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Human/Nature

Museums, artists, and conservationists collaborate on a groundbreaking show

by Laurel Braitman

Published in the January/February 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Xu Bing in Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya
Xu Bing in Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya
Image courtesy of the artists and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

“THE ONLY THING we have to protect nature with is culture,” Wendell Berry has observed. And yet, nature is a particularly human idea. Culture is how we come to it.

The traveling contemporary art exhibition Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet was born of a five-year collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive, and the environmental organization Rare. Neither museum had ever commissioned new work or supported residencies in this way, nor had they ever collaborated with a conservation organization. Rare, for its part, had never partnered with an arts institution.

Human/Nature began by sending eight artists to eight World Heritage sites: Komodo National Park, Indonesia; El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, Mexico; Southeast Atlantic Forest Reserves, Brazil; Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, China; the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador; iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa; Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya; and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.

At the initial gatherings, many artists were uncomfortable when Rare CEO Brett Jenks implored them to help spread a message of environmental stewardship and conservation. This was not a group that welcomed prescription. The mainstay of advocacy work—the adherence to a deeply collective and shared message—can be anathema to an artist who needs freedom to interrogate assumptions of all kinds. “I remember thinking, ‘Do they want me to go make work about tortoises?’” said the installation artist Ann Hamilton, who ultimately traveled to the Galápagos Islands as part of the Human/Nature project. “I mean, that is not exactly what I do.”

Recognition by the United Nations World Heritage program that a place has “outstanding universal value to all humanity” does not bring with it a promise of funding for protection or preservation. It means only that you can call that place a World Heritage site. In some cases this lack of associated funding doesn’t matter—nations with resources to manage their own sites can afford to do so (Yellowstone National Park, managed by the U.S. Park Service, is one example). In many other cases, the sites remain protected in little more than name only, their home nations hopeful the designation will attract tourism dollars or attention. All of the World Heritage sites that the artists visited were under pressure of some sort: a lack of funds for management, an overabundance of tourists, the effects of climate change, industrial development, intensive agriculture or grazing, and more. The artists were free to ignore these issues—but their commitment to creating work about the sites ensured that they would confront them.

“I like the basic notion of World Heritage,” said the Portuguese artist Rigo 23, “that collectively we have to ensure that many of our most threatened places survive. When I chose to go to the Southeast Atlantic Forest Reserves in Brazil, I did so because Portugal played a pivotal role in Brazil’s colonization. All of my life I have nurtured a desire to go there. Human/Nature allowed me that chance because I did not want to go as a tourist. I wanted to have a reason to be there.”

The World Heritage program divides its list of 828 sites into three distinct categories. There are cultural sites (such as the Great Wall of China), natural sites named for their biodiversity (such as the Galápagos Islands or any of the seven other sites the artists visited), and twenty-five sites that are considered mixed, such as Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, named for its Mayan temples (cultural) and its location in a large swath of neotropical forest (natural). But what happens when you send artists, the card-carrying ambassadors of culture, out into nature?

In 1944, Richard Wright wrote in American Hunger, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” So it is, perhaps, with art-making, with the work of conservation, with the act of simply getting by—consciously and with integrity—in this uneven world that is our heritage. We hope for echoes. We hunger for recognition and response. This is what the artists of Human/Nature have done in concert. They have made soundings in eight different places in eight wildly different ways, and they are tracing them home. The best we can do is listen.

DARIO ROBLETO works as, in his words, a “materialist poet.” He combines materials into forms that belie their own ingredients. The materials list from one of his sculptures for the show, The Ark of Frailty, could be a time-traveling naturalist’s collection: “poplar, typeset on cardstock, hair lockets made of stretched and curled audio tape recordings of ‘Lazarus species’ (species that are rediscovered alive after being classified extinct) in the wild, nineteenth-century hair flowers, nineteenth-century dried flowers, lace and fabric from widows’ mourning dresses, colored paper, silk, antique ribbon and buttons, carved animal-bone buttons, homemade paper, willow, ash, white oak, milk paint, glass.” Dario calls these lists “liner notes,” and they act as brief clues to what he was thinking as he combined materials in layer upon layer of meaning—not unlike the geological striations that attracted him to Glacier National Park in Montana. 

