In 1965 Susan Sontag wrote that, as Americans, “We live under a continual threat of two equally fearful but seemingly opposed destinies: Unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” The 1960s were of course, a period of intense socio-political tension and that in turn led to an increased interest in fantasy, which Sontag suggested, offered an important antidote to rising anxieties. “Fantasy normalizes what is psychologically unbearable,” she writes, “thereby inuring us to it.”
During Sontag’s time, our collective nightmares generally centered around atomic radiation, world war, mass atrocities and invasion. “In the middle of the 20th century,” she writes, “it became clear that from now to the end of human history every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death but of something almost unsupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come any anytime, virtually without warning.”
One could argue that we are experiencing a similar nightmare today, although instead of nuclear incineration it’s ecological disaster. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek wasn’t alone when he begged the following questions recently: “How much can we ‘safely’ pollute our environment? How much fossil fuels can we burn? How much poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary!”
Crossing multiple disciplines, Zurkow is one of the few contemporary artists working today who’s using her work to actively engage with some of the more urgent issues of our time, namely green politics, environmentalism, conservationism, animal rights, eco-criticism and much more. Yet Zurkow, who once claimed she was an "optimistic pessimist," is no didactician. Instead she uses poetics, humor and contemplation in her short to long-form videos, while touching on aspects of representation, narrative, and history. As she says, "I'm interested in telling stories about the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the natural world, and how we mediate the often-conflicted threads of these narratives."
Research is key to each of the projects, which often surface in serial form. Her recent series, “Necrocracy” for instance, uses single channel videos, sculptures, printed matter to explore the role of hydrocarbons in the contemporary landscape.
And yet it’s animation—the most popular of arts—that is central to Zurkow’s aesthetic. For Zurkow, animation’s relationship to the beautiful, the arch, and “the cute” as she says, is central to the work’s message. Japanese Manga, American advertising and Saturday morning cartoons are all key reference points, and yet at the same time, so are European classical paintings, Chinese scroll works, and other art-historical references.
Poster Children (2007) is the earliest work in the show and depicts a scene of polar devastation, with polar bears struggling to survive while Darger-esque teens fire guns at random. It’s a calming, almost meditative work that conveys its message with a heightened sensitivity to the beautiful and the serene—much like Japanese Anime, which has been a constant source of inspiration for the artist.
The single channel “Slurb” (2009), which combines the words ‘slum’ and ‘suburb’, depicts a watery world where the oceans have risen to the point of mass flooding. As in much of Zurkow’s work, there is no terror despite the obvious destruction involved. Instead the piece works like science fiction—which Sontag describes as being ‘theaputic’, with a fantastical scene unraveling much like the Chinese scroll paintings Zurkow took her inspiration from.
The “Elixir” videos, three of which are included in the show, are from Zurkow’s “Crossing the Waters” series. Here fantastical orbs, each suggesting a consumer perfume bottle, contains a different figure or natural element, whether athletes or clouds.
The show also contains two key works, which are part of a new series by the artist, “Mesocsom (Northumberland, UK) 2011, and Mesocosm (Wink Texas) 2012. Both works use basic line animation, suggesting some of the earliest forms of cell animation by the likes of Emile Cohl and early Walt Disney, and yet they are ostensibly paintings first and foremost, with very specific painterly associations. Mesocosm (Nothumberland UK) features a nude male, which is borrowed from a Lucian Freud painting of the Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery. And yet it is nature, specifically the moors of Northern England — which is what Bowery seems to be contemplating in the piece (and painting) — that is the real subject of the work.
Mesocosm (Wink Texas) on the other hand, was inspired by the swimming holes depicted in The Garden of Earthly Delights, yet instead of Bosch’s fantastical world, Zurkow depicted an actual sink hole, which opened up 60 miles outside of Midland Texas on land owned by an oil company. As Zurkow points out that the sink hole captures the “extremely uneasy relationship between oil and water” in the Southern High Plains of the US, given that the oil industry uses a massive amount of ground water to drill. What’s more, the oil itself is made from compressed marine life that died and disappeared 250 million years ago, and thus, as Zurkow points out, “there’s a funny poetry between hydrocarbon transmogrification and the sticky permanence of the things we create out of oil, such as plastic bags.”
More importantly, ach of the Mesocosm works run from a computer program, which allows Zurkow to create a 146 hour looping cycle for each, where a vast array of visual elements can be recombined perpetually (each season is portrayed in 36 hour increments, for instance, which results in an entire year) Therefore weather and daylight conditions change in almost real time as figures come and go without any obvious pattern. Thus time becomes palpable, which is something that “the computer does really well” argues Zurkow.
