Sunday, February 22, 2009

Like a bird on the wire...-Week 5

                                                                               My Mother with a Parrot

In his essay A Bird Tapestry, written for the Birdspace exhibition, David S. Rubin examines the many ways that artists, both classical and contemporary, incorporate birds into their work. In the essay  Rubin states, " whether scrutinized in every detail or elevated as symbols for something profound or noble, birds have an impressive track record at holding the human attention span captive." But what is it that draws humans to birds? Rubin suggests the reason for this is that people see birds as part of humanity, which leads back to the notion of biophilia.  In many ways the Birdspace exhibition is a typology of Biophilia values, from humans utilitarian to negatvistic relationship with birds. 

There were several artists/ideas that I particularly enjoyed, the first being Ernesto Pujol's use of birds and their predicaments as metaphors for the temporality of life. Pujol states, " Life is fragile, vulnerable. And perhaps because it easier to talk about the short life of birds, and how they die from one moment to the next, I chose the visual essay as a metaphor for the brevity of human existence and the shock of death." Click link to view Pujol's installation The Silence of Songbirds

This statement by Pujol made me think about this photograph that I took at my mother's house a few months ago. 

Sitting on top of the television are my step-grandfather's ashes, a fake flower arrangement, the ashes of my mother's dog (Snickers), and the ashes of her bird(Pedro). In this photograph Snicker's and Pedro's ashes are equally as important as my step-grandfather's, which symbolizes not only the temporality of life for all species, but also the similarities that we have to other species, we all live and die. 

I also really enjoyed Annette Messager's series of stuffed sparrows swaddled in garments, entitled The Boarders. For this series Messager knits garments for the sparrows much like a mother would knit a blanket/booties for her child. The sparrows therefore become surrogates for children, evoking in Messager's words the "growing pains" of "childhood." I was very touched by this piece and it made me think of  Hemmingway's six word story, " For sale: baby shoes, never worn." There is a deep sadness in the metaphor of knitting a garment for the dead sparrow (which represents a child) and all that it implies.

                                       Annette Messager, The Boarders

The final artist that stands out to me is Roni Horn  and her use of the bird to explore identity. Horn having  grown up with an androgynous name is conscious of mistaken assumptions that can be made when based on person's name. This experience is reflected in her photographic diptychs which pair very similar photographs of the back of a taxidermy birds heads. The subtle lighting differences between the images make it difficult for viewers to determine if they are looking at one bird, or two different ones. The birds are void of any defining male/female characteristics, or rather any characteristics at all, they are "androgynous. The photographs suggest the question: how much do you know about a person just from the material things such as a name, or the back of a head? 

                                                                                      Roni Horn 

To continue on in my self awareness of my relationship with nature, I found all the items in my home that referenced birds and created a precarious little sculpture. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Nature, Friend With Benefit - Week 4 : The Biological Basis for Human Values of Nature

What is the human relation to nature? 
In Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic, Edward O. Winston, applies the notion of Biophilia to answer this question. The Biophilia hypothesis asserts the existence of a biologically based, inherent need for human beings to affiliate with  life and lifelike processes.  Winston states, " biophilia is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be teased and analyzed individually... the feelings fall among several emotional spectra: from attraction to aversion, from awe to indifference, from peacefulness to fear driven anxiety." In The Biological Basis for Human Values of Nature, Stephen R. Kellert explores the notion of biophilia by examining nine fundamental aspects for valuing and affiliating with the natural world: utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, dominionistic, and negativistic

Utilitarian: practical and material exploitation of nature
Naturalistic: satisfaction from direct experience/contact with nature
Ecologistic-Scientific: systematic study of structure of function, and relationship in nature
Aesthetic: physical appeal and beauty of nature
Symbolic: use of nature for metaphorical expression, language, expressive thought
Humanistic: strong affection, emotional attachment, "love" for nature
Moralistic: strong affinity, spiritual reverence, ethical concern for nature
Dominionistic: mastery, physical control, dominance of nature
Negativistic: fear, aversion, alienation from nature

Kellert states " biophilia suggests that human identity and personal fulfillment somehow depend on our relationship to nature. The human need for nature is linked not just to the material exploitation of the environment but also to the influence of the natural world on our emotional, cognitive aesthetic and spiritual development." Winston and Kellert's biophilia hypothesis suggests that personal identity is shaped by nature.

The link between identity and nature in these two articles got me thinking about my personal relationship to nature, which I have never really done before, and how it has shaped me. As a result of reading these two articles I decided to go through my collection of personal photographs and find instances of the nine values (listed above) associated with biophilia in an attempt to understand my relationship to nature. After doing this I realized that I had a very narrow definition of nature which made me ignorant to the very close relationship that I as a human being have to nature. I agree with Wilson and Kellert that there is a very close link between personal identity and nature, it is just overlooked in our anthropocentric  conception of human identity. 

{click image to enlarge}

When reading the article Toward an Aesthetic Marine Biology, by J.Malcom Shick I couldn't help but think about the connections it had to Evelyn Keller's article The Biological Gaze because both  examine the relationship between art and science. In his article Shick discusses the similarities between the artist and scientist, "both on the quest for understanding the natural world...the vision by which we discover the hidden in nature is sometimes called science, sometimes art." What is it that separates the two? The artist is interested in aesthetics, as discussed in the Keller article anything that is touched by human hands is thought to be manipulated, while the scientist is meant to be a dispassionate observer. However Shick suggests that much can be learned from art, he quotes Leonardo Da Vinci, " painter's don't imitate nature by copying the visible, but thanks, to their understanding and analysis of the structure of the body, express it to the point of capturing the invisible breath of life." The notion of the "real" or "truth" is always a large topic of debate when discussing the relationship between art and science. Again this goes back to Keller's discussion of "looking" and "touching", in which looking is associated with purity while touching is associated with manipulation. I believe that sometimes to get to the "truth" you must manipulate the reality. 

