Pace University Art Gallery
February 4,-March 20, 2020 (extended due to COVID-19 pandemic)
We all eat.
We all need to eat.
In the Digestive Systems exhibit here at Pace University, EcoArtTech, Maria McKinney, and Dana Sherwood use photography as part of their practice to explore food production and consumption. Through the commonality of food—the sustenance of life—the artists poignantly illustrate the interconnectedness of human and non-human animals. In this Anthropocene epoch, during which the Earth’s climate is predominantly impacted by human (in)actions, the artists advocate that we must care for our shared environment. The artists have collaborative processes that serve as potential models for sustainable relationships among humans and between species. Further, each highlights our planet’s inherently symbiotic ecosystem by finding the synergy in and between manually manipulated and digital lens-based media.
EcoArtTech, a joint project of Leila Nadir and Cary Adams Peppermint, is exhibiting Microbial Selfies, a series of photographs created with custom built electronics and software that allows the microbes within fermenting fruit and vegetables to take their own “selfies.” The resulting abstractions—including close-ups of blueberry mead, red cabbage kraut, and kombucha generated when a microorganism moves—are vividly colored, biomorphic forms with algorithmic alterations triggered by the submerged sensors’ chemical readings of the bubbling recipes. In the artists’ own words, they work “collaboratively with local communities (human, bacterial, and ecological) to resuscitate fading food practices including fermentation” to facilitate our shared recovery from what they call “industrial amnesia.” By fusing new “hi-tech” computer components and ancient “low-tech” cooking techniques to make visible that which is invisible, EcoArtTech underscores that our ecosystem is infinitely more complex and teeming with life than it may initially appear. Consequently, their work urges viewers to value the full spectrum of Earth’s living beings. For the health of the planet and all of its inhabitants, Nadir and Adams Peppermint offer concrete strategies by which technology can be used to cultivate a stronger human connection to nature rather than perpetuating its continued use to isolate humans from the environment of which they are an intrinsic part.
Like EcoArtTech, Maria McKinney makes evident what was previously unseeable and therefore unknowable. Based on her collaboration with scientists and farmers at a stud farm, the artist presents a selection of photographs from her Sire series which draws poetic parallels between ancient fertility rituals and contemporary genetic breeding techniques. The photographs, each featuring a side view of an impressively corpulent bull alongside a much smaller human handler, are reminiscent of British livestock paintings from the 1800s that celebrated the wealth of the owner and promoted the virility of the animal. However, while similar compositionally, McKinney’s bovine subjects look directly at the viewer, conveying the undeniable power of their individual lifeforce. Additionally, in each formal portrait, the bull carries a sculpture of its own genomic structure or economic breeding index that the artist has constructed out of brightly colored artificial insemination straws. Quite literally, the once unexplained inner magic of life and regeneration is revealed externally. McKinney handweaves her contemporary plastic objects using the traditional patterns and craft techniques that were used in pre-Christian Ireland to create fertility dolls out of the harvest’s final hay straw. In doing so, she effectively draws the connection between past and present human efforts to control nature to ensure ample food production.
Dana Sherwood’s video, Feral Cakes, as well her drawings, sculpture, and photographs are also on view in the Digestive Systems exhibit. For her work, the artist creates elaborate tabletop tableaus that reference historical still life paintings and children’s make-believe tea parties simultaneously. However, these elaborately decorative feasts are made not for human consumption, but rather for the artist’s non-human neighbors’ nourishment and enjoyment. Thus, these nature morte scenes do not remain inanimate for long. Filming in her backyard and other liminal sites where human and non-human animals already share (and/or compete for) spatial and nutritional resources, Sherwood employs a combination of fantasy and improvisation to emphasize human kinship with animals. Sherwood’s setups are “a tool to understand culture and behavior and more importantly to recognize that we are not separate from nature and the ecosystem.” Rooting her work in scientific research, Sherwood embraces her animal neighbors as individually agent collaborators who often behave in ways she cannot control or predict. Her humorous videos draw a crowd and—unusually for wall mounted media work—viewers stand together to watch and discuss the work from start to finish, cultivating further the interrelation amongst humans and between species. Sherwood’s self-described magical-realism is additionally advanced in her intimate watercolor illustrations that whimsically depict her animal neighbors’ carousals complete with sausage party banners and shrimp topped cakes. Finally, Sherwood accentuates the shared human/animal space by bringing Crossing the Wild Line, a resin facsimile of a food cart feast, into the gallery.
With these three bodies of work, the Digestive Systems exhibit examines the damage being done to the Earth’s ecosphere via the universality of food production and consumption. Human and non-human animals need food—and, likewise, fertile earth, fresh air, clean water, and sun enough to flourish. If we see ourselves as part of nature, then perhaps we can find a long-lasting balance. Collectively, the artists chart a restorative path for us not only in their artistic content but also by investing in cooperative work models and seamlessly integrating new technologies with traditional artmaking materials.
Art Gallery Director
Installation images by Adam Reich