Published February 22, 2018
Written by Sydney Bradley
Gary van Wyk, Curator of Our Anthropocene: Eco Crises, discusses censorship, apartheid activism, and fire-fighting rhinos. The show is on view at the Center’s Main Gallery through March 31st. Gary will be leading a roundtable discussion on the exhibition at the Center on Friday, March 2, at 6:30 pm.
In the mid-eighties, artists in South Africa writhed under total censorship—forbidden from drawing, photographing, and otherwise depicting policemen, soldiers, or any apartheid-resistance by the people. Along with his partner, Gary Van Wyk started taking to the streets at night, posting his massive political paintings on billboards as murals. To avoid the military, he’d recently added a fine arts concentration to his law degree, but in this state of emergency, felt called to dissent. In doing so, he marked himself as a terrorist.
“Journalists would photograph these anonymous works and print them on the front page of the newspaper,” Gary tells me as we sit down in the Collections Archive to talk before the show’s opening. “My paintings would replace the images that papers weren’t allowed to print. The works had a lot of currency. Though the consequences would’ve been very serious if we’d been caught.” They weren’t caught, but eventually, Gary’s time ran out and he had to go into exile.
He considers the Anthropocene exhibition, too, a kind of activism. Titled after our current geological age, in which humans are the dominant influence on climate, the show serves as an incitement to pay attention and act, for our own good.
Gary has been a member of the New York art world for over twenty years, and remembers a time of bias against any piece with a message, or, “to put it more cynically,” he says, “art with an axe to grind.” Several prominent critics held the philosophy that a political bent opposed art’s autonomy, the realm of total beauty and elevation. “They thought anything polemical somehow derogated from the highest attributes or possibilities of art,” he says. “It’s a perspective… I think now that we’re facing such dire regressive social movements in the United States, that attitude has begun to shift a bit.” He reminds me of the moment in contemporary American culture, after World War II, when Abstraction and the New York school were so intently sponsored as icons of freedom, “a freedom from ostensible content, if you like,” he says, “and not incidentally, the CIA heavily promoted abstraction as the ideal cultural flag to fly. Don’t get me wrong—I love abstraction, but you know, it was used ideologically. If not intentionally, it ended up having ideological consequences.” Suffice to say, there is nothing in Gary’s show that’s just pretty.
While mainstream artists have executed larger book projects on climate change, very few have related to book arts. Just one other show of its kind in the U.S predates Anthropocene.
It was cutting new territory for Gary, he tells me. He is not specialized in book arts. But he quickly learned how broadly the genre can be interpreted. Some of the pieces in the show use their forms to accentuate the meta tone of production and waste objects as an environmentally-conscious gesture. For example, Stephan Erasmus carved books into the shapes of trees, pointing to their life cycle and vulnerability. The books are all in the minority language of Afrikaans, a vulnerable dialect itself. Julie Dodd’s piece, Forest; Lungs of the World, visually transforms the book into a kind of lung, in conversation with global fires and deforestation. Before the exhibit, Gary never realized how many links to other media one can create from the book. A satellite contained in a weather balloon, for instance, by artist Heidi Neilson.
Typically, Gary’s own work has focused on artists of African descent. But the issue of climate warming is everybody’s, he asserts, and it’s accelerating. “It’s like we’re dancing on top of a beach ball, and at some point, we’ve got to ensure that ball doesn’t roll down the hill, and throw us off.” While it might already be too late to reverse many of the effects, it doesn’t obviate our duty to try. This notion is underscored, Gary says, by the living elements of the exhibition.
He describes works by Tara O’Brien—wheatgrass growing in Lucite boxes which create pages of a volume. Michelle Wilson’s piece, consisting of a plant growing from a book’s mulched-up sheets. Both rouse our duty to care, lest those things die.
Gary and I talk about aspects of the show which transcend the physical. Many artists communicate the psycho-emotional damage humans have wreaked. “Guy Laramée’s work shows the very complicated relationship between humans and nature,” Gary says, “because nature is a human construct. We’ve created the idea of nature, and in a way, we are responsible for it, yet the environment is something bigger than us and outside of us.” In one of Laramée’s works, he carved what appears to be a canyon into an encyclopedia. The piece points to the phenomenological issue of what Gary calls Being with a capital B; the importance of re-conceptualizing nature philosophically to ensure our partnership with it is properly mediated.
Upon commissioning the show, Gary already had a few African artists in mind whose practice concerned the forest. As part of his work with the art foundation Alma On Dobbin, he connected German artist Christoph Both-Asmas to Hervé Youmbi, a Cameroon-based artist, as well as Owanto, an artist from Gabon. Both-Asmas had been working on the concept of walking atop the equatorial rainforest canopy, where he’d never been, and Gary asked the three of them to make a collaboration in book form, together with paper-maker and book artist, Robbin Ami Silverberg, and Andreas Wengel. The team produced the Alma Collaboration—a key element of the show.
When Both-Asmas travelled to Cameroon, Youmbi tried to imagine creating a mask for him to wear while walking across the canopy. “He hit on the idea of making the mask in the form of a rhino,” Gary shares, excitedly, “because he had seen a documentary about the rhinoceros stomping out forest fires. So Youmbi decided the rhino would be the perfect icon of Protector of the Forest.”
