Artists on the front line of biodiversity
Whatcom Museum, Washington, USA2018144 pagesPaperback, £18.10ISBN 978-0-692-08331-4Exhibition at Whatcom until 6 January 2019
REVIEW BY MARTIN SPRAY
Powerful messages about humans and nature
By chance a few years ago, I happened on an article that illustrates the work of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. She visited areas contaminated by Chernobyl, and others that were merely near nuclear power stations, to paint insects and plants – not ordinary ones, but ones with crumpled wings, or none, with red leaves instead of green, with antennae mangled, or in some other way mutated by radiation. It is an interesting if gloomy article. Cornelia found many damaged plants and animals even where contamination was slight (1).
This seemed an excellent example of one way artists can give us clear information – warnings – about our effects on fellow species. It requires at least a basic understanding of the objects by the artists. Of course, these were a sort of ‘scientific record’, not what is usually considered ‘artworks’. Endangered species also brings to our attention our effects on our fellows, though in a somewhat different way.
I have been convinced for decades that art has an important, perhaps essential, part to play in the promotion of nature conservation. I remain convinced, but am unsure that, though it is attractive, informative, and stimulating, Endangered species will do a great deal for biodiversity. I hope I’m wrong. I have mixed feelings, too, about the curator of the exhibition of which this is the catalogue. Barbara Matilsky produced a wonderfully inspiring book in 1992: Fragile ecologies, which I don’t doubt jolted and motivated quite a few artists (2). The catalogue Vanishing ice, that she produced for an exhibition in 2013, was also, in my opinion, quite an inspiration (3).
It may be that I’m not attuned to much of the artwork included in the new exhibition. Certainly, some – for instance Andy Warhol’s colour-distorted animals on the cover – does not seem amongst the most obvious candidates to fulfil the project’s task, as though it is concerned with something else. An important advantage of work like Hesse-Honegger’s can be if the artworks are intriguing or unusual; but perhaps this becomes a disadvantage if the intrigue (it might be puzzlement) is unusual enough to take all the attention, and leave the objects – the biodiversity focus – sidelined and forgotten.
That, I think, is what happened to me and the Warhol pictures, and the images of people with beaks as noses. Yes: the animals represented come back to attention, but the message is skewed towards the art per se, and the object’s story can be very misunderstood.
And the task? Matilsky sets the scene: “Artists have always been in the vanguard of mediating a balance between Homo sapiens and the natural world. This was the premise of […] Fragile ecologies [which] laid the conceptual framework for Endangered species.” Here, 60 artists were chosen, to demonstrate life’s wonder and its fragility, to “reflect the vital relationship between art and natural science”, and to remind us of art’s “pivotal contribution to an enduring legacy of nature conservation.” Of the 60, approximate numbers are 40 American including Canadian, 10 European including British, 1 each Chinese and Japanese, and a handful of others.
Endangered species gives brief summaries of the artists – for example that Warhol collaborated on a book, Vanishing animals – and many artists are introduced by a few of their own appropriate
words. The entries are in a dozen groups, such as Mammoths & Dinosaurs, Tropical rainforests, Invasive species, and Population growth; however, these seem somewhat arbitrary. That matters little: what I find more disconcerting is the frequency with which enthusiastic statements are made about art, artists, and life. There is hardly any evidence offered of their validity – for instance for such statements as that “the work of artists and natural scientists affirms the ethical right of every species and ecosystem to survive and thrive”, “plants and animals have responded positively to measures that protect and relieve habitats” (but what about when they don’t?), and “by merging the identities of people and [passenger pigeons] the artist evokes a sense of empathy with this lost species” (but one smiles at remembering that a bird’s beak is its mouth).
This review so far doubtless appears negative; let me change mood. I find the book useful – so long as the above comments are taken as caveats. It is nicely produced, and suits both the coffee-table and the study. Its pages display the work of an interesting range of artists, several of whom I want to find out more about. Although I think some, as it were, miss (or evade) the point, others offer powerful messages about humans and nature – taken without words, when you read the images, and especially if you see yourself in relation to the object. I was particularly taken by Nick Brandt’s ‘Line of Rangers Holding the Tusks of Elephants Killed at the Hands of Man’ (21 rangers each holding a pair), the Tlinget-Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin’s ‘Inert Wolf’ (the front half as though alive, the back half a trophy rug), and David Liittschwager’s array of insects, birds, plants, etc., from ‘A World in One Cubic Foot’.
Some of the images, I am still wondering about. Again, I may not be attuned to the artist; or the art may not be able to deliver the maker’s message – or I ‘get’ a message, but not what the artist sent. More likely is that, in contrast to Hesse-Honegger’s art, which ‘works’ for me because I know what I’m looking at, and disturbs because I know something of the context, and I “get the message” intellectually, with several of the Endangered species contributions I don’t have a context, and don’t know what I’m seeing, and may get – if anything – a message as it were only subjectively. All art, said Picasso, is meant to disturb, but if you “don’t get it” the world may continue untroubled for you.
- C. Hesse-Honegger (1992) Painting mutations Geog. Mag., November, 15-19.
- Fragile ecologies. Contemporary artists’ interpretations and solutions, Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York
- Vanishing ice. Alpine and Polar landscapes in art, 1775-2012, Whatcom Museum, WA