The Land Speaks - art in the Anthropocene

Catalogue text for Notes on the Anthropocene/Notes sobre l'Antropocè exhibition

We are here for only a short time, but nature endures. This is one of the basic realities that govern our lives, and our attachments to the more-than-human realm, by which I mean the land, landscape, animals, nature, the environment. Until very recently we thought the geological realms of our planet were almost immortal. Their apparent durability has given us security and meaning.

But most people are aware of a shift in this relationship taking place, in our lifetimes, even from day to day. Even as we live our ordinary lives, we watch with a mix of concern and dread at increasingly erratic and bizarre weather, a warming world, rising oceans, and a decline in the plants, animals and insects that once seemed so abundant. Increasingly, we are aware this change is not ‘natural’, and that we are the cause.

With this knowledge, we have entered into a new epoch, one governed not only of facts, but also by feeling. One name for this era is Anthropocene. The term is a recently coined word that brings together two elements derived from Greek: Anthropos, meaning human; and cene, era. This era has been defined as, variously, a geological epoch, an update of the Romantic sublime, a scientific reality, a political, economic and moral issue. In its purest sense the Anthropocene is a metaphor that refers to the fact that the impact of humankind on the planet is now visible in the geological record for all time, through our carbon emissions, chemical footprint, and the large-scale planetary changes human activity is inflicting on our home, such as the melting of glaciers and ice sheets.

It is a serious situation, to be sure. The artists in Notes on the Anthropocene interpret this sobering reality, giving us multiple and surprising perspectives on our relationship with nature and the more-than-human realm. But there is also an echo of another word within the term Anthropocene; the scenic rests within in the cene. The Anthroposcene is a visual dimension, and an enactment of the original (Greek) meaning of scene, skene, which originally meant a tree-covered stage. The scenic becomes a tree, just as the Anthroposcenic develops into a visual recognition of the change in the classical Greek order of things: men, nature, Gods. We are collectively placed a stage of a play that is infinite, eternal and dispersed, that perhaps only the Gods scan see.

Notes on the Anthropocene is a ground-breaking exhibition, as the first such group show of contemporary international artists to be held in the Art Gallery of Andorra. The seven artists confront the overarching reality of the Anthropocene with wit, vigour and poetry. Their diverse work spans installation, painting, photography and performance. It provokes and delights while reflecting on the urgency of our predicament. This is the first definitive exhibition on nature and the environment and artistic representations of this realm featuring artists based in or closely associated with Catalunya and Andorra. Both areas, one a region and the other a nation-state, are likely to feel the effects of climate change in particular across every aspect of life, human and animal. Their environments are fragile in the sense that they are temperature-sensitive. They share flora and fauna and are located in the same landmass, the Iberian Peninsula, but they may take distinct paths toward reckoning with the Anthropocene in the future. Through art, we explore those aesthetic and historical impulses, their similarities and divergences. But on these issues of nation and culture, this exhibition also does not seek to be definitive, rather to provoke reflections.

Although varied and distinct in their work, the seven artists whose work makes up this exhibition are united in their fascination for the land in its broadest sense. ‘Land art’ was one of the most significant conceptual art movements of the last fifty years in which the land is at once subject, material, and object, but with new interpretations and perspectives.

In the 1960s and 1970s, land art was a form of homage to the greater power of nature through large-scale transformations of the landscape by artists such as Joseph Beuys and Richard Long. Their work orbited concepts of the abstract, the ideal and the actual in an attempt to reconcile these elements by placing them literally in the land. Land art featured huge scalar works, often undertaken in remote places in the United States or Britain by Robert Smithson, Donald Judd, Richard Long, Walter de Maria, to name but a few. The artists often used natural materials – rocks, mud, salt, earth – as both material and artwork, dissolving the distinction between the two. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, a related mode of practice emerged, that of the technological, spectacular installations and performances of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Francis Alÿs, Edward Burtynsky and Olafur Eliasson.

But in the first decades of the 21st century, with a full-blown climate emergency accelerating, land art is being re-thought and re-positioned by our awareness of our destructive influence as a species. The human body’s effect on the landscape is undeniable, yet we cannot soften this impact, it seems, apart from ceasing to exist. Inserted into this painful paradox, performance negotiates the widening gap between the ephemeral and the eternal, the natural and the constructed, in provocative and ingenious ways.

For the artists in Notes on the Anthropocene, the material becomes the method. Rosa Galindo’s elegant and alluring paintings appear at first glance to be conventional representations of flowers, trees, water and fields. But on closer inspection they reveal themselves as having been constructed with textured materials that turn out to be plastic and other forms of rubbish. Ruben Martin de Lucas’s Iceberg Nations are thought experiments that provoke confounding questions: what if an iceberg were a country? Would we let it simply dissolve? Ice is provisional; soil is more durable. But could ice, after all, be re-consecrated into nations, even as it dissolves? Meanwhile Andorran artist Jordi Casamajor constructs a death urn of animals local to the country, commemorating these everyday animals in a series of precise, haunted drawings which harken back to a more optimistic age of naturalism in the 19th century, when botanists and zoologists were discovering new species and assembling the puzzle of evolution.

Andorran artist Emma Regada’s performance pieces are eloquent yet visceral meditations on the human footprint in the natural environment, while Diego Ferrari’s photographs question our perceptions of the relationship between the human body, the landscape and plastic. This material is similarly the subject and object of Mario Pasqualotto’s three dimensional artworks, which commute between painting and sculpture while recasting everyday plastics as an expression of the sublime. Manu Tintoré melds an engineer’s precision with his lyrical yet mathematical renditions of landscapes altered by a singular force: man’s lust for power and control. What unites these diverse artists is an ecological consciousness and conscience, an awareness that nature is subject, inspiration and finite resource. Taken together, their work explores the tensions and contradictions of nature’s position in art.

The scalar dimension of the Anthropocene and the seeming impossibility of facing it head-on are two reasons why we have titled this exhibition Notes on the Anthropocene. The title also gestures toward the contingency of our awareness and our knowledge. In the Anthropocene, we find ourselves in a new arena of feeling. We are aware of our detrimental effect on the entire non-human realm but are seemingly unable to arrest it. It is not possible to see the whole construct, to internalise the full reality. We can only be aware of how the human footprint in the natural environment is quickly spiralling into much more than a track, but is superseding the nature that made us, that we are part of, which we could still be at one with, if we reconsider our addiction to profit. The works collected here suggest it is only possible to see the whole from fragments and oblique perspectives.

Notes on the Anthropocene rejects the grandeur and certainty of the approach of the great artists of the land art movement and their generational offspring – Eliasson, Burtynsky. These art works relate more to the ordinary scale of the human, and the intimate connection with the landscape, particularly of the Pyrenees. The works are collectively an exploration of ephemerality and the transient.

Visual art has the power to document, interrogate and express the emotional structure of any era. The artists exhibited here do not present any definitive solution to the momentous shift in the power dynamic between humanity and the non-human realm. Instead they offer delicate, uncanny and contingent reflections on our predicament. No one artist can change this reality, their artwork suggests, but we can express how we feel about living through it and, through a metaphysical transfer, suggest how the land itself might receive the blow we have dealt it. Artists and writers can listen to the land. We can become its interpreters, we imagine what it is saying to us, under the threshold of human hearing, in its old stone tongue. The land speaks through these works, challenging us to recognise and reflect on the conundrums of the Anthropocene, and the fate we are constructing for ourselves, for the Earth, for all time.