The Anthropocentric and the Anthropocene – by Elina Cerla
The Anthropocentric and the Anthropocene: Can Imagination Push Open the Limits of Painting?
Imagine the remains of a quenched fire in a tiny village bar filled with a few lone souls who, before they brace the closing-time cold, await Valuska. The image is in black and white. “Valuska. Come on. Show us.” Valuska appears and positions one man in the centre of the room just cleared of tables and chairs, an expectant silence falls upon the small space. To the central figure he says, “You are the Sun.” Chubby fingers as waving rays of light evoke pathos, and then the Earth is placed into orbit and starts its stumbling path around the Sun. Soon the Moon joins in and a perfect visual choreography ensues where inebriated men are slowly and clumsily orchestrated, positioned and set into rotation, to momentarily take us on a journey into the cosmos. For a short time, these awkward men become a window onto far more than their weighted bodies; they coalesce and form something far bigger than the four walls that encapsulate them. (Béla Tarr, Werckmeister Harmonies, opening scene.)
Now walk with me into a darkened room, lit only by a projected image. You settle into a comfortable sofa and start watching a collage of borrowed scenes unfold in which clocks show the time. The edited assemblage of film fragments creates a parallel 24-hour cinematic clock, tick-tock, cut, tick-tock, cut, continuously projected in synchronicity with the time of day. At first the sequences jar against one another, minutes are stretched awkwardly over your own internal clock. Seconds and minutes are embedded in the visual experience, constantly present, tick-tock, cut. You stay, captivated by the idea, but still your time distends over this new time. You feel you have been there for at least twenty minutes, but an image reminds you it has only been seven. Maybe, drifting for no more than a minute, you open your eyes and the tick-tock, cut, tells you twelve minutes have elapsed, not one. The blink of an eye becomes relative, time is contracting and dilating. Tick-tock, cut. You don’t remember when you slipped into the projected patchwork, but for a while you are gliding both within and beyond time. (Christian Marclay, The Clock, Tate Britain.)
Walk with me just a little longer. You are entering a pitch-black corridor, trying to get your bearings, to feel gravity and where it is anchoring you. Your eyes start to adjust but not fast enough to avoid a slight thud against a wall. It gives you a direction so you step forward, then another step, and another and you are entering a huge room full of breathtakingly beautiful networks of light. Thin threads woven together into meshes catch the light and glow in the blackened space. These expansive lattices were once the transient homes of spiders most of which have now departed, successively replaced by others, the networks have literally been grown and woven to create an interspecies cosmos. One cluster leads to another, then another. As you wander through the space, aware of the intricate and complex fragility of the threads pulsating with your breath, you experience a complete shift of perspective. Your usual world, orbiting your subjective axis, dissolves and opens onto a new conception of networks, individuals and groups, allowing a glimpse into another dimension. (Tomás Saraceno, Webs of At-tent(s)ion, Palais de Tokyo.)
What exactly is happening when we are thrown, if only momentarily, into another dimension and how could an inebriated solar system, collage film and spider webs provide keys to opening a new sphere in figuration?
We can use these as metaphorical examples to wind back to painting. When we experience the room full of shimmering woven universes, we are immersed in the space, we walk through it and change our position, we let time flow around us. Space and time are palpably part of our experience of the work. If we remove a dimension, we have a moving flat screen. We have time and yet the representation of space is an optical illusion of light. In a collage film, as with animation, the conception of space changes and separates itself from illusion to become a more complex dialogue between the representation of space and the limitations of the medium. If we remove yet another dimension, that of time, we get to painting. Flat as it may be, it has its own arsenal of possibilities for representing space and time even if temporality isn’t inherent to its format. All languages have their specificities and with them the ability to throw us into far-flung imagined worlds.
More than imagination merely provoking curiosity, or aesthetic pleasure, our future may depend on our ability to radically reimagine and reimage the world. In geological ages, cataclysmic shifts are usually the stuff of vast tectonic and volcanic activity, or meteorites and asteroids colliding with the Earth, and yet we are now living in the Anthropocene, the first ever geological age to be impacted by human beings and the anthropogenic forces they have cumulatively caused. Although we can read the word A-N-T-H-R-O-P-O-C-E-N-E, we have difficulty grasping what it really means. Consequently, we store it somewhere at the back of our minds, as we have been very successfully doing, until it is too late. When we read “445 million years ago”, which marks the first mass extinction that took place on Earth, and “65 million years ago”, the most recent, the numbers and letters don’t really trigger anything we can identify with. We have no real experience of astronomical numbers so alien to our miniscule relative life expectancy. We are disconnected from the facts and, at best, simply store the information somewhere in our brain.
An abstract idea causes a stronger response if it is accompanied by sensory stimuli. An idea linked to emotions is more likely to impact us; such is the nature of empathy. However, as empathy is based on mirroring neuronal activity, we need to directly recognise and associate with what is being presented. It is difficult for us to feel empathy for concepts such as “anthropogenic forces”. And yet, if a concept is accompanied by sensory triggers, it will be processed by more areas of the brain and have a stronger effect. Saying “she was hungry for knowledge” will actually trigger a response to hunger and have more impact than “she wanted to learn”. Such is the power of metaphor. So, when Tomás Saraceno places us in a darkened room, which removes our sense of boundaries, and we face a dense and beautiful network of extremely fragile threads, so many silk nodes we cannot even begin to count, our experience of their complexity allows us to momentarily conceive of something beyond ourselves. To be able to begin to apprehend something as intangible as the Anthropocene, through visual metaphor, we may just be a little closer to being propelled into action.
