Human VS the Earth’s Ecosystem

From our last lecture, I really liked the concept of systems art being a manifestation of ecology.

The project I remembered the most was Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube. It demonstrated the condensation cycle in real time while revealing the fascination of this natural operation. The whole system was visually simplified to emphasize on the process itself as well as its high efficiency. Moreover, being one of the most crucial natural operation for human sustainment, the concentrating of the whole condensation process inside of a small glass cube and having to be exhibited in a gallery would also greatly raise people’s attention and appreciation on the relevant issues.

While Hasscke’s project was essentially an artificial simulation, it reminded me of another similar experimentation that was conversely almost entirely controlled by the nature. This bottle garden, owned by David Latimer, an ordinary civilian, was built in 1960. The plants had only been watered twice since the creation. It had created a miniature ecosystem of its own and had been self-sufficient for over 50 year. The only things the bottle garden had absorbed from the outside world was sunlight which had been used in the process of photosynthesis, creating oxygen and moisture in the air. The moisture then ‘rained’ back down on the plants to be absorbed by the plants. The leaves dropped from the plants also generated carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis and other elements need for nutrition. Without any physical output or input, everything was repeatedly utilized in this closed ecological environment. 

Along with some other similar experimentations, together they triggered me to think about the role of human intervention in relation to the earth’s natural operation. From the bottle garden could be self-sufficient in a closed system on its own, expanding to that earth was able to sustain itself for thousand of years prior to the existence of human, no artificial system was able to outclass the sophisticated ordering of earth’s ecosystem which had produced no waste and no energy loss. More exactly, human intervention in this case was never necessary. So what really was our role in this environment?

This was the question Agnes Denes tried to post when she launched her project, Wheatfields—A Confrontation, in New York 1982. Denes believed her “decision to plant a wheatfield in Manhattan, instead of designing just another public sculpture, grew out of a long-standing concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.” In front of her bountiful wheat field, the cool steel skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan looked more lifeless than ever. So which one should be build? The seemly longeval concrete structures that were excluded from the ecological cycle or the ephemeral organism would decay and thrive year after year? What was our priority? On the other hand, Denes’s project also proposed a contradiction in terms of human’s capability in front of the nature. During the course of the project, human were only enhancing the process of sowing, fertilizing, and harvesting. It was the land that had germinated the seeds and fruited the plants. Yet, human controlled the choice of how to utilize of the land. After the harvest, the wheat land was returned to construct concrete structure. Nature once again became so vulnerable in front of human’s decisions.

As human’s aspiration continuously shift away from the basic sustainment of life, we were also gradually damaging earth’s most precious heritage. However, as being created as part of the ecosystem, we would never be able to completely extract ourselves from the upcoming consequences. Thus, it would be artists’ responsibility to constantly remind people why we were here and how should we carry the human race on.

Xi Wang


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