Alexis Rockman – Optimist or Pessimist?

Is Alexis Rockman an optimist or a pessimist?

Rockman produces large, colorful paintings many of which depict a dysfunctional interaction between the human and the non-human world as well as the transformation in non-human systems that humans are causing.

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Rockman’s images do not attempt to depict nature in any kind of romanticized fashion. Rather bold in color and execution, they mostly have a violent, aggressive feel. Whether it is the human-nature interaction or the depiction of nature itself, we are largely left with uncomfortable feelings of aggression, ferocity and dysfunction when viewing his imagery.

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The above image is titled “Arsenic” and we can make of that what we will. But it is far from a serene depiction of marine life.

Even his series “Weather” seems to be largely concerned with the power and destructive force of the weather (below) – as well as human pollution of weather systems – rather than with the fact that the Earth’s climate is the only one capable of supporting life and that, most of the time, we are living – or have learned to live – in  harmony with our weather.

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A short series titled “Wonderful World” might have offered the promise of some optimism. Yet even here, his title seems sarcastic and his focus is on the dysfunctional and the human instrumentalization of all things natural (below).

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Rockman comes across as someone angry at the world and at the human impact on natural systems. Yet he offers no alternative visions; no encouragement on how we can do better or what a really “wonderful world” might look like.

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Rockman’s work has been described as apocalyptic – which it certainly is. It is not clear whether he has a purpose in mind with regard to his viewers or whether his imagery simply represents the cathartic release of his own anger. With such dark, violent imagery, it is hard to imagine that people will be encouraged to do better or come away with any feelings of optimism that a better world could be achievable.

In a recent video interview below, Rockman describes his work and his feelings. While describing himself as mainly a pessimist, he acknowledges that there are also many wonderful things in the world. It seems a shame that he does not use at least some of his artistic skills to share some of those wonderful things and to inspire rather than just depress.

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There’s so much around us that we never see – Ahae’s world

Most of us are so busy doing whatever it is we are doing that we have lost the ability to see and appreciate that which is around us. With our faces constantly in our cell phones or staring at computer screens or reading the paper, we have lost the art of just looking and seeing. Not so Korean photographer Ahae. Over the course of four years, Ahae has taken more than 2.6 million photographs of nature – with one important twist. All the photographs were taken from the same window in his house.

Strongly interested and fascinated by nature, Ahae lives in Korea where he manages organic farms and lives among nature. But, unlike most of us, he has not lost the art of seeing. He shows us just how much ‘hidden’ beauty and ‘hidden’ nature can lie outside one single window – if only we stopped to look and to see.

Some of the images that Ahae creates are normally invisible to us. The beautiful pattern created by the flying bird below would not be visible to the naked eye – it would disappear too quickly. But Ahae’s combination of observation and photographic capture has created a set of images so varied and so extensive that it is almost impossible to believe that everything was seen out of a single window.

Ahae’s incredible project may serve to remind us of many things. First, the beauty of nature is everywhere for us to see – even out of a single window. Second, that we have much to enjoy by regaining our ability to see – patiently to observe and to spend time appreciating what is around us. Finally, we don’t necessarily need to go to extraordinary places to seek experiences. There may be very many of them just in our own back yard.

Ahae has his own way of seeing, capturing and representing the nature that he observes. Each of us would see it and capture it differently – make different meanings of it. But it is there for us to see if only we can find the time to look.

Using Found Objects – The Sculptures of David Kemp

It’s impossible to look at these dogs and not smile.

They are one of a number of public sculptures by artist David Kemp. Kemp makes sculptures out of found or discarded objects. He describes his work rather charmingly as follows: “I make things out of things, big things, little things, old things and new things. I like to recycle things, and find new uses for things that have been thrown away. Some things say something about their surroundings, and other things become something else.”

The dogs above are made out of old Wellington boots. The sparkling water plants below are made out of discarded water bottles.

Art using re-cycled materials or found objects is becoming much more common. We have previously covered in this blog jewelry made from recycled materials by Tonya O’Hara and Jeremy Mays. As more of these objects appear, they continue to reinforce in our collective minds that, in Kemp’s words, things can become other things. Kemp’s work in particular also emphasizes that objects don’t have to come out of a factory spanking new made out of fresh material to be beautiful, engaging and charming.

