SYRACUSE––On a visit to give my Farewell lecture at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, I found a gem of an exhibition on their second floor: Suzanne Anker: 1.5° Celsius (February 9 – April 21, 2019). In fact, there were two solo shows under the umbrella title of Strata. The other was Frank Gillette: Excavation and Banquets, primarily a video exhibition.
It was excusable to confuse them as one solo show because they were a perfect fit, the one complementing the other. As Anthony Hawley wrote in a review in Hyperallergic, “what could be better…two artists wrestling with the intersections of technology and massive ecological shifts, brought on by the Anthropocene.”
This kinship was one of several masterstrokes by curator DJ Hellerman. However, this review is for Anker––one of the finest exhibitions, maybe the best, I have seen in a couple of years. It is informed by an artist’s deep research without academic baggage. She does not attempt to preach or instruct, nor impress us with her grasp of her subject. She allows the content to sneak gently into one’s consciousness. I made five rotations of the exhibition and it grew richer visually and intellectually on each lap.
A Bio Art pioneer, visual artist and theorist Anker works at the intersection of art and the biological sciences, revealing the 21st century’s assault on nature. She is concerned with genetics, climate change (the 1.5° Celsius in the title references the projected increase in temperature between 2030 and 2052 if global warming continues at its current pace), species extinction and toxic degradation, juxtaposed against the beauty of life and, as she states, “necessity for enlightened thinking about nature’s ‘tangled bank’.”
Her books include The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, co-authored with the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin, Visual Culture and Bioscience, co-published by the University of Maryland and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Chairing the School of Visual Art’s (SVA) Fine Arts Department in New York City since 2005, Anker interweaves traditional and experimental media in her department’s new digital initiative, that she founded, the SVA Bio Art Laboratory.
The exhibition comprises a series of works or better, events. The first is Pallette, a reference to rainbow hues that she selected. The videos are of time-lapse records of coral’s slight movement projected onto seven blocks of color. The prominent placement of the projectors added a 3-D sculptural context.
Inspired by terrariums, cabinets of curiosities, and the International Space Station (ISS), Astroculture explores the possibilities of future food growth in space. Using a combination of red and blue LED lights to produce photosynthesis, the process of transforming light energy into chemical energy, the entire gallery was bathed in a vibrant fuchsia and pink glow.
Vanitas (In A Petri Dish), a floor to ceiling grid of photographs, reinvents the 16th century tradition of vanitas paintings that focus on the tenuous quality of mortality and death.
Hawley notes that “Anker’s photographs primarily include organic objects, but selectively incorporate items made by the human hand. Similar to historical vanitas paintings, Anker chose each item intentionally for either its scientific attributes or symbolic value. Dead insects, fresh fruit, and bones all suggest the dual existence of growth and decay that occur on Earth.”
These photographic works are the raw material for Remote Sensing, a series of rapid prototype sculptures Anker makes with the satellite technology used to explore and gather data in territories deemed impossible for human visitors. Anker scans her Vanitas photographs to make 3-D extrusions in plaster, glue, and colored pigment. These sculptural, petri-dish “prints” look like gorgeous crystalline landscapes.
Then comes Biota, the ceramics. You may have wondered why Cfile was reviewing this show. I did not expect them, nor their power or Anker’s impressive use of this medium.
Biota is made from dead sea sponges dipped in porcelain slip; during firing, the sponge is burned away leaving a permanent replica. Anker then places tiny silver figures, “Reminiscent of prehistoric ‘Venus’ statuettes, the figurines are similar in appearance to the earliest known artifacts of figurative art and embody the human desire to know and reproduce the self.”
Sponges are animals, not plants. Anker views them as a “metaphor for the human brain” and not just in their visual echo, but because they share 70 percent of their genetic makeup with the human brain. They are used in understanding of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“Silver figurines crawling among the brain-like sponges signal the persistent desire of the human brain to discover itself. Reminiscent of prehistoric “Venus” statuettes…the earliest known artifacts of figurative art and embody the human desire to know and reproduce the self.”
These sponges are beautiful and serene, unlike Carbon Collision of the Diamond Mind, a second series of objects in which Anker applied the same ceramic technique used to produce the Biota sculptures. This time she fires tube sponges whose tubes emerge as mysterious pipes with a disturbing quality. Anker calls them “ghosts of sponges.” Maybe traps, maybe artifacts left by alien creatures? The latter is stronger because the metallic glaze transforms the sea animals into objects, with no clue as to their purpose. Or perhaps as Anker suggests they are pseudo-meteorites.
They are beautiful and, at the same time, untrustworthy and, with their thorny surfaces, unfriendly. The surface glaze is effective and when it “breaks” on sharp points it glitters like stars in a galaxy; in the installation, the works form a miniature debris field, similar to those created by the particles from outer space that occasionally collide with the Earth. Such collisions, both real and artistically manufactured, are signals of how little is truly known about outer space and reminders of the chance encounters that bring the Earth and the unknown together.
This is conceptualism at its best. Kudos to Suzanne Anker, to the Everson Museum of Art for taking on this ambitious project and producing an exceptional installation, and to DJ Hellerman’s impressive curating with David Ross. All rare birds in the arts today.
Photography by: Raul Valverde / onwhitewall.com
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