New York

“The (Un)Making of Nature”

Whitney Museum of American Art

The American pragmatist A.O. Lovejoy distinguished at least 66 senses for the word “nature.” Given the concept’s multivalence, it might be said, at the risk of rankling scores of environmental activists, that nature doesn’t exist, except as an ideological construct. Throughout history, nature has functioned as the prototypical and subservient Other: it has served as a prime term in debates in which the real is opposed to the ideal and been used to substantiate God’s existence or to sanction nationalistic claims such as manifest destiny. The title “The (Un)Making of Nature” suggests an attempt to dismantle the concept’s sustaining if contradictory statuses as preeminent force or disposable commodity, and it offers the enticing prospect of an approach designed to reveal the underlying social codes that encircle the representation of nature. That’s a tall order, but the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program fellows who organized the two-part exhibition at the museum’s downtown and Philip Morris branches set an agenda that was equally grandiose if less pertinently framed. Bogged down by a prosaic presumption that nature signifies the world unmodified by man, the exhibition doesn’t live up to the sophistication of the title. Though never explicitly stated, much of the work assembled—whether it offers commentary on environmental issues, selects media images of natural scenes, or entombs exotic butterflies—suggests that the prevailing concept of nature in contemporary art is of the natura naturata variety (that which is uncreating and created). By contrast, 19th-century depictions of nature’s boundless grandeur corresponded with the concept of natura naturans—that which creates and is uncreated. In tandem with this country’s diminished profile, it is provocative to consider the current emphasis on natura naturata that relegates nature to the status of a mere curio.

Considerably more humble than a semiotic critique, this inquiry is less an exploration of such potential political and esthetic ramifications than a document of the recent “greening” of American art. Christy Rupp’s 99.44% Forgotten, 1990, ironically simulates a ceremonial arch (the sort that was once constructed from ivory tusks) with plastic Ivory Soap bottles and manages to index the insanity of consumption and the problems of nondisposable waste that contributes to the extinction of wildlife. Claire Pentecost appropriates a standard minimal format for a series of Plexiglas and mirror wall panels that seem rather mute until the proper angle of vision reveals the reflection of images of endangered species, which are concealed on the backs of the panels. Even with this cleverly incorporated delaying device, her Museum of Natural History, 1989–90, amounts to little more than a one-liner. Patricia Thornley’s multimedia installation Untitled, 1990, contains didactic elements but is also powerfully nostalgic in its lament for the loss of innocence. Activated by push-button control, a text documenting the horror of a chemical-waste dump and its effects on a local community projects onto both a proscenium wall and a white plastic swan, while the chorus of an old Moody Blues song plaintively plays “I’m looking for someone to change my life. . . .” Richard Misrach’s fetishistic and perversely fascinating photograph Dead Animal, from the series “The Pit,” 1987–89, is complicated by the knowledge that exposure to radiation, which is part of the history of the animal pits in the Western U.S., is not isolated to remote locales.

The call to environmental activism is less well served by Mark Dion and William Schefferine’s muddled Under the Verdant Carpet: The Dreams of Mount Koch, 1990. A group of trash-filled garbage carts with statistical information about the increasing dangers of too much refuse scrawled on their surfaces, paired with a couple of greenhouse palms symbolizing the preciousness of the rain forests, amounts to little more than a science-fair project. Ashley Bickerton’s Minimalism’s Evil Orthodoxy Monoculture’s Totalitarian Aesthetic #2, 1990, on the other hand, addresses the subject of monoculture without proselytizing. His sinisterly high-tech containers, filled with samples of soil and agricultural products, seem simultaneously complicit with the forces of economic colonialism and critical of the practice of monoculture. Equally provocative, Vincent Shine’s tiny plant sprouts—a blue stamen, a long-stem seedling, a mulberry branch, a papyrus leaf—are disarmingly fragile and effervescent. Even with the sure knowledge that real plants would quickly wilt and die in such conditions, close scrutiny reveals no telltale signs of artifice. Only a checklist confirms their derivation from neoprene, ethylene vinyl acetate, and cyanocrylate ester.

The overzealous attempt of the curators to include anything and everything having to do with a generalized notion of nature diluted the potential urgency of the theme. April Gornik’s synthetic landscape, Clegg & Guttmann’s cibachrome of electrical power lines slicing a countryside, Jack Goldstein’s technicolor scene of volcanic explosion, Alexis Rockman’s surreal detail of ants eating a butterfly, and Petah Coyne’s suspended, tangled black mass were conscripted to substantiate, in one sense or another, the disappearance of nature. Rather than breathing new life into familiar pieces, this curatorial premise enforced a narrow, even questionable reading of these works that is peripheral to the practices of the artists. Heavy-handed wall texts and display gimmicks turned a predictably superficial investigation into an object lesson in how not to mount an exhibition, offering an inadvertently revealing exposition of the manner in which American curators are trained in the museological mechanics of overmanagement.

Jan Avgikos