“In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock,” writes poet Lorine Niedecker. Published in 1968, her poem “Lake Superior” was written years before our current moment of wild fires, hurricanes, and rising sea levels, though even then signs of environmental change were surely beginning to emerge. In a way, she also anticipated the rising tides today in many academic and creative fields, from philosophy to history to art, in which people are questioning with new urgency the notions that humans have a special place in the world, that nature is separate, and thus easily seen as something to exploit, control, or, at best, revere. Her poem, a brief chronicle of the largest of the Great Lakes, is filled with geological observations. It scans over human history there too: the mining and shipping that developed around the lake and the voyageurs and missionaries that claimed the area from the tribes living there first. In its opening lines the poem suggests that we’re inseparable from our environment—“In blood the mineral / of the rock // Iron the common element of earth / in rock and freighters.” But as she continues, the poet looks at both sides of this supposed divide, and from one moment to the next she lets granite, or volcanic thrusts, or canoes, or big boats fill her field of vision. This body of water has driven the lives and the lasting structures of people around it; humans have also affected the lake and ripped into the ground nearby. In fragments, “Lake Superior” details a long span of activity, both human and mineral, holding them apart and letting them intertwine again. Water and earth flow through it all.
I start with Niedecker’s poem because it is a story of the elements. It is also implicitly a story of infrastructure, the mundane and hidden things that tangibly structure our lives. Unthought Environments is also concerned with the two, separately and together. Like Niedecker, the exhibition considers where natural environments and human endeavors commingle and where they grate against each other. And similarly, in different moments it lets one or the other move into the foreground. Why talk of the elements, this seemingly archaic idea, instead of something like nature or ecologies? Not hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, or other entries on the periodic table, but earth, water, fire, and air? As philosopher David Macauley describes, these are old ideas indeed, stretching back to the ancient Greeks, but they’re ideas with lasting power. One doesn’t need to leave science behind to let the elements show us something.
The more readily available concepts that are widely used to describe our environments are handy and reliable, but they can slide into a kind of abstraction. This in itself might be a reason to try out a different frame for a moment. Nature is a deeply familiar term of course, one that can be used in conversation unguardedly, and yet its outlines can still be oddly hard to draw, leading into thickets of debate after all. Where does nature end and culture begin? A question that keeps reappearing. Or take a newer proposal, the Anthropocene: have we entered a new geologic epoch, human impact observed in what once seemed too immense to change? Arguably we have, but questions linger there too; what are the assumptions at the heart of this term and what is obscured or left aside? Is it useful or not to talk of environmental danger using geologic language, so remote from our daily lives? The elements, in contrast, are tangible, all these things you can see and feel—rain on your window, wind in the trees, smoke from a fire, water from the tap, or its absence. They are also among the more immediate measures of things too vast and dispersed to easily grasp, such as climate change: as the air and oceans warm imperceptibly, fire season grows longer and more deadly in California, hurricanes sweep over the Caribbean one after another, and drought amplifies conflict in countries like Yemen. In Chicago we’ve been comparatively lucky, but even here the temperatures have swung back and forth unpredictably these last several years. A quieter song of fire and ice. The elements bring into view how humans alter their surrounding environments but equally how the Earth leans on us and leaves its mark.
So perhaps start with the ancient elements—earth, water, fire, air—and then expand your view of the elemental world. Think about sunlight, weather systems, natural and manmade reservoirs, electromagnetic fields, and rare earth minerals, to name only a few other things. Phenomena like these are integral to our daily lives, but they can be elusive, easily forgotten, or deliberately kept out of sight. They are the hidden components of our virtual worlds, pivotal factors in geopolitics, the objects of corporate conquest going back ages, and through it all, deeper influences on human habits and cultures. Built infrastructure is often designed to keep the elements in check or to bend them to society’s needs (sometimes with only qualified success), whether it’s tunnels boring through rock, roads smoothing out uneven earth, solar panels gathering the sun’s energy, or levies keeping the sea at bay. Sometimes the elements veer into the foreground, leaving profound changes in their wake. (And it’s painfully clear that less developed countries and areas of high poverty, even in the US, fare worse in every way—places where the elements exact a harder toll and where infrastructure, as it breaks down, hardly remains invisible.) But the elements themselves are another kind of vital infrastructure as well, as John Durham Peters outlines in his latest book The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media, in which he teases out a deeper kind of infrastructural thinking. The elements, like the physical systems people build or the rules and standards that go with them, can be overlooked or mundane, again seemingly there to be used and ignored; but they have profound effects. Peters describes how the elements serve as another kind of “medium” or fundamental conduit in everyday life and as the models for some of our core concepts—even the root of how we measure time, which derives from the sun.
The new and recent artworks in this exhibition offer a set of explorations with different focal points in the elemental sphere as it intersects with our more human-made domains. In doing so the artists develop a complex picture, one that draws out occasional contradictions even. Some of the works also bring out the emotional and aesthetic registers of this part of our surroundings, the ways the elements can move us, individually, or appeal to our senses. The artists’ sculptures, photographs, installations, text works, digital images, and videos delve into a range of topics that add historical or geographic specificity as well: they’re thinking about the control of water resources and the perpetual challenges of evaporation; the mining operations that feed our computers, as valuable materials are taken from central Africa for use in the West; about California dust storms; or the hard-to-prove influences of the sun throughout history. In other instances, certain works make elusive phenomena more visible or memorably unfamiliar, such as powerful electric currents that are rarely seen with the naked eye (or heard with the unassisted ear). As we experience these diverse projects, which ponder what remains out of sight and out of mind, we as viewers might ask ourselves, What are our unthought environments today? And are they the same as someone else’s, in another place or another time?
In her travel notes for the eventual poem, Lorine Niedecker writes, “the journey of the rock is never ended.” She continues, “Your teeth and bones were once coral. The water you drink has been clouds over the mountains of Asia and in waterfalls of Africa. The air you breathe has swirled thru places of the earth no one has ever seen. Every bit of you is a bit of the earth.” The elements are tangible and present—sometimes at the front of your mind, sometimes not—but they are always a sliver of something larger, extending through time and moving through space. They speak to near and far and to long pathways of cause and effect. They can force one’s sense of scale to bend and shift if you let them. In the end, this can be true of infrastructure as well, and all the instances where the two might become one and the same.