Allison Carey's photographic series Organic Remains of a Former World is a visual representation of extinct marine creatures from the seven Paleozoic periods. Through her accurate seascapes Carey breathes life back into these extinct creatures, that would otherwise never be seen again. 



Sunday, February 8, 2009

You can look, but you can't touch- Week 3:The Biological Gaze

In her essay The Biological Gaze,Evelyn Fox Keller raises the questions: Can we look without touching? and What exactly does it mean to look without touching? 

The notion of the gaze, which is most often associated with femininst discourse,  implies looking with an erotic male gaze. However in The Biological Gaze, Keller states, "in scientific discourse, looking is associated with innocence, with the desire to understand, while touching implies intervention, manipulation and control." Having stated this she asks what exactly does it mean to look without touching? Keller argues that there is no way to look without touching, "looking always touches us, at least metaphorically. " As the article goes on, Keller focuses on how looking touches the object, the material entity that we are looking at. 

This article suggests that we cannot look without touching. Keller uses the microscope, x-ray, and other forms of technology associated with looking to prove that the eye is not a purely passive instrument for study, from the light that is shined upon the object that is being gazed upon to the manipulation of its environment, technology merges looking and touching into an unified act. Though Keller is not concerned with the gaze as  metaphoric rape, I think it is important to think about when discussing the biological gaze. As previously stated, in scientific discourse looking is associated with innocence because one looks to understand, and touching implies intervention, manipulation, and control. However I believe that looking involves just as much intervention, manipulation, and control. The biological gaze is very closely associated with Laura Mulvey's defintion of the gaze because they both are based around notions of control. The other day in class we used the term eco-porn, which suggests that looking at "nature" becomes just as stimulating as looking at sexualized bodies. How do we separate looking as a means to understand, from looking as a way to stimulate? 

In the article, Art is Nature, the question is raised, what does darwinism have to do with contemporary art? Darwin described nature as a material system in which all living things are a kin. Most contemporary art focuses on the human figure, artifacts or technology and nature is merely used as a backdrop or stageset, but is not meaningful itself. However there are several artists such as, Helen and Newton Harrison, David Kremer, Gary Scheider, and Eduardo Kac, who center their art around nature itself. Helen and Newton Harrison, create watershed perserves; David Kremer creates "live art" through genetically altering E.coli bacteria; Gary Schneider examines his own body through x-ray's; and  Eduardo Kac created a genetically engineered rabbit that contains a jellyfish gene. This article suggests that these artists explore art as a part of nature by working respectfully with other living things. However do these artists really work respectfully with with other living things or do they just affirm traditional notions of man's power over nature?  

Sara Sze sculptures are flowing structures consisting of a conglomeration of small-scale household items that respond to and infiltrate the surrounding architecture.  Sze's sculptures mimic plant life, growing from the gallery floor towards the light (artifical and/or natural), and often incorporate a live plant within the structure. I thought Sze's work was interesting in regards to the Art is Nature article because she both works with nature and mimics it. Sze's work also raises questions of technology and nature. 

Carrie Schneider's series Queen of the Island, Schenider wears suits she creates from "natural" objects such as tree bark and moss. These photographs are both an intrusion upon nature as well as in attempt to blend in with nature.  

For the series Fallen Women, Schneider photographs herself caressing the beautiful landscape that she has "fallen upon." I view these photographs as an illustration of humans inability to look without touching, however they show the artist's interaction with nature as tender and loving rather than intrusive,  Schneider embraces the grond as if it were her lover. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

You Say Nature, I Say Nature: Week 1 - Defining Nature

What is Nature? 

After reading the excerpt from The Dictionary of Ideas and The Etiquette of Freedom, by Gary Snyder, I realized that defining nature is not such an easy task. These readings suggest that there is no singular way to define nature, but rather that the term nature is fluid and varies from culture, religion, and science. 

In the Dictionary of the History of  Ideas,  it is stated, "the natural is held by some to be better than the artificial, the customary, the contemporary. Of these four terms only the supernatural is usually considered to be better than the natural." This statement suggests that the natural is not that which is artificial, customary, or contemporary, therefore natural is defined through a set of oppositions of what it is not. In order for something to not be, it must have something to be measured against.  

In Etiquette of Freedom Gary Snyder also explores  nature, the natural, the unnatural, the supernatural, the wild, wilderness, and human nature through a series of dichotomies. Snyder's examination of the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of wild demonstrates how we define these terms based upon our own experiences as humans, he writes " the wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by- what from a human- it is not."

The Oxford English Dictionary defintion of wild

Of animals- not tame, undomesticated, unruly
Of plants- not cultivated
Of land- uninhabited, uncultivated
Of societies-uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government
of individuals-unrestrained, insubordinate

This definition articulates what the wild is not, however it does not state what it is. I feel that this is also applies to popular definitions/notions of nature, nature is not artificial, it is not touched by mankind, it is not human. Nature is either defined very narrowly by category (a flower, at tree a park, a wilderness preserve) or very broadly as "the physical universe and all its properties." There are also innumerable connotations of these terms, something can be in nature, or something could be in someone's nature. It appears that nature is something that one cannot control, what is natural is subjective. 

Patricia Piccinini, Silicone, acrylic, human hair, leather, timber

Patricia Piccinini's sculptures focus on the changing conceptions of life and nature under the onslaught of technology. Her sculptures meld together that which is human/unhuman, natural/unnatural/supernatural, real/unreal.