Each year World Environment Day is marked on 5th June. Held since 1974 the occasion is used to raise awareness of issues and further initiatives to protect the environment. For this edition of Digging The Archive! Tate Liverpool explore how environmental concerns have been interpreted and addressed by artists with a selection of works from Tate’s extensive collection.
In 2019, Tate Liverpool and Birmingham City University (BCU) invited artist Mikhail Karikis to create a new artwork as part of Tate’s annual ‘We Have Your Art Gallery’ artist commission: an experimental project where artists work alongside communities to produce a collaborative artwork. Working in collaboration with students at BCU and the Liverpool Socialist Singers, the outcome is a new film and sound work inspired by young people’s environmental activism and their perspectives on an uncertain future. The work is due to go on display at the Albert Dock gallery later this year with a date to be announced imminently.
Entitled Ferocious Love, the work cuts through any informational, alarmist or documentary realism, and echoes the need for human togetherness. It resonates with the yearning for hope and the emotional challenges faced by the younger generation’s awareness of the scope, complexities and nuances of dramatic change. As preparations for the exhibition continue remotely, Mikhail digs into Tate’s archives with commission project manager Emma Sumner as they discuss their different interpretations of 5 art works and the environmental concerns they emphasise.
Liquid Crystal Environment (1965, remade 2005) by Gustav Metzger.
Mikhail: It’s very inspiring to discover that while Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment operated in the obscure fringes of avant-garde innovation, it quickly became absorbed by mainstream and pop music culture. Working with liquid crystals, Metzger mixes chemistry and material science, land art and display technologies to create an immersive experience that became a significant contribution to the aesthetics of psychedelia. Liquid crystals possess contradictory qualities. Discovered in the late nineteenth century, liquid crystallinity contradicted what scientists thought nature was like. How can matter possibly possess properties to render it liquid and solid crystal at the same time? How can one move and be still at the same time?
To an artist this is not a contradiction: stop-frame animation does precisely that. Each frame is a frozen moment; but when seen together at a certain speed, movement appears. Once the liquid crystal state of matter joined our realm of knowledge, it initiated an immense change by making possible new worlds – liquid crystal demands our attention every day and everywhere we look: from our TV Screens to our computer monitors and our handheld touchscreen devices. But at what cost?
While Metzger’s artwork cannot but be seen in the context of display technologies and the politics of mining that has come to be associated with it, it foresees the technologically sublime we have come to know as one that disguises itself so well it appears as nature, and reminds us of the vast amounts of knowledge we have yet to the discover in the world around us. Metzger shows us the way of joyful creativity and fascination with the material universe.
Emma: For me, the glow of the magnified colour and shape-shifting liquid crystals in Metzger’s absorbing installation evokes everything boring school science lessons should have been. Although this work was originally made during the artist’s move to ‘auto-creation’ when he began harnessing technology to engineer processes of positive change, as the heat of the projector’s lamp changes the colours and forms of the crystals, my thoughts always move to global warming and the destructive consequences rising temperatures have on our environment. I’m reminded of the severe coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef as the ocean waters warm beyond natures tolerance and the steady melting of polar ice caps as expanses of bright white ice tumble into another ocean’s icy waters. We are watching our planet warm around us, the evidence is unashamedly palpable, but instead of changing our habits, we keep lending it a crutch!
Gustav Metzger Crystal Liquid Environment 1965, remade 2005 © Gustav Metzger
Tree with Red Crutch (1998) by Louise Bourgeois.
Emma: This is one of my selections as I find the simplicity of this work so striking. Part of a series of etchings titled Topiary: The Art of Improving Nature, the tree’s need for a supportive crutch denotes human involvement as helpful, but on closer inspection, the intervention has resulted in a broken lower branch. For me it’s a symbolic reminder of how disruptive human activity upsets our environment’s natural order and instead of rectifying our behaviour, we so often make feeble attempts to rectify our damage with man-made interventions that tend to be more detrimental than constructive.
Mikhail: The way this drawing turns a tree into a human-like thing and infuses it with sentiment with such simplicity is indeed astonishing. In many ways I am reminded of the artistry, directness, humour and emotional impact of placards and banners young climate justice activists paraded with over the past two academic years. In one of the protests I attended, a five year old girl held an oversized drawing of an unhappy planet Earth in crutches with a plaster on its head: “human change, not climate change”, she’d written. I wonder what she’d make of Bourgeois’s drawing?
