Into the wild
The Nevada Museum of Art's Art + Environment Conference attracted artists, critics, scientists and writers from around the world
The future is interdisciplinary, creating inextricable links among nature and technology, design and science. And so, too, is the past, but somewhere along the timeline of humanity, that connection seemed lost. Reclaiming and reembracing that overlap is the overarching message of this year’s Art + Environment Conference, a global event hosted at the Nevada Museum of Art. The conference occurs every three years; the first was held in 2008. The three-day conference is comprised of a featured exhibit and a series of talks hosted by visiting artists.
“Themes of the exhibition are connected to the themes of the conference,” said David Walker, NMA executive director. According to the museum, these themes explore three relationships: that between human and animals, between human and the world’s ecosystems, and between art and science. Walker notes the conference’s unique logo—the letters “a + e” are spelled out in furry typography as a way to indicate the conference’s emphasis on living creatures.
In attendance were artists, critics, scientists and writers from around the world. On the opening night, attendees were given a chance to mingle with some of the artists featured in Late Harvest, the main exhibit in the museum’s feature gallery that corresponds with the conference. The exhibit opened on Sept. 27 and will run until Jan. 18, 2015. Curated by NMA’s Joanne Northrup and Adam Duncan Harris of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Late Harvest features more than 30 artists.
“This exhibition unites radically different modes of artistic production that share a common focus on animals,” writes Northrup. “Canonincal wildlife paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries are juxtaposed with contemporary art that incorporates taxidermy.”
The start of the exhibit is flooded with light from Brigitte Zieger’s Shooting Wallpaper, a looping animated film in which an illustrated woman, camouflaged in toile wallpaper, makes shooting motions. After that, the exhibition darkens considerably, both in color and in tone. Several of the walls are painted in dark shades of red and green—evoking colors of blood and earth, made especially clear by the art paired with it. Although much of the show’s work is by contemporary artists, several pieces harken back to more classical styles of art.
This is evident through pieces such as Damien Hirst’s “The Kingdom of the Father,” a large installation comprised of real, preserved butterflies. The result is three cathedral window-shaped designs that, from a distance, look like stained glass. It’s striking and beautiful, and startling when the realization comes—that it’s made from dead insects. This kind of work has gotten Hirst into hot water before with animal rights activists; he’s used other animal parts for art pieces, and an installation at Tate Modern in 2012 resulted in more than 9,000 butterfly deaths when their captivity was the display itself, and was not a conducive environment to their survival.
But some argue that his art brings attention to the many animals killed regularly through other human activity. And yet it raises some questions—for a conference that explores concepts and encourages discussion about sustainability, does art that causes death of animals go against the point?
In fact, the whole show might make animal lovers simultaneously upset and introspective. The abundance of taxidermy takes a bit of getting used to—like a log cabin filled with hunting trophies, it’s unnerving to stand in a museum and be surrounded by animal carcasses. But there’s also a bit of peace knowing that many of the bodies have been preserved in beautiful pieces of art, and were acquired after the animals had died of natural causes. Northrup addressed these ideas in the first talk of the conference, “Friend or Faux? Animals as Contemporary Art.”
“How do animals in these artworks function as agents of nature or symbols of culture, and where do we place ourselves in this network of meaning?” she asked.Harvest season
For sculptor Kate Clark, whose piece “Licking the Plate” is featured on the cover of the book accompanying the exhibit, working with animal bodies is logistically difficult. In her art, Clark creates human faces out of clay and affixes them to taxidermy. “Licking the Plate” was commissioned for Late Harvest, and consists of a youthful-looking female face on the body of a male kudu. It’s reminiscent of centaurs from mythology, and the features are lifelike, including eyes that look like they’ll blink at any second.
“This is the biggest one I’ve ever done,” she said of the piece. “This was custom for the show. I’ve also done a cougar before this, but it wasn’t quite as large.”
The sculpture is set against a backdrop of a forest. “I’ve never done a background before,” said Clark, and notes that it was inspired by Jean Baptiste Oudry, a French 18th-century painter. The backdrop gives the sculpture some context, and it mirrors some of the neighboring paintings of stags from the early 1900s.
Despite how frequently she works with animals, Clark said, “I’m not at all a taxidermist.” She sculpts the faces from clay, and uses patches of the animal’s skin to fill in the skin on the face. “I have to be very careful.”
The title of the show, Late Harvest, has multiple meanings in the context of the art it represents. The act of harvesting natural resources has been vital to human civilization for centuries. Harvesting the “late,” in this sense, refers partly to the deceased animals, but also to the notion of harvesting a lifestyle that has long since passed. Is it too late to reclaim harmony with nature?
The show inspires more questions than it answers. One that permeates throughout is the concept of wildness. What does it mean to be wild? Is it the order of nature and the relentless cycle of hunting, birth and death? Is it human, creating carnage and waste without consideration or need? Or are they one and the same?
These questions were explored, in part, through the speaker presentations during the conference. Back-to-back talks were held all day on Oct. 10 and 11, and attendees were given opportunities to ask questions of the visiting artists, critics and scientists.
The terms “geoaesthetic” and “posthumanism” were used frequently. Depending on the artist, these words take on different meanings. Geoaesthetic refers to the physical features and landmarks of an ecosystem. Posthumanism, in essence, explores what it means to be human.
For Ingar Dragset—one half of artist team Elmgreen and Dragset—geoaesthetics can be impacted by human creations. Perhaps best known for their Prada Marfa installation in the Texas desert, Elmgreen and Dragset create architectural structures that are intended to be satirical and thought-provoking. Dragset says that art pertaining to environmental issues doesn’t have to be serious to be effective.
“Actual humor is a way of survival,” he said. “Humor is a way to communicate, to enter into a dialogue about something difficult.”
Artist David Brooks looks at landscape in the context of species. He travels the world with geologists and scientists, and does conservation work in communities. He’s especially interested in the interactions local communities have with wildlife. He says this connection is meaningful with all creatures, including fish, whose history is often closely linked with that of a town or city.
“When they’re holding that fish in their hand, they’re thinking of the millions of years that went into that,” said Brooks.
Brooks said it’s important to think of animals, including fish, as “individual living breathing beings before they become statistics.”
Brooks was one of several artists who emphasized the importance of understanding places and animals as they are individually, and placing that in the big picture of what sustainability can be in the future. Perhaps the same idea can be applied to humans, too—it’s not the numbers that will change our habits or our experiences. The relationship between humans and animals, and subsequently, humans and the natural world, is impacted most strongly through our innate pull toward it.