“There is a state of long-term suspension in freezing, but also a precariousness to the glaciers’ potential of melting,” said Dario, “that for me has always synced up with the stages of mourning and grieving that humans go through on a daily basis: wanting to suspend the pain, but knowing its flow can’t be impeded.”

• • • • • • •

Photo: Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle filming on the salt flats in El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve

THE ARTIST Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle traveled to El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve in Baja, Mexico. “When I made my initial site visit, even as I stood on the deck of the ecotour boat witnessing the surfacing of a gray whale, I knew that, as an artist, my real interest in this site lay in turning away from this undeniably awesome image of nature . . . turning my camera not on these ‘monsters’ of the deep (now the objects of our belated protection), but rather on the behemoths of our own making—the neighboring saltworks, jointly owned and operated by ESSA of Mexico and the Mitsubishi International Corporation of Japan.”

What resulted is a video piece titled Juggernaut—a black- and-white image of endless and alien salt flats extending to the horizon, interrupted only by the passing wheels of an immense salt-harvesting machine.

• • • • • • •

AS ELEPHANTS and giraffes rambled through iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa, artist Diana Thater trained her video camera not just on them (as every other visitor to the park was doing), but also on the slow cars of viewers, on the smooth black asphalt of the road.

“Art changes the world by changing the way you see,” she wrote for the Human/Nature website. “People can change the world through conservation, but we have to realize that the way the world is depicted also changes the world.”

Diana’s video installation for the show feels a bit like a shattered mirror, the images of African wildlife moving across an uneven field of screens at alternating speeds and focal distances.

• • • • • • •

MARK DION traveled to Komodo National Park in Indonesia, where he lived aboard a small wooden boat with his wife and a number of park rangers.

“The front-line defenses of the park in the face of threats like poaching or population pressure,” said Mark, “are the park rangers and field managers who labor in often dangerous circumstances for long and hard hours and the most modest of compensation. They have a deep identification with the park’s goals and put their lives on the line to uphold ideals of wildlife conservation.”

Mark built a mobile ranger cart for their use (and a replica cart for display in the exhibition), crafted in the style of commonplace Indonesian pushcarts that proffer everything from shoes to mangos. He outfitted the cart with sturdy wheels that could be pushed easily over rough terrain and all of the materials the rangers could want—first aid supplies, guidebooks, microscopes, sample-collecting kits, fins, masks, snorkels, maps, batteries, and so on.

“In projects like Human/Nature it is possible to see how much can be done with very little resources,” he said. “I think an effort like this one is powerful in helping to foster a culture of nature and making those of us committed to the idea of conservation feel less isolated and beleaguered.”

• • • • • • •

Photo: Ann Hamilton recording video of the waterline in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Ecuador.

WHILE DOING HER RESIDENCY in the Galápagos Islands, Ann Hamilton worked with a group of eighth grade students at the public school, Colegio Nacional Los Galápagos. “I wanted to do more than be inspired,” she said. “Being in the Galápagos meant crossing a kind of waterline with all of the challenges—literally—of getting our feet wet.”

Ann took the students on two field trips (for many, this was their first time seeing tortoises in the wild or snorkeling in the bay), and together they wrote a text about the islands to perform as a chorus. The students held the sounds of finches, seals, frigate birds, whales, and other Galápagos animals in the palms of their hands—the calls playing from small speakers and amplification cones that Ann made.

“I was focused on the clear divide between the natural world of the archipelago and the world of the city,” she said. “It is a divide as old as the relation between the city and the forest but it needs as much stewardship as the environment itself.”

Ann performed in a similar fashion with a group of American high school students in San Diego. Her installation for Human/Nature refers to both collaborations. The texts sit on simple choral stands inside the gallery and the cones (playing animal sounds) hang from the ceiling and along one wall. An image of a waterline, filmed by a half-submerged camera, is projected along the ceiling, while two more play along one wall. Just beyond this horizon of air and water, viewers can make out the outlines of a town, a beach, the sea itself. 

