Reimagining Nature as Culture: Expanding the boundaries of making and thinking of art in the Anthropocene Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument (2013-present), Mercer Union, 2015, detail. Courtesy of the Artist, Mercer Union and The Third Line.

Spring 2016 | ArteZine

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Reimagining Nature as Culture: Expanding the boundaries of making and thinking of art in the Anthropocene


“Perhaps, the moon landing was one of the most demoralizing events in history”
Robert Smithson[i]

“We are being exposed to a catastrophe of meaning.
Let’s not hurry to hide this exposure under pink, blue, red or black silks.
Let us remain exposed, and let us think about what is happening to us:
Let us think that it is we who are arriving, or who are leaving”
Jean Luc Nancy[ii]

It was in a symposium in 1970 that Robert Smithson cast his shadow of doubt over the preconceptions of ‘the moon landing’: perhaps all it did was to reveal what a closed system planet Earth was. Or for that matter, a ‘horrible pigpen’ of pollution, violence, blood and waste comparable to ‘the island’ in William Golding’s seminal novel Lord of the Flies[iii]. The image couldn’t be more relevant today as the Anthropocene is proposed as a new geological epoch marking the human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. Faced with the specter of extinction, the theoretical debates surrounding the Anthropocene are caught between two opposing directions, namely in and out of the Earth. The futuristic fantasies of ‘transhumanism’ push the modernist logic to its extreme to achieve a human figure detached from nature by technological hybridization, residing in abstract networks of information, colonizing space and mining asteroids. On the other hand, much of contemporary philosophy and social sciences strive to make sense of the finitude of our planet and to recompose the ontological premises of modernism, such as the great divide between culture and nature forcing us to conceive the end of nature resulting human activities. How are we to account for the entanglement of mineral life and biological life, of cultural forms and nonhuman beings, of the timescales of human life and geology with our modernist knowledge and institutions? And more particularly, how do we understand contemporary art in the Anthropocene when both natural and social sciences, propelled by these questions, seem to be undergoing a paradigm shift[iv]? If there is any critical potential in this new grand narrative, it requires a deeper look into the particulars of historically and geographically located compositions and practices. Only then we can learn how to define the Anthropocene and to contextualize its encounters with art[v].

Bearing in mind these observations along with the speculative space that the “How to Think the Anthropocene?”[vi] conference in Paris opened up, the following is an attempt at reading two bodies of recently produced art works ― Study for a Monument (2013-present) by Toronto-based Abbas Akhavan and Who carries the water (2014-ongoing) by Istanbul-based İz Öztat & Fatma Belkıs. Both works suggest new configurations tying humans to nonhumans, recent history to geological time, political violence to environmental factors within systems of meaning where nature and culture appear in a complex entanglement. Standing against the pull of a ‘future perfect continuous tense’[vii] that evades the forces of gravity of both the present and the local, they are anchored in the topographies of the Middle East, and critically engage with the historical building of museums and exhibitions within the wider context of modernism.

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument (2013-present), cast bronze, cotton fabric, dimensions variable. Installation view, Mercer Union, 2015. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy of the artist, Villa Stuck and The Third Line.

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument (2013-present), cast bronze, cotton fabric, dimensions variable. Installation view, Mercer Union, 2015. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy of the artist, Villa Stuck and The Third Line.

Initially commissioned by the Abraaj Group Art Prize[viii], Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Monument consists of a series of bronze cast plant specimens. Spread horizontally on white cotton sheets on the floor, each species is represented by its constitutive parts (stem, leaves, and petals) similar to botanical plates whose scales are blown up to human proportions. Traced by the artist in the collections of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew[ix], they are native to the region lying between the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris (Ancient Mesopotamia or present-day Middle East) known for its much-coveted fossil resources. The destruction of salt marshes by Saddam Hussein to control resisting marsh Arabs, and the Gulf War have drastically transformed their native habitat. The oxidized color of bronze and imperfections resulting from the casting process in Akhavan’s work give these plants a post-apocalyptic feeling and a look of petrified fossils at the same time. The sculptures are at once buried and unburied much like the memory of war in this land. This simultaneous movement of sedimentation and unearthing encapsulates the geological time, centuries of colonial expropriation, post-9/11 asymmetrical warfare as well as the lifespans of plants and human beings. They convey a sense of loss crawling back from past times and a form of evidence for an ongoing catastrophe. The birth of the Neolithic with its bronze weaponry and domestication of species is seconds away; the history of conflicts over pipelines seems to extend forever.

