Human Species

Adam Cvijanovic’s Post-Natural History at Postmasters Gallery

DiscoveryOfAmericaDETAIL

Discovery of America(installation detail ) 2012
flash acrylic on Tyvek, 15 x 65 feet

This post comes to you from EcoArtSpace

Gallery Review by Leila Nadir for ecoartspace

There’s no such thing as nature.

For some, this fact is commonplace: there is virtually no place on earth untouched by human beings, especially if climate change is considered. For others, this fact inspires deep anxiety: What exactly do nature skeptics think trees and glaciers are if not natural? These dichotomous responses to the current environmental condition of our planet usually causes conversation to stalemate. It is rare when a piece of writing or a work of art breaks through this divisive questioning to initiate a genuine dialogue about the complicated relationship of the human species to its physical environment—ecologically, historically, and perceptually.

Adam Cvijanovic’s recent solo exhibition, Natural History, at Postmasters Gallery, which ran from September 8–October 13, exposes the elaborate artifice behind what we call “Nature.” However, his paintings do not adopt a simple, “nothing-is-natural” stance. Rather, they suggest that nature may in fact exist but that humanity’s access to it is filtered by the accumulation of cultural data settled into our minds, shaping how we think, see, and imagine. Whether through advanced communications media or the seemingly isolated movement of a painting brush, anytime we reference or depict “nature,” Cvijanovic suggests, we are circling it, containing it, trying to capture it with our net of compulsive human misunderstanding.

The centerpiece of the show is the sixty-five-foot Discovery of America, which Cvijanovic painted on Tyvek and adhered directly to the gallery walls. The painting involves a collision of three scenes. An artist who has vacated her/his studio is in the process of creating a landscape painting of the western North American coast during the Pleistocene era. The pristine nature in the painting is inspired by dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. Armadillos, saber-tooth tigers, mammoths, and many other prehistoric species roam the mountains and the plains, most of whom disappeared quickly after the arrival of homo sapiens on the continent. Shop lights, 2x4s, a ladder, and a pizza delivery box are scattered about a grey floor, a floor that merges with Postmasters’ own concrete floor, melding artwork and gallery, creating for a feeling of displacement for the viewer—as if we can’t trust our own senses, as if any perception of nature is framed by unstable categories.

Crashing into the pristine nature of Discovery of America’s Pleistocene landscape is a scene of men dashing through the plains on horses, based on a photograph of the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889. Rendered in black-and-white, the cowboys appear to be riding through an old Hollywood Western film, and they cause the canvas to shred and tear, smashing its frame into smithereens. The destroyed continuity of the painting suggests the inability to depict what exactly happened when humanity arrived in North America, or when European settlers pushed aside indigenous inhabitants—as if there were a chronological or geographical gap in our representational abilities. How do we cognitively imagine what life on earth was like before the destruction wrought by our species? The painting’s wooden structure spills out onto the studio floor, where the artist has left quite a few empty bottles of beer. The painting shows that this rupture is momentous, cinematic, but also mundane, the aftermath of which we are all living in today, in a human-dominated planet earth. What more can we do than go have a drink?

White Tailed Deer 2012flash acrylic on Tyvek 99 x 144 inches (8.25 x 12 ft)

White Tailed Deer 2012
flash acrylic on Tyvek
99 x 144 inches (8.25 x 12 ft)

Cvijanovic’s other paintings cite far-ranging sources of our contemporary visions of nature, including the romantic Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, the mythical fantasy of unicorns, and perhaps most relevant to our times, media culture. White Tailed Deer offers a colorful, fall-time forest with an elegant lake in the background. The trees and leaves are nearly realistic, but they contain a hint of the high-contrast colors associated with animated film and video games. Standing in the foreground and framed by bright red leaves is a truly animated character, Bambi, surrounded by his skunk and rabbit friends from the 1942 Walt Disney film. The animals have huge, wide, glowing eyes—the sort that make humans say “Ah, how cute” before bending down to pet the wild animals who, in a real forest, would have no interest in them. Although White Tailed Deer’s collision of traditional landscape painting with a film animation of wildlife is not as stark or as violent as that in Discovery of America, we are reminded of the vast distance between nature and the ways in which our culture and media shape the way we see understand this concept. How many of us have had a friendly, fun Bambi (or Dumbo, Simba, Thumper, or Sebastian) lurking in our unconscious?

In Osborne Caribou, a caribou stands tall and proud atop a pile of bloody, skinned carcasses. That the caribou are gutted with the clean lines of a knife indicates a hunters’ work, suggesting yet another way in which humans relate to the natural world, as food to be eaten. The standing caribou looks hyperreal; the outline of his body is too vivid and smooth, as if Cvijanovic were adopting a photoshop aesthetic in his painting. The caribou looks as though it might move at any moment. The painting raises the question as to whether our encounters with animals have become so dominated by media representations that we expect animals to act like animations.

