March 5, 2019

Unnatural Art and Artificial Nature

A moment of reevaluation of our relationship with nature in light of the climate crisis

Words Rasmus Rosquist

Today, as we are facing ourselves in a moment of reevaluation of our relationship with nature in light of the climate crisis and living through (and performing) an ecological mass extinction event, contemporary art has the possibility to reposition non-human life in relation to our human gaze upon them. Art, to some extent, has reflected our long parochial tradition of presumed human mastery over nature and non-human life (that is, everything from ecological systems to biomes to non-human animals, etc.) where such life becomes a tool for human agency. Consider, for example, the romantic tradition where nature is majestically sublime, vast and ungraspable by the human and yet also parochially subjugateable by the human subject. Arguably, the romantic period can be seen as a project which further wedged the divide between the human and the nature she sprung from and cemented human exceptionalism in cultural thought. In order then to carry out a project of reevaluation of our own relationship to the nonhuman, we may need to rewrite how we have storied not only ourselves, but that relationship in itself. Or, as Claire Colebrook writes “ Rather, then, than continue a late Romantic project of re-enchanting the world, following a science of calculation that disenchanted the world, I would suggest that what is required is a more intensified disenchantment and evacuation of meaning[…].1

In this essay I will propose that we can see this project of evacuation of meaning explored wonderfully in the art of Katja Novitskova. In her works, non-human life, whether plants, animals, bacteria, worms or even robots, are allowed to exist on their own, as they are. The human gaze is almost entirely erased as the animals in Novitskova’s installations are stripped of their usual allegorical relations to art – and to space. In her installation Green Growth (2014), for example, the work Approximation (toucan) is placed in a small garden area. The work is a large cutouts portraying the upper body of a toucan, vibrant with colour; the red and blue beak and the yellow coat of its’ feathers almost radiating with life when viewed against the green backdrop of the garden. The eye of the toucan, and I speak more of eyes in Novitskova’s works later, is full of emotion, looking at us and its’ surroundings. The toucan does not seem to be a natural inhabitant here in this garden, and yet it is allowed to exist on it’s own, out of place yet belonging. That is, the toucan is given the space to exist on its own volition here, taking up space and in a sense creating a meaning for (or has its own meaning created by) it’s relationship to the nature around it. In this sense it belongs, but perhaps only because of the relationship which we are able to read as out of place in that a bird of paradise would not exist in this garden outside of this artwork.

Similarly, her works Earth Potential (E. Coli) (2017) and Pattern of Activation (Mutants) (2018) which portray magnified life in the form of bacteria and viruses, placed in a city square and on the shores of a beach respectively, both also share this sense of “unnatural belonging”. There is an inherent aesthetic beauty in these cutouts; they are at once beautiful and strange, the pinkish browns and whites of the E. Coli blossoming up from the ground as if they were a floral sculpture, unpredictable as if swaying in the wind, and the mutant microbial life of Pattern of Activation looking alien yet perhaps recognizable for what they are. From a distance, Novitskova’s cutouts look to be three dimensional (that is, more so than single sheets of cutout), but behind they are left black; as if reminding the viewer that her art is irrevocably a representation. The feeling of these cutouts at once being representational in their unjudging portrayals while also being self-awaredly misrepresentations in that they are obviously magnifications of their subject matter lend to a sense of das unheimliche – the uncanny.

For Freud, the uncanny was a form of cognitive dissonance which occurred when seeing something which you recognize for what it is, but simultaneously recognize that something is not as it should be with the subject in question. A typical example is that of a wax doll made in the likeness of someone you recognize, yet not being entirely lifelike. In Novitskova’s works the uncanny occurs on, I would argue, two interconnected levels. Firstly, we are clearly able to recognize these works as representations of life, and yet we also recognize that they are a form of life which we are not used to seeing in works of art. That is, the recognition we might experience towards Pattern of Activation, for instance, is uncanny due to our ability to recognize it as life, and yet, in this work it is portrayed in a way which we are not used to seeing it. Likewise, the aesthetic of the E. Coli is uncanny because of its’ beauty in conjunction with our knowledge of the destructive potential it has towards ourselves. If non-human life in pre-contemporary art has been a beautifier or allegorical furnishing, here Novitskova brings out what we might otherwise consider ugly and makes it aesthetically pleasing. Secondly, the locations which these cutouts are placed in are significant for their uncanniness. The large viruses of Earth Potential in the middle of a square becomes a beautiful (or perhaps uncannily disgusting) reminder of the many levels of micro-organic symbioses which occur even in the city – perhaps the place we equate the least with nature.