• • • • • • •

XU BING, a Chinese artist who chose to visit Mount Kenya National Park, developed another model of exchange. Together with the local NGO, Mount Kenya Trust, and five different primary schools near the park, Xu Bing created a system that seeks to, quite literally, turn art into trees to further reforestation efforts.

He began his calligraphy and drawing workshops in each school by telling the following story: “Once upon a time there was a boy named Shan who lived in a big forest. He had never gone to school, and his only friends were the forest spirits. . . . ” Shan wanted to record the beauty of his forest for other people to understand and share. But how could he do this? Shan discovered that by drawing pictures of insects, blades of grass, and trees, he could bring them to life. Xu Bing explained to the children that, like Shan, they too could make drawings that brought new trees to Mount Kenya.

After concluding his lessons, Xu Bing left the students and their teachers the materials they needed to keep making drawings. The students’ works are scanned and auctioned via a website that Xu Bing created for this purpose (http://www.forestproject.net), that functions not only as a point of sale, but also has information about each child, a means of exchanging messages with them, and other information on the project. As the drawings are sold, the proceeds are directed back to the Trust where they are used to purchase trees to plant in the Mount Kenya foothills.

• • • • • • •

OTHER ARTISTS took more of their home contexts with them, a sort of burden to be shared and then reimagined.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE lives and works in Tijuana, Mexico, where his studio lies feet from the U.S.-Mexico border. He traveled to the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas in Southwest China, where he was based in the largely Tibetan town of Shangri-La, recently renamed as such by the Chinese government to attract tourism attention. The area—home to many different ethnic communities and a diverse array of animal and plant species in the surrounding Himalayan peaks, deep river gorges, and temperate forests—is under staggering development pressure.

“I was a tourist, in a way, there,” he said, “but at least one with a concern for the place. I related to my site because it was a border town . . . populated with ethnic minorities, a sort of extension of Tibet.”

Marcos’s piece for the show, Shangri-La: The Volatile Dream, is a brightly painted and intricately carved interpretation of a Tibetan home, much of which was made with Tibetan craftsmen in China and then combined with Marcos’s own construction in San Diego and Tijuana. It feels near life-size inside the gallery. The windows of the structure are video screens, upon which loop images of daily life in Yunnan, the colorful and the mundane: a pot of boiling water for tea, light through curtains, men and women building a home, prayer flags in the wind, a boy playing with a stick.

• • • • • • •

Photo: Riga 23 painting Teko Mbarate, the Guarani phrase for “strengthening the traditional way of life,” on the wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

IN THE ATLANTIC FOREST Southeast Reserves of Brazil, Rigo 23 worked closely with indigenous Guaraní leaders and craftspeople, the residents of Quilombo Ivaporunduva (an Afro-Brazilian community established by escaped slaves in the seventeenth century), and a single Caiçara family that has lived inside the park for generations. This collaboration resulted in a thirty-foot-long sculpture of a Trident nuclear submarine, an accompanying cluster bomb, and hundreds of small, woven bomblets—made almost entirely from Atlantic forest materials like earth, bamboo, banana fiber, and feathers and modeled on those built by Lockheed Martin. In the place of lethal explosives, anteaters, owls, jaguars, and other forest animals hand-carved by the Guaraní tumble out of the cluster bomb and spill onto the floor of the gallery.

Hanging inside the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Rigo’s sculptures are only a few miles away from actual nuclear submarines stationed by the U.S. Navy in the city port.

“I would consider my work successful,” said Rigo, “if the citizens of San Diego would say that it is no longer bearable for them to coexist with so many machines of death around them, that they would find it impossible to be at the beach having fun while an aircraft carrier sat nearby, filled to the brim with thousands of young people in uniform preparing for endless war. I do realize these are high expectations.”

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Laurel Braitman is a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she studies social and ecological implications of the new technologies.

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