In the 1960s, artists, disenchanted with the commercialization of art reached beyond the White Cube. Animated by the compelling masculine power of Abstract Expressionism, they went to isolated deserts and mountains and moved the earth, creating monumental works on a high plateau in New Mexico, in Great Salt Lake, in the Nevada desert. These enterprises, grandiose as they were, also indicated an entropic disregard of nature.
In the 1970s, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison employed maps, photographs, drawings and poetic dialogue to define ecosystems and feasible solutions. Agnes Denes planted wheat in Lower Manhattan and trees on a man-made mountain in Finland addressing ecological concern and human values. Christo and Jeanne-Claude dealt with political systems to create temporary structures which yield insights into the sheer beauty of a valley in the Rocky Mountains, the hills in California’s Sonoma County, the islands of Florida’s Biscayne Bay and the Arkansas River. These projects, important as they are, did not directly engage the people living in the places.
The artists in the current Human/Nature enterprise projected their ecological concerns into artworks by engaging with the people in diverse UNESCO World Heritage sites, creating new work which was inspired and informed by both their experiences in the natural areas and their interaction with the people inhabiting these region. Among the eight artists in the exhibition, three have made the most significant contributions to art interacting with the human/nature nexus.
Rigo 23 (nomme de guerre for Ricardo Gouveia) was born in Portugal’s Madeira Island and has been committed to political work—the Mexican Indian Movement, the Black Panthers—for a good many years, keeping his distance from the art-world. But he welcomed the Human/Nature project largely because it was not art-world specific and went to the coastal village of Cananéia and the surrounding forested areas in Southern Brazil, inhabited by mesticos, mostly descendants of African slaves. Between 2006 and 2008 he made five trips to form strong connections with the communities in the area and was able to enlist local craftsmen and craftswomen, farmers, fishermen and children to work with him. They created two monumental sculptures using traditional materials and building methods. They made replicas of contemporary weapons of mass destruction—a cluster bomb and a nuclear submarine and turned them into celebrations of life instead of death. The simulated submarine of clay is 30 feet long and is modeled after the submarines built by Lockhead-Martin. It has become an Arc of Noah or, perhaps a Yellow Submarine and is populated by lots of little people and animals with the audio transmitting their songs—a vessel of peace and joy.
When former Secretary of State Colin Powell missinformed the UN Security Council about putative portable means of mass destruction in Iraq, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle produced a phantom truck to transport make-believe deadly weapons. The same year he received a McArthur award. For Human/Nature, he went to the largest nature preserve in Mexico, the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in Baja California, a spawning place for gray and blue whales, harbor seals and sea lions. With the assistance of local individuals he produced a multi-sensory video installation of the huge salt flats, set against an infinite sky. In his Juggernaut (2008) we see a white expanse which appears like clouds seen from an airplane, we hear the song of the whales and then this is all interrupted by the juggernaut of the underbelly of large black trucks which mine the salt—a powerful metaphor for the violent destruction of nature.
Dario Robleto is basically involved in creating art which uses a multiplicity of mediums and investigates history, both geological and human, to find a way to rescue nature and mankind: not an easy undertaking. In 2005 he took his first trip to Waterton Glacier International Peace Park on the border between Montana and Alberta. There he worked with glaciologists, geologists and botanists to learn about the effect of meltdown of landlocked glaciers and as an artist inclined toward narration, he was also imbued by the romantic American response to the landscape by writers such as Thoreau and Whitman. He designed and crafted wooden cabinets for a number of displays. One of them shows 50,000-year-old bear claws juxtaposed to human hand bones, another exhibits over 2,000 blown glass vials and a 19th century bloodletting cupping glass. We can hear recordings of the sound of extinct animals and extinct languages. One display case exhibits nineteenth century braided hair of various lovers, intertwined with glacially released woolly mammoth hair and is framed by 50,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusks. His work is a deeply felt discourse which underscores the nature of loss.
Dario Robleto and many of the artists in the Human/Nature project are engaged in the critical problems now faced by humanity. They do not believe in the cynical stance of postmodern deconstructivists who question the place of art in the late capitalist system. They feel that the authentic artist has a moral obligation to act when confronted by environmental destruction. The glaciers are melting, species of animals and plants are extinct. But as scientists know and as artists can demonstrate with their visual metaphors, life does continue.