Yolanda Peralta Sierra
«Dead worms wriggling in a glass jar»
«Jardín salvaje», Ed. TEA, Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, 2019, pp. 30-39.
Humankind’s place in nature and the way in which humans relate with it can be contradictory and somewhat ambiguous. Religion looked on nature as the work of God and therefore deserving of respect. Ownership and dominion over the world—and nature— therefore corresponded to God, who sat at the very centre of the universe. The construction of a worldview in which nature and culture were separate entities was critical for the processes of conquest and control of the natural environment. It is no accident that this worldview can be traced back to the fifteenth century, coinciding with the age of discoveries. This severance, which laid the foundations for the disconnect between humans and nature, decreed that culture, associated with men, was hierarchically superior to nature, closely identified with women: and so, the social imposed itself over the natural. Nature was considered as something valueless, a property and a possession that could be exploited without limits with the sole purpose of serving the interests of its inhabitants. This reification of the environment and the separation between it and humankind became increasingly more evident from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards with the Industrial Revolution.
The human being has felt itself to be insignificant within the universe but it has also believed itself to be at its very centre; it has perceived itself in connection with nature and has wanted to understand it better in order to know where to situate itself as a species, yet at once it has longed to dominate and control it. As a result, it has implemented actions, relations and interrelations with the environment and the world based on contradictions. Rooted in fictions, desires and failures, Marina Núñez took these contradictions as the starting point for the exhibition Wild garden. Are we the centre of the world or a tiny fleck of dust in the immensity of the cosmos? Do we wish to establish a connection with the cosmos or are we more interested in the human expansion to know and control it? Could this drive actually end up in obsession and lead us to madness? These reflections by Núñez have been taking shape in series like Out of mind (constellations and supernovas) featuring female faces that explode, disintegrate and are transformed into astral bodies: empathizing so much with the universe has transmuted women into the universe itself or perhaps it is madness that has provoked the explosion of these faces.
Nonetheless, the desire to dominate, which seems to be inherent to the human being, has gone much further: its latest obsession is now to conquer and control death itself. We refuse to believe that we are merely fragile and vulnerable bodies and that we will get sick and die. We have developed a belief in immortality that hinges on the existence of a thing called the soul, which is contained in a receptacle of flesh and bone, in a fragile and ephemeral bodily outer wrapping which holds what we believe defines us, what we believe to be our essence. In her series Phantasma, Núñez recreates this immaterial supposition, but, freed from its bodily prison, it ends up turned into dust and vanishes like a puff of smoke, just like our hopes and dreams. The corpse-like faces are transformed into hollow tombs at the sight of which our integrity is shaken, provoking a profound existential angst: after death there is no new beginning, just a final departure.
One of the scenes from the film Rowing with the Wind (Gonzalo Suarez, 1988), which tells the story of Mary Shelley and how the myth of Frankenstein came into being, recreates a night in Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in summer 1816 during which the eccentric poet inflames an interesting and at times heated debate:
“Do you know what the finest poem would be? t would be the poem that gave life to matter by force of imagination alone.”
“It would be horrible.”
JOHN WILLIAM POLIDORI
“The imagination only creates things that are dead, although they may sometimes be beautiful.”
PERCY B. SHELLEY
“Do you know that the best our scientists can do, is to make a dead worm wriggle in a glass jar.”
Failure was inevitable. Efforts to defeat death have failed just like all our attempts to exploit and domesticate nature. The clash between uncontrollable natural forces and unpredictable technological advances has produced dreadful effects and consequences for the planet, but also for its inhabitants: colonization of the landscape, the transformation, alteration and modification of ecosystems and their irreversible process of destruction, or flawed experiments that have slipped through our fingers. The six video-projections in Too much world recreate a scene resonating with echoes of gothic stories and novels, in an atmosphere that combines structures of contemporary industrial archaeology with ruins that seem to be culled from romantic paintings by Friedrich, or even from the imagination of Mary Shelley. Too much world is underwritten by the cycle of creation and destruction and the dynamics of trial-and-error associated, in this case, with an attempt to impose order over something that slips through our grasp: the body. However, destruction does not lead to creation seems to be the message of the posthuman heads—rusted, fossilized and moss-covered like ruins—from which nuclear mushrooms arise, explosions that destroy the environment to create life: in an endless cycle, after each new explosion the smoke solidifies to create a new head that barely survives for a few seconds. We are dealing with excessive ambition that leads to failed experiments, which, like Frankenstein’s monster, turn out to be a catastrophe. But we are also dealing with an image that symbolizes the end of the sublime quality hitherto bestowed on nature.
