Mexico City

Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights, 2015, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 41 seconds and 5 minutes 12 seconds. Installation view.

Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights, 2015, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 41 seconds and 5 minutes 12 seconds. Installation view.

Nicholas Mangan

LABOR

Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights, 2015, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 41 seconds and 5 minutes 12 seconds. Installation view.

Nicholas Mangan’s inquiry into the transformation and commodification of the natural world has become increasingly self-aware. The Melbourne-based artist often uses materials as metonyms for complex geopolitical and eco-financial histories. Take Nauru: Notes from a Cretaceous World, 2009–10, a video that details the financial collapse of the Micronesian island of Nauru due to the colonial exploitation of its phosphate. Or his 2013 video installation Progress in Action, which traces the history of the Pacific island Bougainville’s fight for independence from Papua New Guinea. Following protests over a copper-mining operation on the island, the mainland cut the islanders off from access to fuel and food, forcing them to use coconuts as an energy source. To power the projector that screens his film on the subject, Mangan employs a coconut-fueled diesel generator.

At Labor, a black box with the dimensions of a vertically oriented coffin sat between two wall-size screens that faced each other at an angle; from the box extended exposed cables leading to two projectors. The assemblage was such a curiously messy protuberance that its intended status—as gallery mechanics or rarified sculpture—was unclear. Housed inside was a battery powered by solar panels installed (unseen) on the roof of the gallery. The centrality to the work of these panels—as formal and practical aspects—despite their invisibility in the space was mirrored by the importance but illegibility of the artist’s interest in the writings of Alexander Chizhevsky, a Russian scientist who in the 1920s speculated that sunspot activity correlates with that of humans.

That backstory was matter for the press release. In the space, Mangan instead took an impressionistic approach to his subject, seemingly aiming to translate the imperceptibly macro aspects of solar phenomena into something experiential. Chizhevsky’s notes appear in decontextualized fragments in the first of two moving-image components in Ancient Lights, 2015, a nearly fourteen-minute video essay about the conversion of our star’s energy into exploitable resources: via photosynthesis, the weather, or fossil fuels. In it, we see footage cut manically to offer a montage featuring the jarring image of a Florida orange, ripe on the branch, entombed in ice, and a cross section of a tree taken from a dendrochronology lab in Arizona, spinning as if on a turntable, its concentric rings a record of changes in solar activity. These are intercut with a psychedelic scene of sunspots moving over a blazing orange ground—data from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory; the skyline of Mexico City buried in smog; and the sun reflecting off the mirrored heliostats at Fuentes de Andalucía’s Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant. A sound track variously screeches industrially and cuts to silence, evoking all the alienated anxiety of the Anthropocene.

The second projector in Ancient Lights played a five-minute loop showing a ten-peso coin spinning precariously in circles. It never falls, seeming instead to have achieved some otherworldly equilibrium: an illusion of invincibility that is perhaps meant to mimic that which has led to the rapaciousness of advanced capitalism. Ultimately, Mangan’s project is a reminder that the flows of finance are indivisible from the energy that flows from the sun. The environmental crisis is, of course, an economic one and vice versa. Stamped at the center of the coin is the Aztec Sun Stone, which depicts a solar deity holding a human heart in each hand: The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice would fuel the star. I saw Mangan’s exhibition on the heels of Donald Trump’s announcement outlining his energy plan at an oil-industry conference in North Dakota: more fossil fuel drilling and fewer environmental regulations. I couldn’t help but think that, five centuries after the stone was carved, the attitude toward sacrifice hasn’t changed.

Annie Godfrey Larmon