Sunday, 13 February 2022
GIANT gallery, Bournemouth: 15 Nov 2022 - 13 Feb 2022
Curated by Paul Carey-Kent
How should we relate to nature? As recently as fifty years ago the anthropocentric way of looking purely through the lens of human outcomes was the mainstream assumption. It is embedded in many religions, as when the bible states that humans are created in the image of God and are to have dominion over all other living creatures. That’s never been a world-wide view: for example, indigenous Australian and American traditions have framed man as working with nature, being part of a system in which they are equals in a web of relationships with flora and fauna. But the growing consensus around the effect of a history of exploiting and abusing nature have altered how the west, too, sees the relationship. The question becomes, as Donna Haraway poses it: ‘What happens when human exceptionalism and bounded individualism, those old saws of Western philosophy and political economics, become unthinkable in the best sciences, whether natural or social?’
Haraway and Timothy Morton are the most widely known philosophers to tackle the question of how climate change should alter our ways of thinking. Morton emphasises the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things, contrasting that with how ‘putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman’. He emphasises that all our experiences are coloured by the environmental position, from drinking water to hoovering the lounge to looking at art. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are. One might describe the outcome of such considerations as ecological post-humanism. Jean Luc Nancy says we are always ‘beings in common’: as individuals we may be singular, but we cannot but be part of a community of different beings each exposed to each other in myriad different ways. Another term is ‘biocemtrism’: seeing humans as just one species among many in the ecosystem, and holding that the natural environment is intrinsically valuable independent of what benefit accrues to people. In one snappy formulation, ‘we are all lichens now’.
Yet has the underlying motivation changed as much as those views suggest? One could argue that the driving force is a new arrogance, grounded in a fear of the planet losing us. We’re used to the idea that individual death may be something to be embraced, rather than feared: should we look to accept the long-term inevitability of our own species death in a comparable spirit?
All of which is about attitude, rather than action, about the questions rather than the answers. And that is what art is good at: evoking, amplifying, provoking... As George Vasey has said: ‘Climate change is a form of slow violence, enacted over many generations. While it is often difficult to grasp, its scars run deep. The urgency for artists is to make the abstract, concrete and paint a vivid picture in people’s minds.’ Bournemouth’s former Debenhams – a doomed cathedral of sorts to the society of consumption which lies behind the Anthropocene - or Cthulhucene, as Haraway terms it to avoid putting humanity at its etymological centre - is an appropriate place to reflect on how we relate to nature. There’s plenty of potential to read concerns about the future of nature into the work of the twelve artists gathered here. There are many cross-overs, but - for example - we can reflect on what is and isn’t natural as we look at the work of Kelly Richardson, Andy Harper and Theo Ellison. Our shifting views of the power of nature underlie the films of Toby Tatum and the photographs of Esther Teichmann. We can observe nature corrupted yet resilient in the installations of Matt Hale and Rebecca Byrne, the photographs of Sandra Kantanen and the paintings of Alan Rankle. We can trace the commonality of species and the integration of human and natural in the merged forms of Saelia Aparicio, Julie Maurin and Tessa Farmer. The dozen artists combine to show some of the ways in which we need to move from controlling nature to facilitating its independent importance, to accepting the case for ‘NatureMax’.
Mother of Thousands, 2021 - Welded powder coated steel, found salvaged glass, hand-blown glass and neon with mother of thousands plant
Fridge, 2021 - CNC plywood, stain dye, osmo, glass, found objects, ceramic, milliput
The Artist, courtesy of Gallery FUMI, London and The Ryder Projects, Madrid
A table-as-woman reveals a live plant in her glass intestine. London-based Spanish artist Saelia Aparicio has previously used the garden as metaphor for the body, where boundaries between humans, architecture, furniture, animals, and plant life have folded, so this might be seen as a person-plant. ‘I don’t see the body as a source of horror’, says Aparicio, ‘but we’re living in a world that’s increasingly superficial and very much related to the surface of the body. Things like fermentation and digestion are seen as gross and scary, but we all have this whole unknown world inside us that we don’t know and understand - I find that fascinating.’ Kalanchoe Daigremontiana (Mother of Thousands) is a Madagascan plant known for growing rapidly anywhere it lands – making it a ‘top ten’ invasive species in Britain. So this is not necessarily a benign alteration of what it is to be human. Likewise the woman as fridge. What seems clear, though, is that we don’t have control over nature: we’re in a fictional world of hybridity and interdependence, where what is human or not is blurred. Or is that world so fictional after all?
