This Stunning Contemporary Art Captures Terror, Wonder and Wit in the Anthropocene

Smithsonian art historian Joanna Marsh selects nine works that tell stories about life in the age of humans

Oil Spill #10 Oil Slick at Rip Tide
Edward Burtynsky, Oil Spill #10 Oil Slick at Rip Tide, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010, chromogenic print Burtynsky Studio

In the last few years, scientists have suggested that Earth has entered a new geologic era, an age when human activity—climate change, deforestation, urbanization—is altering the planet. Artists too have been considering this new phase. In sculpture, photographs, paintings and installations, they’ve been responding to the idea that people, not natural processes, now primarily determine our environment.

“There are many artists thinking crucially about our human impact on the environment, which is what the Anthropocene is all about,” notes Joanna Marsh, the senior curator of contemporary interpretation at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. “They are responding to a much more heightened attention to biodiversity loss and the physical transformation of our landscape. It’s one trend in contemporary art. It’s reflective of a larger rise in environmental consciousness at all levels of life.”

Marsh herself has organized two major Smithsonian exhibitions on environmental themes. In 2014, she curated “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art.” The show’s inspiration was the centennial of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Earlier, in 2010, Marsh presented “A Fable for Tomorrow,” 47 paintings and works on paper about natural history subjects created by Alexis Rockman. The title of the show represents a quote from Rachel Carson’s pioneering book, Silent Spring.

With this heightened ecological awareness in mind, we asked Marsh to find interesting works representing this new marriage of art, science and environmentalism. Mostly she looked for examples from the American Art Museum’s collection. However, she also “added a couple of gallery pieces because I wanted to show a slightly greater breadth. These are from important artists not yet represented in our collection, but their work is highly relevant to this topic.”

We spoke to Marsh and a few of the artists about the selections:

Devastating Beauty

Robert Longo
Untitled (Hercules), 2008
charcoal on paper, 96 x 70 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Marsh: The first piece I chose was the Robert Longo drawing. I was thinking about the current scholarship on the Anthropocene and the debate about the specific start date of this new era. Was it at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or the beginning of the nuclear age? There is a group of scientists who believe that the nuclear age should be the start of the Anthropocene. I was trying to acknowledge that this is one way of thinking. It continues to be debated. The work depicts the first Chinese hydrogen bomb test in 1967.  “Hercules” is the translation of the code name for that bomb.

The drawing is a part of a larger body of work in which Longo used archival photographs of nuclear explosions as the basis for his work. Each image shows a single mushroom cloud rising above the horizon.

For many people, it also looks like a tornado or some sort of dramatic weather event. The artist has described that the inspiration for the series came from showing his children images of a nuclear explosion and his children thought it was some kind of weather effect. They hadn’t been exposed to the image because there hasn’t been nuclear testing in their lifetime.

It’s a difficult image, but one of crucial historical significance. That something so devastating could be depicted with such beauty makes it all the more complicated and disturbing.

A Prophetic Vision

Alexis Rockman
Manifest Destiny, 2004
Oil and acrylic on wood, overall: 96 x 288 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
© 2004, Alexis Rockman

Marsh: This work, Manifest Destiny, is an apocalyptic vision of the Brooklyn waterfront several hundred years into the future, after climate change has transformed the landscape. It’s a scene of decay and renewal. While you don’t see human life depicted, you do see flora and fauna of all kinds, which confirms that life persists. This painting has particular significance in Rockman’s career because it’s his first work to directly confront the climate crisis and its toll. The painting is on view now at the museum.

The public is fascinated by this fiery-looking dawn over a devastated New York. The Brooklyn Bridge in a state of ruin. I think part of the fascination stems from the artist’s synthesis of fact and fiction. It’s a fantasy, but also potentially a prophetic vision. Also, the painting is 24 feet long and audiences are often in awe of its scale, its visual impact and its environmental message.  

Rockman: I meant it [the title of the painting] somewhat bitterly and ironically. It’s about this smug delusion within America’s perception of itself. Some of that’s changing. I felt that the public and the political apparatus here and abroad was not taking the gravity of climate change seriously.

