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still from Rinko Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi book preview on Vimeo
For the last few weeks, the final paragraph of Timothy Morton’s “Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence” has been hard to get out of our minds. It’s been inconvenient not to be able to shake it off, but this inability to forget affirms the power of its provocation:
“If we want to progress ecologically, for instance if we want to have more people accepting the reality of global warming, then we need to walk them through an experience that is phenomenologically equivalent to accepting global warming, rather than bludgeoning them with facts or trying to ‘guilt them out’ or shame them, which will only breed denial. The best way to do this is to make contact with the liquid center of sadness, often frozen into melancholy, at the core of sentient being. This liquid core is the trace of coexistence, shorn of coexistents, unconditional, strange, palpable yet withdrawn, uncanny, sad. That way, no bludgeoning is required: we will have poured people into the right psychic space to accept the very large-scale, long-term issues that beset this planet.” – from “Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence” by Timothy Morton
Many artists, citizens, and others spend a great deal of time considering how to engage issues of our time that are induced by “hyperobjects“— how to translate those issues into something that is neither activism nor polarizing politics, but that taps into deeply experienced human realities. Though Morton’s “we” and “them” in the quote above feels a bit polarized, we assume he actually means to include himself/ourselves in those who “need to be talked to.” And, even though we find it challenging to fully relate to his characterization of a “liquid center of sadness,” something about his statement hits the mark.
As he suggests, his statement is not a “bludgeoning,” it is a description of a reality. It’s currently impossible to go through a day without receiving news that challenges our best of hopes and intentions for the future. A simple weather report can often send one reeling. Whether it’s violent storms, floods, earthquakes, spikes of radiation currently flowing into the Pacific Ocean, or global warming, we’re already in the midst of an accelerating planetary reality that’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. So, what if we took Morton’s provocation to heart and used art to attempt to discover ways that give ourselves and others lived experiences of what exceeds us — instead of ignoring, “taking a break,” or leaving it to those who come after us to address? What if we actually tried to create experiences, through aesthetic practice, that are “phenomenologically equivalent to” global warming or any host of wicked problem sized issues pressing upon us?
We think Morton himself has made a good start at offering such a lived experience to readers of his new book Hyperobjects. For those readers, “acceptance” of global warming might mean allowing seemingly mundane activities to become occasions for one’s brain/body to inhabit and connect, on a daily basis, with the vast evolutionary processes that have been in play long before human life on earth:
“I start the engine of my car. Liquified dinosaur bones burst into flame. I walk up a chalky hill. Billions of ancient pulverized undersea creatures grip my shoes. I breathe. Bacterial pollution from some Archean cataclysm fills my alveoli—we call oxygen. I type this sentence. Mitochondria, anaerobic bacteria hiding in my cells from the Oxygen Catastrophe, spur me with energy. They have their own DNA. I hammer a nail. In consistent layers of ore, bacteria deposited the iron in Earth’s crust. I turn on the TV and see snow. A sliver of snow is a trace of the Cosmic Microwave Background left over from the Big Bang. I walk on top of the life-forms. The oxygen in our lungs is bacterial outgassing. Oil is the result of some dark, secret collusion between rocks and algae and plankton millions and millions of years in the past. When you look at oil you’re looking at the past. Hyperobjects are time-stretched to such a vast extreme that they become almost impossible to hold in mind.” – Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (p. 58)
Acknowledging co-existence and what Morton calls interobjectivity among human life/bodies/actions and pre-planetary cosmological events invites our “liquid center” to sense remarkable waves of incoming affectivity beyond our singular selves — we are still experiencing the Big Bang today! Even as humans “burn up” the material products of evolutionary history at rapidly accelerating rates, when we enact modes of thinking/moving that sense the co-shapings going on among the real and lively materials surrounding us, we become more capable of acting in relation to spaces and times larger than the “here” and “now.” Evolutionary mystery and enchantment link materials, through time, to forces and configurations that exceed human cognition. When we move and act in ways that take the present as something more than a narrow endpoint or culmination, we co-exist with the hyperobjects that we inhabit (global warming etc.).
While in Chelsea last week, we made a point to see Rinko Kawauchi’s photography exhibition Ametsuchi (“ametsuchi” is a combination of two Japanese characters 雨天, meaning “heaven and earth”). The title comes from of one of the oldest pangrams in Japanese — a chant in which each character of the Japanese syllabary is used. The exhibition brings “together images of distant constellations and tiny figures lost within landscapes, as well as photographs of a traditional style of controlled-burn farming (noyaki) in which the cycles of cultivation and recovery span decades and generations. Punctuating the series are images of Buddhist rituals and other religious ceremonies — a suggestion of other means by which humankind has traditionally attempted to transcend time and memory.” The large photos are breathtaking, but the wall text accompanying the show was equally powerful.
stills from Rinko Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi book preview on Vimeo
Towards the end of the text, Kawauchi writes:
“…there is an invisible point of tangency between apparently unrelated things. I investigate the connection between dreams and reality; I consider the beginnings of things. The sunset I see from the window of my home tonight is similar but different from what I saw yesterday. Every day is in a continuum of new days, each somehow different from the next. How can we say that there is no connection between those who pray in a far-off land at the end of the day? Throughout the world, we are comrades who share grace, and share as well the challenge to overcome any number of difficult obstacles. Even if our paths never cross, we who exist now on the same Earth certainly share something, a shared time and a shared place.” – Rinko Kawauchi, wall text for the exhibition, Ametsuchi at Aperture Foundation
Several times in Morton’s new book Hyperobjects, he mentions global warming deniers. Those who reject what can’t be “proven,” despite material consequences ramifying around the planet. Perhaps it is through a graceful acknowledgement of the co-existence of all that’s visible — and invisible — to us as humans, that creative practice can begin to generate the many “phenomenological equivalents” we need? Kawauchi seems to be reaching towards something similar through her text, but she simply states that the connections, though invisible, can’t be denied. We are of the mesh simply by inhabiting the Earth today.
How then, might we comport ourselves from within what we see, taste, know and feel — when what we are “within” exceeds our comprehension and sensing capacities? We offer Karolina Sobecka’s Clouds, from both sides (currently on view at IMC Gallery in Climate Art: New Ways of Seeing Data) as a place to begin. We first met Sobecka in Finland last month. In her remarkable series, we see the world from our usual perspective, looking up at the clouds. Sobecka pairs a familiar cloud gazing image with a satellite view of the same moment and location. This double viewing grounds the hyperobject (climate) to the earth while taking human perceptions beyond ourselves, where our embodied vision/capacities drop off. The real-time simultaneity is startling (there’s more happening than I can see and sense, even of the very place where I stand). This disruption gives pause as we realize there’s no division (except in our minds) between what we understand as “solid” (the things literally before us) and the vast continuous rotation of the Earth, seen from above (a “place” and scale larger than us, moving in real-time).
In Sobecka’s own words, “The project’s aim is to create objects that are mixtures of physical form and psychology. It is a strategy to explore the overlap of the material and immaterial: the values that shape the technological innovation and material culture, and the philosophy that inscribes humans in nature.”
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