Critics’ Picks

Alfredo Jaar, Introduction to a Distant World, 1985, still from a color video, 9 minutes 30 seconds.

New York

“The Crude and the Rare”

41 Cooper Gallery at Cooper Union
41 Cooper Square
October 19–November 20

Shortly before his death in 1983, R. Buckminster Fuller proclaimed that transforming “weaponry” into “livingry” required “technologically reforming the environment instead of trying politically to reform the people.” How wrong he was! Almost as proof, in 1985 the architect-turned-artist Alfredo Jaar traveled to Brazil to document the appalling work conditions of a vast open-pit gold mine in the Amazon jungle. As seen in his video Introduction to a Distant World, 1985, he found a landscape teeming with thousands of mud-encrusted laborers, and he captured the men snaking up slippery slopes bearing loads of gangue to be sluiced for tiny flecks of ore. The workers’ near-naked bodies, burdened by heavy sacks precariously roped to their heads, convey the hell of mulelike toil in a land ravaged by the removal of natural resources. Between these horrific images Jaar interspersed statistics about the fluctuating price of gold in various international stock exchanges. The viewer is alerted to a damning secondary, though invisible, extraction: From these men’s labor, surplus value is converted into capital for wealthy speculators.

The conceit that we can “reform” environments in the absence of political change is deflated by this and other works in curators Saskia Bos and Steven Lam’s exhibition, which explores how artists have investigated the exploitation of precious natural resources. In particular, “The Crude and the Rare” probes how value is intrinsically relative—how people and animals become casualties of the extraction and exchange of costly commodities like gold, diamond, oil, and copper. Many of the show’s hybrid text-image or text-video works tackle the fight of marginalized populations against abuses of their local environment by corporate interests, underscoring the value of art in materially representing the stakes of those struggles.