Barbican Art Gallery, London
19 June–18 October 2009
by JAMES WILKES
Yet at the same time, the use of these expressions continues unabated in popular discourse: when I read, on my box of oat biscuits, that oats are a ‘natural food’, I hardly stop to wonder what this means. The answer seems so obvious that it doesn’t really need unpacking: a food is more ‘natural’ in inverse proportion to the amount of industrial or mechanised intervention it undergoes.
Such a view would have been familiar to previous generations of painter, poets and thinkers for whom ‘nature’ provided a radical rallying point, from Rousseau and Wordsworth to Ruskin. Yet what complicates contemporary understanding of this category is not only ambivalence over whether or not the natural world bears witness “to the unwearied, exhaustless operation of the Infinite Mind”, as Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters in 18431, but a more profound blurring of the perceived division between ‘man’ and ‘creation’. This is contiguous with the rise since the late sixties of notions of ecology and the inseparability of human activity from environmental consequences, and, in the case of the deep ecology movement, a questioning of even these anthropocentric concepts.
It is appropriate therefore that the earliest works in this exhibition date from that time, tracking various currents of utopian, ecological, and activist art and architecture over the ensuing forty years. The pioneering efforts of Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, Richard Buckminster Fuller and others receive due attention, although the curators have decided against a chronological ordering, allowing the viewer to drift between historical and contemporary pieces and pick up the resonances between them as he or she wishes.
The conjunction of the Barbican’s expertise in staging architectural displays and the subject of this exhibition is a happy one: from Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, to Tomas Saraceno’s modular plastic balloons suspended in webbing and festooned with air plants, the gallery is filled with forms of architecture that propose other possible futures for the built environment. Along with Saraceno, this ‘new utopianism’ is espoused by the architectural collective EXYZT, who have built an off-site project on a piece of wasteland in Dalston, East London, constructing a working windmill that powers a flour mill and bread oven.
Some of the most exciting architectural works on display question or erode the dichotomy between built and natural, proposing instead an architecture of atmosphere. Philippe Rahm’s practice uses the immaterial materials of temperature, light and humidity, re-conceiving the functional space of the house as an inhabitable climate. He also produces installations, and has created Pulmonary Space for this show. The work captures the air exhaled by a wind quintet to fill a nylon structure which sits between them, making concrete the warm, biological and gaseous stuff through which music, long considered the most transcendent of the arts, comes into being. Another architectural practice, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, display a video documenting their famous Blur Building (2002), a series of gantries and walkways suspended over a lake in Switzerland. This structure vaporised water from the lake to create a swirling patch of fog around itself, an immersive meteorological environment that made of its visitors a community bound and blinded by their local weather. More recently, they have completed the first stage of the High Line project, which turns a disused elevated railway into an 18-block strolling park in New York’s Chelsea district2.
A more politically radical edge is apparent in a number of works, such as Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), for which the artist planted two acres of wheat on a Manhattan landfill site, eventually harvesting 1000 lbs. of grain from a piece of real estate worth around $4.5 billion. Animals feature prominently in a number of these more questioning pieces, perhaps unsurprisingly: the animal is both a potent symbol, in everyday humanist thought, for the relationship between human and non-human, and an increasingly urgent problem for contemporary intellectuals who question such humanist distinctions. Hans Haacke’s early works, such as Chickens Hatching (1969) and Intervention with Turtles (1970), now seem prophetic of the unease which the instrumental use of animals provokes.
Meanwhile, the late Wolf Hilbertz’s practice provides an example of how architecture, science, and socially-engaged art can overlap and inform each other over time. Hilbertz founded his work on the concept of ‘evolutionary environments’, or automatically created structures and buildings. In the mid-seventies he invented a method for precipitating a limestone material from seawater by passing a low electric current through a metal frame, and subsequently used this process to help reverse coral reef destruction through his work with the Global Coral Reef Alliance. At a time when the outlook for the planet can often appear bleak, Radical Nature is full of such examples that provide hope of another way forward.
1. John Ruskin cited in Michael Wheeler, Ruskin’s God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.29.
2. See Robin Pogrebin, ‘Renovated High Line Now Open for Strolling’, New York Times, 9 June 2009, p.C3. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/arts/design/09highline-RO.html?_r=1 [accessed 13 August 2009].