphasizes the importance of artists to become involved, to become a tool and a voice of the people. A passionate romanticist.
Andrew Revkin is a science writer for New York Times, he has a blog and a band, and a book. He’s an award winning author and journalist, fast spoken and very articulate, witty in the Jewish kind of way, and knowledgeable in a vast amount of random topics. After enlightening us of an environmental issue that is invisible and difficult to expose (carbon, ozone, loss of bio-diversity and extinction happens in front of us and we can’t visualize with our eyes the affect it takes, it is hard to find evidence of absence) he emphasizes the role of art as a mode of communication, making visible through images the meaning of environmental degradation and extinction.
Art can impact the public with an iconic image such as Mitch Epstein’s power plant/domestic landscape photographs by extrapolating from one fact a broader issue that is accessible and tangible. Art can be deployed to ply into environmental issues and be used to tell a story that might not have been possible otherwise. It is a challenge for artists to serve the double role as public speaker and image maker without being a sell out.