Monday, March 30, 2009

Phoebe Washburn

In reading "The Comprehensivist: Buckminster Fuller and Contemporary Artists" by Elizabeth Smith from Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, I was reminded of the work of Phoebe Washburn, whose piece Regulated Fool's Milk Meadow, was featured at the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2007.  The piece is a room size installation, really a self-contained factory made from found materials, which produces grass for its own sod roof.  A conveyor belt shuttles small trays of grass seed through stations that provide water and light.  After the grass is fully grown, a "gardener" transfers it to the roof of the factory where, deprived of light and water, it eventually whithers and dies, completing a full life cycle.  See the images and the unfortunately uninformative video below to get an idea of the installation.  

Like Fuller, Washburn is particularly interested in comprehensive, sustainable life systems. Influenced by modernist ideas, Fuller envisioned these systems as elegant and efficient, practical despite their seemingly extravagant forms.  His designs were meant to be used (many of his domes still are in use); he believed that we could better our lives and world through good, thoughtful design.  Washburn's work on the other hand is remarkably, notably impractical.  Its construction is ramshackle and seemingly random - inelegant but functional, though its function is not necessary.  

In discussing the piece, the artist often notes that she is interested in "making do" with the materials she can find, clearly removing herself from the realm of modernism.  A modernist never "makes do."  A modernist uses the material best suited to the job, the material that works most efficiently, gracefully, and tastefully.  Perhaps this impulse can be blamed, at least in part, for our current crisis of sustainability.  What's the use of making do with an old building when a new building can be built better?  Why patch the old jacket when a new one can be easily bought?  The modernist rejects the homemade, the recycled, and the repurposed, which Washburn clearly embraces.  The design of Regulated Fool's Milk Meadow, references more the shantytowns of third world slums, where modernism isn't even an option, where any material, no matter how ill suited, can be made to provide shelter.  

Monday, March 16, 2009


I also wanted to briefly mention something else from the Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility catalogue that didn't really fit into my last post. In his essay Hogue says, "Indeed, there is a significant connection between moral attitudes toward nature and intercultural relations, especially in the way dominant groups treat the oppressed and marginalized." (pg. 11) He seems primarily interested in the way early American settlers treated Native Americans, but I think his assertion stands outside of this context.

It's quite closely related to how I have been thinking about my own work, particularly after last week's presentation. I've been trying to sort out exactly what connection I am trying to draw between nature and men going to the woods to have sex. (If you happen to be somebody not in this class and want to see the work in question, go to my website In my photographs, I'm hoping to present nature and sexuality in a complicated way that dislodges idealistic notions of both. A culture that holds to a rigid interpretation of what nature is and isn't is likely to have rigid views of sexuality as well. If we imagine nature to be pure, comprehensible, and inherently moral, we may extend that to ideas of what is natural human behavior.

One of the most common arguments that homophobes use against gay sex is that is isn't natural because it doesn't result in reproduction, as heterosexual sex often does. I hope to counter this argument by identifying places in nature where homosexual sex happens and depict the natural world as complicated, sensual, and aggressive. Perhaps nature is amoral, functioning without regard to what is right or fair or as it should be. Likewise, human nature doesn't play by the rules our theologies and ideologies set; these moral codes are artificial.

Tommy, 2009

Shelf fungus, 2008

Hips, 2008

Impression, 2008

Strangler fig embrace, 2009

Go west, young man, and put solar panels on your McMansion!

In Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape, a catalogue for the 2008 exhibition at the Loyola University Museum of Art, essays by Michael Hogue and Peter John Brownlee trace the evolution of American attitudes toward the environment from the days of the earliest European settlers to the mid-20th century. Through the lens of relevant art produced during this time, particularly landscape painting, both essays draw similar conclusions. They assert that the settlement of America was founded on the belief that cultivation (of nature and of other people) was of moral value, rooted in Christian religious doctrine. Over the next 250 years or so, these beliefs gradually morphed with political and cultural trends, from the agrarian populism under Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson's aggressive removal of Native Americans from their land. The story told by these essays ends with the perception of nature as a place for metaphysical discovery and mysticism, worthy of protection, delicate and finely balanced. This brings us to the modernism of the first half of the 20th century, filled with abstraction and color - simplified.

Brownlee and Hogue both legitimately suggest that we can learn much about where we are today by understanding the history of our cultural relationship with the American landscape. This is quite true, but much has happened since 1950 and this moment of environmental crisis in 2009. As scientists issue increasingly dire predictions about what might happen and just how soon that might be, it's worth taking a look at the last half century to see how we got here. I can't really do this justice in the space of this blog entry, but I'll try to connect some dots.

Along with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 came a new public awareness of interconnectedness of nature, and out of this came the modern environmental movement. We realized that it was important to not only protect pockets of wilderness, but to also protect the larger ecosystems. It seems that over the last 50 years this understanding has fallen by the wayside, undermined by the explosion of suburbia and the urge to own a piece of nature. Our lives are busy - convenience and willful ignorance allow us to fill in wetlands and flatten mountains without a thought.

Suddenly though, the environment, this delicate thing in need of our protection, now seems a little more threatening. With Katrina at the helm, this current string of natural disasters has shaken us. Nature no longer seems quite so simple or harmonious - the unbalanced nature doesn't simply shatter and die off passively, it seems poised to take us with it. The way we position ourselves in relation to our environment seems to be changing. We've discarded the purity of modernism, where nature is nature and human is human, and replaced it with a new kind of hybridity. It's not the touchy-feely Gaia/Mother Earth interconnectedness of the 1970s; it's a kind of pragmatic, unromantic hybridity - a recognition that nothing is pure or untouched. Our metaphoric hand has even touched the far reaches of the arctic, melting ice that has been frozen for millennia.