Fusama, 2019 / 21 - acrylic paint and acrylic ink on Arches paper, wood and aluminium, 840 x 250cm across 6 panels
Fantastical Flora, 2019 / 21 - acrylic paint and acrylic ink on Arches paper, wood and aluminium, 355 x 250cm across 3 panels
Rebecca Byrne grew up in urban Chicago - but her parents had set up a small organic farm there, well before most people were considering our relationship to the land. That personal history informs her immersive installations of paintings that explore our relationship to the environment by referencing images of flowers affected by pollution, distorting plants through bodily references and combining extinct and existing flora that never actually co-existed. That creates pictures of nature in flux, using real and imagined subject matter to propose an alternate natural world. Here, in response to the NatureMax theme, she presents a double installation that references ancient stone structures associated with sites of healing, proposing a positivity in response to the undeniable problems of the Anthropocene that is in tune with the feel-good factor generated by the colour and invention with which she draws parallels between the constant changes of the natural world and the limitless possibilities of painting.
Evolved Display, 2019 – two screen installation, looped
This installation of two looped films implicitly compares art with the courtship of peacocks: a display that has evolved to centre on a tail that appears extravagantly non-functional and a display that might be seen to be defined – as art – by its non-functional purpose. The art in question is by the 18th century Spanish painter Luis Melendez, whose paintings of fruit, says Ellison, remind him of computer-generated images, ‘highly meticulous but with a coldness to their perfection’. That provides a context for artificial image-making which attempts, like the peacock and painter, to seduce its particular audience. But the artichokes are CGI constructions, tricked out with a fake ‘lens-breathing’ effect that gives away their origin. Nature meets artifice, science meets romanticism, the manufactured image meets the captured one. And everything folds into a Vanitas skull at the end of the loop. Underlying all that is a pertinent question: can we replicate nature? What would be lost, from a narrowly homocentric point of view, if we ended up without it, with just the replication?
Swarming Fever, 2021
Caiman skull, crab claws, wormshells, sea spiders, mouse bones, snake bones, hedgehog spines, Portuguese man 'o' war polyps, shed snake skin, taxidermied birds, insects, plant roots
The Artist, courtesy of Danielle Arnaud Gallery
Tessa Farmer’s matter of fact description of her installation cannot disguise that it is rather extraordinary: ‘fairies, riding in weaponised skullships, flown by enslaved bees, beetles and butterflies are chasing and hunting a fleeing bird. A swarm of one hundred bumblebees spews from the main ship which is constructed from a small caiman skull, crab claws, snake ribs, mouse bones, wormshells, shed snake skin and coral.’ The fairies are sinister and sophisticated – as is consistent with their medieval origins as myth, rather than the adonised version encountered in recent times; or with the behaviour of the parasitoid wasps - studied by Farmer - which lay their eggs in the bodies of others. Perhaps they are some sort of evolutionary link between insect and human. Indeed, while the Boschian dramas mimic the enthralling malevolence of hedgerows using their own inhabitants, Farmer does see them as making a case for insects: they are often maligned and misunderstood, she says, but ‘are actually an essential part of the ecosystem, providing important pollination, pest control, and decomposition services.’ Ignorance of that ‘is perhaps symptomatic of our increasing disconnection with the natural world’.
True-Fictive Nature, 2021 – installation, dimensions variable
It seems Matt Hale has dedicated himself to tracking down trees which - though heavily polluted, often right to the core - are not without an aesthetic side-effect which somewhat ameliorates their message of doom. Are they fakes? The bespoke storage and scientific labels look convincing enough. In fact, Hale’s studio is close to a wood, from which he has foraged trunk and bark fragments, branches and roots, and transformed them through a rich range of intrusions. John Roberts has set out the range of possibilities for these specimens: they ‘can be read as toxic hybrids removed from an irreparably diseased earth… as recovered samples from a wondrous and alien Avatar-like planet of blue and orange trees, of glowing and communicating plants... or as examples of a benign ‘second nature’ on planet earth itself, in which human intervention into natural processes has produced a controlled plasticized and technologically-embedded natural world’. Consequently they simultaneously stage ‘the current crisis of nature as an unresolved relationship between nature as a threatened repository and nature as a human-directed process’.
