The evolution of species and spaces in 21st century art explores the environmental, economic, and technological conditions shaping the earth and its inhabitants today.
In these still and moving images of land and cityscapes, and in the taxidermy and fabricated figures of The New Frontier, nature meets technoculture, and the new natural is both organic and manufactured. Invoking past and future in a critique of the present, these paintings, photographs, sculptures, and videos document observed, current realities while referencing the aesthetic traditions of 19th and 20th century art. Influenced by Romanticism and Surrealism, science and commerce, these artists envision how the dreams and detritus of the industrial era have generated the promise and peril of the digital age.
Landscape, once the realm of the bucolic and pastoral, now appears fantastical, alluring, threatening, and threatened, permanently altered into an anthropocene: a manufactured earth whose contours and contents are determined by global commerce and technology. These hybrid territories are home to hybrid creatures, whose forms combine human, animal, and artificial features, the offspring of scientific research and imagination, reflecting our anxiety and aspirations for the future. While hybrids have been a staple of the collective cultural imagination for centuries, images of genetic recombinants populate in particular the art of the turn of 20th century, as do they now. During these periods of significant concurrent economic, technological, and socio-political change, hybrids embody fear and desire, the known and the unknown. They and the territories they may inhabit belong to the uncanny, a place eerily alien and familiar at once. As the post-industrial world transforms into the bytes and pixels of the digital age, the sublime becomes the super-natural.
“We pack a lot of fear into the landscape right now,” observes Chris Doyle, who moves between analog and digital practices, using both watercolor and software-based animation to explore the evolution of nature and artifice. The dual perception of the natural world as menacing and magical, a place of both freedom and entrapment, animates The Larger Illusion, in which a dead tree trunk has morphed into a minotaur’s head; the creature’s labyrinth is formed by twisting branches between which portals of light and dark summon, along with allusions to Classical mythology, childhood fears and desires. A fairy-tale-like fantasy also unfolds in Anthony Goicolea’s Feral Forest, where lush layered colors and forms suggest familiar imagery but reveal an unpredictable metamorphosis of a boggy, wooded landscape filling with cotton plants and a reddish swamp, in transition back to the wild. Within Goicolea’s large-scale drawings series, Pathetic Fallacy (titled after 19th-century critic John Ruskin’s term for anthropomorphism in art), tree trunks merge with human organs, potentially the hybrid results of cross-pollination in a world where habitats, bodies, and DNA may be shared.
Science, as well as imagination, inspires Goicolea, as well as Patricia Piccinini, Laura Ball, Thomas Grünfeld, Sarah Garzoni, Kate Clark, Joshua Haycraft, and others. Cloning, mutations, and other forms of genetic engineering and technical innovation create new life forms here—a fleshy, wide-eyed, long-haired being resting atop an electronic speaker, a parade of animal species close to extinction whose bodies are morphing together, a bird’s head atop a goat’s body, a chicken “wearing” a rabbit, a gazelle with distinctly human facial features, a tiny bird sporting an mechanized beak at home in a Plexiglas habitat. Critic Michael Rattray observes that taxidermy like Garzoni’s Mascarade 3 signals entry into a surreal frontier: “the object posed frozen as if it were still living may give pause in its stasis. The aesthetic moment thereby enters the unreal universe of altered time, altered space.” Yet, while often fantastical, such hybrids embody Freud’s definition of the uncanny in their combination of the truly alien and the deeply familiar. Indeed, these creatures are not merely the projections of human emotion or thought onto the non-human: medical science and technology promise a brave new world of cures and improvements, sometimes in service of restoring what has been lost or destroyed.
“Contemporary technology is full of promises and myths,” says Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, “Media culture plays on our hopes and desires for technology with a multitude of pledges and assurances.” And yet, neither innovation nor evolution has ever been subject to total control. What if the creations of the technoculture evolve in unexpected ways? Piccinini’s The Listener is at once enticing and alarming, its facial expression tender and vulnerable. Curled atop a speaker, the long-haired, doe-eyed creature is presented as if at home—enjoying the entertainment made possible by technology—the potential source of its own existence. As climate change, environmental damage, human behavior, and scientific experimentation actively affect how and which species will evolve, Piccinini’s work is an inquiry into our relationship with what the future may beget, asking if we would welcome The Listener at home: “I am particularly fascinated by the unexpected consequences, the stuff we don’t want but somehow must accommodate. There is no question as to whether there will be undesired outcomes; my interest is in whether we will be able to love them.”
