We Are Made Of Star Stuff (2018)
Gibson / Martelli
Carl Anderson, Matija Bobičić, Jonathan DeDecker, Sigrid Holmwood, Emily Hunt, Gibson / Martelli, Anthony Miler, David Surman, Thom Trojanowski, Aviya Wyse.
Curated by David Surman
There is a shared assumption for those in the business of selling pictures that green isn’t good for trade. Speculations on the evils of green range from the abject to the decorative. Perhaps green reminds us of our bodily expulsions, of rancid septic wounds? Some say that green just doesn’t ‘go’, that is, it doesn’t jive with the handmade wallpapers or cascades of champagne white light in the aerie of contemporary collectors.
Piet Mondrian famously expelled green from his palette as he arrived at his mature practice in those pivotal years around 1917. Various theories of colour circulated in the early throes of modernism, establishing a clear hierarchy, primary, secondary and tertiary. Red, blue and yellow would be colours of the first order, the colours of truth and change, augmented by the absolutes of black and white. Green takes a place in the second division in this human view.
Of Mondrian’s dislike for green there is perhaps more to the story. He was enamoured with the theories of the theosophists, a spiritual avant-garde that had a significant influence on the visual and literary arts. Prominent member of the Theosophical Society Charles W. Leadbeater expounded various theories of the ‘aura’ -- a field of energy all living things possess -- in which differing colours index the mental and physical states of being. Of course here too green gets short shrift, “grey green (slimy) shows deceit”. In Anthony and Cleopatra Shakespeare described envy as the “green sickness”, from which “green with envy” originates.
Though relegated to a lower order in human constructions of colour, green nonetheless encompasses us and our visual field as the colour of nature. Seen from the present, the effort to suppress nature and subordinate it under the field of human activity is the presiding characteristic of modernity. Mondrian’s masterpiece Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1943 finds no space for the edifying green parks designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted where New Yorkers find some measure of relief from modern life.
Fast forward seventy years and the consequences of this ineluctable rejection of green can be felt in every part of life. Green takes on a third meaning, becoming a kind of vague catch all to refer to action or consideration taken for our collective ecosystem. Art is inextricably linked at every level with the living world -- from the formal to the infrastructural to the psychological to the economic -- art is within this world. Global warming and climate change are the externalised costs of the dreams of modernity in which art played a central role.
The changes to our shared climate have a profound impact on art. We are no longer innocents with respect to our appreciation of even a warm spring day. As philosopher Timothy Morton suggests, with knowledge comes the looming shadow of climate disaster. I look outside from my Covid-19 quarantine -- is it unseasonably warm? “Nature” once provided artists with an unchanging model of permanence against which the fragility and short-lived human experience could be measured. Through science and art we can rethink nature, in fact for the better, by examining our historic and ongoing dislike of “green”.
The global pandemic is radically restructuring the world along new lines, presenting a series of opportunities but also threats as multiple simultaneous crossroads are approached. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic the philosopher Bruno Latour writes that “...the health crisis is not embedded in a crisis (because they are always transitory), but in an ongoing, irreversible ecological mutation.” “Crisis” is not a big enough term, and art must account for this new global scale. The history of art employs a dialectical logic that tends toward periods of intensity and periods of transition, while maintaining some underlying level of constancy. Perhaps the global ecology was that constant, but art will have to change in response to the enmeshed crises of the pandemic-as-dress-rehearsal for climate disaster. We will not ‘come out of’ climate change as Latour notes, it is a mutation, a permanent whole-organism change.
As the pandemic ravages on through 2020 and governments struggle to spurn their underfunded institutions into adequate action, the artworld goes through its own reflexes. Always slow to engage with digital infrastructure, the gallery world now leaps at the idea of ‘viewing rooms’ in order to reenact the minimal terms of normality in this new mutating space. It is of little consequence for artists who have bigger priorities, for it falls to them among others to imagine the future and put their weight behind the possible contingent outcomes that are least destructive.
The future of art is green. It is a future in which the taboos and nostalgias of the twentieth century are finally put to bed. The Covid-19 pandemic will usher in the true face of the twenty-first century in much the same way the revolutions and wars of the 1910s did the twentieth while putting to bed major aspects of the nineteenth. Let’s use our social distance and our quarantine to say thank you to the radical emancipatory spirit of modernity which produced radicals like Mondrian, and at the same time let’s see it as integral to a tremendous runaway machine that leaves us sitting, now in quarantine, contemplating the shadow meaning of green leaves on these hot spring days.
David Surman, May 2020