At university, I used to assume the scientists were keeping an eye on reality at one end of campus, while the artists were playing with paint swirls at the other end. What could they possibly have to do with one another? After visiting the Sun Valley Center for the Arts exhibition, "Biodiversity: Order, Consumption and Man," I'm glad to see they have been comparing notes. Even as scientific "facts" become subjected to politics (think global warming), we can at least find beauty and pathos in the ensuing collapse of primordial ecosystems, as the work of painters Isabella Kirkland and Walton Ford and photographer Julian Barnes demonstrate. "Biodiversity" carries a heavy dose of irony to the calamity of species extinction, and even offered a glimmer of hope during biodiversity scholar and ant-collector E.O. Wilson's keynote address last Thursday evening. The show runs through March 25 at the Sun Valley Center gallery in Ketchum.
Isabella Kirkland's gorgeous TAXA paintings resemble the work of 17th century naturalist painters, who saw each new discovery as an opportunity to produce a studied and subjective representation of nature's wonders. This level of attention was all but lost during the advent of photography, as were many of Kirkland's subjects, like the laughing owl of New Zealand, the Carolina parakeet and the white-footed rabbit--all lost to extinction during the 20th century. Kirkland's luminous tableaux of carefully researched compositions reflect a suitable amount of effort in memorializing species that were millions of years in the making.
Walton Ford's paintings and prints painstakingly recreate 18th and 19th century Audubon-style illustrations, right down to the foxed edges of parchment, yet are embedded with ironic symbols satirizing the excesses of colonialism and consumerism at the source of continued environmental devastation.
The extraordinary talents of Kirkland and Ford, when applied to current narratives of extinction and cultural criticism, form powerful commentary on the assumptions of history and upon certain nostalgic forces regarding historical artistic techniques, leaving exquisite reminders of what we have lost.
Julian Barnes' photographs of ossuaries, dioramas-in-progress, and crated animal specimens present an unsettling look at natural history museum exhibitions. The iconic cheetah of the African savannah strapped into a shipping crate like so much forlorn cargo speaks of the control humanity has brought upon nature, even while glorifying it in museums. This is art taking a good poke at the artifice of control, collection and display.
Eminent biodiversity scholar E. O. Wilson anchored the Sun Valley Center program with a talk on Thursday evening. The bad news: Species continue to disappear at an alarming rate. The good news: Women's lib will save us all. According to Wilson, human birth rates are declining in developing nations where women "make the choice to have fewer, quality children, rather than playing the lottery" (2.1 children per female is optimal). He also points out that new species are being discovered all the time (Wilson himself has already named over 400 species of ant), including a complex deep layer of SLIME (Subsurface Lithoautotrophic Microbial Ecosystems) beneath the earth's surface, which could conceivably produce intelligent life once more after eons of evolution, in case the earth's surface somehow gets scalded clean.
In order to save what biodiversity we have left, Wilson advises raising $28 billion to secure tropical "hot spots" around the globe, including the Amazon, the Congo and Borneo, while somehow raising the standard of living of the teeming impoverished to a "bearable" level before the human population reaches 9 billion in 2100.
It may take science fiction to achieve all this. But that would be art, not science; the success of art depends primarily on knowing what we like and what compels us--whereas good science relies upon reproducible facts, regardless of how pretty they may be. In any case, the Sun Valley Center's "Biodiversity" show reminds us that environmental concerns need never be merely academic.