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UNNATURAL at Bass Museum

Hilja Keading, The Bonkers Devotional, 2007-2009. Four-channel HD video installation, sound 13:20 minutes. Cameraman: James Zucal. Courtesy of the artist.

UNNATURAL, the current exhibition at the Bass Museum is a richly visual examination of art and the natural environment through a variety of contrived or artificial devices meant to mirror the complex relationship human beings maintain with their natural environment. Although this is a particularly beautiful exhibition that is nicely lit (against a dark grey instead of white background), the work here intends to go beyond the usual sublime and beautiful responses to Nature.

Over the centuries, as Humans have developed a seeming dominance over Nature, we have allowed ourselves to imagine that Nature serves us, perhaps in a way that parallels the Earth-centric, and Euro-centric concepts that once seemed so obvious. However as the consequences of our misunderstanding and consequent mistreatment of Nature inevitably come into focus, we realize that Nature is not in fact a function of the Human Species; rather that we are, and always have been, a function of Nature.

Curated by Bass guest-curator Tami Katz Freiman, this exhibition’s artistic selection manages to live up to anyone’s expectations of a show that proffers awesome beauty and sublime power as fundamental in our response to Nature. It also manages to reflect the primordial, the apocalyptic, the cosmic, and the terrifying aspects that Nature can evoke in its most thoughtful and creative manifestation: we Humans.

The Press Release for the exhibit identifies: “…romantic, conceptual, poetic, sensual, and ecological conceptions of nature primarily through video and photography….which question conventional means and methods of representing the natural world…and thus reflect a cultivated, synthetic, manipulated, nature….” And of course, the thoughts begin to turn on themselves: the human response to Nature has, in all it s forms been one that is most convenient for our intellectual, cultural and social purposes. What we call ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ is entirely relative: synthetic material is derived from natural material after all; whether it s high fructose corn syrup, meth-amphetamyne, or nuclear waste: it’s really just a question of how much something has been manipulated by humans into something else conveniently or hideously derivative.

So this exhibition, which includes 25 artists form all over, offers a wide variety of responses and materials and media in the process. Blaine de Saint Croix’s maquette-like ruined swamp, suspended conveniently at table height seems to reflect the human-centered view of Nature best: at best a lab for our experimentation, convenience, and exploitation, at worst, our play thing.

Video and photography dominate the show, and the video of US artist Hilja Keading was the particularly absorbing. ‘BonkersDevotional’ is a 13-minute documentation of the slim, comely artist interacting with a 400 lb. brown bear in a bedroom. The video uses close ups and slow-mo camera work to help the viewer comprehend the inherent threat the bear poses. The artist’s struggle to appear un-afraid even though she is subtly on the verge of terror, contrasts sharply with the bear’s self-indulgent almost sybaritic mood of careless, almost sleepy interest in his human roomate. The tension in this simple situation is simultaneously comical, terrifying and transfixing; it’s references to human sexuality, vulnerability, intimacy, fear, and brutality are immediate and vivid reminders that we encounter ‘Nature‘ every time we encounter our own, or a fellow creature’s sexuality: that that s just how close up and personal our actual relation to ‘nature’ is no matter how much we try to paper over it.

Sigalit Landau DeadSee, 2005. Digital HD video, silent 11:39 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

In a rather more poetic video, by Israeli artist Sigalit Landau, we see a slowly unwinding string of watermelon in the Dead Sea, evoking the passage of time, the unwinding of Nature’s processes and purposes, the sense of complex order and inevitability that an understanding of Nature invariably confirms.

Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan Sperm Whale, 2009. Four-channel HD video installation, sound 216 1/2 x 521 5/8 x 194 7/8 inches. Courtesy of the artists. Thanks: The Petach Tikva Museum of Art, Israel; Nadav Smulian and the Israeli Fund for Video Art and Experimental Cinema.

Another stand-out: The giant sperm whale video, projected on a large projecting corner showing sync’d front and side views of the life-sized whale that creates the illusion that the giant creature is suspended in a huge tank before us. In fact, Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan, also Israeli, generated the scarred gracefully moving whale digitally: his image, projected in 3 carefully sync’d but independent sources, has no relation to an actual whale. So here the recognition that what you see might have no connection to reality, no matter how real it looks is central to a lot of highly technical expertise and labor.

Yehudit Sasportas, The Lightworkers, 2010. Two-channel HD video installation, sound 10 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv and Eigen + Art Leipzig / Berlin.