Marina Zurkow is the recipient of a 2011 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and has had solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center (MN); the Kitchen (NY); the Artist’s Institute (NY), FACT, Liverpool; the Oklahoma Museum of Art; The Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland; the Beall Center for Art + Technology , Irvine and more. Her work has also been shown at Ars Electronica, Austria; the American Museum of Moving Image; the Boulder Museum of Cont. Art; the Cleveland Museum of Cont. Art; the Shanghai World Expo; the Yaku Museum, Quito, Ecuador; LACE Los Angeles and more. Zurkow is on the faculty at NYU’s Interactive Technology Program (ITP) and is represented by Bitforms Gallery in New York City.
Poster Children 2007
Animation, (4) 24" monitors, (2) custom PCs, custom housing
78" x 14" x 6" , 9 minute loop, silent
Editions of 5
The Poster Children and its remix, Heroes of the Revolution are part of a series of animated paintings whose themes circulate around apocalyptic fantasies of the deluge and climate change, of water, ice, animals, and people.
NeoGeo I - IV (2012)
Marina Zurkow in collaboration with Daniel Shiffman
Single-channel animation, color, silent 12 min loop
Processing development: Dan Shiffman; Qucktime renders of Processing sketches, custom computers, speedrail, mirror.
Technical Assistance: Paul Paradiso
The environment is composed of tiny bits of hand-drawn rock, created in code, and activated by rules of physics and the formation of strata; rules affect the density and behaviors of the strata, as well as the possible location of hydrocarbon particles, all of which come into contact with a drill bit. Cap rock (salt and shale) form barriers under which hydrocarbon particles accumulate. An oil “gush” occurs if conditions are right. NeoGeo visualizes the density and graphical, mutating formations of rock, as well as the liquidity of the earth over unfathomably long periods of time.
Main room, clockwise from the entryway, starting with the immediate left
Single-channel animation, color, sound
2 min 32 sec loop
Edition of 5
Extracting and manipulating a clip from The Inside Story of Modern Gasoline, a 1946 industrial film, endless chains of anthropomorphized hydrocarbon molecules dance until they blot out the screen. Hydrocarbon chains are the base material for all plastics. They know not what they become, they simply proliferate. Hydrocarbons are indeed dispassionately lively actors, taking an indiscriminate variety of forms: they may be rotting garbage, they may be gasoline, they may be corpses; all energy and potential.
Mesocosm (Northumberland, UK) (2011)
Software-driven animation. 146-hour year-long cycle (never repeats).
Color, animation, sound
Format: Flash player/projector on (intel) Mac with monitor / projection. Dimensions variable
Add'l animators: Xue Hou, Andrea Lira, Laewook Kang; Code Design: Veronique Brossier; Occasional Sound: Lem Jay Ignacio
Developed during a residency at ISIS Arts, Newcastle, Northumberland
Mesocosm (Northumberland, UK) is an algorithmic work, representing the passage of time on the moors of Northeast England. One hour of world time elapses in each minute of screen time, so that one year lasts 146 hours. No cycle is identical to the last, as the appearance and behavior of the human and non-human characters, as well as changes in the weather, are determined by a code using a simple probability equation: seasons unfold, days pass, moons rise and set, animals come and go, around a centrally located and almost omnipresent human figure… Mesocosm’s figures suggest an open, even infinite, set of beings and phenomena, unconstrained by taxonomic limits: there are cows, owls, ravens, squirrels, foxes, humans and humans in animal costumes, butterflies, refugees, bats, dumpsters, steamrollers, vans, dogs, hares, fairies, dragonflies, inchworms, spiders, hikers, bikes, swallows, smokestacks, fog, pollen, shadows, garbage, leaves, petals, snow, rain, sleet, and wind. Though the relaxed rhythms and spacious temporality of Mesocosm make it seem, on the surface, anything but explosive, its rendition of the human umwelt is founded on a sense of species life as volatile, capricious, random, and unpredictable. An expanded view of what constitutes ‘nature’ is revealed in this staging of the endless communicative events and interactions that shape the experience of human and other animals. (Adapted from a text by Una Chaudhuri).