There is something of that hybridity in the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus' pictures from an ongoing series called The New Painting.

Elina Brotherus, Der Wanderer I, 2003

Elina Brotherus, Der Wanderer III, 2004

Elina Brotherus, Der Wanderer IV, 2005

In this series, Brotherus, herself the figure, stands looking out over vast landscapes, recalling the heroic explorers that populated Romantic paintings of the 19th century (see below). Instead of appearing heroic, these figures are still and quiet, as if contemplating a loss. In comparison with the Romaintic paintings, the expanse these figures survey doesn't seem wild, mysterious, or terribly dramatic. Between the land and the figure, there is no longer the dynamic of conquest and conquerer or protectorate and protector. Both seem rather impotent. The title of the series, The New Painting, reflects the hybridity of the work itself - she has taken the language and subject matter of these old paintings and recontextualized them with a new medium.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Monday, March 2, 2009

Art, activism, and propaganda: what's an environmentally concerned photographer to do?

In Storming the Gates of Paradise (2008), Rebecca Solnit quotes the nature photographer Eliot Porter as saying, "Photography is a strong tool, a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment...Photographs are believed more than words; thus they can be used persuasively to show people, who have never taken the trouble to look, what is there. They can point out beauties and relationships not previously believed or suspected to exist." This statement characterizes well how Porter saw his own photographs - as a tool to persuade people that the environment is worth protecting, and as a way to re-visualize the world in order to convince people that it is beautiful. Although his images generally described a pristine nature, or a least one in which human intervention is not apparent, Solnit considers them to be politically charged. Though rarely fitting into the dramatic model of Ansel Adams sublime landscapes, they showed an environment worthy of protection by virtue of its subtle beauty and delicate ecological relationships.

Eliot Porter, Reflections of Cliffs, Lake Powell, Utah, May 1965

Eliot Porter, Cottonwood Tree, Moki Canyon, Glen Canyon, Utah, April 8, 1963

Eliot Porter, Ferns, Moss, Dripping Water, Redbud Canyon, San Juan River, Utah, May 25, 1962

Eliot Porter, Scum and Branches, Moki Canyon, Utah, September 23, 1965

Though Solnit often repeats her assertion that Porter valued truth more than beauty (by photographing unexceptional things and places, using flat light, filling the frame without a central subject), he clearly does employ beauty. His pictures helped redefine what we find beautiful in nature and create new ways of imaging nature, but also exploited this beauty in support of a particular political agenda.

Solnit's take on Edward Burtynsky's photographs in her article
Creative Destruction (2003) suggests that his photographs are driven by quite a different motivation. She notes that Burtynsky shies away from claiming his photographs to be political statements, though, rightly, she also notes that "facts themselves are political" - the act of putting information into the public sphere via photography is political. While his work has clear political overtones, the artist himself is reticent to account for those overtones, not wishing to hypocritically attack industry. Though I think Burtynsky's reticence may have been motivated more by a drive for self-protection (if you don't stick your neck out your head won't get chopped off), his pictures speak even if he won't. (I think he also has become more politically outspoken in the last few years as environmentalism has become more in vogue.)

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings No. 31, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996

Edward Burtynsky, Rock of Ages #4, Abandoned Section, Adam-Pirie Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991

Edward Burtynsky, Inco-Abandoned Mine Shaft No. 13, Crean Hill Mine, Sudbury, Ontario, 1984

Though the scale of the subjects of Burtynsky's photos is often much grander than that of Porter's, many rely on similar formal strategies, particularly his earlier pictures. In the pictures above, of mines and the runoff from mining, the landscape appears beautiful, as in Porter's images. Color is clearly important in creating beauty, as are the patterns in the rock surfaces and ground. Both photographers made use of flat light and compositions that encourage the viewer to look at the entire picture from corner to corner. Burtynsky seems to draw on Porter's legacy in making this work, using visual seduction as a way to get the viewer to see processes, perhaps otherwise unnoticed.

I would argue that, whether or not he likes is, Burtynsky's work can be situated as environmental propaganda, just as Porter acknowledges his own to be. Porter uses beauty as a strategy to add value to nature, while Burtynsky uses beauty to call attention to subjects we may bypass otherwise. An interesting question then arises: is beauty the only, or best, way for environmentally concerned photographers to push their agenda?

In the 2004 manifesto, The Death of Environmentalism, the authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describe the failures of the modern environmental movement and a path toward effective policy-making. It makes for a particularly interesting read in the first few months of Obama's presidency, given that many of the strategies it proposes were used during the campaign. Shellenberger and Nordhaus generally conclude that, for environmentalism to make real steps forward, it must be a part of a positive liberal message, calling upon core values (freedom, equality, ect.) and presenting a hopeful future.

I'm interested in where art fits into this agenda. Does art have a role in propagating an environmental message? Although Porter called photography a "propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment," his work was more complex than mere propaganda. Perhaps his work fits into Shellenberger and Nordhaus' stratagem: it draws upon something we fairly universally value, beauty, to promote the protection of nature.

But for today's world, this seems like a weak strategy for contemporary artists. Beautiful nature has lost its punch. In the wonderful world of the internet, I see new potential. Its egalitarianism offers us a change to see nature in a way that is not mediated by the values of professional image/film-makers. It offers us a chance to re-think the way we understand nature. To see it as something clumsy, messy, and awkward, just like us. Maybe if we can embrace this complexity, understand it as something real, instead of virtuous, pure, and beautiful, we can learn to include ourselves in nature.

I'll leave you with this touching meditation on the futility of life.