Osborne Caribou  2012flash acrylic on Tyvek 99 x 144 inches (8.25 x 12 ft)

Osborne Caribou 2012
flash acrylic on Tyvek
99 x 144 inches (8.25 x 12 ft)

Natural History is not a clever riff on the American Museum of Natural History nor a nonstop vortex of signifiers nor a self-referential painting about painting, as previous critics have claimed. Those elements may be present, but Natural History goes beyond them to initiate an artistic meditation on the labor and subjectivity behind what we call science and nature, behind the supposed objectivity of the museum. Nature is not a perfect origin or an untouched state in Cvijanovic’s work. It loses that aura of timelessness. Instead, the viewer becomes aware of nature as an elusive quality that is always in a state of becoming and unbecoming, subject to whims, to moods, to the media we have consumed or the beers we have imbibed. Does Discovery of America really depict what the Late Pleistocene Era looked like? Does the Museum of Natural History do better? Or are our understandings of natural history the product of a painter who just ate too much pizza? Cvijanovic’s work asks, are we, as human beings, imprisoned by our own natural concepts, illusions, and designs? Nature might exist but it can only be understood through out limited and malleable human imagination.

ecoartapace ecoartspace is a nonprofit platform providing opportunities for artists who address the human/nature relationship in the visual arts. Since 1999 they have collaborated with over 150 organizations to produce more than 40 exhibitions, 100 programs, working with 400 + artists in 15 states nationally and 8 countries internationally. Currently they are developing a media archive of video interviews with artists and collection of exhibitions ephemera for research purposes. Patricia Watts is founder and west coast curator. Amy Lipton is east coast curator and director of the ecoartspace NYC project room.

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Outlawing ecocide for global peace – why we must all stand with Polly Higgins, the ‘lawyer for the earth’

This post comes to you from An Arts and Ecology Notebook
‘Examples of ascertainable ecocide affecting sizeable territories include the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest, the proposed expansion of the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada and polluted waters in many parts of the world, which account for the death of more people than all forms of violence including war‘ – Polly Higgins, Eradicating Ecocide, 2010, p.63

Polly Higgins and indigenous activist Raven Courtney 2012 working to spread news about ecocide in Canada and North America

Polly Higgins and indigenous activist Raven Courtney earlier this year working to spread news about ecocide in Canada and North America

The above statement is a startling statistic at odds in how we may conventionally view war. Yet acknowledging the enormous and accelerating violence and destruction to humans, non-human species and our sustaining habitats as war is a critical step if we are ever to halt such activities. It is this key concept that drives UK lawyer Polly Higgins in her work to make ‘Ecocide’ legally recognised by the United Nations as ‘5th international Crime against Peace‘. Polly and her organisation are working towards presenting these new laws at the upcoming June 2012 Earth summit and she has recently made an urgent call, particularly to the women of the world, who are often most affected, to understand this concept and to spread it amongst their communities and to bring it to the attention of their political leaders.

Ecocide, as Polly describes in her award winning book ‘Eradicating Ecocide – exposing the corporate and political practices destroying the planet and proposing the laws needed to eradicate ecocide’, is a relatively new term. It was first used to characterise the massive and ongoing environmental devastation that occurred in the Vietnam war with the widespread use of toxic defoliants to destroy local forests. Today it is a term that is growing in agency as the world is beginning to recognise the grave and now imminent global peril that humanity and other species face due to the mostly uncontrolled, unsustainable and ultimately suicidal behaviour of our local and global businesses and corporate industries. Ecocide literally means the killing and destroying of our habitats, and is derived from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘house, dwelling place, habitation, family’ and the suffix ‘cide‘ from the French and Latin words to ‘kill or slay’. For the purposes of international law and building on definitions of ecocide from previous war crimes, Polly defines ecocide as ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished’.

Building on her extensive knowledge of international environmental law, Polly has over a number of years built a very strong, credible case to firstly explain the history and the current situation about why legal compromise, recommended environmental policy and regulation all continue to spectacularly fail in preventing environmental destruction, as seen in the recent Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She likens the need to legally criminalise ecocide to the effects such similar laws that criminalised and led to the abolition of slavery. Polly’s aim is to eradicate ecocide at its roots, outlawing ecocidal activity in all business activity to the point that business is forced to radically change and move in the opposite direction. As she says ‘ we need business skills to be applied elsewhere and very fast..’

