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Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet

April 1, 2009 - September 27, 2009

Diana Thater: RARE, 2008; 16 LCD monitors, DVD player, DVD, and existing architecture; 204 x 264 in.; courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York. Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.

Mark Dion: Mobile Ranger Library—Komodo National Park, 2008; mixed media; 96 x 84 1/2 x 39 1/2 in.; fabricated by William Feeney; courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, 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, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.

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.

Marcos Ramírez ERRE: Shangri-La: el sueño volatil (Shangri-La: The Volatile Dream), 2008; mixed media; decorative wooden detailing created by Tibetan artisans in the region of Shangri-La, Zhongdian, Yunnan Province, China; 144 x 248 x 63 1/2 in.; courtesy of the artist. Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.

Rigo 23: Sapukay—Cry for Help, 2008 (detail); woven taquara, banana trunk fibers, feathers, wire, fishing line, caxeta; assembled in Cananéia, Brazil, with members of the local Quilombola, Guaraní, and Caiçara communities; 60 x 137 x 60 in.; courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco. Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.

Dario Robleto: Some Longings Survive Death, 2008; glacially released 50,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusks, nineteenth-century braided hair flowers of various lovers intertwined with glacially released woolly mammoth hair, carved ivory and bone, bocote, colored paper, silk, ribbon, typeset; 57 x 53 x 8 in.; courtesy of the artist and D’Amelio Terras, New York; Inman Gallery, Houston; Galerie Praz-Delavallade, Paris; ACME, Los Angeles. Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.

Xu Bing: 木, 林, 森 Project (Mu, Lin, Sen Project), 2005–ongoing (detail); components of the project include a 45 1/4 x 135 in. landscape by the artist, twenty 19 1/2 x 16 in. drawings by Kenyan school children, copies of the primer in Swahili and English and other materials used on-site, photographs, and online auction site; courtesy of the artist. Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.

Can art inspire conservation? Can conservation inspire art? Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet began six years ago in the form of these questions, triggering an unusual collaboration and an extraordinary and circuitous journey. BAM/PFA, in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and the international conservation organization Rare, commissioned eight of the world’s most thoughtful and innovative artists to travel to eight UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites and to create new works of art in response to their travels and experiences there.

The projects reached around the globe. Mark Dion traveled to Indonesia, to Komodo National Park; Marcos Ramírez ERRE went to the Three Parallel Rivers area of Yunnan, China. Diana Thater chose to work at iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa, and Xu Bing, at Mount Kenya National Park. Dario Robleto traveled to Waterton Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S./Canadian border; Ann Hamilton, to the Galápagos Islands; Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, to El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve in Mexico; and Rigo 23, to the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves in Brazil. Travelers on a mission, the artists had to negotiate their roles as tourists, explorers, and documentarians, always maintaining a sensitive awareness of their position as outside observers.

While conservation served as a contextual underpinning for the site visits, there was no thematic mandate the artists were asked to follow. Rather, they were encouraged to experiment and to pursue avenues of exploration based on any and all aspects of the sites that intrigued them. Indeed, Human/Nature straddles a diverse range of environmental, cultural, and social issues as well as artistic strategies and perspectives.

After two mini-residencies at their sites, the artists made works responding to their experiences in these beautiful, remote, and fragile places. In many cases the site visits and ultimately the artists’ projects were profoundly impacted by engagement with local inhabitants, from scientists and specialists who facilitated their visits to community members who welcomed the artists, lending access to and understanding of their communities and their concerns.

Many of the projects involved the active contribution of the residents of the sites, integrating the knowledge, skills, and needs of the local populations. For example, projects by Ann Hamilton, Xu Bing, Marcos Ramírez ERRE, and Rigo 23 examine social connections between seemingly disparate cultures—those of the artist and those of the inhabitants of the locations. Mark Dion’s collaboration with the park rangers at his site resulted in a functional mobile resource library that directly responded to their needs. Other artists, such as Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Diana Thater, and Dario Robleto, focused their attention on disappearing habitats and the immediate and long-term implications of industrialization, species preservation, and global warming. Whatever their approaches, rather than creating didactic responses to environmental crisis, the artists tell the stories of their sites by both exposing and complicating the mythologies, histories, and function of these locations.

The long-term effects of this project will be multifaceted and meaningful for its numerous participants, bringing forward the voices and talents of the individuals the artists interacted or collaborated with at the World Heritage sites, opening up avenues of exploration for the artists, and suggesting new models of institutional partnership. Also key is the active engagement of the exhibition’s visitors, and the lasting impact of thinking about the connections between and relevance of contemporary art and environmental issues. The works on view in Galleries A, B, C, 2, and the Theater Gallery and the interpretive programs and publications that round out the exhibition—including an extensive website at artistsrespond.org—provide an opportunity for viewers to share in the artists’ experiences of these fascinating and complicated places. As Diana Thater has eloquently stated, “art changes the world by changing the way you see.”

Have our questions been answered? Rather than giving definitive responses, Human/Nature opens the door to a community of ideas about the social and cultural dimensions of our natural world. The human element of sadly familiar issues—global warming, overpopulation, deforestation, among other human-generated problems—is profoundly evident in each of the works of art. They are moving, confounding, delightful, noisy, and quietly exquisite, each true and each a matter of the imagination.

Lucinda Barnes
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections
With contributions by Stephanie Hanor, Senior Curator, and Lucía Sanromán, Assistant Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

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.