Moss in the Service of Art
The artistic community is always very responsive to changes in society and current problems. Therefore, in these times of uncertainty and visions of an ecological apocalypse, more and more artists focus on issues related to nature conservation.
Aquariums are illuminated by special lamps. The glass tanks are heated, too, as there must be an appropriate humidity level inside for mosses, fungi and lichens to continue their growth on some hard to identify waste. Each aquarium wears a label: a black and white logo with the words “Center for living things”. All this resembles a modern lab where scientists conduct research on the state of the contemporary environment. Nothing could be further from the truth: “Center for living things” is an art project coordinated by the artist Diana Lelonek. Instead of paint, turpentine and easel it offers us Petri dishes and biological preparations. “Rubbish caught my attention for the first time at Belovezhskaya Pushcha defenders’ camp in 2016,” Lelonek recalls. “We were calculating tree restorations and suddenly we came across a wild dump, right there in the national park. A protected area with liquor bottles scattered here and there – each of them hiding a microcosmos, as various organisms had already grown inside them. A bottle was the first object I took a photo of.”
The Art of Waste
Lelonek focuses on unwanted blankets, bottles or worn trainers thoughtlessly abandoned at random by their former users. Taking a walk or going to work we usually strive not to notice this shameful aspect of our existence. Lelonek, on the contrary, collects the most interesting specimens during her visits to a forest or park. Then she studies each object very carefully. “For sure, each has some bacteria on it. Life is omnipresent, even though we might not ordinarily realise it,” the artist says. Using her knowledge on mosses, lichens or fungi, she describes what species have already colonised a particular waste. Encountering a species unknown to her, she turns for support to the Adam Mickiewicz University Botanical Garden in Poznań. Once an object is described and catalogued, it is put into one of the aquariums prepared for the purpose in accordance with the artist’s instructions. All Lelonek’s artefacts have already been partly taken over by nature, the old blanket is overgrown with moss, and a beetle colony is overwintering in the abandoned shoe.
Cress and the Voice of the Younger Generation
Diana Lelonek is not the first Polish artist paying attention to ecological issues. So far most of such projects have been marginalised, but this is beginning to alter now, as various media and campaigns sensitise society to changes taking place on our planet. Teresa Murak, whose career started in the 1970s, was one of the first in the Polish artistic community to use live plants in her works, drawing her audience’s attention to the human relationship with nature. The hallmark of her first actions was cress, a plant that grows very quickly even in unfavourable conditions. The artist used this plant for her performances from the Sowing series, where she covered fabrics and clothes with a thick green cress carpet and then put them on. In 1974, as part of her action entitled Procession, Murak spent 3 hours walking in the streets of Warsaw city centre wearing a coat with a hood densely overgrown with cress. Plants used by Murak have a double meaning: on the one hand, clothes overgrown with sprouts are supposed to bring the artist and her audience closer to the primeval human-nature relationship, on the other hand, they refer to the catholic tradition where cress symbolises new life. Krzysztof Maniak uses Polish landscapes in his films and photos. His main focus is also on nature and plants, but unlike the artists referred to above, he utilises wildlife for his actions. Maniak’s performances consist in trampling paths in a dense forest or building art installations from branches: “For me, nature is a stage, a background, like at a theatre – it is very universal and pure. (…) I try to look for places not visited by people for a long time, with no traces of human activity.” Maniak explores mainly the surroundings of the town of Tuchów. This is the artist’s home town, located between two valleys. He often takes photos of himself surrounded by plants and flowers found in nearby fields and meadows. For Maniak, interaction is important: he climbs trees, strokes their trunks, snuggles his face into meadow vegetation. All actions taken by the artist are very gentle, his performances are not supposed to damage any branches or delicate stems. These are not just plants that Maniak approaches with tenderness: the artist lays his head down on a mound of earth, photographs himself with a random rock. In this case, apart from the biological element, also the artist’s direct, literal relationship to earth is significant. Exploring his neighbourhood, the artist searches for his roots: it is not just about the localness and issues related to his origin, but also about the primal nature of man inextricably linked to the environment.
