Through April 28th
By Gordon Stillman
During a recent visit to Chelsea galleries I came upon several environmentally-themed art installations. Though aesthetically gorgeous, many were only cursorily related to environmental issues, perhaps using “natural” materials–like a painting made from algae–without actually exploring or challenging the greater implications of such a gesture. In stark contrast, Resistance After Nature, at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, presents the work of numerous artists and collectives that actively connect the complex web of everyday actions–like purchasing a shirt or filling a gas tank–to the climate crisis and those affected most directly by it: citizens of the Global South, Indigenous populations like those of Standing Rock and the Amazon, and the numerous plant and animal species that have become endangered or extinct.
The exhibition is curated by Kendra Sullivan and Dylan Gauthier, who are artists themselves, working at the intersection of academic research, community building, art, and activism. They are both members Mare Liberum, a boat building collective that organizes voyages to raise awareness about pollution and climate change while building community and appreciation for nature. Sullivan and Gauthier were brought in to make a show as part of an interdisciplinary faculty seminar on environmental design, sustainability, and artistic intervention at Haverford lead by Joshua Moses in Environmental Studies and Markus Baenziger in Fine Arts. This collaboratively produced, conceptually rich exhibition has supported faculty and student discussions, workshops, and interventions throughout the semester.
The show opens with a compelling introduction in the first gallery, featuring Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison’s Book of the Seven Lagoons, the personal imaginings of Haley Hughes’s Climate Refugees, NYC, and tools from the very recent resistance at Standing Rock. The Harrison’s Lagoon Cycle is one of the oldest works in the show, completed between 1974 and 1984. A monumental book, it sits in a custom display pedestal, and depicts the Harrisons research and speculation into healing polluted environments (like the Salton Sea in Southern California) and in creating self sustaining ecosystems. This artistic and notionally-scientific document anticipates many of the works to come in the show.
Haley Hughes’ Climate Refugees, NYC painting, behind the Harrison’s Book of the Lagoons, features orcas with fantastical rays shooting skyward and guarding people walking on a sinking landmass. The piece is a personal meditation on an imagined future that combines the horror of a sunken New York with moments of hope, as many of the people carry protest signs asking for a better future. It is almost like seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights transitioning to a watery Hell, except you cannot quite tell what is delightful and what is terrifying.
Beside these two works in the first gallery, we also see Mirror Shields for Standing Rock, ND by Cannupa Hanska Luger, an artist born on the Standing Rock Reservation. The mirror shields, which were actually used by protesters, bring the protests close to home, giving the show an immediacy that is itself a call to action. They are made with reflective vinyl on masonite boards and are a powerful tool to see yourself with someone else: to imagine what their life, their home, and their environment is like–and what is at risk of being lost. At their most potent, these pieces ask the viewer to become a shield for Standing Rock, and to stand with indigenous populations whose rights, beyond a healthy environment, are often trampled by governments and large corporate interests.
Around the corner in a video viewing room, Forest Law, by Ursula Biemann, documents the results of a similar resistance movement in the Ecuadorian Amazon––one that has had great success. This 2-channel video and book documents legal cases brought by the indigenous people of Sarayaku to protect the forest from oil exploration and extraction in order to prevent deforestation, preserving the knowledge of the forest and protecting their ways of life. Through interviews and other approaches, it explores the philosophy, buen vivir, that underpins the establishment of the Law of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador, which recognizes the rights of living systems, both human and non-human. It was this law that helped the people of Sarayaku successfully litigate to protect the forest they inhabit from oil exploration. This demonstrates that it is indeed possible to win over entrenched and wealthy legal opponents, and to recognize the rights of non-humans as an integral part of the legal as well as natural landscape.
While the reach of capitalist and colonialist forces is ever present in Forest Law, the reach of world trade is more directly addressed through the works of Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action (CLEAR), Mary Mattingly, More&More, and others. These artists use a variety of strategies to reveal the extent of human impact on the earth. CLEAR is a feminist marine science and technology lab that creates platforms for sophisticated do-it-yourself devices producible at low cost, allowing for grassroots research. Featured in the exhibition is CLEAR’s documentation of plastic pollution, and their plan for a build-it-yourself trawling device to sample waters for small pieces of plastic, as well as a prototype for that device.
Mary Mattingly’s work explores the ubiquity of cobalt, a specific mineral with a long history tied to art (cobalt blue paint, for example) and a more recent history in high performance alloys, batteries, and tech and military products (think iPhone, nuclear production, etc.). One of Mattingly’s “bundle” pieces, which looks like a large drum filled with everyday items, demonstrates the variety of objects that contain cobalt, and are therefore linked to a worldwide mining and industrial complex (as most cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Mattingly also held a workshop to create bundles, asking participants to bring in their own cobalt-containing possessions, and thereby gain consciousness of their own role in this system.
These works (by CLEAR and Mattingly) make it almost impossible not to participate in environmental action, whether by actively building a trawl and cataloguing plastic pollution or more simply just realizing how many everyday items contain cobalt. They, and other works in the show, turn easily ignored statistics into realities with personal consequences.
Several contemplative works in the show offer a contrast to the more active or activist pieces, though they too are alive with tacit violence, pollution or injustice. In Maria Thereza Alves video, Time, Trade, and Surplus Value, articles of clothing float in the waves of Senegal beaches, like ghostly bodies. As the water flows in and out of the clothing, each garment takes the shape of the person that once wore it. The peaceful wave sounds bely a more uncertain reading.
Resistance After Nature ranges from seminal work from the early days of environmental art, to an incisive video by contemporary collective Postcommodity (who currently has work in the Whitney Biennial), to tools of resistance from the Standing Rock protests, to scientific prototypes, to pieces by self-taught as well as institutionally based artists. This variety of conceptual investigations makes a strong argument for supporting creative research that not only demonstrates the extent of pollution, or shows the results of successful legal battles to prevent oil exploration in the rainforest, but that actually leads to imagining different worlds. The show offers a speculative space that asks the viewer to see what is present, and to act to create a more just and livable future.
Gordon Stillman is an artist living in Philadelphia, primarily working in photography.