Piccinini’s attitude towards the technoscience she investigates is equivocal—“Just because something is bad doesn’t mean that is not good;” and dreams of becoming animal to gain power or insight, to escape circumstance or self, are pervasive. Grant Hayunga’s peyote-induced visions of human-bodied, animal-headed creatures; figures at play and in conflict astride wild animals in Laura Ball’s watercolors; Carlee Fernandez’s costumed play Bear Study, Kate Clark’s fierce antelope-woman whose seductive gaze offers The Answer to Your Prayers, and Oleg Dou’s eerie, horned animal children all enact a fantasy of merging the human ego with an animal id to circumvent or supersede human limitations. British artist Marcus Coates, whose works explore the intersection of nature and mysticism, transforms numerous volunteers from people to birds in his 14-screen video installation, Dawn Chorus. Gathering over 500 hours of birdsongs, Coates slowed the recordings down by 16 times, then asked willing choral singers to mimic the resulting chirps, whines, and groans, in their native habitats—their offices, kitchens, bath, living rooms, and more—at daybreak. The video tapes were then sped up again: the singers, now effectively emanating birdsong, embody the movements and expressions of thrush, warbler, robin, other avian species to a degree that exceeds emulation and suggests transcendence.
Coates’s Rituals for Reconciliation argues for a rapprochement between the human and animal worlds. The relationship between the two realms today is mediated; we perceive other creatures as reproductions digitized onscreen, or printed in the magazine pages these photographs mimic, or as specimens in cases, as these works are framed. Created during a journey the artist undertook at the behest of a hospice patient, Coates’s Rituals suggest a potential for healing self and surroundings through deeper engagement with other species.
The aesthetics of the digital age fluctuate from dazzling to devastating, charting a cyclical progression beyond what either nature or technology alone may dictate. The combination of beauty and terror Romantic painters of the 19th century described as sublime has been supplanted by alluring and alarming visions of a planet shaped by human activity. The effects of shifting environmental and economic conditions are documented, imagined, and transformed in works by Luis Gispert, Pieter Hugo, Edward Burtynksky, Alice Pixley Young, Elena Dorfman, Chris Doyle, and others. Consumerism shapes landscapes both real and imagined. In Chanel Jetty, Luis Gispert combines the expansive, lakeside vista of Rozel Point, Utah with the interior of a drug dealer’s vehicle outfitted in fake designer fabric; the car’s circular subwoofers visually echoing the pattern of Robert Smithson’s iconic land art, Spiral Jetty (1970), visible in the foreground. Referencing art history, the mythology of the American West, and consumer consumption, the landscapes of Decepcion (“disappointment”) reveal layers of longing, both material and metaphoric.
Consumerism’s aftermath is reflected in Pieter Hugo’s photographs of Agbogbloshie, which depict “the people and landscape of an expansive dump of obsolete technology in Ghana,” as the artist describes this smoke-filled, post-apocalyptic landscape. Discarded technology from the developed world is unloaded here, but the residents value most the metals harvested when burning the hard drives and motherboards, which further pollute the land, animals, and people beyond the digital divide. “Notions of time and progress and collapsed in these photographs,” observes Hugo, “The cycles of history and the lifespan of our technology are both clearly apparent in this cemetery of artifacts from the industrialized world.” The littered, barren landscape that surrounds Simen Johan’s Untitled #153 (Until the Kingdom Comes) suggests a similar devastation; the majestic but seemingly powerless bison awaits the rehabilitation of his desolate habitat.
Photographer Edward Burtynsky ‘s predominant subject is also what he defines as “the residual landscape, nature transformed through industry.” In images such as Oil Spill #1, REM Forza, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, Burtynsky reveals the beauty and the ruin wrought by the harvesting of natural resources. Documenting the global anthropocene, Burtynksy says, “I set course to intersect with the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, to transportation, silicon, and so on…Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries, and refineries, are all places outside our normal experiences, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.”