Before starting it, I consulted with many scientists including James Hansen, the NASA climatologist. I came to him with a scenario: “Tell me candidly what the possibilities are of sea level rise,” I asked.  He proposed a number of scenarios. 

The piece is about me understanding and coping with what I know. It’s a coping mechanism. If you can see it, there’s a perception of somehow being able to negotiate it—no matter how terrible it is.

A Thirst for Resources

Edward Burtynsky
Oil Fields #2 Belridge, California, USA, 2003
chromogenic print

Marsh: The oil field image, in many ways, I find reminiscent of Alexis Rockman’s work. It’s almost otherworldly. And yet, when you think about it, what is being extracted from the Earth is central to our modern society. The piece is a commentary on our use and abuse of Earth’s resources.

The image of this stark, desolated landscape may also be a comment that our thirst for resources is something that most of us take completely for granted until those resources are exhausted. 

An Overreach Situation

Edward Burtynsky
Oil Spill #10 Oil Slick at Rip Tide, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
chromogenic print

Marsh: This second piece is from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Burtynsky traveled to the site and photographed the scene from a helicopter and a seaplane. Many of Burtynsky’s more recent photographs use this aerial perspective and reflect a stylistic shift for the artist.

The Deepwater Horizon images also have a more documentary, journalistic feel. The artist acknowledges this shift by dating each of the images with the specific day it was shot.

Burtynsky: Normally, I don’t go and pursue what would be considered a disaster. I’m not a disaster chaser. When the BP spill happened, I was creating a book on oil and the landscapes oil comes from.

This was shot with a medium format high-resolution digital camera from the air. It was taken three weeks into the disaster. I was in a Cessna. Just outside of New Orleans, there was a small airport. There was a company that normally flew fisherman out into the Gulf. Since their business was ruined, they were happy to fly photographers over the site. Everybody knew where it was. They referred it to as ground zero. It was about an hour and ten minutes off shore.

There’s a kind of iridescent green to the water. That water isn’t supposed to be that green. We’re near the mouth of the Mississippi. There’s already a problem right there with fertilizer and nitrates from the country’s farmlands creating algae blooms. The oil is on top of that, and it’s not supposed to be there. It was pretty terrifying to see. This is where humans are not able to control the impact they are having on the ecosystem. Drilling into the deepest seabed, it was overreach and not understanding the whole risk.

If you look at all the bodies of work I’ve done, it’s often about overreach. We’re the runaway species, the top predator. I’m pointing out that we’re in an overreach situation and we’re throwing the balance of nature out of scale. We’re changing nature on a scale that we’ve never done before.

The Finality of Extinction

Laurel Roth Hope
Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Passenger Pigeon, 2008
crocheted yarn, hand-carved pigeon mannequin, and walnut stand, 17 x 8 x 9 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

Marsh: This was one of several pieces included in the “Singing and the Silence” show that I curated in 2014. The sculpture is part of a series that focuses on extinct or endangered birds. The artist hand-carves mannequins in the form of typical urban pigeons and then makes “suits” for them. Each suit or sweater is hand-crocheted by the artist. In this instance, the outfit simulates the plumage of the passenger pigeon. All her suits mimic the plumage of extinct or endangered birds—the Carolina parakeet, the dodo, the paradise parrot, to name a few.

What I love about these—as well as the humor and the charm—is that they force us to confront the futility of actually trying to recover these lost species. So she’s taken a very serious subject and found a way, with wit and intelligence, to speak to a broad audience about extinction.

Roth Hope: In this series, I made a dozen different extinct birds. All of them are extinct in relation to human activities. I want to play with a couple of different things. This was a comment about what we value. It was about our reactions to animals that cannot adapt to us. So passenger pigeons went extinct at the beginning of American urbanization. Part of what did them in was the cutting down of the forests. There were so many different things that led to their extinction. We weren’t ready to do anything at that point to change our behavior.

In this piece, I made something that people put on things to make them look better. Crocheting, it has traditionally been used for comfort and beauty. It’s also mathematically based, so it works well with the patterning of feathers. It was like, “make a suit and so that a common street pigeon can dress up as an extinct passenger pigeon.” Thinking about a passenger pigeon is heart breaking, and a common street pigeon, people hate them. Actually, I’m impressed by them and how they adapt to us.

