The Age of Humans The Age of Humans

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

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.


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