“Two paths lie before us,” Jonathan Schell concluded his remarkable essay The Fate of the Earth more than twenty years ago. “One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path…we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachment to life will weaken: our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on such a precarious foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end. On the other hand, if we reject our doom, and bend our efforts toward survival…then the anesthetic fog will lift: our vision, no longer straining not to see the obvious, will sharpen; our will, finding secure ground to build on, will be restored; and we will take full and clear possession of life again. One day–and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon–we will make our choice.”
That essay of course proved a clarion call in the then burgeoning (if subsequently somewhat stunted) movement to banish nuclear weapons, and as such, alas, it remains as urgent as ever. It had broader resonance, though, as the nuclear question was seen by many as but a single instance of man’s increasingly rampaging (technological) assault on the world–the war on terra, as it were. Either way, Schell was clearly onto something fundamental in his assertion that the nuclear and environmental crises were, before anything else, crises of vision. As such, these crises made a specific call on the attentions not just of scientists and politicians but on those of writers and artists–people, that is, whose very vocation is vision.
Today, as global warming threatens being, time, presence, co-presence, tradition, posterity, dominion and stewardship, the very capacity to imagine and then originate something new–the fundamentals out of which art has always sprung–some artists have been rising to the challenge. In the notes that follow I hazard a tentative, impressionistic, admittedly idiosyncratic tour d’horizon–less an exhaustive survey than the beginnings of a stab at a typology of the way some visual artists have been addressing the crisis very much at hand.
For starters, of course, there are the artists who address the environmental issue head-on, often in the form of exhibitions with massive science fair-like wall postings, lots and lots of words, all quite earnest though in the end not terribly satisfying as art (and as a result perhaps not terribly effective as agitprop either). Sometimes the underlying project may even be quite suggestive and inspired, but the documentation would work much better as a book, say, than a white-box exhibit (see, for example, Bruce Mau’s Massive Change volume, based on a touring show that was arguably the most impressive recent instance of this sort). For the purposes of this survey, however, I am simply going to bracket such pieces over to the side.
Occasionally, artists go out and literally plant fields, and the result can be startlingly evocative. I am thinking, for example, of the sublimely rustling Wheatfield Agnes Denes spread across a landfill off the edge of the rapidly developing Battery Park City in downtown Manhattan in 1982. Or the miniature representation of a wild grass prairie, recently slotted into the 2.5-acre Lurie Garden of Chicago’s Millennium Park.
In this context, Chicago’s Dan Peterman stands as a sort of bridging figure, a protean character who has given his whole life over to practical interventions (devising fresh ways of building with recycled materials, etc.) but at the same time flitting in and out of the gallery and academic contexts. In his recent show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City, for example, he included a full-scale 2-by-4 wood-beam frame of a mysterious structure, which turned out to be an exact elaboration of a Han Dynasty funerary object representing a combination latrine/pigsty (people ate, defecated, the pigs would eat the results, get eaten and so forth–a perfect cycle whose inclusion within a gravesite suggested its own perfect cycle). The installation was all the more telling in light of the fact that the preference of the burgeoning Chinese middle class for wood-frame rather than traditional brick construction is having a devastating effect on the world’s surrounding forests (with all the macro-funerary premonitions that fact portends).