Youtube: Polly Higgins organised a successful mock ecocide trial in London in 2011 with leading human rights lawyers

While I’m often pessimistic about environmental actions and politics in general halting what I see as the unstoppable consequences of a society that promotes unlimited economic growth and profit over everything else, I have been encouraged by Polly’s work and the historical and recent examples she presents where such legal changes have made a difference. There are certainly enormous challenges in getting such legal changes adopted and then enforced. However, it is possible and one country, Ecuador, has in 2010 already enshrined these values into its national constitution. Perhaps this is because it is in Ecuador that the largest criminal prosecution against corporate ecocide, against the ‘big oil’ company TEXACO, has succeeded with a $27 billion of damages awarded to 30,000 Amazonian peoples (the 18 year struggle for this landmark case is the basis of the award-winning documentary Crude (2009)).

So if you have a few minutes, please visit Polly’s website www.thisisecocide.com, packed with information and suggestions on how to spread the word about ecocide and its need for its to be recognised at every level, locally, nationally and internationally as a crime, not just against the environment but against peace. Do share this article , particularly before the June 2012 United Nations Earth Summit at which Polly will be presenting this groundbreaking work.

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What follows are Polly’s 10 reasons why Ecocide is a crime against Peace

1. stop ecocide and we stop the mass destruction of the planet;

2. ecocide is proposed as an international law which applies to all people and all nations;

3. which will rapidly become a national duty of care as well when each country has to put in place parallel laws;

4. governments, corporations, organisations, and any person who has rights over a territory will have an over-riding legally binding obligationto ensure their actions do not give rise to damage, destruction or loss of ecosystems;

5. action can be taken against any human person, not the fictional person (the corporation). As an international crime against peace, no-one escapes liability;

6. we already have the international court structure in place to prosecute ecocide. The International Criminal Court was created in 2002;

7. ecocide creates a strong legal burden of responsibility to ensure prevention;

8. restoration will take precedence over simple payment of fines;

9. the Law of Ecocide will ensure a shift from personal interest to public, environmental and society interests;

10. Peace.

Ecocide sends a powerful global message to the world, not just to those involved in business or during war, to take responsibility for the well being of all life.

This article also appears on hercircleezine.com and ecoartfilm.com

An Arts & Ecology Notebook, by Cathy Fitzgerald, whose work exists as ongoing research and is continually inspired to create short films, photographic documentation, and writings. While she interacts with foresters, scientists, and communities, she aims to create a sense of a personal possibility, responsibility and engagement in her local environment that also connects to global environmental concerns.
Go to An Arts and Ecology Notebook

New metaphors for sustainability: my sweet pea

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

In a recent series of seminars on site-based performance and environmental change, our Ashden Directory co-editor Wallace Heim met Alison Parfitt, of the Wildland Research Institute, and writer on conservation. Here, Alison considers her sweet pea as a metaphor in our series New metaphors for sustainability.

Sustainability. After the Rio Earth Summit 1992, I was impassioned about this challenging aspiration, with head and heart. Many of us struggled over complicated diagrams, wanting to encompass everything. We talked about ecological systems and the need for the sacred and spiritual, the connectedness of all. We explored social and environmental justice and quality and equality – with diversity. Models and metaphors came and went, bees in a beehive.

Now I see this challenge of understanding the potential and power of sustainability in a more intimate way. And I suspect that the full and inspiring notion of sustainability (sometimes understood but often not) is showing a way, a direction for the human species to evolve, if we can.

As I write this there is a sweet pea, picked this morning, beside me. A soft fresh fragrance. This flower is creamy pale with a purple, or even nearing indigo, fine edging on the petals. It looks and feels precise, very clear yet fragile. It moves in the air coming through the door. The flower is here today but gone tomorrow, the plant goes on and I shall gather seed. It is everyday and uniquely precious.

I accept that my sweet pea is not really a helpful metaphor for sustainability but for today, now, it enlightens me and reminds me of my relationship within all else. And how I could be more human. And that’s where my quest to understand has got to. I suspect it will move on again, soon.

 

“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

The editors are Robert Butler and Wallace Heim. The associate editor is Kellie Gutman. The editorial adviser is Patricia Morison.

Robert Butler’s most recent publication is The Alchemist Exposed (Oberon 2006). From 1995-2000 he was drama critic of the Independent on Sunday. See www.robertbutler.info

Wallace Heim has written on social practice art and the work of PLATFORM, Basia Irland and Shelley Sacks. Her doctorate in philosophy investigated nature and performance. Her previous career was as a set designer for theatre and television/film.

Kellie Gutman worked with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for twenty years, producing video programmes and slide presentations for both the Aga Khan Foundation and the Award for Architecture.

Patricia Morison is an executive officer of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, a group of grant-making trusts of which the Ashden Trust is one.

Go to The Ashden Directory