It’s a long haul to move our cultures back to a culture of re-use from the present culture of single-use disposability. But moving in that direction may eventually lead us to what some have called the circle economy.

Below a sculpture made out of obsolete industrial machinery.

Becoming Animal – The Photography of Charles Fréger

The figures in the image above are said to have symbolized fertility. They are part of an ancient ritual in Bulgaria which continues to this day.

Over the ages, we have changed our relationship to nature and the meaning that we give to animals and other non-human parts of the world. Myths and legends have been largely destroyed to be replaced by ‘truth’ as told to us by modern science. While this has led to different understandings of the world, it has also destroyed the charm, imagination, whimsy and even fear that was associated with myths and legend. We have lost something of our soul. We have largely destroyed the fascination of the unknown.

With this change came, I suggest, our ever decreasing respect for nature. Science has been our primary tool to “understand,” deconstruct and domesticate nature turning it into a mere resource for either study or economic gain. From this followed our ever increasing destruction of the natural environment.

The images here come from Wilder Mann – a series by French photographer Charles Fréger. Fréger traveled across Europe making images of ancient rituals that persist to this day. It is interesting how many of these images consist of humans trying, in some way or other, to become animal.

While these rituals persist, their meaning has all but disappeared. Today they do not contain the richness of meaning that myths and legends used to give these rituals. Rather they persist because of tradition; more as carnival, social gathering and celebration of heritage than as something deeply embedded in society. This reflects the changing relationship we have with nature and animals. Now we purport to “know” that these rituals have little meaning. We have lost our respect, awe and fear of the animal or the human made animal. All is domesticated, controlled and utilitarian – as are these rituals – in many places now more of a tourist attraction than something deep, spiritual and meaningful.

My family, the trees – Campaign by Sergej Chursyn

Its hard to get many people really to care about trees. Especially if you’re a small organization, the trees you are talking about are somewhere in a rainforest and the people you are talking to are urban people who have very little concept of what a rainforest might be.

But it’s much easier to get people to care about ‘families’.

The brilliance of the advertizing campaign designed by Sergej Chursyn (Ogilvy and Mather, Frankfurt) is that it brings the concept of ‘family’ to a rainforest full of trees.

Designed for a small charity – Oro Verde – and intended as a fundraising campaign, the simple slogan was mounted on 600+ trees which were also fitted with small donation boxes. How the campaign was envisaged and its success are described in the video below.

The brilliance of the campaign lies not only in its recruitment of 600 trees as fundraisers but in its use of the concept of ‘family’. This brings a strong emotional element to the campaign that would be impossible to achieve if the focus were solely on the trees or if the campaign were one of the usual attempts to drown people in scientific fact or in the gloom and doom narrative of how our rainforests are being destroyed. “I’m raising money for my family” touches deep-seated emotional responses that are reflexive and almost irresistible. It also somehow brings the appeal close to home as opposed to out there, far away in the rainforest.

The fact that it’s the tree talking adds an element of wit and humor that only serves to enhance people’s ability to identify with the campaign. People donate with a smile rather than being put off by the usual guilt based narrative of “the trees are being destroyed and it’s your fault because you’re a wealthy, Western consumer.”

A wonderful campaign from which we can all learn.

 

 

 

Are We Playing A Huge Game of Chance – Max Mulhern’s Aquadice

Life is one huge game of chance.

At least that is Max Mulhern’s contention and his inspiration behind Aquadice. Combining his artistic interests with his love of open water, Max Mulhern constructed two huge, floating dice and cast them out to sea. The idea is that they will drift unpredictably wherever chance takes them. On board GPS systems allow the dice to be tracked.

I was intrigued by this artwork from an environmental perspective for many reasons.

My first thought was whether this work could be a good metaphor for the question: “Are we taking a huge gamble with our environment?” Rolling the dice in open water and seeing what happens seems to me to have similarities with how our modern lifestyles deal with the environment in which we live and on which we depend.

