16 September 2009

the course of nature

I saw a notice about a short video about Thomas Cole and his art on the Thomas Cole Historic Site's webpage. It's pretty good and it's never hard to look at Cole's paintings or at Hudson River Valley landscape views. "The course of empire" plays a sizable role in the Cole video and I've been thinking a lot about the course of empire, or rather the course of life as it plays out for me. The transition from urban life in New York City to small college town life in Alfred is mostly fine. It's been nice to have school in session because there are artist lectures and more folks around. And Monday-Friday New York Times subscriptions available for under $30 for the term. I have to go fetch the paper at the campus store and it doesn't come until mid-afternoon but I'm always a few days behind anyway. I thought I was cruising along OK without the daily paper but I have been enjoying it. I'll never be an online reader (never say never).

Linda Weintraub was today's artist talker. Her topic was artistic beauty and nature with a bend toward the environmentally correct and, yes, the natural course of nature. It was a very interesting talk and I couldn't help mulling over Cole's "Course of empire" as she talked about the life cycle of nature.

She started by saying that in her student days it was not possible to talk about art and beauty. I guess we'd been burned out by the connoisseurship school of art history and criticism. So she is actually having a lot of fun reconsidering it now. She started her lecture by talking about a Sophie Calle triptych series that deals with descriptions of beauty by people who have been blind since birth. The subjects of each of her examples talked about natural things like ocean waves. Nature is, after all, harmonious, full of truth and virtue, and therefore good. Weintraub's real interest is in how we can use the beautiful to help us preserve the planet.

Her case studies were the "poster child" and the "enfant terrible": Andy Goldsworthy and Damien Hirst. Oh, boy, you could just tell this was going to be fun.

Weintraub talked about several Goldsworthy works: how he organizes the leaves or rocks, how nature is manipulated to perfect harmony long enough for the picture to be taken, how the manipulation is sometimes acrobatic. One of my favorite Goldsworthy works is the wet leaves in the bark that burst out and blow away as they dry. This doesn't fit her guiding principle so well but I didn't challenge her.

Moving on to Hirst, Weintraub chose "Thousand years" as the test piece. It was in the "Sensation" show and involves two chambers: one with a fly and maggot hatchery, one with a cow's head and fly zapper light. Voilà, the full natural cycle from birth to adulthood to death. She continued to talk about emblems of decay and how much we generally revile such animals as vultures and plants such as fungi and bacteria, even though we probably all recognize that decay is part of the life cycle. But we don't want to look at it or smell it.

She then presented the work of several artists that follow the Goldsworthy or Hirst route. The controlling artists: Marta de Menezes who pokes pupae so that they grow up into more colorful butterflies, Eduardo Kac who inserts fluorescent green DNA into various animals so that they turn green in certain light, and Verena Kaminiarz who carves up body worms. The worms are able to regenerate so you get, for example, a two-headed worm, both heads with eyes, which must negotiate its petri dish without a single brain and focus.

The Hirstians: Gelitin whose "Hare" is a big, pink, knitted, straw-stuffed rabbit on an Austrian mountain that is serving as fodder for cows, base for mushrooms and other plants, moisture in the shade between the legs. Gelitin group members got the knitting, etc. assistance of the local townspeople and also an agreement that they wouldn't try to repair the rabbit for 25 years when it will, naturally, have been reabsorbed into the ecosystem. George Gessert does reverse hybridization by "re-wilding" over-cultivated plants. Jae Rhim Lee alters her diet so that her urine produces the exactly appropriate formula for plant growth; she makes kimchee with the resulting plants and serves folks. Life cycle, get it? Michel Blazy does work in which microbes eat up the work in the course of the display, and he lets the alteration happen as it will. Pawel Wojtasik does beautiful shots of strands of waste, fooling the eye (and brain) with glittering beauty until you discover it's feces. Gregor Schneider's "Death: be not proud" is a room he's constructed in his studio but he hasn't yet found a terminally ill person who is willing to die in his room. (This, naturally, resonates this year as we have had news about "death panels" and are thinking about health care costs and doctor-assisted death.) As I left the talk with Elizabeth Gulacsy and Tom Peterson, we talked about suicide and graceful life termination. Tom lived in a commune many years ago and a suicidal co-inhabitant was "saved" by a psychologist who asked her to get things in order before she committed suicide and the ordering gave her enough strength to go on. Well, I don't know about the "saved" and "enough strength to go on" but the thinking about life value apparently was restorative. More life cycle, I guess.

Weintraub ended with a fairly long description of "Cloaca" by Wim Delvoye. He built a beautiful spotless machine which replicates the human food stream. It must be fed and then its mouth, throat, liver, pancreas, intestines and whatnot produce, ta da, of course, some beautiful feces. This naturally invites discussion of whether machine shit is better or cleaner or more edible than human shit.

In the question and answer period, Weintraub talked about humanure, green cemeteries, and other activities that are trying to help us humans work with the ecosystem rather than accumulating waste and wasting it. She mentioned an artist who has put lists of the toxic elements in common medicines and foods on the back door of bathroom stalls at the Whitney. Are we just toxic corpses who should be delivered to toxic waste dumps?

Since the Thomas Cole paintings had been drifting around in my mind through Weintraub's talk, I asked her if she thought 18th- and 19th-century works such as "Course of empire" and ruins were precedent for some of the Hirstians. She replied that she thought we were now out of frontier and that made it very different. I guess it's appropriate that we sometimes describe the ruined structures in a neoclassical park as follies.

By the time this is all done swirling in my brain, I'll probably be ready to bury. No impervious box, please.

(N.B. The pictures are step 1 and step 5 from "The course of empire": "The savage state" and "Desolation", pictures from the Wikipedia article on the painting series.)


bklynbiblio said...

Sherman, this was fascinating. I'm really glad to hear you're getting such provocative art talks (and performances) in Alfred. The idea of life/death cycles can be both exciting and disturbing at the same time, which is perhaps the point of it all. I'm in agreement that Cole's Course of Empire (and perhaps his Voyages of Man series to some extent) plays into this Romantic spirit of recognizing the emotional/spiritual idea of life/death. But of course it's so challenging to envision how artists like Hirst & Co. (in a post-Duchampian world) could be following artists like Cole when they were working with such completely different ideas about what "art" is. Cole was, after all, quite the academic artist and probably would be horrified by someone like Hirst. Great post! But don't think all of it too much or you'll get depressed. :-)

Sherman Clarke said...

It has never depressed me that death was part of the life cycle. I thank my dad and mom for that lesson. As a pastor and pastor's wife, dealing with death was a part of their calling, not that that made it easy. It's partly the same for artists: they can work in their milieu, whether academic or post-Duchampian chaos; they can work against their milieu, whether Salon des Refusés or dada. But it's hard, if not impossible, to avoid the milieu. We as viewers, critics and historians can't help but bring our age and experience to the viewing and discussing. Still, some themes like life and death are universal and inevitable. One of my favorite Cole moments was when the "Garden of Eden" was on view at the Amon Carter with the "Expulsion" from the MFA Boston. The Carter's "Garden" is so full of golden light and the shaft of light in the "Expulsion" equally powerful.