Human beings have shaped knowledge and a form of technology that has rebelled and ended up shaping us, provoking mutations and generating not just a technological human being, but also a technological natural environs. Humanity has produced an involution in its environment and has transformed it into a hostile place for life. In Wild garden, the video-installation which lends its title to the exhibition as a whole, genetically modified species of plant grow out of all control. Incontrollable, threatening and increasingly more violent, these alien-plants in a technological garden take over everything around them, irreversibly changing the environment and eliminating all possibility of life. Nature, as the territory and biodiversity of the Earth, has been transformed by anthropic action and has suffered as a result of our actions. Despite the anthropization to which we have subjected the natural environs, impregnating it with artificiality, we still believe that it is somehow natural. In our imagination the wild or savage is synonymous with natural and we still believe in the existence of wild natural spaces that have never been altered or modified. This untamed wildness is a utopia, but so too is nature. Furthermore, the very concept of ‘natural’, conventionally used as a factor of order, is today devalued by its regressive and reactionary connotations. For instance, throughout the history of humanity feminine subordination was considered to be ‘natural’. Darwin himself in The Origin of the Species tried to argue the ‘natural’ inferiority of women as a scientific truth in order to justify male supremacy.
The artists of Renaissance gardens thought that their creations would give birth to a ‘third nature’, the result of a process of hybridisation between untouched nature, or first nature, and modified nature transformed by civilization, in other words, second nature. Therefore, the garden would be an artificial and artistic landscape, a staged and above all else domesticated nature. If what we call ‘wild’ cannot be controlled or dominated, can a garden actually be wild, as the title of the exhibition suggests? How can one of the most domesticated natural spaces that exist be wild? Is it not contradictory as well as improbable? Is there anywhere on the Earth that still has not been touched by human hands, in other words, still untamed? Is there such a thing as a wild natural place or territory? We like and are comforted by this idea inasmuch as a utopia, but not as a reality. We like to think of the natural as something prior to colonization by humanity and the reality is that there is no longer anything that is natural. Amazonia? The Antarctic? Pure uncontaminated nature does not exist, and everything has been ‘touched’ by humanity, even the ozone layer. There is no wild, intact place. As such, we are dealing with fiction and a contradiction: we like the idea of the wild, what cannot be controlled, what grows without control free from external interventions, but at the same time we wish to control and dominate nature.
In the series Nature Marina Núñez speculates with the possibility of dominating nature: ‘the wild’ has finally been trapped and domesticated, and is now on exhibit as a trophy, like a landscape. Or perhaps these are the last remnants of nature, preserved like a relic, that speak of a past that no longer exists, of a future that is increasingly closer and near at hand. Nature turned into a trophy, a relic and a decorative motif, domesticated, contained and trapped inside gigantic glass jars with gilded ornamentation, transformed into landscape and exhibited in different typologies —island, mountain, forest, mangrove— like the strange objects of a cabinet of curiosities and wonders. A visual catalogue of landscapes that calls to mind a long vanished world, but also nature as ornament. It is then when nature wriggles its way between the cracks of the gilded ornaments and we discover that what seemed to be dead is still alive and escapes, it grows and makes its way between the cracks and fissures, just like grass that is covered over by asphalt continues to grow and find its way back to the surface. Life often inexplicably finds a way, just like the weeds that gradually take over these vases remind us that the triumph was just a mirage, an illusion.
The human desire to control and dominate nature, the Earth, life, the very universe, comes from a primeval thirst for knowledge which, with the passing of time, has turned into an obsession. Understanding the world, first through religion and then later through science, would lead humanity to self-knowledge but domination was made possible by a lack of empathy, disconnect and distance. Science has given us knowledge and beliefs; religion has offered us a cosmological iconography plagued with angels, clouds and orbs. The efforts by both religion and science to explain and understand the cosmos are naïve and have created an illusion: the illusion of knowledge and of control. How is it possible to learn and understand what is ungraspable? How can you control the incontrollable? The relationship between science and religion is at the very groundbase of Wandering heaven, an audiovisual work that adumbrates the possibility of dialogue and of complementarity, of two historically opposed and confronted worldviews. Here, clouds, angels and orbs are elements in an iconography of the spiritual and the evanescent in which our efforts to grasp the occult knowledge by which we might ultimately know and understand how the universe works also vanish into thin air like the clouds contained in glass spheres.
