|About the Book|
This dissertation examines the ways that five contemporary artists---Mark Dion (b. 1961), Fred Tomaselli (b. 1956), Walton Ford (b. 1960), Roxy Paine (b. 1966) and Cy Twombly (b. 1928)---have adopted the visual traditions and theoretical formulationsMoreThis dissertation examines the ways that five contemporary artists---Mark Dion (b. 1961), Fred Tomaselli (b. 1956), Walton Ford (b. 1960), Roxy Paine (b. 1966) and Cy Twombly (b. 1928)---have adopted the visual traditions and theoretical formulations of historical natural history to explore longstanding relationships between nature and culture and begin new dialogues about emerging paradigms, wherein plants, animals and fungi engage in ecologically-conscious dialogues. Using motifs such as curiosity cabinets and systems of taxonomy, these artists demonstrate a growing interest in the paradigms of natural history. For these practitioners natural history operates within the realm of history, memory and mythology, inspiring them to make works that examine a scientific paradigm long thought to be obsolete.-This study, which itself takes on the form of a curiosity cabinet, identifies three points of consonance among these artists. First, these artists are concerned with acknowledging, adhering to, or subverting the borders of naturalist taxonomy. They have appropriated this scientific system of classification, that applies names to organisms---species---to question and undermine the very nature of culturally-constructed categories. Ultimately, their critiques are concerned with the very categorization of knowledge itself. Second, these artists demonstrate a sustained engagement with organismal bodies, attending to plants, non-human animals and fungi and how they have been applied to our wider culture. Delving into ontology, they provide a space where viewers may come to terms with, and simultaneously envision, what it is to be a human being, in a body, in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Third, in an attempt to resolve a historical past in the present, Dion, Tomaselli, Paine, Ford and Twombly use natural history to explore and negotiate memory and mythology in the process of their retreat into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural history, its golden age.-I take Aby Warburgs (1866-1929) Mnemosyne, or Atlas Project (1927-29), as a model for understanding historical natural history as a field of observation and recollection, which attended to memory, or according to Warburg, the past conceptualized in the present. Guided by an associative model, Warburgs project continues to challenge traditional patterns of conceptualizing objects and images and their relationship to one another, leaving us to contemplate our own evolutionary pasts and place within the order of things. The artists here rely on a similar associative model to reckon with history, memories and presentness in the process of constructing new ways of seeing. They have discovered in natural history, as Warburg himself attempted to do with his serpent and nymph, a kind of resolution of memory and trauma. For these artists, trauma is complex and subtle, scattered across a field of colonialism, ecological destruction, and reductive nature-culture bifurcations. It exists in, among other things, the consolidation of living beings into the homogenous category of life and the relegation of the field of nature to the laboratory of science, exterior to our own processes of becoming. These artists beckon us with a Visionary Natural History: Through the space of their own serpents and nymphs---historical natural history---they demonstrate an awareness that acknowledges a past both violent and full of promise, rich with possibilities for constructing new ways of seeing and being.