Questions of entropy have concerned artists since Robert Smithson’s early experiments and writings, back in the 1960s, and Rudolf Arnheim’s seminal essay, Entropy and Art, of 1971. Obviously, this issue of energy crisis and loss is renewedly salient in the current climate, with pressing environmental concerns, such as global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels. Emerging artist Steven Morgana, currently completing his MFA at Goldsmiths College, confronts these issues head on in his first solo exhibition, currently on show at La Scatola Gallery, an eerily minimalist space, at the foot of the banking world’s tall city towers.
Recurring motifs of a rainbow – symbolic of the beauty of uninterfered with nature, but also of peace – and repeated references to waste products and comparative value, serve as a timely commentary on issues of sustainability and human interference within our ecosystem. One of the two large sculptural installations, How Much Does Your Building Weigh? (2012), consists of a geodesic dome built out of cardboard, suspended from a pulley system, and held in equilibrium with a smaller stack of cardboard sheets, purportedly the waste matter from the construction. The dome itself is fairly non-utilitarian, and the pile of waste almost as substantial as the product itself. As Smithson said, in an interview a couple of months before his death:
“There’s a certain kind of pleasure principle that comes out of preoccupation with waste. Like if we want a bigger and better car we are going to have bigger and better waste productions. So there’s a kind of equation there between the enjoyment of life and waste. Probably the opposite of waste is luxury. Both waste and luxury tend to be useless.”
A similar highlighting of the (im-)balance between commodity, value, and waste, is to be found in Alchemy and Chemistry (2012), a set of three inkjet prints, each depicting a plastic water bottle (Volvic, Highland Spring, and Evian, respectively), but filled with a yellow tinted liquid, which, it turns out, is actually unleaded petrol, although, at first glance, one might wonder about rain water, urine, or some other polluted fluid. The individual titles further give the comparative prices per litre of the original bottle contents and the pictured petroleum – the latter, surprisingly, being minimally cheaper in each case. Shocking really, when we are amidst a fuel crisis, and water is, in principle, something which is freely available.
Talisman (Energy Adventures in the Northern Peruvian Amazon) (2012) presents
a photo-collage of a picture from a children’s colouring book overlaid upon a photograph of marching Peruvians with rainbow flags and rainbow coloured-scarves, protesting against exploratory well drilling in the Amazon Basin. The colouring image comes from a book produced by Talisman Energy, the company responsible for the drilling, and shows Terry the friendly Fracosaurus, dressed in hard hat and boots, and carrying a drill. It was widely distributed to children in Pennsylvania and New York before ultimately being withdrawn. Fracking, the blasting of land to release natural gas, is one of the most contentious issues of fossil fuel extraction.
The least pointed and most beautiful work in the exhibition is the second sculptural installation, It Was All Ephemeral as a Rainbow (Welcome to the Anthropocene!) (2012), which consists of a concave mirror, bisected by horizontal, rainbow-coloured, neon and argon lights, bending the other way. Reflected in the mirror, they form a complete circle of rainbow light. The work, however, is powered by a portable petrol generator, positioned prominently nearby, thus destroying any illusion of nature, and reminding visitors that even works of art leave their environmental footprint. The Anthropocene referenced in the title is, further, a recent coinage to refer to the extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. Whilst standing and enjoying the colourful illusion, the viewer’s own reflection also becomes captured in the mirror, reinforcing, once more, the unwelcome intrusion of man into nature.
As gallery director and curator, Valentina Fois, summarises, this exhibition seeks “to unravel the paradox between notions of beauty and nature, and concepts of social progress and co-operation.” The sparsity of works, the loftiness of the gallery itself, and the visibility of generators and disused packaging, invites strong comment upon the issues at hand: value, waste, and man’s interference with the Earth. Is entropy therefore unavoidably also a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration? Morgana raises the questions; it’s up to us to think about the answers.
Steven Morgana: The Future Feels Like a Phantom Limb is at La Scatola Gallery from 11 May – 15 June 2012.