Knowledge, with its manifold possibilities, is always presented to us unfinished, unresolved, always open. In the series Cracks, large eye-shaped fissures open in the wall and from the inside emerge numerous eyeballs that come together and rehearse different configurations in an unstoppable process. But the configurations always turn out to be unstable and the whole exercise starts over again and becomes never-ending. The thirst for knowledge through science leads to a process of trial and error. Have we failed because we do not discover an exact and stable configuration? Or should we perhaps accept the impossibility of knowing everything?
Our utter ignorance of or at most tenuous insight into our environment has led us to the conclusion that it is calculable, always from a reductionist perspective in which the individual has situated himself outside the natural environs, resting on a sense of not belonging to it. Ideas and images coming from science and from religion have shaped our vision and our knowledge of nature but they have also shaped our perception, both sensorial and physical, and our visual and corporal relationship with nature.
In Wild garden Marina Núñez warns us about the need to rethink our relationship with nature on a symbolic level, understanding it as a vital space for the human being in consonance with what Maria Sibylla Merian, the naturalist, entomologist and painter who created a series of illustrations depicting animals and plants interrelated and interconnected in communities, already defended back in the seventeenth century. At a time when species were traditionally represented and studied separately from one another, Merian’s drawings reflected the union of plant and animal in harmony, forming part of an indissoluble whole and symbolizing a consciousness that has still not fully awakened today: the consciousness of the interrelations of profound interdependence between living beings and their environment, their habitat. Through empathy we could transform a bond which, in the light of its effects and consequences, has been based on egoism, egocentrism and individualism up until now. But we will only truly empathise with all living beings if we engage in a profound observation of nature, and only if we accept and experience our belonging to the natural environment by establishing a harmonic bond and a balanced relationship. Perhaps, as the video-projection called Immersion seems to suggest, this will be possible if human beings were to situate themselves on the same level as nature, and not above it, and connect with the living world through empathy and rootedness, in relationships of equality and respect, with a perspective of the human that goes beyond anthropocentrism and in the belief in a notion of identity based on our relationship with the natural environment. Immersion invites us to explore a universe of cavities, stony landscapes, geometric and plant-like architecture in a world of artificially carved fractals, in an endless landscape in which women blend in with the backdrop. Does the origin of the cosmos reside in them? Have they created it in their own image? Have they generated identities related with their environment through a process of empathy? Is this a world of ornaments and also of dichotomies that women wish to dilute —nature-artifice, plant-geometric— because, for many of those who explore these cavities, in search of knowledge, one cavity leads to another and then to another, just as one idea leads you to another, in a process that seems to have no end: it is the vastness of the universe compared with the insignificance of the human being.
Perhaps it is not just a question of rethinking our relationship with nature: but also our knowledge of it. It would be germane to establish an understanding of the interrelations between the human being and nature from other viewpoints, to expand our gaze. And, given that our relationship with nature is corporal as well as visual, it is incumbent on us to favour this reencounter from a dynamic mindset, and not from a static position like up until now, in the understanding that nature, in the realms of knowledge and of relationships, has the power to influence, condition and transform our sensorial and also our physical perception. Human beings have repeatedly shown an inability to think of themselves as part of nature. Having arrived at this point, the question we should ask ourselves is whether our lack of environmental consciousness is the result of our lack of physical connection with our habitat. An identification with the environment and with the rest of living beings would undoubtedly favour a strengthening of our bond with nature, with the Earth, with the world. Ecofeminist theory and praxis can help, today more than ever, to change our worldview in order to rebalance this relationship and help us to understand, once and for all, that it is the environment to which we belong, of which we form part and on which we depend for our survival. If this does not happen, we will continue to be incomplete and fragmented beings and, what is worse, we will be doomed to failure and extinction.