Back to the Land

A Berkeley Art Museum show explores imperiled habitats.

Since environmental challenges are now generally accepted by Homo
‘ chattering classes, Human/Nature: Artists Respond to
a Changing Planet
at the Berkeley Art Museum is a timely
art-world call to preservation and enlightened progress. Sponsored by
BAM, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and Rare, an
international conservation nonprofit, the project sent eight artists
into UNESCO World Heritage Sites — remote, endangered
natural/cultural habitats like Komodo National Park in Indonesia, the
Three Parallel Rivers area of China’s Yunnan Province, Brazil’s
Atlantic Forest Southeast Reserves, and Waterton Glacier International
Peace Park in Montana and Alberta. The expeditionary artists, who were
granted creative carte blanche, include Mark Dion, Marcos
Ramirez (ERRE)
, Rigo 23, and Dario Robleto.

Some of the artists chose to work socioculturally — and
sociably. Dion, fascinated by giant monitor lizards since childhood,
found himself instead “struck by the nobility (a word I seldom have the
chance to use)” and “the depth of knowledge, esprit de corps and
self-sacrifice the rangers embodied.” He created for them a much-needed
supply cart containing books, batteries, flashlights, maps, and
first-aid materials; a replica is shown here. Similarly, ERRE was less
taken with Yunnan’s giant panda and golden lion tamarin than with the
traditional way of life, eroded or enriched by globalization’s material
comforts and blandishments. Working with local carpenters, he created a
monumental symbolic house adorned with traditional painted cornices and
Buddhist-themed paintings (flowers, fish, lamps, snakes, wheels). Set
in the windows are plasma TV screens displaying videos of daily life:
women hauling baskets of dirt on their backs and Nike-shod young monks
with cell phones, all set against the Himalayan backdrop. In Cananeia,
Brazil, Rigo 23 enlisted nearly a hundred craftsmen, craftswomen,
farmers, and fishermen to work on an intertribal art project of
universal concern, transforming wood, banana fiber, and clay into
benign, organic versions of the Polaris submarine and the cluster

Other artists worked alone or with assistants. The inevitable
disappearance of Waterton Glacier led Robleto to explore the broader
theme of transience in nature (which includes us). His vitrines,
resembling reliquaries, specimen cases, or satin-lined coffins,
preserve and display objects made from fossilized 50,000-year-old wooly
mammoth tusks and cave bear paws, glass beakers, cuttlefish sepia,
ground fulgurites (sand fused by lightning strike into glass branches),
braided hair, and curled audiotape of extinct bird calls and human
languages without living speakers. Human/Nature runs through
September 27 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way,
Berkeley). or

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