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Nature's Otherness and the Limits of Visual Representations of Nature

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Art is a form of knowing. Art is a medium of discovery, it participates in the production of knowledge, and in the formation of values. Art further more often takes part in investigating and addressing problems and challenges we are confronted with, and seeks possibilities of change. Such forms of art are prevalent within the sphere of art that has nature as its subject. The incentive of such art is often a reaction to a problematic view of nature. It is thus often characterized by an attempt to overcome an attitude of dominance and disrespect, and consists in a discovery of alternative approaches to it. In that sense it is a form of gaining and creating knowledge about the natural environment and our situation as part of it.

There are a number of terms for art occupied with the natural environment, be it land art, earth art or ecological art. The form of art I will be concerned with can not necessarily be subsumed under any of these categories. It can only be said that it has our relation to nature and the environment as its topic. In the following I will be referring to art that entails some kind of a philosophy of nature. The more politically oriented type of this kind of art is often developed in response to environmental debates or controversial environmental issues. In the following, I will examine different ways in which such motivated art develops philosophical concepts of nature. I will in particular draw on artists that have responded to an environmental controversy that has been going on in Iceland for the past several years over the building of the largest gravel dam in Europe, the Karahnjukar dam, presently under construction in the north-eastern highlands in Iceland. I will focus on how the relationship between art and nature figures in these attempts to philosophize about this relation. What is of particular interest to me is how these artists each in their own way challenge and modify an extreme constructivistic idea of nature according to which nature is exclusively seen as a product of art in the broad sense of linguistic, visual or other representations of nature. That does not mean that they refute understandings of nature as cultural constructions. There is no pure, original idea of nature in the platonic sense possible. Nor is there any “first nature” from which all “second nature” originates in and is derived from. All representations of nature are determined by human standards of knowledge, be it artistic, scientific, theoretical or practical knowledge. It does however not necessarily follow that nature is nothing but a construction of the human mind. In that sense it is possible to distinguish between a broad form of constructivism about nature (for example a Kantian one) and an extreme form of it (for example as developed on the basis of Jean Baudrillard's ideas about simulations) that will be discussed below. I am therefore interested in attempts within arts that challenge such an extreme constructivist idea of nature in the sense of addressing its limits. What is of interest in these kinds of art are attempts to convey an idea of what nature is other than what the human mind projects into it. The art that will be discussed here opens up a space in which projections of nature reach their boundaries, so to speak, and are confronted with something in nature that is different or other. These are the moments in which nature exceeds our grasp, resists our take on it. It is the space where nature's otherness is experienced, the gap in which the difference between the human grasp on nature and nature beyond that grasp becomes evident. A first step that such art takes in this direction consists in deconstructing given ideas about nature perpetuated in arts, in order to open up for new possibilities in perceiving and experiencing it. A second step consists in opening up a space in which nature's alterity can be acknowledged.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

More about this publication?
  • Art, Ethics and Environment: A Free Inquiry Into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature
    The aim of this collection is to bring together different trends in thinking about nature and value that are distinctive of these changing moods in art and philosophy and to juxtapose them with some other ways of thinking about these issues, such as economics and religion. The authors include Holmes Rolston III, Antje von Graevenitz, Roger Pouivet, Eric Palazzo and Emily Brady. The essays and artworks in this volume derive from the conference Nature in the Kingdom of Ends held in Selfoss, Iceland, on June 11th and 12th 2005.
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