Ecologies of Art-Making
A pine grows in a forest, tall, swaying slightly. Other pines grow around it, rough-barked, evenly spaced. Patches of lighter green show up the younger trees. The forest expands, is cut back, and expands again, shaped by ministry policies, economic demands, and disease control. Wildfire, not as wild in its origins as its name suggests.
The pine is missed by the flames. The whir of machinery, and it is felled among its fellows, dragged onto a truck, driven away. More machinery, the tree is stripped of its bark, shredded to chips. Pulping, refining and bleaching, dried into sheets. Paper.
Divided, the pine travels, across oceans swollen with plastic, stopping in ports, hauled into lorries. Cut and printed, cut and bound. Part of the pine becomes a book on botany. ‘How to identify the hornbeam…’ Illustrations of leaves, precisely rendered, sitting dusty on a shelf.
Opened again, the pages unbound. A scalpel removes each leaf; mounted on the wall, the pages depict each shape through absence and shadows. The liberated leaves litter the ground, a paper-autumn. Real and simulacra, leaves and leftovers.
Rodrigo Arteaga’s practice is concerned with ecology in the broadest – and most relevant – sense of the word. His art draws attention to the interconnectedness of things: humans and non-humans; plants and books about plants; pets and fossils.
In his studio, he holds a handful of leaves, at first glance strikingly realistic, but on closer inspection clearly cut from the pages of an illustrated book about the identification of trees. In exhibition, the emptied pages are hung on the wall, creating what Arteaga describes as a ‘herbarium of absence’, while the cut-outs are sprinkled on the floor like a drift of fallen leaves. By confusing notions of real and representational, he draws attention to the ontological connections between the depicted tree-part and the tree-based paper on which it is printed.
It’s a link that Arteaga further expands on elsewhere, such as in his series Monocultures (2018). In these works, he burned the shapes of the leaves, needles and seeds of two types of tree – pinus radiata and eucalyptus globulus – into paper, similarly creating a portrait of each through absence. The planting of these two species is encouraged indiscriminately by the government of Chile (Arteaga’s home nation) in order to support the country’s profitable paper and timber industries, providing materials for many artists and writers on an international scale. However, rapidly introducing these monocultures of young trees has increasingly dried out the surrounding soil, contributing to some of the most devastating ‘wild’-fires in Chile’s recent history.
Books offer an obvious way through which we access information, but they are not the only means of access interrogated by Arteaga’s practice. His work points to the fact that we can never access an object, idea or lifeform directly; we can only access information about it, whether verbal, visual, textural, through taste, touch, hearing, etc. All experiences are mediated, to a greater or lesser degree. As Timothy Morton puts it, “no one access mode can exhaust all the qualities and characteristics of a thing.” (Morton, Being Ecological, 2018)
There is a cat on Rodrigo Arteaga’s mirrored table. We all feel familiar with cats. And yet once you start to parse your cat-encounters and your cat-feelings, you might start to realise that the notion of the cat starts to become less familiar. Mouse-hunter or string-chaser? Domestic or feral? Friendly or aloof? Cuddly or dangerous? Even with a live cat sitting before us, whose fur we can stroke and whose claws we can feel, we can never access it directly; instead, we must use the information we gain through our perception, and cross-reference it with our assumptions and past experiences.
The ‘cat’ on Arteaga’s table is not real in a conventional sense. There are four versions of it, all doubled in the mirrored surface beneath. Each ‘cat’ is a skeleton, whose bones are made of book-pulp. Delicate joints and ribs reveal semi-legible text, emphasising the skeleton-cat’s role as a locus for meaning, a repository for information.
In its first iteration, the skeleton is presented lying on its side, like the bones of a wild animal picked clean and bleached in the sun, or as if a grave has been excavated by archaeologists. Next, the book-bones are meticulously laid out in order of size, recalling a museological display (another key area of interest for Arteaga, who has created work in response to natural history collections).
In its third form, the cat is splayed wide, as if fossilised. Seeing a domestic cat in the form of a fossil, we are forced into confrontation with our relationship with the non-human. Why do we treasure some animals as pets, dismiss others as food or roadkill, and ignore the mass-extinction that we are inflicting on still more? And how is our relationship with non-humans determined by the contexts in which we learn about and access them? Books and museums are placeholders for access-information, channelling the way in which we think about non-humans, helping us to separate one thing (‘my pet cat’) from another (‘a fossil’) and often helping us to ignore the interconnectedness that is fundamental to ecology.
In his current installation This path one time long time ago at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, Arteaga has intervened in the museum’s natural history collection to disrupt the accepted modes of display that direct the viewer’s experience of the natural world within the museum. By adding stylised ceramic versions of the stuffed birds on display, or by staging a collapsed light fixture, Arteaga draws attention to the theatricality of the presented scenes of taxidermy.
His intervention emphasises that, on the one hand, the animals on show are animals; a parent could point out a ‘stag’ to their child and it would, in a sense, be true. On the other hand, it is not a stag; it has the skin and antlers of a stag, but its insides are stuffing and wire, and its eyes and nose are glass and resin. It differs from a living stag as much as it differs from a picture of a stag in a book. And yet we can’t access the living stag directly either; all we can change is our mode of access. Arteaga’s work draws our attention to the variety of modes by which we access the non-human, encouraging us to form connections and allow for co-existence.
The final cat on the table is a heaped pile of flakes and splinters. It recalls leftovers, a by-product, cremated remains, both distillation and reduction. A handful of dust, it signifies the future as much as the past – but whose future, and whose past?
Words by Anna Souter