A few years ago, I started collecting corporate environmental reports, also known as sustainability or corporate social responsibility reports. These led to an expanded book spanning hundreds of pages, organized in a series of eighteen aluminum binders and displayed on a thirty-seven foot table that suggested an assembly platform. Within the pages of this book-object, titled The Triple Bottom Line, the vast majority of the informational and narrative copy is deleted, emphasizing the remaining visual rhetoric of logos, slogans, photographic imagery, and graphic coloration.
The binders are organized in thematic sets, each exploring different social, economic, racial, spatial, and formal ideologies, expressed in an array of tropes denoting the Natural. From the marketing of sustainability as a white, upper-class lifestyle; to the gross re-narrativizations of environmental racism; to the pastorally naturalized, heterosexual nuclear family, nature is encoded beyond the objects or locales commonly expressed under its sign. Taken sequentially and in overwhelming repetition, they illuminate an array of powerful ideas about nature.
The work problematizes ideological and social entanglements, moving beyond these reports’ perverse greenwashing and more conventional environmentalist thinking. Also at stake are ideas about Nature—ones that frequently accelerate capitalism, consumption, and the degradation of human and non-human life. Many of the aesthetics in these ideas ironically put in peril the very nature they are seeking to preserve.
Consequently, an effective social and political ecology can’t be structured on the historical and ever-convenient bifurcation of nature and culture. Events and activities that take place “elsewhere” reinscribe their effects locally, thus eradicating this illusory divide. An altogether different nature—that is profoundly stranger—binds all life, violently and urgently, in “intra-action” and increasing interdependence. If art has an imperfect role, it might provide a new task of mourning and attendant forms of radical anti-naturalism and non-self identity, much as with other subjects of stifling essentialization, such as the categories of gender and race. To critically disentangle the ideological legacies that continue to drive a discourse about landscape, is imperative for a rhetoric whose indirect violence is affectively marked by collective notions of beauty, sublimity, predestination, as well as moral and racial superiority.
The Triple Bottom Line was made alongside a series of paintings. Some of these mime an orientalist gaze, following a thread of reappropriations from a Toyota Sustainability Report depicting a woman’s face anthropomorphized from exotic flora and fauna. Other luminous, speciously abstract paintings based on dimension stone stock images suggest material and phenomena that destabilizes their subject matter. These apparitional pictures assume a strange, transitive identity: obdurate matter appears aqueous; interior and exterior are blurred; opacity and translucency coexist. Their shifting light and opticality from veils of projection screen glass negate a stable image and viewing experience, while the notion of projection itself recalls the ways in which we recode nature. We imagine and transfigure its forms in the construction and animation of desire.
The paintings and book-object evoke a reflective, parallel and analogous relationship. Masquerading as a binary between representation and abstraction, each mode of work unsettles those surface distinctions. Painting itself is historically bound to the legitimizing forces of naturalistic ideologies that continue to fuel problems for social and political ecology. If the genre of “landscape” as an art-historical and political discourse seems long decomposed, its apparatus is fully intact and thriving with uncanny semblance in mass culture within new forms and narratives. Remediating these forms through painting strives to visually and critically reconnect the invisible links from these potent ideologies to a networked culture of images.
MARC HANDELMAN is an artist who lives and works in New York. His exhibition Aggregates was shown at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. last spring. He is currently Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at The Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University.