E-Waste As Art? A New Generation Of Environmental Artists Is Bringing The Sublime Up To Date

When the Irish statesman Edmund Burke first described the sensation of “tranquillity tinged with terror”, he was not characterizing our present-day reality, in which environmental crisis is met with tranquilized complicity. The year was 1757, and Burke was attempting to portray the profound effect of nature on an individual experiencing its grandeur. He called this condition the sublime. His term that came to define Romantic art, and to describe the predominant aesthetic sensibility in Europe and America over the course of more than a century.

Times have changed, as have tastes, but the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud doesn’t think that the sublime is obsolete. On the contrary, he views it as vital to understanding how the grandeur of nature is being laid to waste today. As a member of the independent curatorial collective Radicants, he has set out to illustrate his point in a series of three exhibitions at the Palazzo Bollani, coinciding with the Venice Biennale. The series of exhibitions, running from April through November, is collectively called Planet B.

“I am convinced that through the notion of the sublime, we can outline a new approach to contemporary aesthetics,” Bourriaud writes in the exhibition catalogue. “Shorn of any romanticism, this updated version of the sublime seems to be the most relevant aesthetic concept for analyzing art in the Anthropocene.”

From Bourriaud’s perspective, the sublime is not only important as a curatorial framework or an art historical theme. He believes it to be nothing less than the quality that gives contemporary art its potency as an antidote to “the Capitalocene”. In other words, his exhibition is political. What distinguishes it from countless other politically motivated exhibitions about the environment is that environmental polemics are all but absent.

Consider, for instance, the work of Hicham Berrada. In his Permutations series, aquariums are filled with otherworldly structures, organic in appearance, grown from the dissolution and crystallization of exotic metals sourced from electronic waste. These “strange landscapes”, as Berrada describes them, can be viewed as premonitions of a post-technological world in which our machines reconstitute themselves according to the natural affinities of their materials. In other words, they preview our future absence on a planet we’ve attempted to make in our image. Berrada’s Permutations can be seen as permutations on the landscapes created by the 19th Century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, which typically depicted the human figure as the most minor feature in a vast panorama.

Yet there are important distinctions between Friedrich’s paintings and Berrada’s mixed media works that support Bourriaud’s contention that the “new sublime” is different. Most obvious is the way in which the human element is expressed. Friedrich often portrays a lone hiker overwhelmed by his surroundings. Berrada shows nobody, but implies our entire species through the initial conditions from which his landscapes emerge.

More subtle, but also more important, is the difference in process. In the case of Friedrich, we identify a painter and distinguish him from the painting which bears his touch even 182 years after his death. The conditions under which Berrada’s works come into being are more fluid, both literally and figuratively. The work self-assembles as he lets go of it.

As Bourriaud smartly observes, Berrada and contemporaries such as Bianca Bondi and Peter Buggenhout refuse “the mental scheme that has structured Western aesthetics for the past two millennia: imprinting matter, drawing a figure against a background.” More than any environmental message that might be deduced from Berrada’s use of electronic waste, this refusal has political implications that are potentially transformational. “We live in a gigantic echo chamber,” Bourriaud observes. “Such is the new awareness from which the contemporary sublime arises, which is above all a refusal of the tragic confrontation between the human and the world that has been the leitmotif of Western thought.” The new sublime is to be found in the dissolution of our selves.

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