Returning to the ecological consciousness of art, according to Tadashi Kawamata

With plenty of technology and knowledge, mankind is currently living in the opulence of its own production. Modernity has uncritically increased overproduction, blind to the consequences and surrounded by an anthropocentrism that refuses to establish parity with the other species with which it shares the planet. It is cheaper to produce 1000 than to produce 1. And, entangled in the typification and decaying neoliberal normalization, one loses the notion of scale and necessity. Nature is incompatible with economics; the cosmos is incompatible with the coin.

One lives in abundance. One lives in the shadow of the positivist and scientific utopia. One lives the dystopia of piled up debris, ecological indifference, laxity. One lives the dystopia of garbage.

Alternatively, it is possible that one is living the dystopian utopia of smoothness, of polishing, of the world human collective that refuses alterity, excrescences, what is unpolished and does not shine. Byung Chul-Han often speaks profusely on this new contemporary man who sees himself represented on the round, reflective and unbroken surfaces of electronic devices, who refuses the organic and alike. Man’s behaviour before garbage is a reflection of a being who cannot connect himself with the ugly, with the rest, and therefore firmly rejects to look into his own chthonic truth.

When art looks at trash as an expressive vehicle, it does it in the double aesthetic and ethical reason, or, if we prefer, an aesthetic that does not reject the intrinsic ethical component. And it is curious to see how each artist works the garbage in this double strand, which sometimes can generate tensions in the viewer.

There is a clear inner tension when we contemplate the installation Over Flow by Tadashi Kawamata in MAAT’s Oval Room. But this tension is more in line with the despicable, irresponsible and bourgeois way of looking at garbage. Trash is ugly, abject, it leads us to a visceral understanding of our internal systems (biological and social) that we refuse to see, precisely due to their ugliness. Garbage dries up the unspoiled whiteness of the museum, which for centuries was the hierarchical institution of taste. This primitive and archaic view of the museum is still deeply rooted in any individual. And this interpretation (semiotics, if preferred) of garbage encompasses a more in-depth reading of the subjects on display. The museum, we shall remember it often, especially in the context of contemporary art, is a place of confrontation and infuriation, which requires several re-readings, it stimulates debate and research. The taste, the beautiful, are secondary.

In this work, and in many others at MAAT, the ethical understanding is more noticeable than aesthetic counterpart, despite the interplay of projected shadows when one is inside the installation, inspired by the Japanese tradition and construction. It is possible to criticize this exhibition, by using the celebrated – and certainly coherent – view of Claire Bishop’s Artificial Paradise. But it is also possible that such an effort is inglorious, considering the urgency of what is at stake. The slow plunge into the trash wave is an immersion in the waste of the modern, hyper-industrialized society and, at the same time, represents a necessary awareness of the issue. This is an image we keep of any beach in a so-called underdeveloped or developing country: vast spots of plastic, glass and metal that hit the coast to rest on beach sands brought by the tides, alongside animal species killed by the water toxicity, which, on the other hand, is filled with microplastics. Nature gives us back what has been rejected by us and by her as well.

However, this is plastic retrieved from Portuguese beaches and waters, probably our own trash, which may have travelled from other corners of the world, brought by ocean currents, which ended up here, in our fair share of land. And, how unfair, we have to deal with the garbage of others! Migrant garbage, certainly more corrosive and infected than ours. Nature’s boldness of not respecting our coastal areas, our maritime borders. Such an attitude! Sparagmos, a classical Greek word to designate the violent behaviour of nature in relation to everything, including what is ours. Nature is capable of dilacerating, cutting, reducing to pieces what we produce, the amounts and conquests, the borders and the edified. A cut through these rusty, emaciated spoils is the equivalent of a tetanus infection. Nature does not care and its self-regulation is in line with a Dante-minded landscape. Nature knows no boundaries.

It’s a hell-like installation. But the critic must question himself and those responsible regarding the possibility of this being yet another Artificial Paradise, the possibility that we are already facing a rhetorical exercise, which, by relaxing in the aesthetic part, also jeopardizes ethics and, therefore, a real social and political engagement which should be raised by it. Marta Jecu, one of the curators alongside Pedro Gadanho, shields herself in another critic and philosopher, Bruno Latour, according to whom there are more pressing urgencies to be addressed in a broad exercise of the several sciences that make up the knowledge. And, with this cue, and in a conclusive way, one reiterates some questions. “What are we supposed to do when faced with an ecological crisis that does not resemble any of the crises of war and economies, the scale of which is formidable, to be sure, but to which we are in a way habituated since it is of human, all too human, origin? What to do when told, day after day, and in increasingly strident ways, that our present civilization is doomed; that the Earth itself has been so tampered with that there is no way it will ever come back to any of the various steady states of the past?”

The man is the boat of Kawamata’s installation: with its bow submerged, in the middle of the wave, adrift in its own mishaps, sinking into the consumerist boredom that absorbs and immediately regurgitates. Until the end of the species, until the end of dystopia – smooth, arid, sterile.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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