Is there really no such thing as nature?
Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969 – 2009 at the Barbican Art Centre, London
Saving the planet was a different affair thirty, forty years ago.
Looking at the art works on show at the Barbican, there’s not a huge gulf between the early and latest works. As a result the exhibition is better at highlighting the changes that have happened in the world and in environmental politics over the last forty years, than in the art.
Radical? It’s absolutely unclear why the word is in the title, apart from a predictable effort to attract attenton. Nature? Well, yes, matter that grows has been brought into the gallery space and, for the first time ever, it’s possible to see out of a window onto the landscape outside. At least some of the light is natural then.
The curators have set the exhibition into a context of real-world degradation, according to the Barbican’s publicity materials. They say the exhibition explores what artists have been doing to promote a radical yet sympathetic understanding of nature. So we learn about interventions by artists who have wanted to highlight the folly of our ways, and we learn about art that’s been made using specifically natural materials. This includes taxidermy, in the shape of Mark Dion’s ‘Wilderness Unit – Wolf’ which greets you at the entrance, introduced as a critique of the “contemporary urge to turn nature into an available commodity”.
So, activism, art and architecture are alive and well, even in the sumptuously solid architecture of the Barbican, the City’s landmark housing scheme. And there is reflexivity here, the designers and curators show some awareness of environmental sustainability.
At the start of the exhibition you can read the exhibition designers’ ecological statement. It proclaims what measures have been taken to minimise the environmental impact of the exhibition. Wall texts, it says, are printed on the backs of old Barbican posters, exhibition materials like seating are made of previously used walls and signage, and gallery guides are eco-friendly and produced in small batches to reduce wastage. Laudable, one might think.
Unfortunately, the immediate effect in the over-air-conditioned space is to wind up. Most visitors are, after all, dressed in light summer attire.
No matter, I soldier on despite the coolness of the atmosphere, curious to discover more.
A12’s trickery with mirrors, making a space of a couple of square metres stretch to infinity, is fun. We get a demonstration that to get a visual experience of nature you don’t need much space. Lucky that, on a crowded planet.
Alas, early on thing begin to go awry with this radical message of nature. The gallery space is the usual white washed series of cubes, dotted now with no doubt hard-to-erect works, some of which leak water (Henrik Håkansson’s ‘Fallen Forest’), others leak sound (‘Pulmonary Space’ by Philippe Rahm architects like the cute film about the mad but charismatic Richard Buckminster Fuller). There are also plenty of videos on show, all presumably running on electricity.
The contradiction between the ecological statement and the reality of where and when we are and what it has cost ecologically to produce, only worsens as one progresses through the gallery.
The sceptical visitor neverthteless tries to make the best of this. It may be cold, but there’s provocation here. Or is it just intellectual masturbation?
When it comes to the old-timers it doesn’t feel that way. Even Bucky Fuller’s insights into the solidity of the triangle and his efforts to appropriate technology for sane, humane uses are a delight to see and hear, whatever your views on his various utopian schemes might be. (And not all gallery visitors will have heard of him in the first place).
Things were much better in the old days. In 1969 Mierle Laderman Ukeles could publish a Manifesto for Maintenance Art and really make an important point about the way a person’s different roles detach her from the real flow of her own life and the flow of matter and meaning that makes up collective life. Notably, she spent years drawing attention to domestic waste in New York City, making visible the links between the everyday stuff of consumer culture and pollution. But that was over thirty years ago.
Agnes Denes is of the same generation, similarly Robert Smithson and Hans Haacke. THey produced their art in the landscape for the most part. A field of wheat in lower Manhattan, a new forest in Central Finland (Denes), a grass mound that “reacts to light and temperature changes, is subject to air currents and depends, in ist functioning, on the forces of grativity” (Haacke). Some of the younger generation’s work is similarly tied to its landscape.
So it’s not that surprising that the exhibition feels thin as well as cool. It can only re-present much of the stuff it’s about, it can’t present it. I prefer to read the catalogue.
And when I do, it helps make sense of some of this show in a much more satisfying way. Together the show and the book (with an essay by T.J. Demos) does inspire you to think differently, but the newer work seems to be about ridiculing ourselves above all, about questioning our assumptions. This feels less than satisfactory. Questions we already have. What we don’t have is a will to implement survival. I doubt we can create it if we don’t take ourselves at least a little bit seriously.
Maybe that’s how the world has changed in the last 40 years. Back in 1969 environmental politics was a novelty. Green critique was broad and general and it was passionate and angry. It seemed automatically regenerative. And it was serious.
Not so in 2009. Greens are everywhere, on the far right (like Hitler was), in the business world and among the left. And it’s extremely hard to distinguish between greenwash and genuine greenness, on top of which doing so makes one feel judgemental and lacking in one’s own green credentials. Who am I to highlight the likely carbon footprint of a quality art exhibition? Just as well to be a commentator, the wittier the better.
The practical philosophy of everyday life has changed too. For the old-timers there was some point to hammering on about the distortions of the dualistic world view bequeathed to the West from Christianity via the Enlightenment. Thirty years ago dualisms such as society versus nature, art versus science, nature versus technology, did help sustain a social order and a belief in the supremacy of modern or Western thought. Now technology and nature are irreversibly intertwined. Market value has rendered many distinctions irrelevant (unless it is in the interests of the powerful to maintain boundaries). I mean, nothing can be done by the inventive human that is unnatural. If a market can be found for it, from medical technologies to around-the-clock work time for the human being, what is is natural, no? (And yes, there is a reference to Voltaire in the exhibition. See Lothar Baumgarten, another old-timer).
And so today collapsing the boundary between the natural and the unnatural is not at all radical. It’s going on everywhere, and often it’s creating problems. That’s to say, processes such as ageing, infirmity, poisoning and so on are ignored to the detrimnent of the already disadvantaged – the poor, the vulnerable and often women and children as well as ecological processes.
Forty years ago artists involving themselves with environmental degradation were a minority and were communicating a new message. Today’s lot have a different set of challenges and I’m not sure they are particularly good at communicating anything other than a vague sense that nature’s processes still fascinate. There’s science here, or knowledge of the world, but what overt politics there is is light-weight or beside the point. But then again, science is politcal too.
If that helps promote an understanding of life processes then the exhibition hasn’t failed in its aim. But I remain angered at the silly greenwashing ecological statement and wonder whether buildinges were so over-air-conditioned in 1969.