We hear this catch all term, this romantic yet tragicomic coinage of late, that denotes this odd intersection between explicitly Right Wing observations about the nature of social and cultural decay, and the ecological decay that seems to work parallel to each other in our very own end of days. This term I am referring to is “TRASHWORLD”; We live in trash, we produce trash, our culture is trash, our post-industrial society is trash, the third world rivers filled with trash, we all act trashy, the micro-plastics are everywhere, they are in our veins, in our food, in our water, right now they are lowering your T levels….or something like that.
Installation art gets a bad rap (and a lot of the times, for good reason) as being anti-art, or art for cathedral ideologues, art for people “who cannot actually do art” etc. And despite this, you manage to find some real gems that are filled with meaning, that are “activist” still, but in all the right ways. Not some stale ans lazy activism present in any of the bloviated walking contemporary art-term dictionaries that are routinely handed the Turner prize (this year, not a single painter got nominated). Sometimes installation art serves a purpose, while being highly beautiful in the aesthetic sense, even if that aesthetic beauty fills a whole room, and is an actual feat of intellectual and artistic creation. This is what led me to profiling the Magnum Opus of Toronto-based Eco-minded artist Aurora Robson.
The installation consists of 15 thousand articles of plastic bottles and other bits of detritus found by Robson skimming various dump sites, washed, carved, then pieces together in translucent tunnels, complete with dozens of spinning and LED-lite spindles and hangers that adorn the gallery room. The living landscape is mostly flesh tone and vibrant warm tons in color, creating relief spots, intricate rooms and passages, like an inner landscape of carefully crafted organs.
Robson was inspired by looking at microscopic medical slides of the human body, geological maps, core samples etc. Thus the installation is a landscape of deterritorialized human anatomy, mimicking and converging with the passage ways found in nature, all coming together in a weirdly surreal and fantasist entity of a larger scale. The piece is fundamentally about reflecting on the reciprocity between humanity and nature, but mediated by a “found art” display of materials that have the most all too human impact on th environment: plastic trash that does not even begin to degrade for thousands of years.
As Robson herself states (in a short intro video to the exhibit i highly recommend watching), the larger body of her work and the materials she uses is about taking a very ugly, ghastly and shameful reality, and turning it into something quite aesthetically pleasing, but also sites of contemplation and reflection on the actions of humanity. This is not the usual ode or obsessive contemplation and navel gazing on the almighty “BODY” so often found in contemporary art. This is not the narcissistic need to expound upon “BODIES” as if they are reified objects. In the Great indoors, this is the body without context, the micro-body, (without organs perhaps?) the body blown upon into its most intimate spaces. The body of nature and the body of man, mediated by materials that, in its production, consumption, and careless disposal, will corrode and possibly doom both bodies to a bleak future at the same time.
Robson’s work shows that, despite being “non-traditional” art, installation pieces can be functional, aesthetic, and serve a higher purpose other than just a bunch of publicly funded eyesores (as Andy Rooney once said on 60 minutes). The ecological crisis on the Anthropocene is a tricky subject to address, we as humans are too arrogant to admit that there are vast unknowns in terms of the chaos we are inflicting upon the body of nature, but art must go in these directions, and show us connections that are, historically speaking, quite ahead of other fields of human inquiry. While science and philosophy struggles to catch up, art often struggles to slow its pace with them. Of course this display goes into the usual categories of Eco-philosohpy and aesthetics, post-humanism and environmentalism, etc.
to quote Timothy Morton in his book “Ecological thought”:
“We can get a sense of it, to be sure, though it will upgrade our ideas of “real” and “thing” to boot. Ecology shows us that all beings are connected. The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness. The ecological thought is a thought about ecology, but it’s also a thinking that is ecological. Thinking the ecological thought is part of an ecological project”.
we must get into a mindset that is one with the ecological, thinking-ecology, like thinking-the sacred itself, without boundaries or categories. Art places us within this Eco-spiritual-aesthetic thinking, and thus is more valuable then the very weighty tomes of both science and philosophy.
Photo from the Rice Gallery, 2008.