My River runs to thee–
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River wait reply–
To see a World in a Grain of Sand Oh Sea—look graciously
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, I’ll fetch thee Brooks
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand From spotted nooks–
And Eternity in an hour. Say—Sea – Take Me!
–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence –Emily Dickinson, My River runs to thee
The River Rail is a bi-annual, free publication that focuses solely on the urgent subject of nature: its beauty, abuse, and changing climate that is gravely affecting every aspect of the planet’s ecosystem, and our lives. An offshoot of the Brooklyn Rail, the idea comes as a response to the Trump administration’s aggressive attack on human rights and equality, cultural knowledge, environmental protection, and scientific methodology based in research and fact. The most recent Rail Curatorial Project titled Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 1 at Mana Contemporary (October 2017) was our initial response to these violations. Together with our new friends, Lauren Bon and her colleagues at Metabolic Studio, whose everlasting commitment to environmental causes through the cross-section of art and activism has indeed inspired us at the Rail, we are continuing to redirect the flow, with the River Rail.
Growing up in Vietnam’s tropical climate, constant flooding caused by monsoons was a way of life. Fast forward to New York: on October 22, 2012, Hurricane Sandy began as a classic storm. Gaining energy from the warm seas of the Caribbean, it moved northward along the Gulf Stream and morphed into a winter cyclone, which dramatically increased its size, transforming it into Superstorm Sandy. Monday evening October 29, the storm, the high tide, and the full moon united into a trifecta that caused the most extreme flooding ever seen in New York. Around 9 p.m., the water level peaked, overwhelming my studio along with several studios of artist friends in the same building (in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, designated a mandatory evacuation “red” zone) with nearly six feet of water. By 1 a.m. the water had retreated. The salt water damaged or destroyed virtually everything that it saturated: it eroded machines, paper, paintings,—and then came the mold. Sandy was remembered as one of the most destructive storms in United States history, causing $71.4 billion in property damage and the loss of 106 lives. Fast forward to 2017: damage caused by natural disasters cost America $306 billion, reported by the Natural Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most costly U.S. natural disaster year on record (Washington Post, Jan 8, 2018). The question is simple: how will we be able to confront and mediate similar natural disasters in the near and far future?
In the wake of Sandy’s aftermath and throughout the course of recovery, we learned that our artist community was severely affected, particularly the studios, galleries, and storage facilities that occupied low-lying areas. Our good friend Jack Flam, the President of the Dedalus Foundation urgently wrote, “[t]he storm was devastating, but the response to the devastation generated an enhanced sense of community.” Upon an invitation by Jack Flam, we at the Rail headquarters swiftly staged the monumental Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1 exhibition to commemorate the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy at Industry City’s 100,000 square-foot warehouse space, together with the brilliant Dedalus team led by Morgan Spangle and Katy Rogers, and the newly created Industry City ensemble of Glen Siegel, Michael Philips, Andrew Kimball, and Brian Flanagan. The show included 300 artists and endless complicated logistics (including a complete build-out and even the installation of a stairwell). For those who were involved with this immense undertaking—executed in three months—our lives were forever changed, our responses to the issues of our times heightened and amplified by a profound sense of solidarity with and to our fellow men and women in mutual concern for the welfare of all beings.
Depictions of nature exist in the imagery of cultures from around the world, from Roman frescoes in Herculaneum to Chinese landscape painting throughout the Five Dynasties, from Hercules Seghers to Vincent Van Gogh to the late works of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, just to name a few. In the Western tradition of literature from Virgil to William Wordsworth to John Keats to Emily Dickinson and Gary Snyder, one is brought into communion with the beauty of nature, often for spiritual comfort and relief.
Current research is showing that water is to our 21st century what oil was to the 20th century. The River Rail raises issues that many of us are not aware of, and proposes some actions. To illustrate, a thermocline is a layer of the ocean where the temperature changes more rapidly with depth, caused by the collision of warm and cold currents; woe be the day when our feelings about the Earth’s conditions remain lukewarm. Building upon a history dating back to over thirty millennia, when our Paleolithic ancestors painted images of bison, horses, and aurochs on irregular cave walls, to the late 1960s when “earth art” was built into site-specific natural environments, to our commitment today to ensure this labor of love and care for the fragility of ecological matters is firm and solid. This augury of ecological concerns and explorations is a new beginning of our collective work in the making.
In solidarity, as ever,
Diana Coryat, CA Conrad, Cecilia Vicuña, Raquel Salas Rivera, Haley Mellin, Robin Moore, Wes Sechrest , Lindsay Renick Mayer, David Brooks, Camila Marambio, Christy Gast, Laura Allred Hurtado, Greg Lindquist, Marcella Durand, Diana Wege, Joshua Harrison, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, David Michael Buhl, Diego Gerard, Tatina Vazest, Dr. Bárbara Saavedra, Edwin Torres, Lucía Hinojosa, Lauren Bon, Rochelle Fabb, Metabolic Studio, Maxim Holland, Meg Webster, Maya Lin, David Levi Strauss, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, Don Church
Phong Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.