The display of Study for a Monument is simultaneously reminiscent of forms of legal exhibit, scientific evidence and funerary rituals (the white sheets alluding to cotton burial clothes). Through this sculptural gesture Akhavan brings into critical focus at once the history of museums rooted in the 19th century modernism and the contemporary commodification of artworks in global circulation with their relevant condition reports. The historical construction of the art field is inseparable from that of the modern museum and its exhibition formats, namely by abstracting things from their ‘living’ contexts and displaying them for the viewers’ gaze. The viewer experience inside the museum is a subjectivity-forming experience: it calls for the reproduction of that same abstraction process in the spectator’s mind and body[x]. Referenced by Akhavan in his research, the European natural history museums, for example, are places where this regime of scientific objectivity, the stabilizing effect it produces on the material world, the gaze it calls for along with the observing modern subject were born. The contemporary art gallery, on the other hand, pushes this abstraction to the extremes by ‘purifying’ works of art from any cognitive or perceptual interference from the outer world[xi]. Condition reports, mentioned earlier, are also constitutive of this process: required by the global circulation of artworks as commodities, they submit works of art to a quasi-scientific scrutiny, establishing their status as ‘pure objects’ to be displayed inside the ‘white cube’. Through their display, the plant sculptures become the site where distinct histories converge and multiple abstractions are disclosed, revealing the underlying modernist constructions around museums and contemporary art exhibitions.

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument (detail), 2015, Cast bronze, cotton fabric, dimensions variable. Installation view, Mercer Union. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument (detail), 2015, Cast bronze, cotton fabric, dimensions variable. Installation view, Mercer Union. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.

The size and material of Akhavan’s sculptures also reference the history of public monuments and statues as ‘dead people cast in bronze’[xii], erected, replaced or destroyed over the course of recent political changes. The plant species in this work are monumentalized and broken down at the same time, reminiscent of two seemingly opposing conceptions of nature that coexist in contemporary discourses: its exploitation as a resource and its reification as a space to be preserved. There is a spatial and temporal unfolding of the work in one’s mind: images of mass funeral ceremonies; public statues, vandalized, demolished and dragged through streets; species and entire ecosystems imagined as future fossils; human bodies, plants and artworks displayed lifeless on white sheets for us to see, commemorate, witness and attest. By activating multiple contexts, Study for a Monument extends its scope beyond the exhibition’s own time and space, and accomplishes what Jean Luc Nancy calls for: to remain exposed to catastrophe in the face of a ‘mastery over nature’ gone mad that “bends under its power not only lives in great number (…) but ‘life’ in its forms, relationships, generations and representations”[xiii].

There is a cognitive trap in conceiving nature either as a resource to be mastered or pure space to be preserved, which reiterates the modernist divide between nature and culture. Expanding the boundaries of artistic practice through ethnographic research, İz Öztat and Fatma Belkıs redefine the way our contemporary culture constructs what it means to be human by extending the condition of humanity to nonhuman beings and recognizing them as partners in co-creating the world. Recently commissioned by the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Who carries the water (2014-ongoing) is an installation composed of multiple pieces including Will Flow Freely (2015-ongoing), a series of naturally dyed and woodcut printed kerchiefs hung on hazelnut sticks; Actions That Do Not Benefit The Country (2015), an installation of hazelnut sticks, carobs and beeswax; In The Rivers North of The Future (2014-ongoing), a series of watercolors on paper, and Scapegoat (2015), a basket woven with crafted hazelnut sticks and carobs. An eponymously titled text accompanies these works crystallizing the key issues that are explored in the installation[xiv]. Culmination of a year-long research and multiple field trips to valleys across Turkey that witnessed many resistances against the construction of run-of-the-river hydroelectric power plants since 1998[xv], the work draws on the local community’s struggles against the privatization of their environment and relies on anonymous local knowledge as well as the practices of commoning in its production processes, materials and forms[xvi].

İz Öztat & Fatma Belkıs, Will Flow Freely (detail), 2015, Naturally dyed and woodcut printed muslin, hazelnut sticks. Photo by Fatma Belkıs. Dedicated to the public domain

This multivocal and performative text is told by a number of humans and nonhuman participants in dialogue form. What is significant here is that, the representation of the landscape and its elements cease to provide a backdrop for the human figures and their actions, while the river, trees, goats and the fog become actual figures with their own voices and actions. Human beings in turn fade into this new texture as they enter into a mimetic fusion with the landscape[xvii]. When the flow of the river is interrupted, the peasant is tongue-tied. When the river flows into the pipeline instead of its natural bed, the philosopher loses the metaphors to create concepts. And the spruce, when fog disappears, is advised by the psychologist to seek refuge in fairytales, a human-made cultural form. Through these transitions among human bodies and minds, natural elements and cultural forms, the classical figure/background hierarchy disappears and a dense texture made of relations emerges, in which the local inhabitants, the outsider researchers, plants and animals, tales and cognitive processes, natural elements and technical tools are all embedded and act upon one another as constituents of a relational ontology[xviii]. This web of relations binds not only beings, bodies, objects and language from the valleys, but also the artists themselves and their work. By using materials and techniques that are in a mutualistic relationship with the ecosystems and refuse to use electricity in the production process and display, the artists multiply the contexts of inscription of the work creating a critical continuum between a biennial and experimental practice and research in alternative economies.


