What is it to represent nature or to speak on its behalf? Meredith Monk explored this notion in her most recent work at the BAM Harvey Theater, On Behalf of Nature, through music (voice, winds, keyboard and percussion), movement (walking, running, crawling, swaying, and gesturing with arms and hands) and video art. Monk, a visionary composer, vocalist, dancer, and choreographer, is in her fiftieth year of making work.
In the program notes, Monk explained that On Behalf of Nature was initially inspired by an essay from poet Gary Snyder, “Writers and the War Against Nature,” in which he considers the artist as a “spokesperson for non-human entities.” The eight performers all moved and sang together for the duration of the performance except for a brief video projection that showed images of all manner of creatures including cattle, bugs, microscopic organisms, and scenes from modern human life. On Behalf of Nature was to suggest “a world in which the material, the spiritual, and the human coexist as a harmonious interdependent whole.” (BAM.org)
These three elements (material, spiritual, and human) inevitably do coexist (depending on one’s worldview) and they are inevitably interdependent. But the terms of this relationship shift and the main issue seems to be a lack of harmony. We tend to see ourselves as apart from nature, perhaps because we create new conditions by not only using but by destroying that which has come before us.
When I read about On Behalf of Nature on the Brooklyn Academy of Music website before seeing it, I was already drawing parallels between the work and an exhibit I had seen a week prior at the International Center of Photography: Genesis, by Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian photographer. His photographs were posed as a means of “raising public awareness about the pressing issues of environment and climate change.” Salgado’s photographs show aerial views of nature at its most epic alongside intimate portraits of animals and individuals from non-industrialized societies. It is a presentation by the museum of a world that we as museum-goers in New York don’t quite consider our own. Curator Lélia Wanick Salgado describes Genesis as “a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being.” (ICP.org)
The artist may borrow or capture images from nature and re-present them, thereby showing an impulse towards creation rather than destruction. At the same time, the presentation of such artistic work in spaces designed to showcase it (i.e. museums and theaters) is rooted in our industrialized society. These spaces would not currently exist without urbanization, and thus our artistic culture is inherently at odds with nature due to our mediums of transmitting art.
The societies that we perceive as closer to nature or in harmony with nature do not tend to have the same ways of presenting and framing art as industrialized or Westernized nations. When I was looking at Salgado’s portraits of humans, I kept thinking, “But they don’t have a museum space in which they view photographs of the people of New York.” Isn’t “art” as we see it entirely part of the culture and society that we also perceive as destructive to nature?
Monk did consider the possibility that a theatrical production might, in some way, be at odds with nature. In her program notes she mentions wanting to present something that wouldn’t create more waste. This concept was handled creatively by designer Yoshio Yabara who made costumes for the eight performers from their old garments. These took the shape of multi-layered, multi-fabric dresses, skirts, pants, vests, and shirts. They struck me as the opposite of trendy, even bringing to mind garb from the late 19th or early 20th century.
Is there a way for artists to value, preserve, or restore nature without looking back to bygone eras or prior states of the world? How could we strive for harmony between our contemporary artistic work and nature – the object of our admiration and longing? Could artists propose a new, healthier relationship to nature and not merely present the public with an old or vanishing order? In this age of climate change, I’m realizing that I regard scientists more than artists as spokespeople for nature. The impulse to preserve is beautiful, but what is the call-to-action of artistic work that claims to speak for nature, and that yearns for something lost or fading? In other words, what do we do now?
For more information on Sebastião Salgado, see his website.