Welcome to the Anthropocene

Below is Jeff Dolvin’s wonderful catalogue essay form Welcome to the Anthropocene, the exhibition that accompanied the Association of Environmental Science Studies Symposium of the same name, this year at Pace University’s Peter Fingesten Gallery, NY, NY.

The Backstory of the Apple: there must be a story here. The crown of an apple tree crowds the frame, a tangle of branches, sturdy leaves, and ruddy fruit, but every apple is cut in half—amputated from itself, the one side still cupped, ready for the hand, the other flat, flesh and seeds exposed to view. Most are bisected longitudinally, as if prepared for the table; a few across their equator, to reveal a star-shaped core. It is such a strange, arresting image, that a story may not be enough. A myth may be required.

But which myth? Eden is convenient. Forgive me! It was so sweet and so cool, and wouldn’t it have gone brown, like apples do, if I didn’t eat it right away? A particularly diabolical rewriting of Eves choice, to imagine the apple already cut for her, already bleeding its nectar into the air. But then, why not bitten into, why halved so exactly?—and the apples are halved exactly, cut clean at their middles. Perhaps there is another myth in play, one told by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, about how our ancestors were once four-limbed and two-faced and strong enough to threaten the gods. Zeus cast them down for their hubris, and cleaved them in two (turning their faces toward the wound, and drawing the skin tight across it, cinched at the navel). Now they, which is to say, we, go ever in search of our other halves, that one true original fit.

Elizabeth Demaray’s photographs, as they were exhibited at Pace University’s Peter Fingesten Gallery in 2014, were blown up to 4’ x 6’ prints, much larger than life. The foliage at that size is enveloping and the frames make a handsome arrangement of the boughs. They would attract the eye even if the apples were unremarkably whole. The amputations, however, effect a conceptual swerve, not just an arabesque but an intervention somewhere near the root of how we see the world. Did the apples grow that way? What biology is that? Or what science?—Were they bred to offer themselves to the appetite, like those golden-age fantasies of game birds that settle on the shoulder and fish that leap into the net? Or did some god intervene? To reward, or to punish? The readiest practical explanation—that they are the work of a prankster with a paring knife, let loose in an unsupervised orchard—falls so far short of the beauty and the wound as to be utterly incredible. For all their wit, then, these pictures demand another register of explanation, an original and originating account of a state of affairs so altered from our own. For this to be true, they say, so much must be different.

            How does this impulse to myth emerge? Some of the other works exhibited that summer, in a show sponsored by the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, offer help understanding this power. “Baseball rocks (please hold)” consists of several irregularly shaped but eminently throwable rocks, covered with white leather and stitched in the sport’s signature lemniscate red thread. Has the prankster been at work again? One could well imagine Costello or Curly being brained by an unexpectedly ponderous toss. And yet, again, there is something about their physical presence, when you revolve them in the hand, and the mind, that rules out such a casual explanation. The stitching is so exact, so natural you might even say; the leather is so smooth, almost as though it were the stone’s original skin. Perhaps these are the first baseballs? Or even the first stones, before our forgotten ancestors hunted and flayed them and laid them down naked to pave our streams?

What these provocative objects share, the unpicked half-apple and the baseball rock, is a confusion of artifice and organicity, culture and nature. The modern mind is habituated to resolve such problems by moving decisively in one direction or the other. Such is the basic claim of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, which after thirty years is still among the most powerful accounts we have of the patterns of thought that define modernity. It is in our modern constitution, Latour argues, to use each term against the other, nature and culture, and to celebrate the “luminous dawn that cleanly separated material causality from human fantasy.” When we need leverage against nature, we can reveal its cultural construction; when culture oppresses us, we can discover its natural grounds, or a natural alternative. A society so constituted has gotten over its need for the hybrid constructions of myth. But that need has a way of reasserting itself, and Demaray has a knack for exposing that need. Her works are hybrids, what Latour would call quasi-objects, and the question of where they came from leads somewhere far beyond and long before the artist’s studio.

            That mythic impulse is at work too in the humble service offered by her plant sweaters. The sweaters are comfortable, sturdy winter garments with long sleeves tailored to the many limbs of branching houseplants. Yet again, there is an incipient joke about the well-intentioned hobbyist whose inchoate sense of responsibility to the natural world prompts her to dress her plants against cold they have not evolved to survive. But the joke never quite lands, at least, not as a joke, for if the sweaters look like they were made for the plants, so the plants, with their stout trunks and articulate branches, look like they were made for the sweaters. Must it not always have been so? Isn’t this the way it was supposed to be? And then there are the Indaplants, the stars of the AESS show, wheeled robot-flowerpots endowed with sensors to detect sunlight, and artificial intelligence to follow that sunlight across a room. These whimsical prostheses beg the question whether plants once could rove in pursuit of their needs, before they were fixed in place by the property rights of another species. As they make their heliopathic rounds they revise the deep history behind them.

Demaray has a knack for refusing the tacit explanations that structure our experience, our working assumptions that this here grew, and that there was made; this one simply happened to us, and that one we made by ourselves. We let ourselves off the hook, she implies, when we imagine that first there was nature, then there was culture, and all we humans need to do to set things right again is to withdraw from the scene. Each of her works may begin in wit but it ends by demanding a renewed effort of the myth-making imagination, compelling us back to the beginning to inquire, how did this come to be?It turns out, we were in on it from the start. The apples were already cut. Who among us has not cut an apple? Demaray’s ad hoc origin stories are a prod to return with renewed ingenuity to the problem of what to do now, how to work out how to make the natural world, our world, livable for all of its species and creatures. Imagine that, she says, and shows us.



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