Currently, Madrid’s Casa de America presents a group exhibition of Spanish and Latin American artists, ‘Mientras sea posible’. The brief is not one I’ve come across elsewhere: to show humankind’s adaptability and potential for change. This topic has been explored in many a new media/digital art exhibition, but here the focus is on natural materials and homeostasis: the tendency to equilibrium between interdependent elements, in particular that of the body, or even the earth, as a unified organism.
Transforming the environment is something all of us who live in cities forget about, because the built cityscape shows change less dramatically than sites in transition from a rural to a more urbanised status. This exhibition offers no reflections on the loss of natural landscape, however, but enough on that can be found in any publication by Greenpeace España.
The questions asked by the curator have been interpreted with more references to local mythology and traditions than I would have expected, and I enjoyed that surprise.
This is Chilean artist Catalina Bauer’s contemporary rendition of quipu, an Andean accounting system. I am fascinated by how many knowledge systems exist that most Westerners like myself never hear about. It makes me question dominant paradigms, and the increasing spread of them. Will the minority ones become extinct, or preserved as a token, like older languages that carry a culture but have little use since they are only used by bilingual people who communicate mostly in their ‘stronger’ tongue? Either way, the artist is pointing to what is on the other side. It is up to us to glimpse through the grass curtain, and discover an alternative paradigm or a message on the inside vs. the outside.
Argentinian artist Ana Gallardo uses a Mexican tradition as a source of inspiration for her installation. The religious rituals of pilgrims to Oaxaca’s Virgen de Juquila are re-enacted by visitors to this space. Viewers, like pilgrims, may give material form to their wishes, out of mud, and leave them en route to the sanctuary, which is here reduced in size so it looks like a room-sized train-set. Because of the miniature landscape feel, it bears similarities with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s now defunct Hell, but made by a younger sibling. Gallardo asks us to make a wish for our own old age, so a resonance of proximity to death is inferred too. However, this is a home-made and interactive kind of artwork which grants hope, and sees people united in good will rather than a bloodbath. Believer or not, making mudcakes is a pastime that kept me happy for hours as a child, and I therefore wholeheartedly recommend it. Even if your wishes don’t come true, it will do you good.
Catalina León is another Argetinian artist, whose curtains of fallen and falling leaves give no indication of their origin or intention. By way of an artist statement, Catalina says only: ‘May nothing trouble you, may nothing frighten you, everything passes’. Such buddhist-style wisdom fits in well with the calm beauty of the piece, but leaves you wondering if you are indeed feeling cheated out of a deep theory for the artwork. Of course I had enjoyed in the work of the other artists learning about legends and stories new to me, here I get no such education. But the cascading sheets of leaf-shaped blankets filling the space with a warm foresty smell, carefully made of hand-stitched leaves, provoke plenty of imaginings of tribal crafts and the cloak of nature to keep one satisfied.
Mr Vacuum Cleaner is around London these days, exhibiting, performing, managing, and all that. So I joined a like-minded group of art-consumers to play anti-consumerist war games in a shopping centre for a day. In groups, we faced challenges such as finding out the average age of the makers of the clothes in Gap Kids. Answer: do you think they would tell us? Even HQ could not find out! We reckon it’s about 12.
Attempting to discover the ingredients of a Macdonald’s milkshake was even more mission impossible – macstaff can’t even see the ingredients on the packing for the ready-made beverage – there are none printed. I personally thought that not listing the ingredients was illegal, (let alone worrying…) but my food law cognisance is low in research. Starbucks staff were more open to learning about their carbon impact, and although they knew how many daily transactions the shop made, they did not have figures for how many disposable cups were used. However, they were willing to know, if you can do the counting… We did not question how many litres of water may have been wasted. You’ve heard the stories about our rivers going down Starbucks drains. Check out waterwise to find out how much water our coffee really costs.
The tasks were not all about numbers, though. We found out that New Look’s window manequins are shaped like Barbie dolls (i.e. unreal!), that running up escalators the wrong way can be an alternative to paying gym membership, and that the Disney store seems to have bought up all Chinese toy factories.
Once the questions were answered (or not, as PR departments saw fit) and the give-me-fives clapped, we took a break for networking and respite, before rehearsing for the grand finale: a secret rendez-vous back in the shopping mall, singing (very loud and a capella) protest songs for the amusement of shoppers and the horror of security guards. With our cover blown, our spirits high and our mission accomplished, we scuttered off, surveilled (I mean extra-surveilled) by plastic police, and returned to our business as usual.
In the last decade, many artists statements or exhibitions stressed the importance of hybridity (a.k.a. culture mix?) as a subject matter or underlying idea. Pretty fitting with the second law of thermodynamics; the law of entropy, and the rise of virtual networking, and globalisation, you may think. But hybridity is not just the me-and-my-disjointed-pieces take (which I completely empathise with, by the way), it is also the me-and-those-weirdos-I’ve-never-spoken-to getting together to do something. The age of hybridity paves the way to the rise of collectivism.
Last night I found myself using the word ‘hybrid’ when asking director Fanny Armstrong about the process of creating her film ‘The Age of Stupid’, which mixes animation, documentary and fiction. (Did I surprise myself by saying hybrid instead of mash-up?) She explained that after testing the first documentaries in private showings, and listening to the audience’s opinions (good business practice), she came up with the idea of homogenising the plot with an overarching fictional story, and of explaining the facts using animation. The result is extremely watchable! It’s a super-fast-cut version of Arabian Nights, full of multiple twists, but without the raunchiness (about time we had a film with no predictable boy-meets-girl chapter), and a bit more water (in the form of floods…). Real-life characters come and go, unraveling their microstories around the hard facts of climate change that are wonderfully rendered in artistic motion, in complete oblivion to the big brother watching them from the future that never happened. It works. 5 years went into the making of the film, and clearly they’ve paid off. The resulting singular vehicle amplifies hundreds of voices, and encourages the raising of the public voice to collectively prevent catastrophe, for them and us. Double whammy.
The shuddering film appeals because of it’s important message, that’s obvious, and because of the engaging stories (in film that is also obvious) but principally, I think, because of the format. The documentary scenes ground us, Pete Postlethwaite’s part gives us an even harsher reality check, but one that, because it’s fictional, we can ‘disbelieve’, and some really cool animations that illustrate scientific facts and arguments distinctly. It speaks different languages but takes us to Rome.
My favourite bit of the film is the darkly humourous idea of setting the ‘future’ scenes inside a museum. It’s a dead museum, a grave for imploded cultures, and the irony of the pickled animals is riotous!
The film projection in Tate Modern was followed by a Q&A that went from the tentative to the heated. One gentleman who must have been living inside his jet-airplane too long asked for practical advice on reducing his carbon-emissions (I, like you, assumed that is is common knowledge that turning down the heating, shutting down computers and stand-by gadgets, not wasting, recycling, becoming vegetarian, avoiding plastic and flights, using public transport, walking or cycling, and buying organic food from farmers markets is a good way forward, but one can always do some research – it will be easier that finding the philosopher’s stone). Another gentleman was very provocative in his challenge to the climate change theories expressed in The Age of Stupid, but Ms. Armstrong’s logic was flattening: even if we are wrong, there is still a measurable positive outcome for all from walking more, eating in-season local produce, being more involved in the consequences of your own consumption, and in not granting world-domination to large corporations. Go girl!