Parallel to the awareness that the ecological crisis will call into question the very existence of life on earth, be it human or non-human, there has crystallized the recognition that the unfolding environmental disaster is mediated largely by the overarching social and political structures of the ‘Global North’. Recent analyses have succeeded in identifying some of those behind the Anthropocene, such as colonialist attitudes toward the environment or capitalism that exploits natural phenomena, as well as the labour of socio-economically and politically underprivileged people as an infinite and cheap resource1. However, the identification of these systemic issues has also given the environmental crisis a new face: that of incomprehensibility, and a general sense of something that cannot be fully grasped. Current ecological issues, as well as the social and political structures that seem to mediate them, may be characterised by the term hyperobject, described by Timothy Morton as follows: “(…) I coined the term hyperobjects to refer to things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. (…) A hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism. Hyperobjects, then, are ‘hyper’ in relation to some other entity, whether they are directly manufactured by humans or not. (…) They are viscous, which means that they ‘stick’ to beings that are involved with them.” According to Morton, humans can never fully comprehend hyperobjects2.
The aim of To see our common/place is to attempt to defy the implausibility of the environmental crisis by dissecting its dominant socio-political structures through the lens of local and personal experience, and thus ask if it is possible to overturn its characterisation as hyperobject. As we are embedded in abstract, global power structures, it is the personal, local, and banal construction of everyday life that may constitute the only means by which the individual can connect to wider systems. To see our common/place aims to reclaim an awareness of our own political voice and our personal agency in the shaping of our societies and the environment. While it does not deny that positive change on a global scale will come in the form of structural change, it reflects on the ways in which individuals may become aware of the existing socio-political systems, so that it is possible to transform or dismantle them. The exhibition also seeks ways to step out of the dominant framework of these oppressive structures, in order to grapple with the seemingly ungraspable nature of the environmental crisis and encourage us to look for solutions that may contribute to the global picture. Only by dissecting the crisis can we step out of the ecological paralysis, foster a discussion around it, and hopefully, rise above it in the near future.
Gustavo Balbela’s project entitled Letters to Ultramarine reflects on the way in which processes of colonisation and self-colonisation manifest in suburban Brazil. The series in the project that depicts the Statue of Liberty conveys the urge to conform to an idealised, albeit empty image of Americanness, while giving up on a sense of local identity during the process. The figure of the American landmark is a decoration of a department store in Brazil that imitates the outer façade of the White House and is owned by a far right-wing billionaire. In fact, this self-colonising procedure of locality deprives both signifier and signified from meaning. On the one hand, the culturally loaded American symbols lose their historic significance when used as indications of a capitalist venture in a Brazilian context. On the other hand, the Brazilian cultural landscape loses its own identity by imposing foreign landmarks on itself. A similar denial of local identity is present in another part of the project titled Bem-te-ví, albeit from the perspective of local fauna and flora. In these images, there is a contrast of identity between the non-native banana tree species and the bird that is native to the country. The bird that has always belonged to Brazil appears to be a distraction in an otherwise perfectly composed picture frame, thus underpinning a discrepancy between how locality is perceived and how it may be subjected to arbitrary anthropogenic constructions. The photographs in Letters to Ultramarine are devoid of human presence, hence underlining the alienation that permeates the artificially constructed, self-colonised identity of the suburban environment.
Exploitation founded on cultural hierarchies is also present in Johanna Karjalainen’s work, but her work examines this subject through an assessment of interspecies relationship between human and non-human animals. Nothing but Disappointing prompts the viewer to reflect on the social conditioning of our perception of animals by using archival footage of zoos and images taken by a trail camera in northern Finland in 2020. The experience of gazing at other-than-human animals in zoos evokes a strong element of objectification, whereby the animal becomes a mere exhibit to look at, subordinated to human sight. By including shots taken by the trail camera in 2020 and only using archival materials when it comes to zoos, Johanna’s project may suggest that humans already own enough images of animals living in cages, deprived of their freedom. While the everyday experience of going to a zoo and looking at non-human animals in artificially constructed environments has long been normalised, the project may suggest that it is time to acknowledge non-human beings’ natural habitats and their respective gaze. In the series, the presence of the animal gaze is underpinned by the fact that once an animal stares into the trail camera, his or her eyes light up in the darkness. Neel Ahuja notes in his article entitled Postcolonial Critique in a Multispecies World that by accepting the gaze of the animal, not only can we address their proper representation, but we can also reassess the visual arts as a multispecies realm3. By acknowledging the freedom of animals in the forest, the project urges us to rethink the social framing of other species, the visual exploitation of non-human beings and the anthropocentric hierarchies that inform them.