Louise Bourgeois Tree with a Red Crutch 1998 © The Easton Foundation
Quartered Meteor by Lynda Benglis (1969, cast 1975)
Emma: I was working at Tate Liverpool when this work was installed as part of the collection displays. Each time I passed its black oozy enduring form, it always evoked thoughts of society’s everyday reliance on natural resources to function, particularly oil, and how our tireless mining and use transforms these resources into harmful contaminants. The form’s need for the gallery walls as support is a prompt to the unstable nature of this relationship – like the building gorged itself on rich natural resources and is now regurgitating them in the form of a liquid black sludgy polluting substance.
Mikhail: There is something abject about this work by Benglis: it looks like a gigantic wound oozing black matter. When I first encountered it in the corner of the gallery, it brought to mind mining and scars inflicted on the earth’s surface by human drilling and geoengineering activities. Interestingly, the solid cast was made from a foam original. The artist turns liquid into solid and gives it a materiality and a geometry that suggest liquefaction and a downward flow, while in her title she refers to a different dimension: the verticality above us. Meteors are small bodies of matter that enter the earth’s atmosphere transforming into incandescent streaks of light in the sky caused by friction with the earth’s atmosphere. The possibility of a meteor hitting our planet never stops fascinating us or even terrifying us when thought more seriously, even if impact probability is 6.7 in a million. If we take our planet’s fragility more seriously, perhaps we’d look after it more.
Lynda Benglis Quartered Meteor 1969 cast 1975 © Lynda Benglis
From the Freud Museum (1991–6) by Suzanne Hiller.
Mikhail: I experienced Hiller’s installation “From the Freud Museum” when I was a student, soon after I had landed in London from my native Greece. What fascinated me at first was a small box containing two sealed medical glass tubes containing water: one was labelled Lethe and the other Mnemosyne. Greek mythology was still fresh in my mind from my school education as well my knowledge of the country’s geography. Translating to ‘forgetfulness’ and ‘memory’ respectively, Lethe and Mnemosyne are actual rivers with religious, mystical and mythological associations. Said to flow parallel to each-other all the way into the mythical land of the dead, their crystalline waters quenched the thirst of dead souls, but there is a catch: drink from Lethe and you forget your past life, drink from Mnemosyne and you retain your life memories. Beyond the obvious associations of the flows of memory and forgetfulness to museal discourses of collecting, overlooking, archiving and restoring, what I find fascinating is how us humans attach emotional meaning to and invent stories that range from the mundane to the grave about the material world around us. I made several films with young children in recent years, and the stories about water they tell me are narratives of toxicity, pollution and species devastation. And they are angry. Some of these kids will become our political leaders in the near future with attitudes toward our planet fuelled their wish for change. I can’t wait for that moment.
Emma: When I encountered this work in Tate Britain as part of Hiller’s retrospective, I vividly remember taking my time to understand what was in each box and why it was there, but as the work rejects traditional classification methods, it was intended that I draw out my own associations. The work made me consider why and how we decide what should be kept and preserved but also question why we care for collections of anthropological and environmental significance so much more than we do the planet in which they originate. What if we cared for our planet in the same way we care for our museum and gallery’s collections?
Suzanne Hiller From the Freud Museum 1991-6 © Suzanne Hiller
Cloud Canyons No. 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines (Auto Creative Sculptures) (1961, remade 2004) by David Medala.
Mikhail: This foam sculpture by Medala is a showstopper. It’s both a miniature geological demonstration of an erupting volcano and a child’s wish for a gigantic foam bath; an erect presence in the gallery and just insubstantial forming and dissolving foam; an ejaculation out of control and a flop! It’s simply ingenious in its playful critique of Western monumetalist sculptural traditions that are usually associated with objects of stationary upright permanence made with sturdy heavy materials mined from the earth. This work changed the way I thought about sculpture once and for all.
Emma: I have only ever seen this work on video, but I can imagine it commanding space within the gallery yet feeling almost out of place with its messy expulsion of foam in what is conventionally (and often still) seen as a pure and wholesome space. The work’s organic shifting form is a joyful and somewhat erotic combination of science, nature and art that for me candidly insinuates the radical environment of the world around us and its ability to adapt. It’s a work that truly animates Medella’s description of himself as a citizen of the world.
David Medalla Cloud Canyons No. 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines (Auto Creative Sculptures) 1961, remade 2004 © David Medalla