October 9 – December 31, 2021
As the hot summer months increase, Arizona’s palo verde trees burst into bloom earlier each spring–a bright reminder of seasonal changes wrought by human activity and a harbinger of ecosystem upheavals to come. “It’s glorious and concerning,” remarks Lisa Sette, founder of Lisa Sette Gallery, for whom the palo verde’s precocious bloom provoked a consideration of many recent alterations to human and natural cycles–from Japan’s cherry blossom celebration, which took place earlier in 2021 than almost any year since 812, to the decline of Western Monarch butterfly populations. “There’s been a lot of talk lately about the anthropocene era. What is the human role in both altering nature and destroying natural systems? How can artists counteract what humans have done?”
The group show Temporary in Nature, on view October 9 – December 31, 2021 at Lisa Sette Gallery, explores the complexities of art made in a time of planetary change. Works included in Temporary in Nature both interrogate the destructive global systems we’ve built, and suggest that the present geological moment offers an opportunity for radical and hopeful new expressions of self and nature. Artists include: Edward Burtynsky, Kim Cridler, Binh Danh, Alan Bur Johnson, Mark Klett, Michael Koerner, Mayme Kratz, Yao Lu, Michael Lundgren, Matthew Moore, Marie Navarre, and James Turrell.
Historians often date the start of the anthropocene era to the detonation of the atomic bomb in 1945. Photographer Michael Koerner’s mother was 12 at the time and living in Nagasaki; his father served on a Navy ship in close proximity to the Bikini Atoll nuclear experiments. Temporary in Nature features Koerner’s Cherry Blossoms, a series of six photographic constellations of collodion on tin, in which crystalline structures bloom in eerie relief against black lacquer backgrounds. A professor of chemistry, Koerner researches and reverse-engineers the intriguing developing “flaws” he finds in his collection of turn-of-the century tintypes, devising acid and salt solutions that result in unpredictable mutations like passing clouds or ghostly flowers strewn across the photographic plates. Although his work relies on technical research, “in the darkroom,” says Koerner, “It’s all spiritual and emotional. Eventually, suffering must be processed here.” While working, Koerner communicates with his parents and siblings, all of whom have died as a result of cancer or genetic disorders, asking them for permission to tell his family’s story. Because, as he remarks, “there’s beauty in this damage.”
Whether as deeply personal experiments or documentary evidence, Sette regards photographs as uniquely positioned to capture this precarious time and register “a certain veracity” about human activity on earth. Mark Klett’s Fence separating the US/Mexico border south of the Gila Mountains, May 2015, in which a lone steel gate has been thrust on the boundless and indifferent high desert topography of the Gila Mountains, conveys the absurdity of human geopolitical division. In a striking critique of the global culture of extraction and accompanying destruction, Yao Lu’s New Landscape Part I-06 View of waterfall with rocks and pines mimics a bucolic natural scene; in fact Lu’s work is a photo collage made up of images of industrial refuse piles covered in green netting. Lu ingeniously arranges these industrial idyls in the compositional form of a traditional Chinese landscape painting.
Edward Burtynsky re-envisions the notion of landscape itself in Uralkali Potash Mine #3, Berezniki, Russia, in which concentric drill scars have shaped a brightly striated mineral wall, creating a landform entirely generated by large-scale resource consumption. Burtynsky’s works remind us of the scale of the earth-altering anthropocene endeavor, but they are also fascinating and exhilarating studies of shape, line, and color of the material of our earth.
In an acknowledgment that the compulsion to transform the world around us is also an essential element of making art, Temporary in Nature includes two photographic portraits of Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s renowned 1970 earthworks piece on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Michael Lundgren’s Flares over Spiral Jetty, an expansive image of the lake in the black of night, is punctuated by thin strokes of launched flares caught in their brief moment of illumination; the jetty itself is in pale outline against a vast horizon. This contradiction is at play throughout Temporary in Nature: the transitory measure of human life, and our corresponding drive to make an irrevocable mark on the world.
Binh Danh’s works are meditations on self, art, and nature, etched upon the stormy, polished-silver surfaces of small Daguerreotype plates. In Spiral Jetty, Utah (#2), Smithson’s project resembles a recently unfurling organic structure, reaching tentatively into the abyss of the primordial waters, while Untitled #17 from Danh’s “Aura of Botanical Specimen” series reveals the intricate arterial system of a leaf as an impressive and sensuous architecture. Both pieces invite the viewer to consider how our individual existence is a distinct but connected part of a larger biological whole. When you look at the mirror-like surface of a Daguerreotype, Danh remarks, “You become part of the image. You are able to reflect yourself onto this landscape.”
Coaxing form from land is an age-old mode of exercising both spirituality and power: James Turrell’s Roden Crater project literally imprints his aesthetic vision on the earth, reconstructing an extinct volcano into a series of massive interconnected chambers designed for the observation of celestial phenomena. Turrell’s Site Plan with Projected Section and Survey Net chronicles one phase of this four decades-long project. Mayme Kratz creates more minute chambers for observation of the natural world, collecting biological fragments like seeds, plant materials, and bones from the desert floor and arranging these pieces in transfixing resin where they hover timelessly like small galaxies. Kratz has commented that she is “desperate, foraging for the things in nature that are disappearing.”
Alan Bur Johnson’s a flock, a swarm, consists of 183 photographic transparencies of bird, butterfly, and insect wings in sharp anatomical relief, each vivid specimen contributing to the whole. From a distance, the collection of delicate, fluttering transparencies hanging on dissection pins might resemble the coruscating shadow of human form. Johnson remarks: “[This] is my response to our threatened natural environment, while addressing all fleeting life cycles, including our own. Life and death, but also birth and rebirth.”
In previous eras as in the present time, it is artists who continue to envision and embody new conceptions of self and place; their work feels particularly urgent in the anthropocene, as we recalibrate our relationship to the world around us. Whether operating on monumental or molecular scales, the artists of Temporary in Nature examine our willingness to destroy and as well as our ability to generate new frameworks for existence. As their work reveals, humans exist within a system of creation and survival that is refulgent, resilient, and mysterious.