This attempt in art to represent the limit of our cognitive ability is not new. The sublime is also the mind’s attempt to comprehend, or apprehend, something that is infinitely larger than the person living the experience. For Burke the sublime is related to being faced with situations that provoke fear or horror and yet, due to a certain awareness of distance, the overwhelming emotions are accompanied by a strange feeling of pleasure. According to Kant, the sublime is an aesthetic vibration caused by something too big for our sensory input to take in, too big to perceive, but that can be in some way recognised conceptually by the mind’s understanding. Ultimately, it is a tour de force that points back to human power, a mighty intellectual pat on the back. In representation, it is difficult to not automatically conjure Caspar David Friedrich’s celebrated imaging of the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Whilst representing the sublime, this painting illustrates how profoundly subjective the embedded worldview is; the very compositional axis is the human being. Most Western philosophy and aesthetics, not to mention economics and politics, have revolved around very aggressive egocentric and anthropocentric conceptions of the world. Developing strategies for glimpsing beyond this subjective worldview may be a powerful direction to explore in order to move forwards as a species.
An additional hurdle we face when trying to understand concepts far bigger than ourselves, in order to grasp their impact on us, is a barrage of cognitive biases that limit our comprehension. Other than the numerous biases that make us favor the status quo (from the backfire effect through confirmation bias to mere exposure), when dealing with situations which require drastic alterations to be made, we also face biases such as loss and dread aversion as well as hyperbolic discounting which sees us favoring short-term outcomes over long-term effects. Visualization and emotional responses can be powerful tools and yet, in trying to grapple with the consequences of the Anthropocene, rationality and critical awareness are of equal importance and key to understanding the limitations that make us a liability. All of these factors bring us back to the importance of metaphor which combines emotional and sensory responses with conceptualization and reason; sidestepping the false and unhelpful dichotomy between pathos and logos by embracing them both. Consequently, visualizations through empathy and metaphor are powerful tools in triggering heightened awareness.
To want to imaginatively tackle the problems posed by the Anthropocene is not necessarily every painter’s goal, but an awareness of what is at stake adds to the existing possibilities. Many painters end up painting their time, be it consciously or unintentionally. Turner eloquently captured one of the many anthropogenic causes of the Anthropocene by combining the sublime with the tearing power of industrialisation in Rain, Steam and Speed. Monet captured his shifting perception of light in different urban conditions, including smog and pollution. More recently, painters such as Jamie Wyeth have introduced a new focus by turning to nonhuman animals as the subjects of intimately observed portraits. One thing, however, is certain, the gravity of our current geological era (at least for human beings and countless other species) calls for a questioning of the anthropocentrism which has been its principal cause. This is also at the centre of some posthumanist debates which engage critically with the legacy of anthropocentrism and humanist philosophy. If painting is to adapt to the contemporary crisis, an ambitious re-envisioning of pictorial point of view will be necessary.
Radical reimagining and reimaging of the world are not new. They have taken place whenever we have been faced with significant new data and the need to compress this into understandable formats, including the new data that accompany changing world views. We are hard-wired to recognize patterns and so visualizations, such as maps, graphs, and charts, allow people to understand and engage with complex information. Even the most data-oriented graphs will have elements of design, and consequently some bias, creeping in. As a result, it is no wonder that visual representations of cosmologies include, as with painting and other visual media, an implicit worldview. A beautiful visual cosmology, first engraved by Antonio da Saliba in 1582, shows the world of the stars interacting with the terrestrial world, whilst incorporating different mythologies and religious beliefs into the layered understanding of the cosmos, with hell at the very center. Although Copernicus and Galileo finally displaced the existing geocentric cosmology, it wasn’t until 1968 that NASA released the iconic images Blue Marble and Earthrise which allowed people to really apprehend this worldview for themselves.
Maybe what is necessary in order to apprehend the Anthropocene is a new visual cosmology and, if painting wants to contribute to this, it will need to rethink its existing tools.
The discussion so far makes it clear that some of the most powerful representational tools available are related to shifting perspectives. They can be broken down into four related elements: expanse, relative position, compression of information and juxtaposition; in more technically applicable terms: scale, point of view, layering and context. These tools are vast and open many possibilities for creatively rethinking pictorial space, perspective and mark-making. Painters are already probing at the limits of pictorial imagination, trying out new combinations and recovering forgotten traditions. Isabella Kirkland’s work incorporates surprising creatures and endangered species into compositions that range from condensed naturalist settings to taxonomical archives. In Philip Govedare’s layered images traditional landscape collides with graphic marks reminiscent of cartological annotations and schematic designs, superposing different visual languages. Judith Belzer throws us into a disconcerting space of kaleidoscopic sensations as the ground seems to topple when we shift our focus from one point to another. These are only a few examples of exciting painters who are trying to incorporate an awareness of a shifting worldview into their work.
It is deeply unsettling to have to question our patterns of behaviour and yet the rapid degradation of our ecosystems requires we do just that. In the realm of painting, this throws up many questions ranging from the most eminently practical to the most theoretical concerns. On a day-to-day basis concerning studio organisation, this includes questions such as: Is using toxic materials such as lead white, cadmium-based pigments and turpentine a valid choice in the face of the cumulative effect of anthropogenic factors? In relation to dominant pictorial traditions: Is the use of linear perspective a coherent structure in the face of the need to imagine and image a new, less anthropocentric, visual language for the Anthropocene? All the way to more deeply culturally embedded questions such as: Do we need new mythologies for today and can painting help us build them? Finally, a larger uncomfortable question that arises is: Do the limitations of painting allow it to be a relevant medium in this era? This article does not provide painting with answers, but asking the right questions is one of the most important stages to finding solutions. In this case, solution may be too grandiose a term, but at least it may be a step towards being able to apprehend the Anthropocene and question the devastating effects of an anthropocentric worldview.