Saturday, April 25, 2009

after nature landscapes

When I hear the phrase "after nature" or post-nature, I instantly think of the phrase post-apocalyptic. I don't really intend this but I did do a project in my first year of grad school that was all about that. I never really connected what "after nature" might have to do with a post-apocalyptic world but this week's blog might be the place to do that.

I think I'm a little obsessed by landscapes with a certain "after nature" quality to them. It might come from my fascination with post-apocalyptic movies or sci-fi movies in general. One of the greatest films of this category is one that still haunts me, Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes
illustrates the pyramid scheme of nature that humans have always been at the top of. What if it was inverted? What if apes passed us by? What if plants passed us by? I think that's the question that an image like William Christenberry's stirs...

William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981.

Although I don't think Christenberry was thinking about this topic when he started taking the photos of kudzu in the 1970s, the image and the interview for the show After Nature seem to allude to a certain overwhelming power this plant possesses. "A vine that devours the American south," says Christenberry in an interview for the show. Which is interesting and partly the reason it is in the show. It takes over everything. It's as if humans possess no power to control it and unlike other plants, if you cut it back, it's not gone- it just comes back.

But this control over nature that we think we might possess is really just a false sense of security anyway. Example A - the events of the past week in Mexico and the spread of an A (H1N1) virus to the rest of the world (this virus is almost identical to the one that started the Spanish pandemic of 1918 that killed between 20 and 100 million people worldwide). This virus probably won't be as deadly as the Spanish plague but what it does is scarry. The virus originates in animals; first birds, then pigs, and it crosses back and forth for a while until it hits humans. When it hits humans, it strikes their immune system inciting what is called a cytokine storm where the body's immune system fights back so hard that it actually collapses. And it doesn't just strike kids and old people who are usually susceptible to illness; it strikes healthy, young and mature adults who's immune systems are actually tougher. Their systems try to fight the virus with all they can and that can turn into a fatal reaction. Pretty freaky.

So, I think this control over nature we think we possess isn't really control. I don't think after nature particularly exists in the ways it'd be neat to think that it exists (the Jetsons).

The Jetsons in Orbit City

It'd be neat to think about it this way. A fantastic sky city where the horrible part of nature (the earth) is completely obstructed by clouds. A similar utopic-post-nature vision is setup in WALL-E where the humans have abandoned earth and are living in a space-cruise boat. Both plots assume that humans get to a point where nature can simply be removed from the equation. A point where humans ascend to the highest point they can and don't have any reason to come back down.

I'm not gonna suppose that happens. I'm not gonna suppose that humans will ever get to a point or are already at the point where we are living post-naturally. We are in a full-contact sport with nature. It's ongoing and neither side could be considered winning. For every step of progress we make to combat the force of nature (levies, vaccinations, fire proofing, concrete, etc.) nature seems to always be one step ahead. I'd like to see art that assumes that we aren't winning this war with nature (maybe Eirik Johnson?). Like Christenberry's (even though he didn't really intend it to be in a post-apocalyptic show), work that has nature winning as the default.

What's really weird (I think the show kind of remarks on it) is to think about how Christenberry's images could actually be the backdrop for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. A story about a man and his son who have to walk across a deserted United States in search of civilization and on the run from cannibals.

Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980

Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980

High Kudzu, near Akron, Alabama, 1978

Fortunately for me, the post-apocalyptic enthusiast that I am, The Road is coming out as a feature film this October and is starring Viggo Mortenson. Oh, and here's a shameless link to my old project. I never really pondered that it was post-nature, just post-human, really post-man or men. Nature was still controlled (note the cut grass) but later on I did my best to try and minimize the look of our control. I'd photograph out in abandoned lots and overgrown parks on the west side of Chicago. I'd like to resume the project eventually, probably minus the cloned men.

1 comment:

  1. I like your comparison of Christianberry's photographs to Planet of the Apes. I don't think we often consider that plant life could physically overtake our species even though it tries to all the time. Apes seem like the obvious animal to out-evolve us but the idea that a vine without a brain could somehow smother our existence is very intriguing.