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Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Ann Hamilton, and Dario Robleto: Water and Change

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Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle: Juggernaut, 2008; Super 16mm film digitized to HD video projection; 5:44 video loop; courtesy of the artist and Max Protetch, New York. Installation view, MCASD; photo: Pablo Mason.


Ann Hamilton: Galápagos chorus, 2008; DVD projection, amplified cone gloves with prerecorded animal sounds, iPods, artist’s books with texts by 8th-grade students from El Colegio Nacional Galápagos; courtesy of the artist. Installation view, Berkeley Art Museum; photo: Sibila Savage.


Dario Robleto: Love Has Value Because It’s Not Eternal, 2008; hand-blown glass beakers, stretched audiotape of field recordings of the sound of glaciers melting (2005–06) intertwined with audiotape of various lovers recording their partner’s heartbeats as they reflected on each other, ground passion flower, amber, eternal flower, resurrection plant, silk, satin, leather, ribbon, brass, iron, cork, pine, typeset text; 36 x 127 1/2 x 53 1/2 in. (open); courtesy of the artist and D’Amelio Terras, New York; Inman Gallery, Houston; Galerie Praz-Delavallade, Paris; ACME, Los Angeles. Installation view, Berkeley Art Museum; photo: Sibila Savage.

Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet explores extraordinary, fragile, and essential places and ecosystems around the globe. Motivated by deepening concern for the condition of our environment and an abiding commitment to the potential for art to engage in dialogue and influence change, BAM/PFA and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego partnered with the international conservation organization Rare to send eight international artists to UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites, commissioning them to create new works of art in response to their travels and experiences there. The artists’ projects—taking the form of sculptural installations, paintings, drawings, video, sound, and Internet work—are as varied as the sites themselves: from Indonesia and the Himalayas to Kenya and South Africa, from Brazil and Ecuador to the United States and Canada. While the artists’ approaches and intentions differed markedly, their projects share several common themes, such as disappearing habitats and the immediate and long-term implications of industrialization; species preservation; global warming; and, in particular, issues related to water—as location, as life-sustaining force, and as agent and indicator of change.

Several artists focused on species and economies reliant upon the water-based habitats of their sites. Mark Dion paid tribute to the dedicated park rangers and stewards of Komodo National Park, the pristine marine park in Indonesia. Diana Thater focused on the endangered and threatened species of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is located along the southeastern edge of South Africa between subtropical and tropical Africa and contains the continent’s largest estuarine system and southernmost coral reefs. Water led Xu Bing to complex environmental and political issues surrounding deforestation in Mount Kenya National Park.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle filmed in El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, located at the midpoint of the Baja California peninsula, set between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The largest protected area in Mexico, El Vizcaíno is probably best known for its salty waters where gray whales mate and give birth in the first few months of each year. But El Vizcaíno is also home to massive industrial activity. As Manglano-Ovalle recalled: “When I made my initial site visit, even as I stood on the deck of the ecotour boat witnessing the surfacing of a gray whale, I knew that, as an artist, my real interest in this site lay in turning away from this undeniably awesome image of nature . . . turning my camera not on these ‘monsters’ of the deep (now the objects of our belated protection), but rather on the behemoths of our own making—the neighboring saltworks, jointly owned and operated by ESSA of Mexico and the Mitsubishi International Corporation of Japan.”

Ann Hamilton came to her site, the Galápagos Islands, recognizing the vast literature and enormous mythology of the place. How could she not? But, in many ways, it was the experience of the water and an overriding sense of buoyancy, a feeling of continuous suspension above and below the water line, that formed the lens for her vision. Hamilton focused her project on the way a place is “named,” and the act of naming. She worked with a local eighth-grade class from Santa Cruz Island to name their own experiences—including the animal and plant species, topography, and weather of the region—creating a chorus of their embodied histories. Through film, text, and sound, Hamilton and her collaborators shaped, in the artist’s words, “a kind of inventory, litany of place . . . (and chorus) of exquisite sounds.”

The sound of Dario Robleto’s site, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park bordering the U.S. and Canada, shaped his work for Human/Nature. Robleto recorded the sound of glaciers melting in real time, transforming the resulting audiotapes into a variety of evocative, silent sculptural forms focusing on the disappearance of species, the mourning we collectively experience as we witness the changing of the earth, and the ways in which loss can inspire new ways of thinking. “Geological issues of time, materials, and life cycles have always served as rich metaphors in my artistic thinking,” he says. “Glaciers, though, add a certain tone and mood to those metaphors that have connected to my ongoing research and interest in human states of mourning. . . . There is a state of long-term suspension in freezing, but also a precariousness to the glaciers’ potential of melting that for me has always synched up with the stages of mourning and grieving that humans go through on a daily basis: wanting to suspend the pain, but knowing its flow can’t be impeded.” Robleto’s transformative process advocates for the healing nature of art. “I just truly believe that by looking to the past we can get to the future on better terms.”

Lucinda Barnes
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections

Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet is co-organized by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, in partnership with the international conservation organization Rare. The Berkeley presentation is supported by The Christensen Fund; the Columbia Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; Bank of America; the Walter & Elise Haas Fund; the East Bay Community Foundation; the Baum Foundation; the Rotasa Foundation; Christina Desser; Nancy and Joachim Bechtle; and many other generous donors. The project’s website (http://artistsrespond.org/) is made possible through the efforts of the Studio for Social Sculpture and the Annenberg Foundation.