I’ve been travelling around looking for more contemporary enviro-art, but stumbling upon the Keith Haring retrospective at Paris’ Museé d’Arte Moderne provided a surprising look at Haring’s oeuvre.
I’d always known Keith Haring as an important figure in the fight against AIDS in the late 80’s and early 90’s, as many artists were back then. But what surprised me was his insight on the modern capitalist condition of America and its effect on the American people’s perception of the world. Above is the very first work I ran into in the exhibit, which stated, “Everybody knows where meat comes from it comes from the store.” The full length tapestry of violently splattered paint was reminiscent of a Pollock work, but the simple statement at the bottom lent the painting a disturbing look at the commodification of meat and the dislocation of the animal in society. It exudes a suppressed anger at the meat industry that really surprised (and excited) me.
Going through the exhibit, there was even more critical pessimism, culminating in a section entitled “Fin de l’humanité: Écocide, menace nucléaire, apocalypse (The end of humanity: Ecocide, nuclear threat, apocalypse).” And oh, how apocalyptic it was. Here, look:
Haring’s was some of the most violent environmentally-minded art I’ve seen, which might have sprung from the general unrest springing up from the myriad crises of the 90’s. Now, thirty years later, his art and its clear message – that the systems of media and capitalism in which we are hopelessly engrained are to blame – is all the more important as the world’s economic, political, and environmental crises come to a boil.
This is Haring’s America: an ugly beast that we both need and are drowned by. His more critical paintings – a complete shift from the usual Keith Haring designs you’d find on everything from water bottles to underwear – are horrific and vile, and are most essential for the education – or, at least, sparking of interest – in people today.
On a lighter note, I was pleasantly surprised on my trip to the Chateau of Versailles (just outside Paris) by a huge eco-art exhibition by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone. His large-scale installations explore humanity’s relationship with nature, complicating the nature of living ecologically. This idea is made especially poignant amongst the enormous (seriously, GIGANTIC) gardens of Versailles, which went from forested countryside to specifically tailored and compartmentalized gardens throughout generations of French kings and queens.
Penone’s gold-lined tree sculpture is a sort of reversal of Versailles in that instead of taking nature and tailoring it to humanity’s wants, the sculpture’s golden insides symbolize the taking of humanity and shaping it into the form of nature. It’s a clever and majestic take on the interconnectedness of us and our surroundings, questioning and overturning our perceptions of humanity within the environment.
Then there’s the environment within humanity, which Penone masterfully represents in his sculptures of what seem like roots or bark chiseled in blocks of marble. Not only are most of the chateau’s grandiose floors marble, but many classic anthropocentric sculptures are made from the material; Penone takes the traditional and modernizes it by using the material to address our contemporary relationship with the environment.
It’s a complicated one, but one thing’s for certain: it’s near impossible to perceive nature with a sense of purity anymore, now that there are more than 7 billion people hangin’ around everywhere. Rather, we need to look at nature as something to evolve with, not preserve (at least in the traditional John Muir sense). Yes, that’s kind of a big statement to be putting out there, but we’re past the point of large-scale preservation and must think proactively about how we can develop sustainably and ecologically, which is where I think Penone’s nature-sculptures are directing us.