Goongoner, Staying with the Trouble and Deep Time Reunion, 2020 – All oil on canvas, 2m x 2m
The Artist, courtesy of Patrick Heide Contemporary Art
Andy Harper’s new series of large, square canvases are vortexes with a celestial aspect. Like much of his recent work, it would also be easy to believe that we are looking at unreal vegetation, so profuse it has crowded out the full space of the canvas, so heightened in colour it takes on a psychedelic aura. Is this NatureMax for the end of times? Perhaps, but they may also suggest mental activity or emotional states. All those readings are consistent with the ambiguously suggestive titles. Yet what we’re actually looking at is a self-sufficient world created out of the processes of painting. That world emerges from rapid instinctive decision-making, not the precise translation of observations - Harper describes it as finding ’a sensibility of growth’. To get there, he explains, 'a membrane of transparent paint is spread across the slippery surface of the support. Brushes and various implements are pushed into this oily film to create an evolving collection of marks. My hand moves quickly across the surface, driven by a mix of intuitive responses and muscle memory…’
Forest 7, 2016 - Pigment print, edition of 5, 56 x 46 cm
Forest 11, 2108 - Pigment print, edition of 5, 56 x 46 cm
The Artist, courtesy of Purdy Hicks Gallery
Photography meets painting in Sandra Kantanen’s technically innovative ways of re-presenting nature. One of many imaginative photographers frequently grouped together as the ‘Helsinki School’, she trained in landscape painting in China as well as photography in her native Finland. Kantanen blends digital processes into her images so that areas appear variously to resemble brushstrokes and the mechanical action of a printing press as well as recording the moment when the image was taken from the world. This calls attention to the complicated relationship between photograph and reality, offering that up as a parallel for human relations with nature. The ‘Forest’ series, photographed just five minutes from her home in Hangö, Finland, adds another intervention: Kantanen stages dense treescapes with smoke bombs, so that in her words ‘the psychedelic colour of the smoke detaches the landscape from reality, forcing the viewer to look closer. I wonder if trees can carry a memory'. No wonder she has called her images ‘mindscapes’.
You a Fairy series, 2021. Three works - Lactoria cornuta fish, swarovski strass, plastic wings, various dimensions up to 41 x 23 x 5 cm
Triste en retraite, 2021 - Pearls, synthetic hairs, porcelain found object, wax, epoxy resin,
33 x 27 x 7 cm
Triste dans la fête, 2021- Latex, pearls, synthetic hairs, wooden found object, wax, epoxy resin, 33 x 27 x 7 cm
Triste dans la nite, 2021- Pearls, synthetic hairs, plastic found shoe, necklace, wax, epoxy resin, 33 x 27 x 7 cm
The small sculptures of Julie Maurin, a recent graduate who works between London and her birthplace of Marseille, explore the ambivalent relationship we have with nature. Her recent show at South Parade, Deptford combined the organic and synthetic, ranging from found objects and industrial materials to pearls and Swarovski Strass to plants and crustaceans, to arrive at newly ambiguous forms. The ‘You a Fairy’ series fuse preserved fish with plastic wings to make creatures that, while they nod to the surrealist game of ‘exquisite corpse’, in which different hands draw parts of a drawing without seeing the whole, make some sort of sense if you start to speculate on where human interference in nature might end up. The ‘Triste’ series of tablet-like agglomerations on wax, latex and resin are more in the way of memorial plaques enacting a sadness that she indicates is connected to her experience of the devastation that wildfires have left in Southern France. What both suggest is how boundaries are shifting between natural and artificial, and that the consequences may be full of surprises.
