It is said, disparagingly, that the camel is a horse designed by a committee. This overlooks the fact that the camel is supremely suited for its environment and to the people who depend on a camel-based economy for their own survival. Indeed, if the camel were designed by a committee, it must have been a pretty good committee. Unfortunately, the group show of vaguely environmentally themed art, Ecotopia: the Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, proves the rule. The four curators who put this exhibition together, Brian Wallis, Christopher Phillips, Edward Earle, and Carol Squiers, and assistant curator Joanna Lehan, have done a disservice to art, per se, and politically engaged art.
At a time when Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, as well as Photo España’s “Naturaleza” and FotoFest’s “Earth and Artists Responding to Violence” have addressed issues of nature,the environment, globalisation, pollution, politics and power in a coherent fashion, the ICP’s attempt to explore these varied but interlocked issues is especially poor, all the more so because as a triennial show, the curators had more time available.
Of some 40 artists from 14 countries represented by approximately 100 bodies of work, more than 23 are resident in the US. Of the rest, the bulk are British and European. There are lone residents of Canada, Australia, Argentina, and China. There are valid pieces of concerned photography, notably Robert Adams’s images of clear-cut forests and Mitch Epstein’s images from a post-Katrina landscape. Engaging the political with the artistic are series by An-My Le of soldiers training at 29 Palms, California, Sophie Ristelhüeber’s images of burned and dead palms from Iraq, Simon Norfolk’s painterly photographs of abandoned military hardware in Edenic settings from around Baghdad, and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s portfolio of forests planted on the ruins of Palestinian villages in the occupied territories. Futuristic videos by Mary Mattingly and Marine Hugonnier project an uncertain, perhaps apocalyptic future with the implicit message that if mankind stays his present course, we’ll all go over the cliff into some ecological dystopia. Yet works by Dodo specialist Harri Kallio and art-world shooting star Wang Quingsong, with his pastiche mockumentaries of Chinese epics of consumerism, belittle any political impact the ICP’s curators may intend.
To be sure, there are other redeeming features in this extravaganza. Perhaps most amusing is work by Sam Easterson, whose “critter cams” present the between the ears view of a variety of creatures ranging from falcons and sheep to scorpions and armadillos. It is eerie how similar the armadillo is to James Nachtwey as depicted in “War Photographer” as they both go about their business of looking for interesting subjects to consume. In its attempt to straddle the fence between “art” and “politics”, the exhibition is more a catalogue of well-known names with relatively new work that is lost in the “pod-like” installations by Brooklyn-based Matter Architecture Practice of repurposed nonbiodegradable petroleum-based polyethylene foam tubing. “Ecotopia”, itself, is a word of 1970s vintage combining feel-good notions of “Ecology” and “Utopia” which hopes for an harmonious future, the present lack of which has led to anxiety, unease, and despair, as well as some political action. Intended to “introduce striking new perspectives on humanity’s increasingly fraught relation to the natural world” and “as a critical survey of current artistic trends,” Ecotopia fails both and lands alternatively in a realm of an “ambient fear” of environmental apocalypse and in well-intended, politically motivated kitsch.