Equally, in KUMU (2018) we are faced with the glowing eyes of a leopard in a dimmed installation space. The borders of human mastery become questioned in these highly culturally coded spaces as we are faced with a representation of a predator who is allowed to exist only as itself, without allegories tied to it. In KUMU too we are faced with the uncanny when we are forced to acknowledge the leopard’s gaze upon us, removing the presumed human hegemony of viewership on life. Jacques Derrida spoke of how when he found himself standing naked in front of his cat and faced her gaze, and becoming not only naked and ashamed, but ashamed of his own shame. “A reflected shame, the mirror of a shame ashamed of itself, a shame that is at the same time specular, unjustifiable, and unable to be admitted to.”2 What Derrida suggests is that in meeting the gaze of the animal (if there is such a surviving concept as the animal) rather than simply viewing the cat viewing him, he recognizes the constant nakedness which animals are in, only in relation to our own un-nakedness. The gaze of the cat also becomes a reminder of the drapings of allegory which we put unto the animal (as can be seen further in Derrida feeling the need to say that he is speaking of an actual cat and not a theoretical one), and also of the silently culturally presumed subserviency of “the animal”. Or, expanding the concept, the subserviency of all non-human life. In KUMU, the same gaze occurs. Here we are confronted with the gaze of the animal, in this case a predator, stripping us of our otherwise one sided relationship towards the animal or non-human life. There is an uncanny recognition of the predator which also might remind us of our own animality and our potential of preyhood and weakness towards what we call nature. It also becomes an inherently uncanny gaze, again as the leopard is a two-dimensional work taking up three-dimensional space, thus occupying the uncanny borderlands of representation and reality.

As opposed to art from the romantic period, where nature and non-human life was portrayed to convey a sense of the sublime, and in symbolic imagery where these non-human subjects has stood in for something other than itself, Novitskova allows her artificial subjects to speak for themselves. They are borderless apart from the landscapes they are placed within, allowing the subject to converse with and be defined not by its relation to the human gaze, but to itself and its surroundings. Earth Potential and Pattern of Activation (Mutants), for example, may be read differently depending on if they are placed in a town square, on a beach or inside an installation. Further may they be read differently depending on who (if anyone, human or otherwise) interact with them as the human gaze is arguably removed from these subjects. That the cutouts which portray animals are almost always titled “approximation (animal)” acts as further reminder of the anthropocentric view of animals in art; that is, by refusing to simply say that the cutout which portrays a leopard is a leopard in its title, but rather (by necessity of the subjectivity of a leopard) an approximation, the human hand which had part in creating the work acknowledges previous mislabelings of non-human life in human art.

Novitskova’s art, against the backdrop of human-gazed nature in pre-contemporary art and the anthropologically assisted ecological crisis of today, seems to become a pressing and uncanny reminder of the role which art (or, more broadly, culture or the humanities) has played in creating a human parochiality and hegemony towards other life. In these works, the human is glaring with her absence save for symbols, the creative progenitor hand of technology, text and the artificiality of the works themselves. Instead, perhaps, the human becomes present in the audience, and yet here the uncanniness of technological chimeras and approximations of non-human life stare back, perhaps for a moment revoking the presumed hegemony of the human over nature.

We can think of these works, then, as testaments to the role which art has had in creating this hegemony, as in the examples mentioned in my opening paragraphs where non-human life existed as objects in relation to their human subjects. These approximations of life, whether in the form of cutouts, technological chimeras or robots, serve to remind us of our own gaze upon other life and asks us to rethink it. By meeting the gaze of animals, of non-human life and, perhaps, that of the chimerical, can we resituate ourselves, our arts and our technologies in a world and time which desperately requires us to do so.

1. Claire Colebrook. Death of the Posthuman, 55.

2. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) Critical Inquiry

Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418

Images courtesy of the artist, Katja Novitskova.