Landscape with Electrostatic, 2021 - Oil on aluminium 46x56cms
Untitled Painting XXV (Montsegur), 2019 - Oil on canvas 150x135cm
Alan Rankle looks to the past in order to paint the future – and has done for two decades. As he has explained: ‘I wanted to relate ideas about historical, idealised, pastoral landscape in art to the grim reality of the environmental crisis that we are in… Considering the historical origins of the genre in relation to my own paintings, I wanted to convey the irony implicit in how the 19th century Romantic movement, with its emphasis on the idyllic natural world of an imaginary past, was sponsored by people who, having made gigantic fortunes out of the Industrial Revolution by building their empires on the slave trade and the criminal use of the Enclosures Acts forcing the poor from their traditional peasant homes to work in their factories and mills, also laid the foundations of environmental pollution on a catastrophic scale’. So if his landscapes look corroded and polluted, that is to the rhetorical point – but they are beautiful, too - drawing us in to his argument, but also suggesting a recognition of the temptations that led us to where we are.
Twilight Avenger, 2008 – Single channel HD video installation with audio
Orion Tide, 2013-14 - Single channel HD video installation with audio
Landscape painting meets science fiction cinema in Kelly Richardson’s ethereal video installations. They blend filmed footage with computerised intervention in a way which brings the two together into a hypnotising combination of real and artificial, simultaneously seducing and unnerving us while emphasising the inevitability of a human role in nature. Richardson – a Canadian who lived in Britain while teaching at Newcastle University from 2003-17 - shows two films on alternate weeks. In ‘Twilight avenger’, a stag emerges from the forest. That may sound romantic, but a green irradiance, though it may represent its body responding to cold air, is more suggestive of contamination. Spurts of fire take off into a nocturnal desert sky – actually that of Texas - in ‘Orion Tide’. Is this a remarkable, but real, phenomenon or an imagining? Either way, it is at once apocalyptic and sublime: rapture and disaster, space exploration, planetary evacuation and last judgments may all come to mind as we muse on our possible futures.
The Loom, 2018 - film, 8 mins, looped
The Blue Flower, 2021 - film, 14 mins, looped
Original soundtracks by Abi Fry
Writing about Paris and its people, Georges Perec set out in quest of the ‘infra-ordinary’: the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’ In Perec’s hands, it proves surprisingly poignant. One could look at Toby Tatum’s films as a natural history equivalent. The 14 minutes of The Blue Flower show no more than that, but we’re lured in to the extraordinary architecture of Nigella Damascene (‘Love-in-a-mist’), the blur of passing insects, the effects of light and camera and the wondering which is which - and by the haunting soundtrack provided by Abi Fry, a composer best known for her work as part of the band Sea Power. We’re hypnotically drawn in to how, in Tatum’s words, ‘a blue flower blooms on the threshold of the infinite’. Nor is there much more action in The Loom: we track a heron, the very epitome of stillness as it waits for fish, and a spider confined to a web in which no fly lands. What we hear are the otherworldly sounds of the Aeolian harp, an instrument played solely by the wind. Here it amplifies the entrancement, and fragility, of the natural world.
Untitled from Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears (river backdrop), 2012-14 / 2021 - Digital inkjet on canvas, inks, acrylic (wall installation, width 3.8m)
Untitled from Heavy the Sea, 2016 - 2 x Fibre based silver gelatin prints, each 76 x 61 cm
The Artist, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
German-American artist Esther Teichmann shows the same combination as in her recent solo show ‘On Sleeping and Dreaming’ at Flowers Gallery, London: an immersive and psychedically-infused whole wall subterranean scene and two nude figures draped in tentacular lengths of seaweed. As the gallery put it then, the audience is plunged ‘into an alternate orphic world, moving within womb-like spaces of beds, swamps, caves and grottos, in search of a primordial return. The photographic images slip in and out of darkness, evoking a liquid space of night… the bodies depicted are sensuous but seemingly beyond reach, entangled with narratives of loss and desire… Referencing the coral said to be formed by Medusa’s blood spilled upon seaweed, Teichmann’s work transforms one thing into another, sliding between autobiography, fiction and myth, still and moving image, sculpture and painting.’ As such, we may think in the context of NatureMax, of a future in which humanity has to come to terms with the predominant presence of water.
At the opening:
- Paul Carey-Kent
- Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
- I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.