The beauty and the Anthropocene


By Lena Trydal.

Are beauty and the Anthropocene – the suggested name for a new geological epoch where the humans’ impact on nature is so significant that they have become a geological force [1] - two concepts that cannot be combined? I wondered as I was walking through Apichaya Wanthiangs exhibition «Driftwood and Ghost Hunters» on Landsforeningen Norske Malere (LNM). The question arose as I felt emotionally confused when looking at the beautiful and absorbing colours of the large paintings and then reading that the topic of the exhibition was flood. While wondering why she had chosen to depict the tragic of a flood beautifully, I also wondered whether it was acceptable to be seduced by images of disasters.


Apichaya Wanthiangs exhibition «Driftwood and Ghost Hunters» Photo: Press image by Landsforening Norske Malere (LNM). With permission.

In an artist talk I attended on her last day of exhibition at LNM, Wanthiang told the audience that a German curator had said to her that she would not do the topic justice by depicting it beautifully. She had given it a lot of thought, but as she looked back on her photographic image material she confirmed that to her, the images were indeed beautiful [2]. What does this mean in relation to the Anthropocene?


A nature-culture power struggle?

The New York University professor Nicholas Mirzoeff points out in his book How to See the World that the West has – ever since the scientific revolution – set out to conquer nature [3]. German academic Eva Horn expands this argument in her essay «Air Condition: Taming the Climate as a Dream of Civilization» as she explains how human natural intervention is the basis of building a civilization [4]. It might sound like humans and nature are in a power struggle, and I wonder whether it is this struggle that appears in «Driftwood and Ghost Hunters». Most of the paintings depict simple constructions, with walls and pointed roofs. I will call them houses. Understood through Horns’ essay, the concept of the house, is the humans adapting nature to personal needs like protection from weather, animals and other dangers or discomforts. They represent human efforts, or what has been given the name culture. But the houses are not the dominant content in Wanthiangs paintings. She presents a colourful and untameable nature that washes away any human construction if it pleases.

Seeing her work from a viewpoint where the environmental issues are a power struggle between humans and nature, Wanthiang presents the nature as the superior. But by interpreting the world as a duel between two teams I would miss the complexity of earth’s current environmental situation. Some scholars – like Donna Haraway - would deny that it is possible to separate nature and culture [5]. In fact there are no nature that is not affected by humans at this stage. Humans contribute to floods, so to point out a clear distinction between nature and culture in Wanthiangs paintings turns out to be difficult: The culture - the wooden constructions - are organized nature, and the nature - the flood - is a consequence of human involvement in nature. Mirzoeff underlines this with a quote from Professor Rob Nixon: “The battle against nature was won but is now being followed by its slow collapse under the consequences of its own efforts (Nixon 2011)” [6].


Viewing images of disasters

I will return to my initial question of beauty and the Anthropocene. Mirzoeff draws attention to the complications of viewing images of disasters beautifully. According to him “We have already not only long absorbed the costs of this conflict [between nature and culture] but learned to find them beautiful” [7]. Mirzoeff points to the younger generations that are born with the environmental changes, and have become so habituated with the extreme weathers that they become unable to see it. It is not unthinkable that Mirzoeff would take notice of Wanthiangs young age and make it the reason for what he might call her inability to look beyond the beauty in her somehow disastrous image material. He finds this way of looking problematic, and in my interpretation as a way of being ignorant.


A lot of questions arises from this theory: Is Apichaya Wanthiang responsible for my feeling of confusion while watching her paintings? Should she as an artist have a clear stand in her works? Is the German curator right in expecting her to do justice to a case? Is Mirzoeff right that she is unable to really see the Anthropocene because of her young age? Should she have painted floating dead bodies and smashed houses, and shake everybody with horrible images into realizing the obvious fact that humans destroy their own basis of existence? To expect this from art would be to turn it into journalism in my opinion. I would suggest that art can be activism, but I would also insist that activism is not the definition of art.


«Driftwood and Ghost Hunters» is according to Wanthiangs text in the exhibition sheet about the frustration of being a geographical distant and helpless spectator of a flood. But as she had realized after the curators comment, she could not help but seeing the beautiful in the image material. One could read Wanthiangs work as a visual reflection - without a solution - on the difficult position of viewing images from a distance. To take this argument even further, it could be an encounter with the complexity of being human: Having the ability to think and feel opposite things at the same time. In the case of Wanthiangs paintings: Understanding or imagining what a destructive force a flood can be, yet finding pleasure in watching it. I would have to enter the fields of psychology, sociology or philosophy to fully get a grip on the experience of beauty in tragedies, but I will stick to Wanthiangs painterly interpretation.


I think it would be to underestimate Wanthiang to assume that she is not aware of the contradictions and difficulties her work presents. She puts herself in the danger of being called ignorant in Mirzoeffs’ definition, or even political incorrect in depicting a catastrophe in a developing country in a beautiful manner as a citizen of the West. But she is the artist, and the works are her genuine experience of being a spectator. Maybe Mirzoeff or the German curator are unable to see the complexity that beauty can have. As I discussed earlier, her presentation of nature and culture as inseparable, as one big chaos, or as a circle of influence, is to see the Anthropocene. There is an unanswered ethical question around her use of beauty, but it is indeed a complex use of beauty, and by depicting the nature-culture relationship, or conjunction, she is not ignorant to the Anthropocene.



Notes


[1] Eva Horn «Air Condition: Taming the Climate as a Dream of Civilization». 235


[2] Retelling of a quote from a (private) recording made during the artist talk between Apichaya Wanthiang and Reah Dall (UKS) at LNM September 2. 2018.


[3] Nicholas Mirzoeff. How to see the world. 220


[4] Eva Horn «Air Condition: Taming the Climate as a Dream of Civilization». 235


[5] Donna Haraway. The Companion Species Manifesto. 16


[6] Nicholas Mirzoeff. How to see the world. 220


[7] Ibid.



References

Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto. (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003)


Horn, Eva. «Air Condition: Taming the Climate as a Dream of Civilization» in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary. (edit.) James Graham, Caitlin Blanchfield, Alissa Anderson, Jordan Carver, Jacob Moore (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, Lars Müller Publishers, 2016)


Landsforening Norske Malere (LNM) «Utstilling: Apichaya Wanthiang, Drivved og spøkelsesjegerne» URL: <http://lnm.no/utstillinger/drivved-og-spokelsesjegere>


Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to See the World (London: Pelican, 2015)

OSLO FORM LAB 2018