Humanity, through industry and technology, has transformed the earth, making use of natural resources to facilitate the development of increasingly advanced systems. As we deepen our understanding of the ecological problems now being faced as a consequence of these developments, issues of human responsibility and how our relationship with nature should evolve come to the fore. In this exhibition, which brings together the pioneering work of Agnes Denes with contemporary explorations by Rachel Pimm and Rachael Champion, the relationship between the environment and its human inhabitants is described, questioned and imagined across media and across generations.
Underlying the distinct and diverse practices of these three artists is a refusal to work within reductive and traditional binaries in exploring the relationship between humanity and nature. There is a marked turning away, initiated in Denes’ radical focus on eco-political issues, from the philosophies of the first generation of ‘Land artists’ for whom discovery of a new medium and context – the natural landscape – allowed them to break new creative ground, mastering nature in the service of artistic creation. Rejected also is the traditional harmonious ‘earth mother’ perspective as inadequate to encompass our complex, indeterminate relationship with the natural world. Instead, as the works in this exhibition suggest, art (the expression or application of human skill) which incorporates nature becomes a symbolic means through which to collapse the binary between the natural and the synthetic.
Agnes Denes’ iconic, influential 1982 Wheatfield project, in which the artist planted and harvested two acres of wheat on the Battery Park landfill in New York’s financial district, serves as the starting point for the exhibition. At the time of its conception, the project functioned as a paradoxical statement, a searing interrogation of humanity’s evolving priorities regarding economics, world trade, waste management and ecological concerns. The magnificent fields of wheat depicted in the series of photographs on display, now the site for a billion-dollar luxury office and apartment complex, stand as a provocative reminder of the artist’s utopian vision, in which human activity and creation could work in the service and stewardship of the planet.
Alongside Denes’s historic project, this exhibition features two very recent works by Rachael Champion and Rachel Pimm. Champion’s large-scale construction Raze Bloom (2015), a commentary on our contrived engagement with nature within our built environments, references the current proliferation of development sites, in which entire neighbourhoods are ‘razed’ to make space for new, rapidly built, constructions, both in its title and in the installation’s material, formal presence. An abstract architectural structure composed of industrial materials and ecological matter ranging from aluminium scaffolding to grass turf and aquatic plants, the installation itself becomes a synthetic eco-system requiring its own life support systems to sustain it within the gallery space.
Meanwhile, in Pimm’s video India Rubber (2015, soundrack by Graham Cunnington of Test Dept), the artist adopts the role of documentary-maker, following the evolution of the finite natural resource of rubber, as it is transformed from plant to product, from nature to culture. The film’s specific focus provides an original, sharply trained perspective on the intersections between technology, industry and economy in the 21st century, bringing the viewer into close contact with material processes which often seem geographically distant or intellectually abstract.
In bringing these three positions together, this exhibition demonstrates the varied possibilities for encounters between art and nature, whether through landscape intervention, architectural installation or a documentary film. Each work, through its insistent rooting in a specific medium and a specific time, forms its own unique visual exploration of the shifting boundaries between nature and artifice, between humanity and the natural world.
*Anthropocene (of Greek roots: anthropo- (Greek: ἄνθρωπος ) meaning "human" and -cene meaning "new") is a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth's ecosystems. The term was coined in the 1980s by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and has been widely popularized by atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behavior on the Earth's atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch for its lithosphere. As of April 2015, the term has not been adopted formally as part of the official nomenclature of the geological field of study.