by Renny Pritikin
When gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park at the turn of the century, rapid changes ensued. Elk herds had to move more quickly to evade the wolves. This resulted in greater health for willows and other plants which the elk could no longer devour at their leisure. In turn, the increased availability of willow trees enabled the beaver population to grow from one to eight colonies. Bird populations soared, as did those of smaller predators such as lynx.
The hidden and complex nature of ecosystems and the human impact on them is one of the subjects guest curator Elizabeth Thomas addresses in MYR, a group exhibition at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. Candice Lin’s Verdant Curtain (2020), a long, wide tapestry that stretches from one gallery wall to the other with a passage in the middle through which visitors can pass, opens the exhibition. Its imagery appears to parody the 19th-century nature painting of Henri Rousseau or Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom (1830-32). What it depicts, however, is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which, in the absence of humanity for some six decades, now teems with life, as does the area in Ukraine around Chernobyl.
Thomas’ title, MYR, refers to time measured in million-year increments. This big-picture approach acknowledges the relatively recent arrival of humans on the planet and our likely short-term presence. Accordingly, the exhibition features artists who think about life and the universe in those terms. For example, a small suspended cable-and-wire orb by Tomás Saraceno, Zonal Harmonic 1N 100/9, (2017), elegantly depicts the interactions of invisible natural forces that encircle and shape our environment, modelling an idea he once proposed for large-scale colonies that float in the atmosphere.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s The Wilding of Mars, 2019, a four-channel video, simulates the terraforming of Mars to make it Earth-like. The idea is to distribute seeds and allow flora to adapt and thrive, eventually producing enormous changes in soil and atmosphere that might accommodate human habitation. These changes would occur over many millennia rather than play out across years, as Elon Musk might have it. Heather Dewey-Hagborg presents a mixed-media set of objects titled Lovesick (2019)
that purports to document the lab-based development of a retrovirus that acts on humans to increase the bodily production of oxytocin, a hormone that, according to Wikipedia, promotes “pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, gazing, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication.” Chilling though the idea of human-designed evolution may be, it suggests that only technological interventions of this magnitude can counterbalance our unstoppable despoliation of the planet.
Amy Balkin’s A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting (State: After COP 26, Glasgow, October–November 2021), (2012–present) invites residents of regions threatened by rising seas to contribute quotidian objects to an open-ended archive as a kind of anticipatory memorial; documented in a slide show, it aligns with efforts of other contemporary artists who prioritize activism, research and community participation.
Rhonda Holberton explores human-caused environmental damage by digging bomb-crater-shaped holes in the soil at three California sites connected to atomic weapons development. From them, she made casts resulting in tapered fungus-like objects about a yard wide inscribed on their flats tops with graphite lines that lend them a loamy aura. Because radiation produced by nuclear weapons lasts hundreds of millions of years, these objects serve as totems of danger for future generations.
Katie Paterson’s clearheaded, poetic installations of wall texts – half a dozen in all — dominate the exhibition and place her in league with a renowned group of artists, including Lawrence Weiner, Kay Rosen, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer. Each consists of sterling silver cut by waterjet. Her phrases, titled Ideas, are simultaneously silly, moving and clever. Example: The universe rewound and played back in real time. The largest piece in MYR, The Cosmic Spectrum (2019), a spinning vinyl disk about six feet in diameter, displays the average color of the universe throughout its history, a hue scientists have described as “cosmic latte.” Paterson also offers a boxed display of two pieces of incense, which, if burned, will ostensibly recreate the odor of Earth’s oldest forests.
Miriam Simun’s mural (accompanied by an online video and a poster), Training Transhumanism (I WANT TO BECOME A CEPHALOPOD), (2022) also appears in the exhibition, as do six short videos on related themes by Cauleen Smith, Jenna Sutela, Sissel Marie Tonn, Sophia Al Maria and Cannupa Hanska Luger.
In taking on the formidable task of curating an exhibition intended to be critical (but also imaginative and fun), Thomas has identified artists who have engaged with the distant past and the unfathomable future.
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“MYR” @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through August 27, 2022.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.