At Anthropocene’s opening reception, I try on the hand-carved Rhinoceros mask. I remark on how good it smells—like a damp carpet of forest, the dark wood treated with smoke. Gary says, “It smells like Africa to me.”
An avid reader as a kid, he has early memories of enjoying a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale book his godfather gave him.
“It had the most wonderful pictures in it, and it was a very deluxe book [laughs]. I loved that book. The Little Mermaid was the most beautifully illustrated, and such a poignant idea— that sometimes you have to pay for what you wish for, and every step can create pain. It’s not unlike what we’re facing, which is a problem of the Anthropocene. If you get too far from nature, and from your nature, and destroy it, it’s going to come back and give you pain. I think we’re hurting already.” Gary can see climate change in his own backyard. All his ash trees have died in the ten years he’s lived in his house. It’s due to a fungus that has taken root in the United States, caused by a fractional change in our average annual temperature, killing many American Ash trees. That, plus the number of trees Gary’s witnessed chopped down or dying, plus hurricane Sandy, are all instances of the Global Weirding he knows we can expect more of.
Anthropocene’s pieces are ripe with images of human commonality. Another African video artist, Gideon Mendel, filmed flooding in different parts of the world, struck that people living in such varied circumstances respond to flooding the same way.
Sammy Baloji, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, focuses on the complex relationship between humans and earth, particularly over a nature reserve in the Eastern Congo. It is in fact the same landscape which formed the backdrop for the main gorilla diorama in New York’s Natural History museum. The very place has become the site of the worst war since World War II, Gary says, where millions of people have died. Baloji juxtaposes his image of the mountain-scape with the museum’s painted version. His book on the territory examines the different mineral, forest, and other natural resources of the area, as well as human settlement patterns, and then explores how they spawn massive conflict. An important lens, notes Gary, because the scarcity of resources will increase as the Anthropocene proceeds. Water, among the key cruxes.
Baloji’s pairing of the photos is an ironic one, too. “Your average American audience is probably much more concerned about the fate of gorillas in Africa than about the millions of people in that region,” Gary says, “especially when you have a president that thinks Africa is one shithole country.” As a viewing audience, it’s interesting to consider the original reception of Carl Akeley’s gorilla diorama in the 1930’s at the Natural History Museum. The stuffed gorillas appeared to Americans like creatures from folklore—foreign and inconceivable—just as the distant bloodbath may seem to audiences here, taking in Baloji’s shot of resources before the same scene.
But Gary isn’t discouraged. He knows first-hand how much power one can accrue through writing and the arts. As for whether art will be a revolutionary catalyst, or we must take to the streets, Gary thinks all of the above. “It’s not an either or, but an and, and… if we can use our energies in our own professions to help save the environment, then terrific. Artists are in a great position, scientists are in a great position, businessmen are in a great position, if they have the suss….” It comes down to the packaging we consume, he says, and the amount of water in the things that we consume. Every time he sees someone with a plastic bottle, he gets irritated. “Can’t you just buy a metal bottle and carry it with you?”
Africa is where every human originated from, and it is perhaps the perfect region for a show on global warming to center around, as the heart of our race is a region of great suffering. As someone with limited knowledge on African art, I asked Gary about the continent’s voice in the climate crisis conversation. “I think we sort of have one stereotype of African art which is ritualistic art,” he says, “related to masks and fertility figures.” A certain legacy of African art, with primal connections to many ancient peoples, comes with problematizing. Often, he notices, it gets tied to a current, separate dialogue. “Most contemporary African artists are not working in that tradition at all. They’re working in the global art arena, so the fact of their origin as Africans is secondary.” But he finds it interesting, having grown up in Africa himself, to think about work like Hervé Youmbi’s, Gideon Mendel’s and Sammy Baloji’s, all of whom show such a fervent passion for nature, and make complicated commentary on our relationship with it.
I ask Gary if there’s radical place for spirituality and performance in the arts. “Yes,” he says, “but it doesn’t stem so much from the zone as it stems from the intention when the zone is entered.” In the gallery, on the wall above the Rhino head, a plaque reads:
Put on a mask and perform a ritual so the mask will re-appropriate its mystical function: connecting with the Forest’s spirit.
As viewers enter the gallery-zone for Our Anthropocene, Gary sees them to be participating in the Forest Protector role—stamping out tiny embers wherever we can, as is the natural thing to do.
About the Center for Book Arts
The Center for Book Arts is dedicated to exploring and cultivating contemporary aesthetic interpretations of the book as an art object, while preserving the traditional practices of the art of the book. The Center seeks to facilitate communication between the book arts community and the larger spheres of contemporary art and literature through exhibitions, classes, public programming, literary presentations, opportunities for artists and writers, publications, and collecting. Founded in 1974 and still located in Manhattan, it was the first not-for-profit organization of its kind in the nation, and has since become a model for others around the world. Visit our website for up-to-date details on all events and programs: www.centerforbookarts.org