September 5-December 7
Blane De St. Croix
This exhibition brings together recent work by six artists whose creative practices are propelled by keen attention to the insidious effects of human impact on the planet, in light of escalating environmental disaster. Sculpture, painting, video, and photography, as well prints and multimedia installations, are featured.Several artists pursue research-based work that involves participating in scientific expeditions or otherwise interacting with specialists in the natural sciences. They are part of a larger group of artists who strive to foster a dialogue between disciplines and are adept at doing so, often with the aim of putting climate-change issues in the cultural realm for discussion. As Mark Dion observes, “Science is very good at telling us how things work and what things are, but art can put those facts into a context which is social, historical, and subjective… art can express how we as a society and as individuals feel about that.”
The diverse bodies of work gathered here embody numerous concerns and themes: the concept of landscape as a bearer of cultural values; the transformation of nature into a commoditized, industrial, or synthetic landscape; the complexities underlying geopolitics; the effects of industry and human behavior on animal habitat and biodiversity; the paradox and limitations of data-based abstractions created to visualize fragile and inaccessible ecosystems; the relative assignment of value to people, things, cultures, and places; the heightened sense of impermanence and concomitant anxiety stemming from displacements, migrations, and relocations; the looming threat of extinction and erasure; and the importance of both pursuing individual critical inquiry and recognizing our communal culpability. As Amy Balkin asks, “How do you understand the future of where you live?”
Adriane Colburn’s large-scale installations, assembled with layered cut paper, digital prints, video, and projected light, derive from material collected while participating in scientific expeditions to remote locations. In Spectral Reckoning, she manipulates photographs taken mostly in the Peruvian Amazon, the planet’s most biologically diverse region, and also extracts elements of maps resulting from satellite, infrared, and LIDAR imaging. Examining the human impulse to make the unknown visible as a means of understanding it, she calls attention to the way these data-collecting processes often result in abstractions of the landscape that are at once informative and incomplete. In so doing, Colburn asks us to reconsider how we come to know and understand a place, especially at a time when industry and climate change threaten the last vestiges of wilderness.
Amy Balkin tackles similar issues through research-based processes that take the form of websites, audio narratives, talks, maps, photographs, video, and the documentation of extensive correspondence and legal transactions. A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, her most recent project, is a growing collection of items contributed from places that may disappear due to the combined physical, political, and economic impacts of climate change, including glacial melting, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and desertification. Materials sent thus far from Anvers Island (Antarctica), Cape Verde, Greenland, Kivalina (Alaska), Nepal, New Orleans, New York City, Panama, Peru, Senegal, and Tuvalu constitute a record of present and anticipated loss in the face of environmental destruction–evidence of what will have been.
Gideon Mendel, a London-based South African photographer who uses his medium as socio-political commentary, likewise documents the global impact of one of the most destructive and visible signs of climate change. Drowning World, an ongoing photographic project he began in 2007, comprises a powerful series of portraits taken within flood-ravaged areas of the UK, India, Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Germany, and Nigeria. Working with old Rolleiflex cameras and actual film, Mendel applies a consistent format to his depiction of each individual or family, who face the camera surrounded by boundless water, whether indoors or out. By capturing his subjects in this way, Mendel underscores a shared vulnerability that supersedes the vast differences in their—and by extension, our—lives, circumstances, and geography.
In her recent paintings, Julie Heffernan confronts environmental devastation ever more trenchantly while also conjuring a post-utoptian vision of the future. She transforms the genre of history painting, a tradition to which her complex narratives have been linked, into contemporary allegories that anxiously address the interdependence of self, society, and environment. Teeming with incident and detail, landscapes often appear embattled and threatening, offering at best temporary shelter from the storm. Nonetheless, her figures seem determined to mend a broken world, spurred by the desire to salvage and repair even when faced with an uncertain outcome. Heffernan conceives each painting as a self-portrait, not in a literal sense, but as a reflection of a subjective, internal state that also evokes our role as complicit witnesses.
Though traditionally considered the purview of painting, landscape has been the primary subject of Blane De St. Croix’s sculptures since the mid-1990s, when he began rendering three-dimensional elements of outdoor environments as a means of addressing geopolitically-charged land issues. Like other artists in this show, his projects grow out of extensive field research, most recently in the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Dead Ice, the title of his massive new sculpture, refers to the motionless, melting remnants of a glacier no longer sustained by climatic conditions. De St. Croix adopts a term descriptive of an atrophying landscape as a metaphor for an uncertain future in a work that also speaks to humanity’s hapless attempts to control the natural world.
The work of Mark Dion can also take on a memorializing, even elegiac tone, though generally this is offset by a mordant wit. His long-standing involvement with environmental issues often probe the effects of industry and human behavior on animal habitat, as evident in the sculpture Trichechus manatus latirostris, which features the full-scale skeleton of a manatee floating above a bed of tar encrusted with trinkets and other small objects. With this monumental vanitas display, Dion suggests that we have traded the ecological diversity of the endangered sea cow’s natural habitat for the human detritus scattered at the bottom of the vitrine. As the group of prints included in the show further attest, he incorporates elements of the natural sciences and museum display to also interrogate how we document and interpret the natural world, underscoring the ever-present need for individual critical inquiry.