As we gravitate towards the world's growing urban centers, we sever our most obvious ties to nature. To preserve the environment from further destruction, it's now vital to recreate our emotional attachment to land and place. The following article was commissioned for the 2004 opening of the Gwangju Biennale in Korea.|
Millions of people are enriching themselves while our world is becoming more impoverished every day. Our ravenous consumption and fascination with earning a quick buck is slowly suffocating Mother Nature. Earth is becoming less diverse by the minute. We are razing forests. We are polluting oceans. We are allowing agro-business to establish vast mono-crop fields. Pushed aside and deprived of their habitats, frogs, monkeys, wildcats, grizzlies, wolves and thousands of other creatures have disappeared forever or are dwindling to the brink of extinction. Earth is become less diverse.
The ongoing environmental destruction is nothing new, so why should we care? Because the artist’s ability to contribute to cultural diversity depends on the biological diversity that surrounds us. The extinction of a Capuchin monkey in Brazil is intimately connected to the possible extinction of creativity in Gwangju.
Wilderness is our original and abiding muse. Some 20.000 years ago, Cro-Magnon artists decorated the caves in Lascaux, in southwestern France, and in Altamira, in Spain. They painted, carved and sculpted standing, galloping, prancing bears, horses, rhinoceroses, ibexes and imaginary animals.
These artists were very good naturalists. They had a keen sense of animal behavior and their work included anatomical details as small as a bison's tear duct and a mammoth's anal operculum. They could have painted a cubist abstraction, but instead they chose to paint the creatures to which they had the strongest relationship. Their fears, their loves and their awe for the natural world survive in their works to this day.
Even the smallest bugs inspire great art. What would art history be like, for instance, without something as seemingly uninspiring as the locust in the natural world?
One Sunday a few years ago I was walking through Stockholm when I passed an etching that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small copper plate of several insects, dated 1594. Among the perfectly drawn critters was an oddity, a tiny dragon-like animal. I couldn’t help wondering if the artist, Nicholas de Bruyn, had made a mistake. The animals in his plate seemed exact, but among them was this obviously imaginary creature.
A few months later I was at the Royal Library in Stockholm when I learned that earlier in the 16th century there had been a locust invasion in Milan, Italy. News of this invasion spread throughout Europe, partly through drawings in newspapers. It seemed clear to me that De Bruyn’s dragon was in fact a locust. His etching incorporates the power of the locust, not as an individual insect, but as a population, a scourge and threat to the farmer’s crops. It had become a creature of his imagination. A dragon.
Centuries later in the early 1970ies, Bob Dylan received an Honorary PhD from Princeton University. The award-ceremony coincided with the hatching cycle of the cicada. In New Jersey, periodical cicadas emerge from the ground in early to mid-June after spending 17 years in the nymphal stage feeding on the roots of trees. The darkened skies above the University town inspired Dylan to write The Day of the Locusts, one of his more popular songs.
The locust is a tiny yet concrete example of how natural diversity breeds cultural diversity. If there were no locusts, there would be no dragons etched by de Bruyn and fewer songs by Bob Dylan. Our culture would be impoverished, less diverse.
Now let’s look at something a more fundamental to the history of western art: the Golden Section. You find this proportion in Greek buildings and Renaissance paintings. You find it in Sandro Boticelli’s Venus and in Still Life in Motion by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It’s a proportion that just looks right, that looks natural.
The Golden Section is a proportion where the whole is to the larger part, as the larger part is to the smaller part. Divide the longer section with the shorter section and you get the ratio 1.618. It turns out that we are surrounded by that proportion.
The natural world is suffused with the Golden Section. The constant that defines it reappears as the exponential in a geometrical progression known as the Fibonacci series. That series describes the spiral growth patterns found in everything from tree trunks to clouds, in flowers and sea shells. Art and life can be described by the same mathematics.
Without the inspiration of a diverse nature, without the sunflower and the nautilus shell and the fir tree, there would possibly be no Golden Section. Thus the instinctive processes of artistic creation are closely tied to the fundamental principles of natural growth. Eradicate or impoverish the wild, and you rob artists of a fundamental muse.
Even today some of the more spectacular artists turn to nature for inspiration. Sheep-pickler and shark-slicer Damien Hirst, is a conceptual artist who suspends animals in formaldehyde. Our artists in Lascaux painted, sculpted and carved running, leaping, suffering animals. Hirst shows us animals that are inanimate, dead. What has happened to the relationship between man and other animals in the intervening years?
Our relationship to nature has undergone a radical transformation. Our societies are now governed by an omnipotent market force that treats all life as an inanimate object destined for consumption. To consume means literally to destroy or expend. In a fundamentalist consumer society, destruction is a way of life, and wilderness is doomed.
The system that leads to the extinction of a million year old creature blindly puts corporate and individual profit before diversity, unless that diversity has a monetary value in itself. It is a system that is incapable of respecting the integrity of the other, the existence of something wild and foreign. It doesn’t matter whether that other is created by an artist or by Mother Nature. It must conform, or it will cease to exist.
We continuously fail to recognize our historical dependence on untamed nature, both as artists and as consumers. The United States could not have become the world’s only hyper-power without its abundant wilderness. Without the promise of a better life out west, without the virtually endless land and unreachable frontier, there would be no manifest destiny. The frontier has now been conquered, the resources dug out, the land controlled. As the US continues to devour its natural, political and artistic wilderness, its dream is increasingly devoid of promise, full of misgivings. It has become a nightmare scenario, where a nation is supplanting its beautiful wilderness and creative legacy with the vagaries of an infertile stock market and a debilitating oil addiction.
We ignore our inescapable dependence on nature at great cost to our social and personal health. As earth becomes progressively less diverse, there are fewer perspectives and fewer things to talk or dream about. “Imagination—a kind of wildness in itself—used to be one of this country’s greatest strengths: the ability to invent and to question authority and the status quo—to ask What if?—to challenge, and ask Why?” writes American nature writer Rick Bass.
Yet here I believe the artist and the environmentalist share a similar agenda. Artistic creativity depends on a total acceptance of the wilderness within. We fear true, subversive art as we fear true, wild nature. Neither accepts the limits we wish to set, nor the roles we wish to assign. "Art is dangerous because it doesn't have a definable function. I think that is what people are afraid of,” says Damian Hirst.
Like our Cro-Magnon forbears, the devoted artist is a devoted naturalist, acting in defense of the magical, the natural, the wild, protecting the integrity of everything that is different, chaotic, sudden and inexplicable.
It is this role of the artist as naturalist that I wish to see explored at the Gwangju Biennale. The artist as preserver of our creative commons.
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