What should you do in your new studio? Make new work!
I recently made a new piece for an exhibition in the AVA Gallery at the University of East London alongside many talented colleagues from Architecture and the School of Arts and Digital Industries. The exhibition was entitled Anthropocene and it seemed a perfect opportunity to revisit my geologically titled series, Holocene Arrangements. It’s been a while since I made a new Holocene Arrangement – since that time there has been an intensification of the discourse around the Anthropocene. Geologists have posited the Anthropocene as a potential new geological epoch that reflects the massive human impact to the planet and its climate since industrialisation. Others date its origins back to the beginning of agriculture (8,000 years ago) and others the beginning of the Holocene at the end of the last ice age (10,000 – 12,000 years ago) when human technologies and ‘civilisation’ emerged.
The Anthropocene has also been employed in ecological, philosophical, sociological and cultural contexts to think through and critique anthropocentric views of the planet and binary nature/culture models. These discourses have forced me to alter my playful and now seemingly superficial use of geological terminology. My new piece is called Fire Apes Arrangement #7. It is only the human species that has been able to harness and manipulate fire. According to Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill “the mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.” The ability and desire to make fire has ultimately led us to the mass extraction and burning of fossil fuels and subsequent enormous changes to the earth’s surface and climate. The ‘Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcomission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’ is considering whether the start of the Anthropocene epoch could potentially be situated at the moment humans harnessed fire.
My naming of this work after ‘Homo Pyrophilus’, the Fire Ape, suggests that the desire to make art (the harnessing and manipulation of materials into new configurations) is the same as the desire to harness and manipulate fire. Is it this desire that makes us human? Whilst equating contemporary art making as something primal, the title of this work also situates art as something frivolous and meaningless in the larger picture of deep time, human culture and evolution. Thus art becomes simultaneously necessary and unnecessary. Not sure where that leaves me, but it’s certainly worth pondering.
The title also suggests, more problematically, that we have reached ‘the end of nature’. There is little we can do to alter the path we have taken, we might as well relinquish any responsibility to our environment (and that of millions of other species) to the vicissitudes of geological time and ‘human nature’. This is a particularly fatalistic and nihilistic position that clearly needs a rethink for the next iteration of the work!
The work itself comprises a series of photographs that rest on a quickly-made unfinished plywood support. The subject matter of the photographs and their grid arrangement borrows some of the language of scientific and museological methods of arrangement. On ‘reading’ the images it is apparent that there is no clear taxonomy, that images of rocks formed millions of years ago sit alongside images of anthropic rock, the pebble-dashed surface emblematic of suburban architecture. Each subject has been dealt with in the same way and called into equivalence.
Many of the images have been ‘mined’ from my own archive, some of them are prints from my father’s geological slide library whilst others are appropriated from family members’ Facebook feeds. The subjects of the photographs vary from the mineral (artistic landscapes and seascapes, geological documents of rock formations, classical stone statues), animal (bones, shell ornament, portrait of an American Eagle) and vegetable (dried and rotting flowers). It is not easy to tell what is ‘natural’ and what is human-made, or whether the impulse to take the photographs was ‘artistic’ or scientific. It is also not easy to ascertain when or where the photographs were taken and by whom. This ambiguity suggests the collapse of traditional categories of meaning of images in the age of Google. Hopefully it also encourages a non-binary, non-hierarchical reading of both the ‘natural’ and human-made and the mutability of all earthly materials.
My esteemed colleague Fay Brauer (Professor of Art and Visual Culture, Centre for Cultural Studies Research, University of East London, Arts and Digital Industries and Honorary Professor, National Institute of Experimental Arts, The University of New South Wales Art and Design) has contextualized the exhibition in her interesting essay available here. In her essay she skilfully describes and connects the diversity of approaches to the Anthropocene by the practitioners selected for the show and describes it as an “exhilarating interdisciplinary art exhibition [that] reveals the wealth of creativity and environmental commitment that exists across UEL”.