As a curator and writer who has had the great good fortune to work on many Wellcome Collection exhibitions, I began with the intention of choosing three objects from amongst their own collections for my “history of the Anthropocene” post. However, it quickly dawned on me that, over the last few years, my increasingly insistent preoccupation and engagement with environmental questions has primarily been inspired by contemporary art. Moreover, since I feel strongly that contemporary art has the power to shine a light on and prompt reflection about such questions, it seemed like the most meaningful choice.
I have therefore chosen to share three artists’ works that have had a particularly powerful impact on me and on my professional preoccupations.
Out of Deep Time …
For the ‘Past Anthropocene’ I would like to introduce a work by Anaïs Tondeur. Anaïs is a French artist, based in Paris, who creates seductive and compelling works that combine fact and fiction in poignant, often unsettling, ways. Her piece I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest, traces the epic, imaginary journey of a specimen in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology collection. The specimen is a calcified bladder stone, which contained the core of a pencil.
Through a series of exquisite impressionistic drawings, also rendered in pencil, Tondeur depicts the journey of this specimen, beginning with the formation of graphite in a carboniferous Alpine forest 320 million years ago, through the vein of graphite formed ca. 100 million years later, which led to the French mine from which it was extracted around 1910. From here the journey continues to the remnants of the Plombagine factory, where graphite was transformed into powder, and thence to the Conté pencil factory. The final stage of the journey is the Sennelier art supply shop in Paris, where according to documents in the shop archive, an English journalist was a customer. And here we come full circle: as Tondeur’s narrative goes, some months later his daughter swallowed a pencil.
I:55 has stayed with me ever since I first saw it. To me, it beautifully captures both the deep time of nature and the relative pinprick of human existence, whilst also tracing how we through history have sought to exploit the natural bounties offered to us by the earth.
Through our sweet overload …
Around the same time that I encountered Anais’s work I also discovered the art of Ken and Julia Yonetani, an Australian artist duo whose work is powerfully engaged with the detrimental impact of human behaviour on our natural environment. Their sculptural work Sweet Barrier Reef alludes to the bleaching of corals, which eventually leads to coral death.
Making their sculpture out of sugar, the Yonetanis highlight the fact that one key cause of the bleaching is the harvesting of sugar cane. However the work is more layered than that: sugar is also used metaphorically to indicate humanity’s insatiable greed for consumption and the destruction that it entails.
Into immense entropies
Finally, for my “Future Anthropocene” object I have chosen a photographic series by the artist Julian Charrière, whose work I sought out last year when he exhibited at Parasol Unit in London. The Blue Fossil Entropic stories documents an artistic intervention that Charrière undertook in 2013, when he stood on an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean armed with a blowtorch, attempting to melt the ice beneath his feet.
For me this absurdist intervention succeeds in summing up the future of our relationship with nature: on the one hand we are but a blip in geological time, destined to be outpowered by nature whose majesty and preeminence we can never subdue; on the other, our assaults on nature will over time cause immense and irreversible destruction that will injure ourselves as much as our habitat.
The impact of these artists’ work prompted me to write three online pieces – linked to below.
Find out more
You can see Anaïs Tondeur’s I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest (2012) and other works at her website – and Ruth’s 2014 article on Anaïs’ work for Apollo Magazine, Lost in Fathoms: Anaïs Tondeur:
‘Anaïs Tondeur is an artist who delights in expeditions. Whether tracing the wildlife burgeoning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant (Chernobyl’s Herbarium, 2011), or following the migration of a graphite pencil from its geological origins to its unlikely terminus in the bladder of a 17-year-old girl (I.55, 2013), her journeys conjure intriguing narratives that are in turn poetic, poignant, and scientifically compelling. Her installations have delved into history, geography, and an array of scientific disciplines (physics, geology, oceanography), but at the heart of each is a captivating story that engages the most human of emotions.’
You can see Ken and Julia Yonetani’s Sweet Barrier Reef (2009) and other works at their website – and Ruth’s 2011 post, Sense of Taste: a delicious solo exhibition at GV Art, on her blog, Words. Pictures. Objects:
‘Maybe a … suitable cultural analogy would be Hansel and Gretel standing before the Gingerbread House. As in the Grimm fairytale, these works are delectably tempting to the senses – sight and touch as well as taste – but they also explore serious subtexts fraught with danger and ultimately, death. The danger explored by these works are environmental, the unhappy consequences of our endlessly insatiate consumption-lead society, so it is therefore utterly appropriate that one’s sense of taste is so aroused.’
And you can see Julian Charriere’s Blue Fossil Entropic Stories (2013) at his website – and Ruth’s 2016 article for Apollo Magazine, Smart art that will make you reconsider your smartphone:
The relationship between art and science, ‘The Two Cultures’ once lamented by Charles Percy Snow as mutually uncomprehending fields divided by an unbridgeable gap, seems more robust than ever. Artists’ residencies in scientific institutions, such as those established five years ago at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), are proliferating … That artists engage with scientific themes can be of little surprise at a time when rapidly evolving digital technologies, scientific breakthroughs and the Earth’s ecological fragilities are critical to our lives. Art can be a rich and fertile means for people to engage with such challenging subjects, harnessing emotional sensibilities where explanations on a purely intellectual level may fail.’
You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Ruth’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures later this month.