İz Öztat & Fatma Belkıs, Scapegoat, 2015, Installation view from the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Photo by Sahir Uğur Eren. Dedicated to the public domain

Museums and biennials still stand as the sites where post-capitalist modernity constantly furthers the limits of its own operations of abstraction and reflects back on itself by allowing for repressed forms of relationality between objects, humans and nonhuman beings to resurface. This usually comes at the cost of perpetuating the epistemic divide between what we see in an exhibition and the world we live in, while conserving the stabilizing effect of the exhibition on the material world[xix]. The absence of electricity in the display of Who carries the water that might seem as a simple gesture at first breaks with the modernist exhibition design providing a space of abstraction, inscribing the work in a continuum with the outside world. The contrast achieved within the biennial framework in turn sheds critical light on the objectifying effects of display conventions. Through Öztat and Belkıs’ refusal to use electricity, along with the dedication of all the works to the public domain[xx], Who Carries the Water can be interpreted as a performative gesture that operates at the threshold between art, ethnography and political engagement. Moreover, it lays the grounds of an indigenous framework for a potentially decolonizing thought and practice on art and museums in the Anthropocene[xxi].

Engaged in the questions posed by the Anthropocene, many critical debates and exhibition practices today highlight the role of research and contextualize exhibition making as an interdisciplinary space that triggers an understanding of complex ecological changes affecting the world[xxii]. The challenge then is to adjust our thinking about museums as incubators of research and artistic practice shaping our subjectivities and understandings of our relationship to the material world. While İz Öztat and Fatma Belkıs’s Who Carries the Water takes inspiration from forms of indigenous resistance to activate new potentials for change within the contemporary institutions, Abbas Akhavan’s sculptural installation Study for a Monument reveals the commodification of art and its mechanisms. The latter also brings together humans and nonhumans in the memory of violence in the Middle East and in the historical construction of our cultural institutions. Refusing to ignore the political potential around multiple crises announced by the Anthropocene these works demand us to articulate the existing relationships between culture and nature as well as the political implications of exhibition forms and institutional practices…