Weights and Measures (3 channel version) 2007
Animation, 15" monitor, custom PC, custom housing
Edition of 5
Airplanes, elephants, and plankton – three beautiful “machines.” Weights + Measures compares proverbial apples and oranges, in order to probe a system of relative values. Take any two of the three creatures in the system: in water, airplanes sink while elephants swim. Elephants and airplanes both release methane, and both have been instruments of transport and war. Airplanes produce carbon dioxide (CO2), while plankton consumes it. As the largest land mammal, elephants are at the top of the terrestrial food chain, and microscopic plankton is at the bottom; yet without phytoplankton, the oceans would starve. Each ‘machine’ brings into focus several facets of a complex ecosystem, which includes the economics of short-term imperatives and long-view evolutionary time; the microscopic and the monumental; and human interventions of biological technology.
Mesocosm (Wink, Texas) (2012)
Software-driven animation. 144-hour year-long cycle (never repeats).
Color, animation, sound
Format: Standalone software application on (intel) Mac with monitor / projection. Dimensions variable. Add'l animation: Michelle Mayer; Code Design: Veronique Brossier; Occasional Sound: Lem Jay Ignacio
Developed throguh a residency at Diverseworks, Houston, Texas
Mesocosm (Wink, Texas) is part of an ongoing series of animated landscapes that develop and change over time in response to software-driven data inputs. The title is drawn from the field of environmental science and refers to experimental, simulated ecosystems, which allow for manipulation of the physical environment and are used for biological, community, and ecological research (Kansas State Uni Div of Biology) Rainfall Manipulations Plots description). The animated elements are drawn by hand, frame-by-frame, yet their choreographies are dynamic—not predetermined or canned—dictated by constraints in real-time. Each of the works in Mesocosm is long in duration and recombines perpetually as inputs determine order, density, and interrelationships. They are looped, and have no beginning or end. Because change happens slowly, but can be radical over time, the works are intended to be seen in public places where people gather or pass through frequently, or lived with like a painting—in living rooms and meeting spaces.
The Thirsty Bird (2012)
Two-channel animation, black and white, silent
5 min,12 sec loop
Animation assistance: Lindsay Nordell
Edition of 5
The movement of a pump jack (known colloquially as a “thirsty bird”), and a public water fountain are synchronized in a delicate dance. As the pump pulls oil upward, the water fountain spurts water. An array of archetypal individuals—cowboys and Indians, a father and his son, a county sheriff, a cow, a soldier, a girl with her dog—emerge in endless succession to drink from the fountain. The graphic treatment is based on Gerd Arntz’ ISOTYPE (International System Of Typographic Picture Education), developed with Viennese social scientist and philosopher Otto Neurath (1882-1945) as a method for visual statistics
Three from a series of 4 works
(4) 5:00 minute loops
Editions of 7
Format: Dimensions variable; custom framed 24" monitor with MPlayer, or MPlayer only for 1920x1080 projection or monitor
Sound for installation versions by Pat Irwin
The Elixir pieces describe impossible landscapes: cut-crystal bottles bob and toss like buoys in the ocean, beacons bearing potions, poisons, messages, genies. Each bottle contains an animated figure engaged in a repeated, metronomic action. In Elixir I, a woman is rowing; Elixir II, a blindfolded man stumbles to stay upright. Elixir III holds a little girl trying to fly with paper wings; and in Elixir IV, a high diver twists and arcs, while the bottle presses forward in an Antarctic landscape. The highly layered video treatment pays tribute to the 19th century Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky, whose portentous, luminous paintings of tiny ships on huge swells of ocean both mesmerize and terrify the viewer.
Duration: 17'42” (loop)
Edition of 6 plus 2 A/Ps
Color, animation and stereo sound
Format: Mac Mini or media player
Dimensions variable; Music by Lem Jay Ignacio; Additional animation: Jen Kelly. Commissioned by the City of Tampa 2009
The animated, carnivalesque tailgate party of Slurb loops and stutters like a vinyl record stuck in a groove. Slurb - a word that collapses "slum" and "suburb" - encapsulates a dreamy ode to the rise of slime, a watery future in which jellyfish have dominion. … There is a history of satirical illustration, epitomized by J.J.Grandville in the 19th century, in which animal-headed humans are deployed in the telling of troubling social narratives. Slurb is that kind of cartoon. Facts of the ocean's radical changes in acidity and oxygen levels form the backbone of the animation; overfishing, dumping, and climate change's heating of ocean currents have already triggered a reversion toward a primordial sea in parts of the ocean larger than the state of Texas. Slurb's surface is inspired by fictions, like J.G. Ballard's prescient 1962 novel Drowned World, in which inhabitants of a flooded world feel the tug of the sun, and dream of a return to their amniotic past.
Oil & Water
Opening Reception: Wed Sept 18th, 5:30 - 8:30