Then we have Natalia Bażowska, who as part of her performance (2014) entered into an intimate relationship with a she-wolf Luna. The animal, separated from its pack, stayed in an aviary: imposing limitations, regulating and forcing certain types of behaviour. An enclosure is a barrier: an animal is not able to fully explore the area, it cannot hunt, it depends on its keepers. Luna lived in the aviary alone, separated from other wolves. Canines are gregarious animals, loneliness and lack of interactions with other community members have a negative effect on their psyche. Bażowska discovered that her current life situation and the she-wolf’s story had a lot in common. Despite species differences, it turned out that the artist and the animal shared the need for closeness and warmth. Slowly, a unique interspecies bond started to form between the artist and Luna. The need for closeness proved as important for a human as for an animal, with communication between them possible just through signals (odour, touch) generated by their bodies.
An Experimental Rabbit
Luna shows that in the era of a progressing transhumanism we are nevertheless merely one of the components of the ecosystem. Still, in scientific and cultural discourse we can constantly hear opinions that the idea of the posthuman, genetically modified in order to adapt to the ongoing changes, subduing one ecosystem after another, is the only right way. “The ideas of sustainable development tell us that we should not aim at controlling the Earth overly, as this only leads to making us weaker. We have entered an era that combines both the posthuman and transhuman perspective: on the one hand, we think about other life forms – which so far we have considered inferior, subordinate, practically just a material for our development – recognising their subjectivity and dignity, while on the other, we have elaborated technologies giving them the ability to evolve and develop on their own,” Prof. Ryszard Kluszczyński, an expert in culture and media, points out. Due to the fact that any guidelines are volatile and unclear, the sack called bio art keeps growing. Stelarc, or Stelios Arcadio, spreads the idea of a “body obsolete”. According to this Australian artist, one of the first to include bio art elements in his works, a human body in the form we now know is a relic, unfitted for the modern reality. Almost all works by Stelarc refer to the desire to know and the constant need to widen the field of vision, to name for instance his Ear on Arm of 2007, comprising a surgical construction of the third ear on the artist’s forearm. At present, the ear has only two dimensions, but it is meant to become a regular organ, able to connect directly with the Internet using a special transmitter. Why? Because our body is imperfect. Stelarc believes that the human system in the form we now know is unfitted for the contemporary world.
In 2000, the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, in collaboration with French scientists, created an albino rabbit into whose genome GFP, the protein isolated from jellyfish and responsible for its fluorescence, was implanted. Alba’s hair, as this was the modified animal’s name, changed its colour under black light to an intense green – the mechanism that in nature serves to deter potential enemies, but is just an ornament in the case of a rabbit. According to the artist, the transgenic art aims not only at creating new living organisms, but also at designing them in such a way that they can become a part of our everyday life, approved and regularly used by society. Alba’s fate was supposed to be similar: its creator meant to adopt her and treat like a common household pet. However, the biologists cooperating with the artist did not let her be taken from the laboratory. Kac’s experiment was criticised by both scientists and the public. The main argument in the discussion was the animal’s suffering: nobody was able to determine what effects the mutation had had on the rabbit’s physical and mental condition, nobody was able to predict how the implantation of foreign proteins would affect the animal’s biological development. Bioengineering, used both in science and art, reflects all natural human characteristics: curiosity, the desire to know and the need to develop. But also cruelty: more than once in history, scientific experiments have been used only to inflict suffering and confirm ideological theses. Is using bioengineering in the name of art so different from pseudoscientific medical experiments? Art is inextricably linked with the moods and views of a given era, and so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the 20th and 21st century artists tend to use genetic materials and transplantations as well. Still, much like genetic experiments, some bio art works raise many controversies and lead to ethical questions. Do technological possibilities justify playing God?
Mosses and lichens
At present, two tendencies dominate within the artistic community that uses elements of nature in its actions: a sensitising one, focused on the environment, and a more aggressive one that does not hesitate to implant a jellyfish protein into a rabbit’s genome. These two extremities show how very torn our civilisation remains. On the one hand, we have genetic memory of our ancestral environment and need contact with nature and earth, on the other – we are attracted to the unceasing technological progress driven by the desire to improve our species. Still, the Anthropocene is coming to an end and we have to reform the way we treat the environment and the planet. Are transhumanism and the creation of the new man a solution to our problems? Will improving our bodies and the homo deus era allow us to gain control over the progressing climate change? Waste collected by Diana Lelonek show us very clearly that nature finds its ways to deal with an excessive interference in the ecosystem. This is also proven by the case of Chernobyl and Pripyat: of course, we do not know whether they will be recolonised by mosses or some more developed life forms, but history has already showed us that nature always manages to deal with problems somehow. Left to itself, nature is able to heal the wounds inflicted to it. New life will sooner or later grow on almost every waste, even plastic.