Culture Clash: Nature and Civilization Face Off in the Art of Michael Wang
By Patrick Rogers
The rooftop garden of the Swiss Institute Contemporary Art gallery in New York looks much like you'd expect of a newly renovated former bank building in lower Manhattan. Rows of simple aluminum planters line the small rectangular space, sprouting leafy greenery that frames views of the busy streets below.
Yet this ordinary-looking urban garden is actually a work of art with something to say about the troubled relationship between nature and human culture. Artist Michael Wang chose each of the four varieties of vegetation now growing on the institute's roof for a very particular reason: All of the plants are in trouble. One of the species, franklinia alatamaha, is classified by The International Union for Conservation of Nature as "EW," extinct in the wild.
"Extinct in the Wild," 2018, Swiss Institute installation, by Wang.Michael Wang and Foxy Production, New York
Wang sometimes describes these species as "homeless." They are nature's orphans—plants that wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for the care of their human handlers. Ginkgo biloba, for instance, began dying off in the wild thousands of years ago in the mountains of central China, probably when human hunters wiped out whatever large animal had been spreading its seeds. Those same people, however, valued ginkgo trees so much they had already begun cultivating them, often planting them at temples and in cemeteries. "Today we know the ginkgo from cities almost all over the world," says Wang, "and wherever they are found, even trees that are centuries old, they are associated with human planting."
Wang's rooftop Extinct in the Wild installation is the latest in a series of projects that explore the impact of disruptive "global systems," such as trade, industrialization, colonization and climate change, on the natural world. "I wanted to trace the passage of these species from nature into culture," he said. In the process, he highlights the contradictions of the power we wield. We push flora and fauna to the brink of eradication only to put them on life support—sometimes for centuries. He asked, "How can you cause the extinction of a species in one context while also allowing its propagation beyond what would be purely natural in another context?"
Wang casts an almost microscopic gaze on this fraught relationship in another exhibition currently on view in Palermo, Italy. Carboniferous, a series of exquisitely detailed photographs, showcases samples of delicate fossilized ferns and tree bark discovered in coal deposits in Poland and the southern U.S. The ancient plants, now extinct, survive only as inert imprints in the toxic fuels that have powered commerce and industrialization.
"Carboniferous," 2018, by Wang.Michael Wang and Foxy Production, New York
In another part of the Palermo project, Drowned World, nature wreaks science fiction–style revenge on the industrial world. As visitors to the city's botanical garden climb a stainless-steel staircase, they peer over a high wall into an industrial site that was once the coal-gas plant powering the city's streetlamps. There, Wang has installed a forest of plants similar to the ones that grew around 300 million years ago, in the Carboniferous era, and eventually became coal and other fossil fuels. Thirty-foot araucarias trees, towering ferns, cycads and epiphytes flourish among rusted machinery and gas tanks.
"Drowned World," 2018, by Wang.Michael Wang
Wang wants to make visible again the lost forest that made the fossil-fueled modern world possible. "The imagery of industrialization has been dominated by inorganic materials, concrete or steel or glass, and I wanted to bring its organic origins to light," he said. At the same time, the artist, who takes meticulous care of the plants and animals he uses, imagines a world in which vegetation from hundreds of millions of years ago somehow restores the atmosphere that we have polluted with our daily lives and activities—including art itself.
An artist's impact on the planet is more than aesthetic. For his provocative and ongoing Carbon Copies series, Wang calculates the carbon footprints of works by well-known contemporary artists. First he measures, for example, the energy needed to mine the diamonds of Damien Hirst's 2007 skull-shaped sculpture For the Love of God or the emissions expended by all of the people who flew to the 2005 opening of Elmgreen & Dragset's iconic Prada Marfa installation in West Texas. Wang then makes small paper "stand-ins" of the art and uses the proceeds from their sale to buy carbon offsets that "erase" the original works from the atmosphere.
"Carbon Copies," 2012 — installation view, by Wang.Mark Woods
Wang, of course, is himself an active part of this complex relationship between the art world and the physical environment. "Personally, I most often find myself in the environmentalists' column and on the side of nature conservation," he said. "But in these artworks I'm trying to always find places where it's hard to know what side to be on."
Michael Wang's Extinct in the Wild is on view at Swiss Institute Contemporary Art in New York; Drowned World is on view at Manifesta 12 in Palermo, Italy, through Nov. 4.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>