NÎMES, France — Ugo Rondinone’s zombie nature show Becoming Soil is an unintentional reminder that the terrifying Anthropocene age — when the human influence on Earth’s soil has been so profound it will leave its destructive legacy for millennia — is upon us. Rondinone’s newest, grand sculpture, “elevated rectangle landscape” (2016), opens the show and sets this forlorn context into play. It is a low-floating plane of soil that reminds one of Walter de Maria’s “New York Earth Room” (1977), though I noticed one big difference: Rondinone’s earth has no smell. It has been sealed under a spray of plastic resin, appropriate since plastic is a key marker for the Anthropocene, even giving rise to the nickname “Plasticene.”
Like many other artists who have been addressing the natural world in their work, Rondinone’s other sculptural installations, spread out with too-cute little animals, lack strong, intense affect. Only a tinge of regressive naivety was experienced in the room with 59 bronze birds, “Primitive” (2011–12). These grounded birdies are arranged as essentially lonely figures around “Thank You Silence” (2005), an inert artificial snow machine suspended from the ceiling above a patch of fake paper snowflakes that centers the bird cluster. Given my human scale, I dominated the space of the grounded birds and that struck me as aberrant, even evoking Glenn Albrecht’s term, solastalgia, which describes the homesickness felt by people whose natural landscapes have been transformed about them by forces beyond their control. Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. The lonely and grounded birds, frozen around the patch of fake snow, provided a simple visualization of this solastalgia and confirmed that Anthropocene art is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with the loss of animals and ice. (The current extinction rate for birds, incidentally, may be faster than at any other time in 150 million years of avian evolutionary history.)
Another installation of miniature animals, “Primal” (2013), features 44 bronze horses. The statues’ generic uniformity suggests a memorial to the ongoing biodiversity crisis of extinction. The small scale of these representational sculptures, set low on the floor, recalls Joel Shapiro’s famous Untitled (1973–74) series of metal miniatures, which began with him making a small horse — a radical break from the abstract art tendencies of the time. Moving away from Process art, Shapiro started showing simplifications of familiar objects that, like in “Primal,” sit lonely, distributed on the floor. Indeed, one of Shapiro’s first works of this type, “Untitled” (1972), incorporated a bronze bird on the floor as a reaction against the austerity of Minimalism.
Rondinone, who himself was an excellent curator at the Palais de Tokyo with The Third Mind (2007) and a glamorous show I much appreciated, I Love John Giorno (2015), here has been curated by Jean-Marc Prevost, who told me he sees the show as a “quasi-retrospective” for the artist. Certainly the selection of work is sufficient to be so, even if missing examples of Rondinone’s circular paintings series — which cannot but remind me of Kenneth Noland — his metal trees, and his paintings of windows seen in different cities during his travels. Perhaps Prevost should have excluded one more, as I found Norman Foster’s Carré d’Art space a bit too clean and cold for any imaginative magic to spark from the 47 flying fish of “Primordial” (2016). Especially seen in light of the Anthropocene, “Primordial” seemed to me simply too childish, too intellectually regressive, and too plain old corny to be of any sustained interest, calling to mind Bruce Nauman’s rather weak work “One Hundred Fish Fountain” (2012) and Kiki Smith’s less than stellar “Rabbits” (1998). (By contrast, I recommend the much greater grunge groupings of Christy Rupp, an artist more than superficially involved with the fusion of representational sculpture with animal studies.)
The Carré d’Art struck me as much better suited to Rondinone’s vast landscape drawings mounted on canvas and his chance-based paintings of starry nights. Indeed, my preferred works in the show are his monumental imaginary landscapes, such as “fuenftermaizweitausendundelf” (2011), done in Indian ink and titled with the date the work was completed. Here, “fuenftermaizweitausendundelf” is installed near a kinetic relief sculpture, “Big Mind Sky” (2007), which consists of a metal keyhole, seemingly from an old, over-sized door, set into the wall, from which a current of air blows. Rondinone’s poetic landscapes are assembled from smaller sketched compositions the artist did en plein air in Austria and at various other outdoor locations. They project a fairy tale-like sensorial propensity to me that suggests the complex cross-weaves of vulnerability and culpability that exist between us and other animal species, yet they are sleek and mural-sized. “fuenftermaizweitausendundelf” contain something beautifully gnarly, hinting at a deep inner intimacy that reminded me of the poem “Tomb (Of Verlaine)” (1897) by Stéphane Mallarmé. Sumptuous and grand, these ensnaring pen drawings evoke unseen realms and timeless obscurities and are the lushest work in the show, full of complex connections. Perhaps when imagined as tombstone engravings they engender feelings appropriate to the Anthropocene in that we have erased entire biomes and crashed whole ecosystems. Magnificent yet delicate, the pieces in this series call for a contemplation of ghost emissaries.
The large star paintings, like “N° 559 dreissigsternovemberzweitausendundacht” (2008), speak of a darker ecological impulse in which categories such as the picturesque congeal into kitsch. The paintings transmit a visual sublime based in vertiginous infinity that recalls trippy trips to the Space Show in the Hayden Planetarium, Vija Celmins’s charcoal drawings of twilight, and the poetic writings of Gérard de Nerval and other Romantics.
The sublime feeling nurtured by Rondinone’s night sky paintings receives a jolt of jokey, Pop lightness with the Grands Nuages series of sky blue, cloud-shaped canvases, like “fünfundzwanzigsterjunizweitausendundfünfzehn” (2015). These breezy works are less than edgy and don’t offer much to the imagination. They may be too simple and cute for our complex and ugly epoch. Their passive emptiness suggests to me that Rondinone’s romantic, nature-based art might be better served by moving past formal interests in Minimalism and confronting particular challenges and ideas specific to the Anthropocene. What we’re missing here are fresh visual vocabularies and art narratives that might account for the kinds of relations and responsibilities in which we currently find ourselves entangled. How could a cloud painting or a pack of tiny handmade horses possibly stand up to our creation of global-scale environmental changes that will play out across millennia, let alone shape the nature of that change?
At least the exhibition’s title, Becoming Soil, generated for me a set of hopeful, creative, and generative thoughts and expectations based on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas of becoming — becoming molecular, becoming woman, becoming animal, etc. They explained that the process of “becoming” is not one of imitation or analogy, but is propagative of a new way of being that is a function of influences rather than resemblances. The process is one of removing the element from its original functions and bringing about new ones. In their terms, “becoming soil” would mean drawing one piece of the earth’s assemblage into the territory of another, changing its value as an element and bringing about a new unity. In Becoming Soil, Rondinone does this by asking us to contemplate art as a form of becoming landscape, becoming star cluster, becoming cloud, and becoming animal. All this while also imagining becoming participant in a funeral procession, slowly and inevitably working our way toward the Anthropocene tomb of our own making.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by the Carré d’Art.