The arching plume of smoke that appears in Alice Pixley Young’s Will You Miss Me When I Burn? (Through A Glass Darkly) critiques both the environmental wreckage caused by oil spills and the limitations of human perception that allow such damage to occur. This image of the Deepwater Horizon explosion off of the US coast is presented within an antique mirror placed set against a wall drawing rendered in fading hues of ashy grey. The dark mirror, explains the artist, recalls the “Claude glass (also known as a black mirror), a black tinted mirror that was used by the Hudson River School painters to view landscapes and create idealized, “picturesque” vistas from which to paint.” Like Chris Doyle’s re-envisioning of Thomas Cole’s Hudson River masterpiece, Young’s Through A Glass Darkly series transforms the 19th century sublime into a provocative revelation about current conditions and human behavior—here, linking “the idea of psychological darkness with the historical Romanticist associations of the “Black Mirror.”
Historical references to neoclassicism also animate Marc Quinn’s sumptuous Portraits of Landscapes and the multi-media collage and ceramic works by Future Retrieval. Portraits of Landscapes are thrice removed from their source: an installation of flowering plants Quinn preserved in full bloom in liquid silicon in an industrial-size refrigerator were painted as landscapes; the landscapes were then reworked into prints, their colors heightened and forms flattened, further emphasizing the artifice of preserving the organic. Future Retrieval’s Gangster’s Paradise Redux combines a backdrop of vibrant, hand-cut paper floral patterns loosely arranged behind more tightly composed porcelain topiaries, one of which features a marijuana plant. The oval frames allude to the form of a 19th Century mirror; gold leaf and intricately patterned wallpaper further suggest the opulence and artifice of a Paradise. In this contemporary still life, nature’s forms morph into a new landscape of desire. The emphasis on artificiality in these highly stylized images of still lifes transform nostalgic allusions to an artistic tradition into critiques of that nostalgia, while addressing the role of aesthetics in reflecting social identity.
The current nostalgia for the remnants of industrial manufacture mixes fact and fiction, history and desire: “Our current environmentalist sensibility, countenancing with horror the ‘scars of industry’ qua quarries and other ravaged natural sites, seeks to normalize, familiarize, domesticate. A quarry turned into a shopping mall becomes a cleansing of conscience, a recovered ‘industrial wasteland.’” So writes Kevin Moore of Elena Dorfman’s Empire Falling, a series of digitally manipulated photographs of abandoned and repurposed quarries. Layering dozens, sometimes hundreds, of images, Dorfman illuminates our geologic, industrial, and economic history, using time-based art to effectively create a portrait of time. As Moore observes, by producing abstractions of real landscapes that once yielded valued resources, “she is not only capturing in the original images the original conditions of the genesis of capital, she is also representing…subsequent conditions, i.e., the development of finance capital.” The title is derived from the Empire Falls quarry, from which stone was harvested to build the Empire State building and other monuments, as well as for roads and crop fertilizer. As Moore notes, “Both uses demonstrate a conquest of nature, the transformation of subterranean chaos into territorial order, of raw materials into social structure.” Dorfman’s project delineates the concurrent—and descendent—evolution of capital and its material representation in neoclassical architecture that signaled power and safeguarded hard currency, to the virtual wealth, whose accumulation and exchange, like digital photography, is today manipulated onscreen.
The parallel evolution of economic and ecological conditions in the post-industrial age is the subject of Chris Doyle’s Waste_Generation. The second in his series of digital animations inspired by 19th-century painter Thomas Cole’s allegorical Course of Empire, Doyle’s vividly rendered trash heaps and dying factories spewing smoke and dollar bills lay bare the legacy of commercial manufacture, while scrolls of leaves and rapidly sprouting flora and fauna herald nature’s resurgence. “The landscape is completely stylized through design,” says the artist, “specifically the influence of William Morris and the presentation of the acanthus, the plant on the dollar bill. I am interested not just in natural elements, but the way we interpret them through design and the way we control the natural world through designing it into submission.” The lifecycle of paper currency playing on the screen mirrors the artist’s “nostalgia for the moment when our industrialized culture [gave] way to information technology,” and yet Doyle’s digital course of empire is cyclical, not linear, generative, rather than apocalyptic. In the 21st century, nature and artifice comingle, transforming blighted landscapes, defunct factories, even iconic architecture, into intertwined physical and virtual components of a new, hybrid world whose resources and inhabitants we may yet nurture. Increasingly shaped and perceived through digital code, “The encrypted landscape,” says Doyle, “is a place that contains multiple realities:” waste generates an aesthetic of potential. Envisioning technology and nature as interdependent, rather than oppositional, may inspire “the people of the technoculture,” as Patricia Piccinini describes current and future generations, to embrace “their failures as well as their accomplishments…to take care of the unexpected country.”
– Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director