Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet at the Berkeley Art Museum
April 1, to September 27, 2009
2625 Durant Avenue
Berkeley, CA 510 642-0808
The Berkeley Art Museum’s “Human/Nature” show offers the results of a UNESCO-funded project in which eight artists were matched with an imperiled region of their choice. Thus by design, the show is a revealing jumble, expressing something of what it has come to mean to respond to a place (or site, region, niche), and something of what it can no longer mean. Conspicuously absent are two of the great historical exemplars of response to place: that monument of the long labor of the locals, like Wordsworth’s Michael and his unfinished Sheep-fold; and the more recently prominent model of artistic self-effacement in ecological art, where place is all, and artists put themselves in the service of vivifying or restoring a site, while covering the traces of their own activity. Here most of the works are in the artists’ signature styles, conveying the sense that these are just the most recent products of long artistic mid-careers. The surprising commonality here is the prominence of pedagogy, the artists passing on the knowledge gained in their hithering and thithering from home to region to museum.
The work that initially seems closest to the Romantic evocation of place is that of Marcos Ramirez Erre, who has installed a version of a building, part home, part shrine, from the Yunnan region of southwestern China. There are two video monitors on each long side of the building; one shows in real time the interior activities of cooking, playing, and eating, the other the construction of a building. An evocation of place? Well, yes, but the experience is aversive: the building seems crammed into its space, hunched just below the ceiling, its dark wood somehow foreboding in the underlit gallery. Its few decorative tiles, on the other hand, are seen as if from too close, which gives their floral patterns, which ought to be highlights, an apotropaic quality. This is a romanticism stripped of the fantasy that the representation of alien places is in the service of the viewer’s psychic integration. One is instead confronted with something unrecoverably alien, and that is unconcerned with what you think of it.
The unadorned pedagogical impulse is apparent in Mark Dion’s Mobile Ranger Library, a moveable kiosk displaying the books and maps you’ll need to make the most of your trip to Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Rigo 23’s works from the Atlantic Forest Southwest Reserve in Brazil are crowd-pleasers, and he recruited the labor of crowds of indigenous makers into them. The threats of habitat-loss and environmental destruction are seen through the now oddly atavistic metaphor of atomic weaponry. In Cry For Help, statuettes and maquettes seem to cascade from a large basket suspended over the gallery, or “Struggle For Life” to populate a nuclear submarine that has the low-tech appeal of a vacation cruise on a working trawler. Of the show’s works of pedagogical recruitment, Xu Bing’s is the nerviest and most unsettling: He taught an art class to children in Kenya and gave them the project of calligrammatic rendering the local trees with combined pictorial and linguistic devices. He then copied the results in Chinese ink-and-brush style into a single composition. Across the top, in half presented and half hidden in an English inscription in Xu’s invented quasi-ideogrammatic script, he proclaims that he has “copied the work of the children just as if I were copying from a book of old masters.” The children, he adds, are part of nature, like trees. “You must respect them.”
The two most artistically achieve works take something like Xu Bing’s achievement as given, and then take one more step. Ann Hamilton’s step is forwards: she evokes the symbiosis of humans and nature in the Galapagos through mixed sound recordings of birds cries and children’s chants..In her installation’s niche she circulates just below the ceiling images from a camera whose lens is centered on a water’s surface. The work regains something of the intensity of the Romantic evocation of place with its disillusioned inclusion of the artist’s movements and bare technological bits included among the constituents of place.
Diana Thater, forges another of her signature video installations from her trip to a South African wetlands preserve, probing animal consciousness in images presented across a skewed grid of monitors. The work earns its central placement in the show by recruiting the viewer’s movement down the museum’s central walkway into the piece. The shifting viewing height and distance intensifies the splintered grid’s suggestion of the only ever partial and ephemeral glimpse we have of animals. But Thater’s step beyond Xu’s achievement is a step back: she renounces concern for a human/nature symbiosis, and instead launches herself with quixotic ferocity towards an unknowable other. Like the great autistic animal researcher Temple Grandin, she treats the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s answer to the question “What is it like to be a bat?”—Nagel thinks we cannot so much as imagine a coherent answer—as a provocation. One might expect that the project of an American artist evoking a bioregion in Africa would allude to Peter Kubelka’s heavily ironic and self-ironizing experimental film classic “Unsere Afrikareise”, wherein German bwanas and their wives mingle with the natives and gun down a rhino or two; but Thater is post-irony. Her work perhaps best fulfills at least one hope motivating such a project, that the work will be a plunge into otherness, and one where the artist takes the viewer along.