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radical nature

June 26, 2009
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[Guardian] Judging by Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009, Nature is in crisis. It’s not just the familiar ecological message of the show – that the planet is fragile and we’re not helping matters – but something more unsettling, almost uncanny. It feels like Nature is shrinking. Importantly, when it comes to art, Nature is not nature. Without the capital letter, nature is merely all that organic stuff around us; Nature, on the other hand, is an aesthetic category, which (to simplify considerably) turned up with romanticism. For the romantics, Nature came in two basic flavours. There was the Sublime: mountains, storms, icebergs and so forth – forces which, in their vastness and intensity, had the power to overwhelm human senses. Then there was the Beautiful: nature that was bounded, reasonable and pleasing – a rolling English landscape, a field of daffodils. In the world outside the gallery we still find plenty of examples of sublime, often terrifying nature. Tsunamis sweep across tourist beaches. Earthquakes swallow suburban housing developments. But at the Barbican, Nature is a puny, sickly creature. It inspires melancholy, nostalgia, pity, gallows humour. It’s not even really beautiful any more. It’s a problem, a remnant, something that needs to be conserved and argued for. The chances of being romantically overwhelmed are slim.

Nature in its uncapitalised form is actually present in the gallery, in the form of living plants and trees. There are some rhododendrons on a floating island. There’s a functioning vegetable plot, an ornamental garden inside a shed and even a patch of rainforest startlingly flipped on its side so the trees grow parallel to the floor. We see these green things up against materials that speak of technology and artificiality – mirrored surfaces, steel, the white gallery walls. The effect is unsettling. Is Nature now just a point-and-click option, a bit of rhetoric for artists and architects to deploy, just as they might choose to use Super 8 film, or porn mags, or gallons of Hershey’s chocolate syrup? It seems to have been domesticated, controlled. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite … natural. (read)

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