Suzanne Anker & Frank Gillette: Strata
Curated by D.J. Hellerman and David Ross
On ViewEverson Museum of Art
February 9 – April 21, 2019
“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins David Wallace-Wells’s new book on climate change, tellingly titled The Uninhabitable Earth. So thoroughly have we now altered the planet, the author tells us, that even if we were to dramatically change our lives right now the future that awaits us is more devastating than we’ve imagined. But all is not lost. The good news, if we can call it that, is that we still have a choice—albeit one between, as Wallace-Wells puts it, “the merely grim and the apocalyptic.” For in our ignoble Anthropocene, leaving nature to right itself is no longer an option; we broke it, we own it, and now its fate lies in our hands. Can our species make the shift to become an agent of healing? And equally pressing for our field, is there a role for art in the gravity of our moment?
As part of a program celebrating its 50th anniversary, The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse has offered a powerful response to both questions with a show of two pioneering artists long engaged with the crisis. A married couple who’ve not collaborated until now, Suzanne Anker and Frank Gillette share a passion for nature that has been a propelling force in their careers since decades before the word “Anthropocene” even entered the public lexicon. While Anker’s work has been pivotal in the Bio Art movement, Gillette’s has its roots in early video, a medium in which he remains a seminal figure. For both, the interruption of nature by human culture has been an abiding theme. Crucially, however, neither artist succumbs to a moralizing didacticism. Replete with complexity and a fierce visceral beauty, their work is a testament to art’s power not just to move, but indeed to transform.
Sprawling across the museum’s second floor, the show is divided into three parts, with two rooms of Anker’s works, two of Gillette’s, and two corridor-like “bridges” featuring a collaborative series. Aside from some discreetly placed placards viewers can peruse if they wish, pedagogical text is conspicuously absent. Left on our own with the work, we can slip free of discursive thought altogether and settle into a slow, spacious, contemplative silence.
The show’s most salient tensions are palpable throughout. In each room, the lavish beauty of nature collides with, is encased by, or otherwise filters through a range of technological interventions. Monitors, projectors, and camera stands; slick arrays of custom-made vitrines; a persistent grid-like arrangement of series—all exude human reason and its impulse for order. With much of the work involving capture technologies, the lens itself becomes a thematic refrain. Hovering like a specter even in absentia, the mechanical eye might be a metaphor for our objectification of nature. It also invokes, and not incidentally, the eye of the viewer.
This implication of the spectator in the show’s conceptual scheme is established in the first two pieces we encounter. Made in 1973, Gillette’s Track / Trace is a pyramidal arrangement of monitors across which real-time footage of the gallery space cycles at various intervals. The piece rouses a growing sense of unease; what begins with the surprise of seeing oneself gives way to the recursive dizziness of watching oneself watching oneself watching oneself watching. A more indirect self-encounter awaits in Riverrun (2016 – 17), also Gillette’s, a haunting three-channel video projection with a drone-like soundtrack. Here, in a non-narrative progression randomized by an algorithm, slowly moving images of the natural world—a landscape devoid of human presence, tortoise shells and animal skulls set against deep black voids—are interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious mirror. Laden with symbolic references to the self and itself a kind of frame, the mirror renders ambiguous just what it is that’s being reflected back on nature.
From here Gillette’s work moves into darker terrain. Forming something of a mini-retrospective, the second room features a series from across the decades that are alternately mournful and foreboding and incandescent with rage. Ranging from small paintings and collages to Polaroid photographs and digital prints, the works are anchored in a sensibility in which dense layers of imagery seethe with semantic content. In some series, such as Post Apocalypse (2017 – 2018), references to the natural world collide with artifacts of human technology in riots of color redolent of destruction. In others, the mood is more contemplative and suggests a keen attunement to the rhythms of nature. (Perhaps most moving among these are several early Polaroid series, in which recorded changes to natural sites revisited over time form constellations that read as rich painterly abstractions.) Giving us a sense of the artist’s process, also on view are two vitrines containing a selection of objects Gillette references repeatedly: the vertebrae of an elephant, some sea sponges, the breast bone of a swan. Presiding over these is the dried carcass of a Limulus, the 400 million-year-old arthropod that serves as the artist’s avatar. Immersed in Gillette’s work, one gets a deeply felt sense of a life lived inside nature, and one for whom writing its threnody has been an artistic calling.
While death and destruction hold sway in Gillette’s work, Anker’s abounds in evocations of renewal. Suffused with a warm glow of fuschia, the first of her rooms teems with all manner of flora—both refigured through the lens of technology and, in one case, actual. The centerpiece of the space and the source of the exotic light, Astroculture (Eternal Return) (2015) is an array of stacked aluminum crates inside which a garden of live plants grows under artificial light. Inspired by methods used by NASA for growing food in space, the piece attests to the potential of “augmented nature”; here, the red and blue LEDs that create the sumptuous fuschia mimic natural light to stimulate photosynthesis. But even without knowing the science that inspired it, the piece moves with its presence alone; both lush and beautiful and eerie in its otherworldliness, it evokes a future in which the natural and the artificial are no longer fixed categories. In a similar vein, a towering image projected on the gallery’s wall shows a tank of artificially grown coral that Anker photographed in a research lab. Viscerally stirred by the beauty of the coral, we only slowly realize that the image is moving. Exquisite in its subtlety, the rhythmic sway of the plants suggests a pulse, eliciting questions about how we might define life in our genetically engineered future.
In Anker’s second room, several elegant series of sculptures further evince the prospect of technological regeneration. Here, large Plexiglas tables, shelves, and vitrines house collections of natural specimens altered, augmented, or otherwise rendered synthetic through various fabricating technologies. Surrounding one especially prodigious display, a mural-sized grid of richly saturated photographs presents a series of micro-landscapes Anker created inside Petri dishes. At once symbolic of human manipulation and growth, the dishes contain kaleidoscopic arrangements of found objects from dead insects and flower petals to scraps of fabric, a button, a rubber duck, or a string of beads. Strangely seamless in its eclecticism, Vanitas (in a Petri dish) (2014 –18) suggests a future in which, collage-like, biotechnology may remake our world. But even above Anker’s address to technology, what we come away with most from her work is a profound sense of biophilia: the innate impulse of living things to connect with all life. In a time when our estrangement from nature has made us agents of our own destruction, our recovery of that impulse may be a matter of our very survival.
In the show’s final series, Anker’s sanguinity about the future meets Gillette’s brooding pessimism in their first-ever collaborative project. Made to resemble blueprints, the eight works that make up Strata (2019) combine architectural diagrams of celebrated monuments with intricate renderings of cells, organisms, and geological features in densely layered compositions. Evoking the kind of imaginative design we’ll need for the future, the works are also a poignant encapsulation of where we stand today: in our relentless pursuit of mastery, the human animal has left its mark on every last bit of the earth. But seeing the Parthenon, the majestic cathedrals, and all the grand facades of the past, we’re reminded that that animal is also capable of great genius. The question, as always, is how we will choose to use it.
Whether we can achieve it, the shift in consciousness necessary for real change is sure to have a strong affective dimension. In this, shows like the Everson’s could prove pivotal in raising public consciousness. For if the singular value of art is its capacity to move people on levels of the psyche inaccessible to rational thought, it may be one of our most powerful means of effecting the transformation. At the very least, such shows might serve as spaces for bearing witness. With so many of the major museums at the mercy of the market, regional institutions in particular face a rare opportunity. Will we see more of them rise to the occasion? Either way, one can only hope that should we live to see another “cene,” we will have gained the wisdom—and earned the dignity—to call it something like the Biocene.