Alternative Energy

Mitch Epstein
Century Wind Project, Blairsburg, Iowa, from the series American Power, 2008
chromogenic print, 45 x 58 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment

Marsh: The photograph is of the Century Wind Project in Iowa. I love the image of these massive rotating blades that are redefining the familiar horizon of the heartland of America. This image depicts a very small Iowa town—my understanding is that there is a wind turbine there for every other person. 

This is part of a large body of work that Epstein executed between the years 2003 and 2008, "American Power," from when he traveled across the country to photograph energy-related sites. Though he didn’t start out with a political agenda, it became a very powerful environmental critique. 

The project as a whole presents a range of energy sources. Here, the idea of the transformation of the landscape comes up. You don’t expect to see windmills in the middle of Iowa. This in itself reflects a completely changed attitude about what the American landscape looks like. The unfamiliar, in the hands of the artist, becomes something beautiful.

Sustaining Wildness

Joann Brennan
Mallard Egg Research Testing Potential Chemical Contraceptives Designed to Manage Overabundant Canada Goose Populations. National Wildlife Research Center. Fort Collins, Colorado, 2000
chromogenic print, 20 x 24 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase made possible by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice

Marsh: This piece is in the museum’s collection. For the last 20 years, Joann Brennan has been creating a body of work she calls “Managing Eden.” Here is just one photograph from the series. Brennan’s work explores how we sustain wildness in a human world by focusing on the integral role that humans now play in preserving the environment. We’ve had such a transformative effect on the environment that we must continue to intervene in order to maintain wildness around us. Brennan’s photographs capture these moments of contact between humans and animals, many of which have a profound sense of intimacy.

In this photograph, Brennan shows scientists in the field attempting to control the population of Canada geese, because in suburban areas, they’ve become a potential threat to public health. Here, Brennan is thinking about the delicate balance between human needs and avian populations.

The power of this photograph comes from the tension between the simplicity of the image and the complexity of the problem.

Human Imprint

Mark Dion
New Bedford Cabinet, 2001
Hand built cabinets with ash finish, 4 glass topped drawers, 2 glass doors with locks and 3 lower cabinet door finds from New Bedford Dig, 104 x 74 x 19 inches

Marsh: With this selection, I went outside of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. These cabinets are designed by the artist Mark Dion. When you look at the items included in the cabinet, it makes the viewer query, “Why is this art?” 

That’s what he’s playing with.

The items are taken from pseudo-archeological digs. The site has no historical significance, deliberately.  He excavates it with the techniques that a real archaeologist would use. The items he finds range in type and time period—old bottle caps or glass bottles. The old idea of classifying archeological objects as a museum might, is reversed. Dion takes items that have no historic value and turns the idea of exhibiting only the rarest or best crafted or well-preserved objects on its head. 

Mark Dion is trying to reanimate everyday objects and to create an, unconventional picture of our human history. But these digs are not just about uncovering objects that have been left behind, they encourage viewers to recognize their place within the juggernaut of global capitalism and mass consumption. In a subversive way, he’s pointing to the human imprint on our environment.

Mass Consumption

Chris Jordan
Cell phones #2, Atlanta from "Intolerable Beauty" series, 2005
Chromogenic print, 44 x 90 in

Marsh: I think of it as a swirling sea of cell phones. The photograph is from a series called “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption,” in which the artist gives visual form to the statistical realities of how much detritus humans produce. In more recent projects, Jordan has looked more globally for images of mass consumption around the world. One of the things I like about this particular image is that it begins as an abstraction when you’re standing back from it, but as you approach, the individual cell phones come into focus. Then you begin to comprehend the enormity of what you’re actually looking at.

It’s hard for most people to visualize the amount of waste that is produced and its impact on the environment. To create the cell phone piece, Jordan visited recycling centers and photographed the mountains of accumulated waste. 

Jordan's other well-known project focuses on Midway Island in the Pacific, where tons and tons of plastic washes up on the shore. He’s become an activist on that subject. What Jordan has done is to find and dissect dead birds and create devastating images of the plastics they have ingested. He sees these photographs as a way of adding to our collective awareness of the severity of the ecological issues we face.

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