All photos by Will Lytch | USF Graphicstudio
August 22-December 10, 2016
University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, Florida
Growing consensus among scientists suggests that we live in a new geological epoch characterized by humankind’s impact on Earth: the Anthropocene. This impact is evidenced in part by remainders of fossil fuel production and consumption, petrochemical use, industrial agriculture and mining. Extracted brings together a group of artists whose work investigates the extraction of natural resources, and the material and cultural circulation of such resources around the globe. Participating artists: Mary Mattingly, Otobong Nkanga, Claire Pentecost, David Zink Yi and Marina Zurkow. Extracted is curated by Megan Voeller and organized by USFCAM.
Exhibition brochure: download.
In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen set off a chain reaction when he called for our current geological epoch to be labeled “the Anthropocene” as a reflection of changes wrought by humans on the environment. The concept of christening a new epoch during our lifetimes—the most recent, the Holocene, has lasted for 11,700 years since the last ice age—is mind-bending. Rarely is such obscure bureaucratic business freighted with such outsized existential consequence. Appropriately, debate about the concept has been rigorous within the scientific community at large and the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is expected to issue a proposal on how the term should be used scientifically (namely, whether it should indicate a new epoch or a lesser “age,” and when the period began) in 2016.
In the meantime, the term Anthropocene has been embraced with open arms in cultural circles, where it resonates deeply as shorthand for a variety of anthropogenic processes and impacts—changes in land, sea and sky caused by agriculture, urbanization, colonization, industrialization and global warming. Signs of the time, just a few out of many, include widespread species extinction, atmospheric pollution from fossil fuel combustion, changes in soil chemistry due to commercial fertilizers, and the omnipresence of plastics in the environment. The term “Anthropocene,” with its root anthropos or “man,” proffers an opportunity for responsibility taking that might engender political will. We did this. Now what? But some scholars have argued that not all humans have participated equally, proposing alternatives such as Capitalocene (invoked by Jason W. Moore and Donna Haraway) to reflect the proposed epoch’s roots in interrelated systems of humans, nature, power and profit.
The exhibition Extracted is motivated by a particular anthropogenic tendency: the extraction and circulation of natural resources around the globe. This reflexive tapping of value can be seen not only in the complex technical processes behind oil drilling, mining or industrial agriculture, for example, but also in the ways in which we understand our relationships to our own labor and to other people. (Recall the department of “human resources.”) Extraction has a well-established place in the evolution of humans’ ability to manipulate their putatively external environment with tools, which in turn shape humankind’s ability to imagine how to interact with that environment. Taking value out, rather than putting value in, is a hard habit to break.
This is where artists come in. “Art, really, is an engagement with the ways our practices, techniques, and technologies organize us, and it is, finally, a way to understand our organization and, inevitably, to reorganize ourselves,” writes Alva Noë in his book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. In the Anthropocene, we need the strange tools of art more than ever.
In Extracted, Mary Mattingly models the perspective of a critical participant in global capitalism. She binds her personal possessions—books, clothing, even electronics and furniture—into sculptural bundles that invite viewers to consider everyday objects, their lives and their entwinement with ours. Mattingly incorporates these sculptures into performances and photographs that draw connections between our belongings and the materials and labor used to produce them. These connections are traced closely in the Internet archive Own-It, where Mattingly researches and writes biographical narratives for her possessions, illuminating the often obscure origins of everyday things and their complex journeys from factory to household. Through her practice, she explores the labor of ownership and attachment that consumers are expected to perform with little regard for its impact on others.
Otobong Nkanga’s works examine ideas around land and the value connected to natural resources, particularly in connection to Africa. The video Remains of the Green Hill shows a spontaneous performance by Nkanga at the historic Tsumeb mine in Northern Namibia, a vast natural hill of green, oxidized copper ore and dozens of other minerals, depleted by decades of mining. The video is paired with audio of her interview with the last managing director of the mine, which was established in 1907 under German colonial rule and closed in 1996. (The mine has since reopened under the name Ongopolo.) The director’s account of mining activities conjures a picture of advancement and discovery, rather than one of profit and exploitation, illuminating the power of perspective to shape history and landscape.
In the large-scale tapestry The Weight of Scars, Nkanga draws a barren, fragmented landscape populated by two figures resembling marionettes. The multiple, multi-colored limbs of the figures suggest an amalgam of generations crossing race and nationality who shape the land. The figures guide a pipeline through the woven landscape, which is punctuated by Nkanga’s black-and-white photographs of a scarred landscape.
David Zink Yi transports viewers underground into the depths of a gold and silver mine in the southern Andes of Peru, near Ayacucho, where laborers endure earsplitting conditions. His 81-minute, two-channel video installation, The Strangers, presents an unsettling juxtaposition of spaces: a dark, subterranean realm of pulverized rock and a silent overhead landscape of otherworldly natural beauty. Learning that the destruction of one ton of rock yields approximately one gram of gold and 23 grams of silver prompts the question, why do we destroy so much for so little? The visceral, physically imposing quality of Zink Yi’s installation draws a viewer into this conundrum with full-body empathy.
Marina Zurkow’s Petroleum Manga invites us to consider the ubiquity of petroleum-based products, from textile fibers to plastic containers, in contemporary life. Her series of digital illustrations, a selection of which are presented on monumental-scale banners inside the museum as well as on its exterior walls, draws inspiration from the Hokusai Manga. Produced by Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) as an encyclopedic reference, the fifteen volume Manga includes illustrations of human figures, animals, natural objects and everyday scenes. Zurkow adopts the simplified form of Hokusai’s drawings to depict items made with specific petrochemicals including PVC, PET, polycarbonate, propylene glycol, polyurethane, ammonia, nylon and parafin, revealing the flexibility and pervasiveness of such substances in objects ranging from credit cards to food additives.
NeoGeo is a QuickTime capture of animations created by Zurkow in collaboration with Daniel Shiffman, co-creator of a software sketchbook program called Processing. The animations represent the work of an oil drill as it penetrates through an infinite series of geological layers, here composed of tiny bits of hand-drawn rock that are animated by programming code written in accordance with rules of physics and the formation of strata. An oil gush occurs when conditions are right.
Claire Pentecost’s multipart project soil-erg proposes soil as a unit of currency. The project consists of three parts: a sculptural installation of ingots made from organic compost (soil “gold” bars); a series of money bill drawings that feature under-sung soil heroes including scientists, political activists, philosophers, artists and creatures; and an off-site installation of vertical planters at local community gardens. First exhibited at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany, in 2012, each component of the project was updated or re-fabricated for Extracted. Prior to the exhibition, Pentecost visited the agricultural community of Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County and met with farmworkers at the Good Samaritan and Beth-El missions, incorporating their portraits into the money bill series. The soil-erg tasks viewers with imagining an alternative to our present economy, which values the petroleum-linked dollar above all and devalues the labor of farmworkers and the vitality of soil. A DIY currency that anyone can make, the soil-erg advances a vision of equity in the age of Monsanto.