Contemporary Art and the Perceived Self-sufficiency of Urban Life

Essay, 2013

7 Pages, Grade: A


Contemporary Art and the Perceived Self-sufficiency of Urban Life

Seventeenth century scientists (Descartes, Bacon, and Newton) made discoveries that brought us scientific method and a vision of secular progress through technological achievement. But in this vision the purpose of knowledge was proposed as utilitarian, - the domination of nature.[1] The world we live in today is based on this vision of technological achievement. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, it is a world in which everything speaks not of nature and her processes but of its makers in their resistance to those processes.[2] (Also the reason for the environmental problems our planet is facing but this aspect will not be dealt with here.)

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City life today is lived largely indoors with a lot of involvement in non-physical worlds (television, internet, telephony). Solnit points out that this excess of interiority obliterates our relation to material origins and to our own bodies. [3] The body is no longer experienced as a natural system integrated with other natural systems. For example, our morning coffee is consumed without a thought to the myriad natural processes that go into the making of each cup (where the bean was grown, the weather, the soil, where the milk, sugar, water comes from, and so forth). Our inability to see our life in connection to these processes makes the cup of coffee a potent representation of absent nature.[4]

Similarly, Walter de Maria’s Earth Room (1977, earth, Dia Art Foundation, New York) is a reminder that earth is the substance that has been hidden by urbanization and washed away by modern sanitation.

This work is an example of how artists exploring humans’ relationship with Nature, use substance as the bearer of meaning. Attention to substances rather than scenes as manifestations of nature unravels feelings of alienation from nature.[5]

City dwellers often get their ideas about nature from video footage in blockbuster movies and calendar photographs. They imagine a place that is pristine and virgin, something that will be defiled if it comes in contact with human presence. Venturing out of urban sites, many experience disappointment that the countryside is not always the picture perfect idyll they have been led to expect.[6] The Earth Room, made up of a huge quantity of mud, requires constant tending and replacement to keep it moist yet not growing fungus, etc. Its power lies in the tension between the repulsion we feel for dirt and the pedestal we put art on. At a deeper level earth bears connotations of fertility and decay- aspects of life and death that technological advancement can influence only to a limited extent. It reminds us that our bodies will return to the earth when we die- to the very dirt that we shun during our lifetime.

Works such as these remind us that nature is not just a pretty picture to be looked at. It is also more than a life support system. It is that from which our very existence springs and into which it will be absorbed. There are times when we glimpse this and the feeling may be so strong that it borders on knowing. According to Eleanor Rosch, there is a basic mode of knowing that knows the “knowing self”, mind, body and environment as one panoramic whole.[7] While the distinction between nature and culture, between wilderness and human settlement, has been a dichotomy at the heart of Western thinking, Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and the Tao support our intuitive feeling of harmony and oneness with nature. These philosophies see nature as an entity, living and breathing in dynamic relation to the human.[8]

Contemporary science too supports a more holistic understanding of our relationship with nature. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states “Natural science is a part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning”. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould saw science as only part of the complete picture.[9] In fact scientists now estimate that science has uncovered only about four percent of all the possible understanding of the universe.[10]

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Art, because it is not shackled by the purposes of science, has an important role to play in enhancing our awareness of the true nature of things. Its negotiations with the natural world are intuitive and imaginative and this can enable it to bring to light much that is concealed from our everyday perception. [11]

Artists, through the format of landscape painting have always tried to comprehend the ‘nature’ of what is perceived. Cezanne, however, was the first to realize the impossibility of attaining an objective fix on ‘the world’s instant’ that it was his compulsion to paint. The tradition of representation began to break down into the expressing of experiential realities. There came a time when artists realized that attempts at representation (a painting or a photograph) did not satisfy the need to reconnect with the natural world, the urge to replicate the bodily sensations experienced out in the world.

The Arte Povera movement (started in Italy in the late 1960s) was concerned with the point at which nature and culture intersect. The aim was to allow an experience of ‘primary’ energy as lived directly and not mediated through representation, ideology or codified language.[12]

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[1] Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 20.

[2] Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, 20-24.

[3] Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, 119-120, 161.

[4] Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, 53.

[5] Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, 53.

[6] Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, 200-205.

[7] Eleanor Rosch, “If you Depict a Bird, Give it Space to Fly”, in The Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, ed. Jacquelynn Baas et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 39.

[8] Gooding, Mel and William Furlong, Song of the Earth (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), 9.

[9] Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould, ed. Steven Rose (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), 595.

[10] Renée Scheltema, Something Unknown (Tele Kan, 2009).

[11] Gooding and Furlong, Song of the Earth, 9.

[12] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ed., Arte Povera, (London:Phaidon Press, 1999), 17.

Excerpt out of 7 pages


Contemporary Art and the Perceived Self-sufficiency of Urban Life
Issues in Contemporary Art
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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nature, art, science, urban, urban life, contemporary life, contemporary art, scientific progress, natural world, city life
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Nandita Mukand (Author), 2013, Contemporary Art and the Perceived Self-sufficiency of Urban Life, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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