Don’t Speak Loudly – It’s Harmful for Butterflies by Indrė Urbonaitė examines the exploitation of nature for profit and the objectification of the natural landscape as an everyday pursuit. Her work considers tourism as a consumerist activity, whereby nature is exploited both for profit and pleasure. The video installation follows a narrative where the viewer is taken on an imaginary journey along a trail. The narrative is constructed by using negative reviews from TripAdvisor, thus turning the idea of obsessive consumption into the subject of mere mockery. Furthermore, Indrė’s work may also be considered a statement about the idea of tourism as an activity that is obsessively concerned with the exoticisation and socially idealised representation of landscapes. Although marketed as a means to relax and unwind, travel and tourism have instead, ironically, become sources of disappointment and frustration. This element of frustration in the video work is also underpinned by the continuity of the narrative, which provides an underlying tension throughout the installation. Indre’s project prompts the viewer to reconsider the human-nature hierarchy promoted mainly by Western culture, by a re-examination of our tendencies of objectification and consumerist attitudes to the landscapes that surround us.
The omnipresence of power and the Global North’s need to dominate its environment is what underpins Shelli Weiler’s images from her False Spring series. The selected works reflect on the manifold ways in which anthropogenic intervention and artificial constructions of landscape disrupt regenerative cycles, as well as harmonious coexistence between humans and non-humans. Hutch Pole towers over its surroundings, thus exerting an overwhelming dominance over its environment, while failing at its artificial, human-made performance to take on the appearance of an actual tree. In a similar vein, failure, dominance and a complete disregard for the specificities of the environment is what permeates Tree Cast, an image that commemorates the failures of environmental engineering in Japan. According to Shelli’s research, the Japan Forestry Agency has destroyed almost half of the country’s native broadleaf forests and replaced the trees with commercial timber. The soil in which the Japanese cedar was planted could not accommodate the needs of the species, and when the tree started to disintegrate, a cast was put around it to hide its appearance. As the artist notes, ‘This attempt at environmental engineering to substitute unprofitable trees has failed socially, monetarily, and ecologically. Firstly, the domestic cedar monoculture has been surpassed by imports of cheaper timber from Southeast Asia, making the destruction of Japan’s own natural forestry for naught. Secondly, the overabundance of a singular tree species has steadily decimated wildlife, eroded soil, diminished the water table, and increased the likelihood of landslides and droughts.’ Tree Cast may thus be a visual plea to the call that T.J. Demos expresses in Decolonizing Nature, by arguing for a need to ‘introduce biocentric integration of humans with their environment so that nature’s rights to exist will be acknowledged.’4 The tree in the image is the corpse of a once living entity destroyed by the obsession to control, construct and overpower, and the question arises whether the tree or its cast is the main subject of the picture.
Domonkos Varga’s Acts of Cassandra explores the realisation of dystopian futures in our present, by evoking actual moments and often suppressed emotions from everyday life, such as social anxiety or the feeling of isolation. Through the depiction of barren industrial landscapes, blank screens and bodily gestures and postures that evoke a strong sense of irritability and anxiety, Acts of Cassandra emphasises the effects of techno-optimism and increased automation of industries on society. In fact, it is not unusual in Western cultures to consider technology the saviour of humankind in the context of the ecological crisis. However, this attitude does not benefit all societies equally, and may contribute further to the existing inequities between the Global North and South, as well as the financially affluent and underprivileged. As Malm and Hornborg points out: ‘The affluence of high-tech modernity cannot possibly be universalized – become an asset of the species – because it is predicated on a global division of labour that is geared precisely to abysmal price and wage differences between populations. The density of distribution of technologies that are ultimately dependent on fossil fuels by and large coincides with that of purchasing power. These technologies are an index of capital accumulation, privileged resource consumption, and the displacement of both work and environmental loads.’5 Thus, it is ever important to ask who will benefit from technology’s dominance and what social inequalities it may further. In addition, Acts of Cassandra also asks what kind of emotions it will provoke in us and if its advancement does not proceed at the expense of more traditional forms of knowledge.
Through the work of the five artists, To see our common/place examines the possibilities to connect to the wider socio-political structures that influence the environmental emergency, by focussing on their omnipresence that permeates everyday banalities. While asking the viewer to consider the issues of colonisation, our social conditioning to accept arbitrary hierarchies, the Global North’s unquenchable thirst for profit at the expense of local environments, or the illusory nature of techno-optimism, the projects in the exhibition urge us to recognize the influence of globalised systems on our own life. Thus, they attempt to contribute to the process of their deconstruction and the envisaging of possible ways forward in the future.
For more on this argument, see A. Malm and A. Hornborg, ‘A geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative’, The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 1 No. 1 (2014), 62-69.
T.J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin, 2017).
J. W. Moore, ‘The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis’, The Journal of Peasant Studies (2017), 1-37.
T. Morton, Hyperobjects (Minneapolis and London, 2013), 1.
N. Ahuja, ‘Postcolonial Critique in a Multispecies World’, PMLA, Vol. 124 No. 2 (2009), 560.
T.J. Demos, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Berlin, 2016), 18.
Malm and Hornborg, ‘A geology of mankind?’, 64.
Born in 1994, Eszter Erdosi is an art historian from Budapest, Hungary. She holds a BA in History of Art and French from the University of Bristol, an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and will begin her doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh in autumn 2020. Her main focus of interest lies at the intersections of art and ecology, with a particular concern for the representation of non-human animals.
Eszter is drawn to theories of post-anthropocentrism, as well as to perspectives of climate justice and decolonisation in the context of art and the environment.