I spend a lot of time walking on a nature trail near my house. I notice small details such as how ecosystems change from season to season, the cool and warm temperature changes in the various micro climates, and the animals that live surreptitiously around me. This awareness and the connection that I feel to nature while on this trail, makes me want to preserve and nurture the world around me. The beauty in a forest of trees that have created an underground system to communicate with each other is overwhelming. An out of the way fox den where I can watch the pups being raised and then venturing off to create their own skulk is magical. When I see the indications of human involvement that destroys and interrupts these natural habitats, I grieve for the losses that we have caused. This involvement could take the form of plastic waste in the creek, dead trees that have been killed by human-introduced insects, or non-native invasive plants that take over. I see this small trail and everything that lives within the park as a microcosm of our planet. Whether it is the wildfires in California or the hurricanes in the south, I mourn the losses in the same way that I mourn the losses in my park. Because with every devastation due to climate change, every species that becomes extinct, and every irreversible damage that we inflict, it seems that we are too far removed from what our planet once was.
With that being said, the park itself is a small construct of what was once on this land. I see this disconnect in the same way that Jean Baudrillard explained the phases of an image. He states that an image is a reflection of reality. Multiple images mask reality and then go on to mask the absence of reality. Ultimately, being so far removed from the original, the image bears no relation at all to reality. He calls this final version, its own pure simulacrum. Furthermore, he says that, “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” 1 As I walk through my park and on the trail and observe nature’s ecosystems, I wonder how far removed it is from its original. What does untamed nature look like? A nature trail is intended to be a reflection of reality but it seems to mask reality and possibly mask the absence of reality. Is it possible that these ecosystems are artificial? And would insects, trees, mammals, and plants adapt and evolve differently in an untouched-by-human environment? Is it possible that a human- created natural environment is its own pure simulacrum? And is this adequate?
This is the dilemma that William Cronon writes about in “The Trouble with Wilderness: or Getting back to the Wrong Nature.” He states that, “our very presence in nature represents its fall”. To complicate the matter more, the land that natural habitats are often created on are stolen lands from native people. This is also true of the trail that I walk daily. Cronon writes, “The removal of Indians to create ‘uninhabited wilderness’....reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.” He argues, “there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness”.2 Therefore, the nostalgia I have for what once was, is a nostalgia for a socially constructed wilderness. If this is truly the case, the best that I can do is to live sustainably and respect the simulacrum that we have created.
It is within this context that I have been looking to the Dutch vanitas painting from the mid-1600’s for inspiration. This period inspires me because the painters were working during a shift in religious values and had to fabricate a reason for these paintings. Protestantism was becoming more popular and there was a new stigma related
to religious iconography. The painters were looking for a moral justification to paint attractive objects. The justification was that the paintings were meant to send the viewer a moral message. The message was often that life is transient and that earthly pursuits are futile.3 The contemporary vanitas, for me, needs to convey the message of our time. In the era of the anthropocene, climate change and sustainability are the most pressing issues. The message is no longer the transience of one life but the transience of the planet.
I am creating work that is both ephemeral and permanent. Using clay and glaze, I have constructed three-dimensional vanitas still lives. The still life emphasizes form and appears calcified, dead, and permanent. The entire work has a unified white surface. While on my walks on the trail, I have collected detritus, animals, plants, and insects. I have scanned these and manipulated them. I use them to project onto the ceramic work. As the viewer
walks around the vanitas, they are inevitably confronted by their own body interfering with the image and leaving their shadow on the work. I want the viewer to be disturbed by this. The viewer will have the desire to get closer to focus on the vanitas and the projected image, but they will be in their own way of a clearer view. This is how I feel about nature and the copies of nature that we have created. Our desire to fix our damage to the planet or to get back to the original or to find the wilderness, often seems to be just us getting in the way and not appreciating what is there.
1Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulations, Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster, 166-184. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
2Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: Norton and Col, 1995.
3 Riijks Museum. Accessed 29 November 2020. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/ works-of-art/still-lifes
and all of our lives. We are no longer concerned with one person’s “earthly pursuits”, but of the “earthly pursuits” in terms of our daily actions and the effects they have on the planet.