Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of art around these days questioning our relationship with the natural world and the creatures that live in it. Arts Catalyst’s extraordinaryInterspecies series last year contained a series of works in which artists “collaborated” with animals in disturbing ways that disrupted our conventional ideas of the co-dependency of the natural and human worlds.
As part of their excellent Flash Point series “How do arts respond to the natural world?”, art:21 blog has just published an essay by curator Nova Benway on the artist David Olsen, whose work explores the toxic impact we have on the natural world. As part of it he adopts the persona of “Vulture”, dressing in bizarre protective handmade clothing to ape the vulture’s adaptive strategy of becoming resistent to the pathogens that it finds in the decaying food that it finds. His attempts to become animal appear ridiculous.
Benway explains how Olsen then suberges pieces of work beneath the polluted waters of Benway Creek in Brooklyn:
The creek is one of the most pollutedwaterways in the country, and the sculptures are, in a certain sense, tools for healing. Made from natural materials like clay, wax, and rope, they employ humble filtration devices to purify tiny amounts of water, or crystals intended to absorb negative forces. One recent work, Witness (2008), is a seal skull with crystals embedded in the eye sockets. A rope attaches the skull to a glass buoy, so when it is lowered into the water it can float through the depths, “seeing” and collecting information or negative energy, until it is retrieved by the artist. Olsen adopts the identity of “Vulture” for these actions, wearing a handmade protective helmet and suit to mimic the bird’s heightened immune system. Of course, these activities have negligible impact on the rampant pollution of the waterway. Olsen’s deliberate mixing of pragmatic and mystical solutions to the problem further obfuscate their effectiveness, while retaining the urgent desire for change.
Its an interesting idea, and I like the idea of art-as-warning, but I confess the Mad Max apocalypticism of this work puts me off. That it revels in the aesthetic of decay seems to dent the point it may be trying to make about the awfulness of pollution.
Pictured: Above, David Olsen as “Vulture”; below, Witness (2008) by David Olsen.