Another interesting video work is Yehudit Sasportas’ who’s full wall video of a swamp outside Hamburg Germany, erupts into sores of burning almost bubbling , glowing light; as if the earth is alive, or at least haunted, scarred by it’s history: the swamp is symbol of primordial memory that seems to contain secrets that refuse to disappear, of sins that are yet to be punished. In fact the Piece references German Holacaust atrocities of murdered Jews (the artist is again Israeli) as well as Israeli attempts to re forrest land seized from Palestinians by Israeli’s. Whether we bury them or not, our dead return to our earth, and this video evokes the sense of memory, of sanctity, of knowledge, that we project unto the natural landscape.

Gilad Ratman, The 588 Project, 2009. Two-channel HD video installation, sound, 8:11 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv.

Another video, this one a bit more humorous, if not without it’s own primordial and dark overtones, is Gilad Ratman’s 8-minute Piece on the mud bathers of Arkansas USA. Apparently people like to take off their clothes and cavort in mud pools there, breathing through plastic tubes so they can submerge themselves completely. It’s scatalogical and sensual, and really a superb example of the sheer variety of ways people respond viscerally to the earth, perhaps trying to re-connect with an Earth-mother.

Ori Gersht, Falling Bird, 2008. Digital HD film, sound 5:53 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Noga Gallery of Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv.

Ori Gersht’s video ‘Falling Bird’ seductively beautiful riff on the history of nature as a theme of art, uses a 16th century ‘Nature Morte’, (which means ‘Still Life’ in French), painting as the central device, is not without it s own dark references to decline, death and decomposition.

Samantha Salzinger, Untitled 1, 2011 inkjet print, 32 x 44 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Samantha Salzinger’s series of photos, purportedly of ‘Natural’ scenes that look weird and suspicious, are in fact dioramas made by hand by, the artist, out of all sorts of ‘non-natural’ material.

Samantha Salzinger, Rural South Dakota, 2008. Inkjet print, 40 x 50 inches. Collection of Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz, Fort Lauderdale.

Once again, contrived, man made renditions of nature; often as strange, beautiful and powerful as the real thing articulate the central issue of acute disconnect on a planet where the people making the most important decisions are nowadays completely removed from the sources of their food, the vagaries of climate, the intricate exchanges and cycles that maintain the fragile balances of Nature.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Dancing Figures. Oil on canvas. French, circa 1660.

Arguably, when one considers naturalist artists like Albert Bierstadt, or even Romantics like Constable or Claude Lorrain, the sublime and Arcadian tradition would seem to be intact: even when the work is at it s most artificial, it maintains that sense of awe and beauty, even if, some artists’ work like Salzinger, or Uri Shapira’s microscopic-looking creations seem almost mocking of the subject of Nature s beauty.

The more apocalyptic view of Nature like Sasportas’ swamp, or Hilja Keading’s encounter with the bear, mentioned above, hark back to artists like Winslow Homer (‘The Gulf Stream’) or John Stuart Curry (‘Tornado Over Kansas’). The more transcendent mystical response to Nature notably depicted by Turner or Van Gogh (‘Starry Night’).

Winsow Homer, The Gulf Stream. Oil on canvas. American, circa 1880.

John Stuart Curry, Tornado Over Kansas. Oil on canvas. American, circa 1900.

J.M.W. Turner, Heidelberg. Oil on canvas. English, circa 1846.

Whether we’ve learned anything about our relationship with Nature other than how to represent it in video and manipulated photography, is a much bigger question; one that the show rather more generally brings again to the fore, if it doesn’t actually answer it.

Man-made renditions of Nature are old: cave paintings of animals, idealized Japanese or English Gardens, both meant to mirror the complex asymmetry of Nature in cleaned-up form. But these forms used the actual trees and rocks of Nature. Now in the Age of the virtual, the simulacral, it’s less clear: using a patch of land next to nobleman’s house or a Buddhist Temple to construct a re-interpretation of nature seems harmless and potentially interesting. In the era of genetically modified food, ranch raised (and fecal-fed) seafood, cloud seeding and de-salinization of seawater, forestation projects, water reclamation, etc., should we expect artificial trees that simulate photosynthesis?

Everywhere we look, Humans are re-organizing the fundamental structure of the planet’s systems to manage it’s ever-expanding population; and experts claim that without these innovations, we can’t feed or provide water for the planet’s people.

So the inevitable human-centric treatment of Nature continues, even though many people fully recognize that we are not the masters of nature. And this exhibition surveys the relationship between humans and nature in its current variation, according to a wide variety of artists[.]

UNNATURAL at Bass Museum runs through November 4th.

This post was contributed by David Rohn.

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UNNATURAL at Bass Museum