A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness | The Nation


A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness

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Yes, Damien, exactly, you bad boy of British art who dares to slice up the bodies of cows, from the head to the anus, and mix them all up to where nothing makes sense and who allows us to walk through with no order in mind, twelve cross-sections of cow, so we have to take note of the meat that we eat without thinking about the topography of the body, the cow's body, our body; we confront the wonder of the organism as is, not as a continuum but as a design, the sheer beauty and texture of functional design. We see the black-and-white hide; there is no place to hide inside the guts of a cow sliced and stretched through space like an accordion between your very large hands. You ask us to find Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything (1996).

About the Author

Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is the Provostial Fellow at Dartmouth College. Her most recent book is When Women Were Birds (...

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We have been trying to explain, justify, codify, give biological and ecological credence as to why we want to preserve what is wild, like art, much more than a specimen behind glass. But what if we were to say, Sorry, you are right, wilderness has no definable function. Can we let it be, designate it as art, art of the wild, just in case one such definition should arise in the mind of one standing in the tall grass prairies of middle America or the sliding slope of sandstone in the erosional landscape of Utah?

Wilderness as an aesthetic.

Freeze. Damien Hirst brought together a community of artists and displayed their work in a warehouse in England, these Neo-Conceptualists who set out to explore the big things like death and sex and the meaning of life. Wilderness designation is not so dissimilar. In your tracks, freeze, and watch the performance art of a grizzly walking through the gold meadows of the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone. In your tracks, freeze, a constellation of monarch butterflies has gathered in the mountains of Mexico. No definable function except to say, wilderness exists like art, look for an idea with four legs, with six legs and wings that resemble fire, and recognize this feeling called survival, in this received idea of wilderness, our twentieth-century installation as Neo-Conservationists.

A shark in a box.

Wilderness as a box.

Wilderness as A Thousand Years with flies and maggots celebrating inside the corpse of things.

Q: What is in the boxes?
A: Maggots.
Q: So you're going to put maggots in the white boxes, and then they hatch and then they fly around...
A: And then they get killed by the fly-killer, and maybe lay eggs in the cow heads.
Q: It's a bit disgusting.
A: A bit. I don't think it is. I like it.
Q: Do you think anyone will buy it?
A: I hope so.
   (Damien Hirst
   interview with Liam Gillick,
Modern Medicine, 1990)

Do I think anyone will buy the concept of wilderness as conceptual art? It is easier to create a sensation over art than a sensation over the bald, greed-faced sale and development of open lands, wild lands, in the United States of America.

I would like to bring Damien Hirst out to the American West, let him bring along his chain saw, Cutting Ahead (1994), only to find out somebody has beat him to it, creating clear-cut sculptures out of negative space, eroding space, topsoil running like blood down the mountainsides as mud. Mud as material. He would have plenty of material.

The art of the wild is flourishing.

How are we to see through the lens of our own creative destruction?

A shark in a box.

Wilderness as an installation.

A human being suspended in formaldehyde.

My body floats between contrary equilibriums. (Federico García Lorca)

When I leaned over the balcony of the great blue room in the American Museum of Natural History, I looked up at the body of the Blue Whale, the largest living mammal on earth, suspended from the ceiling. I recalled being a docent, how we brought the schoolchildren to this room to lie on their backs, thrilled beyond words as they looked up at this magnificent leviathan who, if alive, with one quick swoosh of its tail would be halfway across Central Park.

I only then noticed that the open spaces below where the children used to lie on their backs in awe was now a food court filled with plastic tables and chairs. The tables were crowded with visitors chatting away, eating, drinking, oblivious to the creatures surrounding them. How had I missed the theater lights, newly installed on the balcony, pointing down to illuminate the refrigerators humming inside the showcases with a loud display of fast foods advertising yogurt, roast beef sandwiches, apples and oranges?

The Blue Whale, the Tiger Shark, Sunfish, Tunas, Eels and Manta Rays, the Walrus, the Elephant Seals, the Orca with its head poking through the diorama of ice in Antarctica, are no longer the natural histories of creatures associated with the sea but simply decoration.

Everything feels upside down these days, created for our entertainment. Requiem days. The natural world is becoming invisible, appearing only as a backdrop for our own human dramas and catastrophes: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. Perhaps if we bring art to the discussion of the wild we can create a sensation where people will pay attention to the shock of what has always been here Away from the Flock (1994).

Wild Beauty in the Minds of the Living.

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