Conversely, what can we do that’s different? Although our fetish for planning seems endless, our ability to plan is poor.  Mulhern is right when he says that a lot of what happens owes much to chance or to unintended consequences of our actions. I am sure nobody “planned” to do quite so much damage to our environment so as to threaten our very livelihoods. It was just the unintended consequence of “progress” and of our modern way of life. Is the answer more planning – just of a different sort?  In a recent editorial, highly respected environmentalist Satish Kumar put it this way “we need to think of an economic system that is durable and sustainable. We need a system that will provide livelihood and wellbeing for all people, not just for the next five years, 56 years or even 500 years, but for the next five million years. In other words, for ever.” Great sentiments but are we really up to thinking up something like that, planning it and executing it? Or is this simply the same type of hubristic faith in the ability of the human to think everything through that landed us where we are today. Maybe the best we can do is come up with ideas that seem reasonable and, Like Max Mulhern, launch them into the world and see what happens. In all likelihood what will happen will never quite be what we thought might happen.

For further commentary on Max Mulhern’s Aquadice, view this video or read full commentary in the New York Times.

 

Humanity and Nature are One – Segmento

This wonderful image is from Brazilian advertising agency Segmento. It illustrates their campaign titled “Humanity and Nature Are One.”

To me this highly creative image illustrates two things. The first is the power of digital imagery. It is difficult to imagine that a similar image could have been as powerful as this using any other medium but digital manipulation of photographic images. Such digital imagery combines the ‘real’ of photographic images with the unreal composition that captures our attention and unleashes our imagination. The combination yields strong visual impact.

The second is the concept behind this image. Rather than the usual – and largely ineffective – environmental narrative of “Human vs Nature,” this campaign focuses on our inseparable inter-relatedness and inter-dependence. It tries to bring us closer to nature rather than to create artificial separation.

The campaign was not created for a client but rather is a self-promotion campaign for the agency. It’s special web site for the campaign provides tips for living with nature.

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Whale sharks are the largest species of fish and are threatened (though not currently endangered) by over-fishing for shark fins. Late last year, photographers Shawn Heinrichs and Kristian Schmidt combined their expertise in fashion and marine photography to create an unusual fashion shoot – fashion models swimming with whale sharks.

The aim of the shoot is to raise awareness about these magnificent animals and the damage being done by overfishing. Fortunately, things are already improving significantly. As Heinrichs says in a blog describing the project, “Just a two years ago in these very waters, divers discovered a live juvenile whale shark that had all its fins cut off . Though legally protected in the Philippines, poaching of whale sharks had continued because the shark fin traders enticed poor local fishermen to earn money from exploiting these vulnerable animals. Less than a decade prior, the local populations of whale sharks had been all but wiped out to satisfy demand for shark fins in China. Now finally, local communities have found a way to earn a living from whale shark tourism, and rather than targeting and killing them, they now are passionate about protecting them.”

Some scientists are still uneasy about whale shark tourism but, as Heinrichs says in a recent article in WIRED, “it’s not a perfect world and tourism is one of the greatest drivers for species preservation today.”

 

Our Relationship to Our World – Igor Zenin

I thought is would be appropriate to end the year and see in the New Year with some images that are uplifting and thought-provoking. I am putting up this intriguing imagery by Igor Zenin without commentary but in the hope that it will help us start the New Year with a bit of reflection on our human relationship with the non-human world around us – what is that relationship like and what would we like it to become going forward?

A very Happy New Year to all.

 

 

 

 

 

An Orange County Almanac – Collection of Essays

Language is one of our greatest art forms. Language is not only a tool of communication and persuasion but it is also a cognitive tool – saying things or writing about them helps us understand.

This collection of essays uses language to its full force to examine issues related to our environment. Many of the essays are literary in style; others more logical.

From the Preface: Environmentalism Refreshed

We need new ways of thinking about issues that affect how we interact with our environment. The authors whose work is collected here make some powerful calls for change. Some make them emotionally and metaphorically; others make them rationally and logically; but all make them passionately.

Comments about the book

“These essays are fresh, unconstrained and thought-provoking. They bring new, sometimes quirky perspectives to the environmental debate.” David Pilling. Asia Editor, Financial Times

“There’s no single “right” answer to the challenges that we face in the world today. The assembly of citizens gathered in this volume takes strength from its dynamic polyvocality: its attention to more perspectives – and therefore, its access to more possible approaches – than any conventional environmental text could offer.” Randy Malamud, Professor and Chair of English, Georgia State University

Download a free eBook in pdf format here          Kindle Edition can be accessed here