  1. Robert Smithson, ‘The Artist and Politics: A Symposium’ in Jack Flam (ed.) Robert Smithson. The Collected Writings (University of California Press, California, 1996), pp.134-135.
  2. Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima. The Equivalence of Catastrophes (Fordham University Press, 2015), p.8.
  3. Robert Smithson, Ibid.
  4. The entanglement of nature and culture announced by the Anthropocene is challenging the disciplinary boundaries of both social and natural sciences. This paradigm shift was at the center of many presentations during the conference “How to Think The Anthropocene” organized by Philippe Descola at College de France, Paris, 5-6 November 2015. https://anthropocene2015.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/conference-presentation/ (Last accessed on December 14, 2015). Notable in this regard is also the ontological turn in anthropology as outlined in Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, Sari Wastell (eds.) Thinking Through Things (Routledge, London, 2007).
  5. A notable recent publication dealing with this question with contributions by artists and theorists is Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (eds.), Art in the Anthropocene. Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, London, 2015).
  6. “How to Think the Anthropocene?” organized by Philippe Descola at College de France, Paris, 5-6 November 2015.
  7. The expression is borrowed from philosopher? Isabelle Stengers, who uses this temporal dimension to warn against the theoretical desire to “swallow” the mess announced by the Anthropocene in a continuity “to be theorized in a single shot” in a “trendy race for the most radical manner of moving away from a human-centered view”, especially in the artworld. Isabelle Stengers, Heather Davis, Etienne Turpin, ‘Matters of Cosmopolitics. On the Provocations of Gai’” in Etienne Turpin (ed.) Architecture in the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2013). Bernd Scherer eloquently expresses another way in which our present is constantly accelerated by borrowing from the future through a financial tool, the credit. “The Anthropocene Project” Conference held at Tate, London, July 2015.
  8. The work has been exhibited across Europe, Middle East, Asia and Canada: Abraaj Art Prize (Dubai, 2014), Guangzhou Biennial (Guangzhou, South Korea, 2014), Villa Stuck (Munich, Germany, 2015), Mercer Union (Toronto, CA, 2015), artspeak (Vancouver, CA, 2015).
  9. Established in 1840 and hosting the world’s largest collection of living plants alongside over seven million preserved plant specimens, the Kew Gardens are a magnificent model of 19th century representations of nature in rationally organized and highly controlled spaces.
  10. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1990).
  11. Brian O’Doherty, Inside The White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986). Also, on the production of subjectivities by the museum: Hito Steyerl, ‘Is Museum a Factory?’, e-flux journal #7, June 2006 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/is-a-museum-a-factory/ (Last accessed on December 12, 2015)
  12. Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. Reburial and Postsocialist Change (Columbia University Press, 1999).
  13. Jean-Luc Nancy, Ibid. p.11.
  14. “Following the privatization of energy production through a series of legislations, which allowed the leasing of water use right of rivers to private energy companies for at least 49 years, AKP government launched an aggressive program targeting 2000 small (and large) hydroelectric power plants by 2023. Although run-of-the-river-type hydroelectric power plants are treated as Renewable Energy production solutions globally, the implementation in Turkey, which involves removing the water from its bed and taking it into pipes to run it through multiple turbines, deprives all living creatures from their life source”. Extract from the artists’ public presentation in the framework of the 14th Istanbul Biennial, 2 September 2015.
  15. All the structural elements in the installations are supported by hazelnut sticks which are used extensively in daily life in the valleys, as a support for the body and the plants, for herding animals and carried by women when confronted with armed forces. To cite one example, Scapegoat takes its form from the baskets used on slopes to harvest hazel and tea, is shaped in relation to topography and acts as a metaphor to the social fabric.
  16. The full text of Who Carries The Water can be downloaded and read here: https://archive.org/details/WhoCarriesTheWater (Last accessed on December 18, 2015)
  17. This interpretation is in part indebted to the notion of figure/ground developed by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman for the exhibition “Forensis” that was held at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, in 2014, as a “fertile frame for art history, aesthetics and within the core relational circle of the Anthropocene, translates to the relationship between organisms and their environment; between processes of figuration and engineering of backgrounds; the co-relation, the co-production between Umwelt and figures such as Humans”. Anselm Franke, ‘The Anthropocene Project’ Conference held at Tate Modern, London, July 2015. Audio files available at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/conference/anthropocene-project (Last accessed on December 12, 2015)
  18. The basic principle of a relational ontology is that the relations between entities are more important than the entities themselves. In contemporary anthropology, the four ontologies of naturalism, animism, totemism and analogism elaborated by Philippe Descola and the concept of perspectivism developed by Eduardo Viveiro de Castro – with its emphasis on the Amazonian idea of a multiplicity of natures within a single shared cultural substance – offer a multitude of insights into different modes of coexistence between human and nonhuman beings, cosmologies distinct from and irreducible to modernist naturalism. Philippe Descola, Par-dela Nature et Culture (Beyond Nature and Culture) (Paris, Gallimard, 2005); Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere. Four Lectures given in the department of social anthropology (Cambridge University, February-March 1998, HAU Books, 2012) http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/masterclass/issue/view/Masterclass%20Volume%201 (Last accessed on December 14, 2015)
  19. For this issue of the modernist abstraction – the autonomy of modern institutions of knowledge, including language, and the concurrent dynamics of purification and mediation where the modern museum is inscribed. See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993).
  20. Who Carries The Water is in the public domain and the works can be reproduced, modified, and distributed without permission, even for commercial purposes. The text is copyleft, offering the public the right to freely distribute copies and modified versions, with the stipulation that the same rights be preserved in derivative works. With this gesture, Öztat and Belkıs also put practices of bio-patenting under criticism. For further analysis on the subject see Vandana Shiva, Corporate Control of Life, Documenta13: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts, (Hatje Cantz, 2012).
  21. On the potential of indigenous knowledge and practice towards decolonizing thought and moving away from the conditions that created the Anthropocene, Zoe Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene”, Heather Davis, Etienne Turpin (eds.), Ibid. pp. 241-254.
  22. For a few examples and accounts of such practices, see: Clementine Deliss, ‘Collecting Life’s Unknowns’, Decolonizing Museums, L’Internationale Online, 2015, pp. 23-34 and all of the subsequent contributions; “The Anthropocene Project” at HKW in Berlin which is detailed by Bernd Scherer and Anselm Franke at the ‘Anthropocene Project’ conference held at Tate Modern, London, July 2015, audio files available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/conference/anthropocene-project (Last accessed on December 11, 2015)
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