Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hopeful Future: the Environment and Bruce Conkle

Earth Day has come and gone, but the message of environmental awareness still vibrates in the air.

If you are like me, you may have just experienced a small pang of discontent after reading the phrase "environmental awareness". I understand. The information that follows those words is typically unpleasant, unsettling, and frankly, about things that we would rather not be aware of. Who wants to see a picture of a dying polar bear captioned with the fact that they are inadvertently killing the innocent animal whenever they buy gas? Who wants to be reminded of the horrors of deforestation, only to be crushed by guilt when they buy paper towels at the store the next day? Often when we become armed with knowledge about our world, it quickly transforms into a burden that we would rather push to the back of our mind.

Making broad generalizations like this is certainly dangerous; of course, the things I'm writing may not be true about you. You may be incredibly passionate and involved in this increasingly pressing subject, and are perhaps more than willing to frequently face our species' slow destruction of our habitat. In that case, I applaud you.

It's not that I don't want to be aware of and help counteract climate change and deforestation, in fact, the opposite is true. The problem is that problems I become aware of seem too big - too unmanageable. When confronted with disturbing statistics, empty forests, and dying polar bear cubs, I become easily depressed. "Do something!", I tell myself, but what solution can one person implement that will really make a difference? For every small environmentally conscious act I complete, there is someone on the other side of the world doing the opposite, my environmental counterpart "undoing" my efforts. This kind of truth is frustrating to me and certainly produces no more optimism regarding the future of the world I live in.

Fortunately, an artist named Bruce Conkle addresses the contemporary attitudes towards the environment (and our place in it) with humor and authenticity, and in such a way that makes our environmental future seem not quite as bleak. By raising the large environmental issues with whimsy and wit, his work compels us to acknowledge and embrace the phrase "environmental awareness", instead of running from it.

Orange Manalishi
pencil on paper, 
12 x 6"
I recently had the privilege of hearing Bruce Conkle thoughtfully explain his work in person. Listening to an artist speak about their work (especially work dealing with pressing issues) is always interesting, and Conkle did not break this trend when he made a guest appearance in my art history class.

"I discovered that the more you make fire move, the more it looks like trees", Conkle iterated when introducing his interest in the more magical aspects of nature. This kind of whimsical manipulation and transformation occurs commonly in his work, both in his sculptures and drawings. Although he is often recognized for his small, garishly saturated drawings, Conkle thinks of these pieces as primarily preparatory sketches for his sculptures. They appear in many of his exhibitions, but often to accompany his 3-dimensional work, not to stand alone.

His 2008 exhibition titled Friendlier Fire seems to introduce his style perfectly: fascination with the magic of nature combined with an interest in contemporary politics and technology, sprinkled with a touch of whimsical intelligence. Spinning the phrase "friendly fire" (weapon fire coming from one's own side, especially fire that causes accidental injury or death to one's own forces), Bruce Conkle played with irony when he found a way to make fire "friendlier" (see above).

T.G.I. Doomsday
installation view
T.G.I. Doomsday (right) is one of his more politically charged works in Friendlier Fire. The installation piece involves a complex rigging in which a real fire is maintained and suspended on a small rock in front of a projector, casting it's shadow onto Conkle's drawing of the fireplace in the Oval Office. It comes as no surprise that the piece's conception took place during the 2008 presidential election, a time when many felt politically unsure. Perhaps Bruce Conkle wanted to communicate the fear of empty campaign promises, or perhaps he wanted to make a statement about the events that took place in front of that fireplace prior to the election, the shadows that formed there. Intention and meaning aside, the piece is still technically beautiful and rather ingenious in its own right. 

Conkle's interest in fire is only one facet of his far-reaching interest in natural elements. Growing up in the pacific northwest, he developed a deep understanding and appreciation for trees, later incorporating them into his art in various ways. 
  • Trees help to illustrate the relationship between nature and technology, and the dreamy possibility of growing things from unexpected places:

Truck Bonsai
Pencil on paper, 9 ½ x 8"

  • Gilded tree burls rendered in the relatively new "Eco Baroque" style are "simultaneously grotesque and sexy, pantomiming the societal fetishism of art made by cutting growths off of trees." (Jeff Jahn, 2010)
Gilded Burls from Magic Chunks, 2010

  • Conkle even imagines trees as haughty, snowman-like figures with his project Burls Will Be Burls, commissioned by Trimet, the environmentally-friendly public transportation system in Portland, Oregon.
One of three sculptures in Conkle's Burls Will Be Burls
A figure from Burls Will Be Burls appears to look into the distance as a light rail train approaches
 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Finally, the most uplifting example of Bruce Conkle's work comes in the form of a sketch. This particular sketch represents an idea, a hope, and perhaps an artist's premonition about a future intersection of man-made technology and environmental needs. Floating Forest asks us to imagine a time when we can peacefully interact with nature, combining our modern world with the natural traditions of the elements that preceded us.

"Imagine you are in an old growth forest, the trees gently creaking in the breeze. As you walk through the tall trees you catch a view of the ocean, and you notice the horizon gently swaying up and down. The basic premise of the Floating Forest project is to take the world's largest ocean going vessels, oil supertankers, cover them with a few feet of top soil, and plant them with trees. For propulsion, several massive sails would be mounted on deck to create giant wind powered ships. Drinking water would be made by desalinizing sea water which is then stored in large quantities in the re-purposed tanks. This conversion into sustainable "eco-tankers" would enable these retrofitted ships to be used for carbon sequestration, food production, and water filtration and storage. Crops, orchards and forests could be grown on these hulking ships by resident arborists, horticulturists, beekeepers and others, then sailed near cities for harvesting and delivering produce and/or lumber. 

I envision a future with armadas of these sailing agricultural behemoths. Highly adaptable to temperature fluctuations, rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns, such a fleet would be versatile and have a wide variety applications. For example, some could be moored off the coast of Florida which could be used to grow citrus orchards. In this case, rising sea levels or salinity in the soil may soon render the low lying land unsuitable for fruit trees. With the eco-tankers, such adverse conditions would not necessitate all the knowledgeable farmers in the region to pack their bags and leave, or to not be able to use their vast stores of information, but they would be able to commute from home on land to the offshore groves to tend to the trees. Other tankers could be designed to offer relief to areas stricken by natural disasters around the globe. Medical crews could be stationed on board the tankers which would be delivering huge amounts of fresh water as well as fresh food, and the large size of the vessel could facilitate or aid with rebuilding materials and crews or evacuations if needed." 

-Bruce Conkle

Conkle has given us a eccentric blueprint for a futuristic solution, yet it remains within the realm of possibility; and, more importantly, within the realm of our willing imagination. "Environmental awareness" does not always have to lead us to deforestation, sometimes it can lead us to floating forests. 

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