by Ann C. Collins
April 9, 2018
We are an invasive species. We spread into ecosystems not native to us and prioritize our ever-expanding desires above all else, refashioning the Earth and its atmosphere, our wild and paradisiac home, into a human pleasure-dome. We disregard the survival of any species but our own and those we choose to cultivate, carelessly throwing the planet out of balance. The future looks gloomy for humans and the beings affected by us. Yet within the mess we have created, there remain outliers: thinkers and dreamers who see new possibilities.
See Yourself E(x)ist, recently on view at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, brings together some ten artists whose works foretell a time in which human beings engineer new ways of engaging with a rapidly disappearing natural world. Organized by guest curator Madeline Schwartzman, the show jumps past attempts to preserve a planet already lost, and instead predicts fragile and tenuous links between creativity, technology, and the planet’s remaining inhabitants. Schwartzman’s gathering of works was inspired by her recent book See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded (Black Dog Publishing, 2018) an assemblage of futuristic images of the human form found at intersections of scientific and art practices.
The show begins with several collections of biomimetic garments which rethink limitations of the body. Dorry Hsu’s Aesthetic of Fears (2013–2014) features a gummy pair of resin fly-eye goggles, meant to transform the human face into an insect hybrid. Lanzavecchia + Wai have created Metamorfosi Vegetali (2014/2017), two sets of cobalt blue finger prosthetics intended to blur the distinction between flora and fauna. One promises a human photosynthetic experience through leafy cups placed over each finger, while the other offers root-like extensions that can be plunged into the ground, allowing the wearer to suck up water and nutrients. In Cyclops (2002), Jaime Pitarch presents a nerdy eyeglass composed of a thick single lens, which poses the unanswered question, who will wear this?
On a tabletop of unfinished wood, five common objects from the design team Fantich & Young’s Darwinian Voodoo series (2010–2016) have sprouted fangs. A basketball and a large egg, their surfaces entirely studded with teeth, lie beside a tote bag made from pelvic bones, human hair and dentures. A toddler-sized pair of red Maryjane shoes and a man’s oxford are soled with ivory molars. There is an elegance to the whiteness of the things, and yet they elicit disturbing thoughts of mutilation and grave-robbing.
Two works by Allan Wexler engage in the unpredictability of tree growth, the bend and sway of trunks and the splitting off of branches, and how such natural unfoldings are often met with a desire to correct, to impose our own naïve sense of order. In Reframing Nature (2015–2015), Wexler leans young saplings against a wall, slices into them, and inserts wooden wedges at strategic points in order to correct their curvature. Before and after photos show the original crooked trunk and its straightened transformation, the reality of the organic meeting the conceptual world of mathematical precision. Wexler’s sense of order continues in Adam’sHouse inParadise (2014), in which precisely cut triangles of thick paper span the space between the fingers of a twisty branch, creating walls where there was once openness. Evidence of a craftsman working with his hands imbues the work with earnestness; this is not abstract thought reproaching the natural forms, but a dialogue between species.
Beyond the trees, Michael Candy constructs four mechanical robots in Actias Luna (2010–2015), each representing a developmental phase of the Luna moth, whose life expectancy is only one week. Segments of brass and titanium wiggle like larvae, and sparkly green paper wings flap at the touch of a button. Like a steam punk wind-up toy, the piece is a nostalgic homage to the moth and to the brevity of all life—one can imagine it hanging in a nursery, a kinetic narrative meant to delight as it informs. Whimsy meets science again in Kathryn Fleming’s Ursa-Hibernation Station (2017), which consists of a wooden cart in which a small bear—about the size of a dachshund—sleeps in a Lucite-domed incubator. In Fleming’s tomorrow, cherished but obsolete species such as the bear will be bred to convenient sizes, brought into the home, and observed and studied. The ultimate Winnie-the-Pooh, the bear is scaled down and neatly contained.
Bumps of red babushkas and yellow skirts clump together in an alarming configuration in Chernobyl (2009). Jaime Pitarch reimagines a set of matryoshka dolls as a single polymorphous figure who continuously sprouts new heads and torsos. The roly-poly mutant recalls the Chernobyl disaster and the spectral presence of nuclear contamination in ongoing generations.
Elsewhere in the gallery, video screens discreetly play the projected unfolding of time. For Lorenzo Oggioano, that is best expressed in Quasi-Objects, Cinematic Environment #2 (2013), a single-channel video in which shapes and colors reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (1968) shift and merge in a heightened kaleidoscope of space-age aesthetics. Nobumichi Asai (Connected Colors, 2016) and Lee Griggs’s (Abstract Portraits, 2015–2018) also borrow from cinema, presenting portraits of the human face masked with color or odd growths that evoke hair-and-make-up screen tests for horror movies.
Documentary filmmaker Allen Berliner makes a surprise appearance with Disappearing Ink (2017), an early iteration of his current work-in-progress. Slow dissolves between photographs clipped from news sources make for eerie overlaps, as one picture melts into another. The piece diverges from the futuristic-design theme of the show, yet its meditative pace and dense accumulation of contemporary images foreshadows a moment when today’s headlines melt into tomorrow’s memory.
The largest work in the show is Schwartzman’s installation, Replantment(2017), made in collaboration with Andrew Quitmeyer. A small table lit by a gooseneck lamp holds a rotating card carriage, the type once used in dry cleaning stores. Viewers are invited to select a paper dry-cleaning ticket on which the silhouette of a leaf has been stamped. Holding the ticket, the viewer walks between two antique dry-cleaner carousels. A sensor on the back of the ticket activates the carousels to light up and spin, but instead of clean garments, the racks display silicon molds of leaves collected from around the globe. Agency in the photosynthetic process is implied, as such essential events fall under the control of human whim, but like many of the show’s works, the piece is tinged with nostalgia. Schwartzman and Quitmeyer harvested their materials from an old dry cleaning plant in Connecticut, and the midcentury machinery recalls the years when Post-War America eagerly looked to a future in which modern conveniences and the onward march of technology would usher in an age of leisure and abundance.
The survey of work sparks the imagination, successfully finding a cohesiveness of theme and aesthetics. The look of things to come resembles Ikea more than Sharper Image, and within those clean lines and earnest functionality lies a certain joy, a happiness of being, a celebration of the points at which we meet the world around us. Facing an uncertain future for this planet and all who occupy it, the common element offered here is hope; a belief that the human species will do what it does best, adapt.
See Yourself E(x)ist
Pratt Manhattan Gallery
December 7, 2017–February 17, 2018