“The issues that writers and artists should address today are not only about the political aspects of the fossil fuel economy, but also about our lifestyles and how they make us complicit of the concealments put in place by the culture in which we are immersed.”
(Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable)
Works of art have always been understood as “prophetic instruments” for predicting the future. However, contemporary art does not have the tendency to foretell but rather to af-firm what already exists and reveal the narrowest and deepest recesses of reality, the as-pects that one doesn’t know or that, like any inconvenient truth, one wants to avoid. Today, art often manifests itself as a critique of the present, in a variety of forms and lan-guages, a speculation that does not lead to an “elsewhere”, that does not necessarily de-velop utopian thinking, but is rather a disillusioned and ironic awareness of the world and the historical context we are facing. In every age, the artist is the one who reverses societal trends, develops new questions, creates new meanings and gives rise to new relationships between things. Contemporary art continues to assert this, but charting a specific course, one that does not involve nuances or hesitations and that interprets the great global crises (environmental, ecological and energy) and challenges of our century with particular con-sistency.
We are at an unprecedented “turning point”, there is no more time for reflection or mistakes therefore the right direction must be followed, and now more than ever artists are becoming forerunners for this change and the development of an increasingly deep-rooted ecological consciousness. The art system must be able to question the ways in which works are produced and events such as exhibitions, festivals, and art fairs are orga-nized in order to pollute as little as possible, produce less waste and follow the needs of our planet.
And so we turn back to those iconic 20th century artists who didn’t experience the ex-treme drifts and catastrophic consequences of the environmental crisis on their own skin, as is happening with us today, but who had already understood the importance of recover-ring and recycling materials, a practice that was the foundation of their artistic activities. One example is British conceptual artist John Latham who made reliefs, sculptures and in-stallations by deconstructing the original structures of books. His work is a poetic and provocative reflection on the nature of human knowledge, on the tools and systems by which human beings attempt to understand the universe and their own destinies.
There are two contemporary artists, Isabella Pers and Nada Prlja, whose research I would like to explore in this article, who interpret the present with a critical eye, maintaining a cer-tain coherence between the messages conveyed: environmental and ecological issues, a critique of capitalism and consumerism, and the ways in which the works are made, with reused materials and objects. Isabella Pers is an Italian artist from Trivignano Udinese whose research looks at the interconnections between natural, social and cultural ecosystems and the impact of anthropocentric domination on the planet. Nada Prlja is a North Macedonian artist living in Copenhagen and London, whose work deals with complex situations of inequality and injustice in societies. Prlja’s main aim is to affect society in the most direct way.
Their work speaks of a future that has become present, of distant geographies that suddenly overlap until they become one, of a way of perceiving the world that sees the existences of humans and other living beings unexpectedly intertwined.
Their research deals with the critical issues of our times through multiple facets: from natural disasters generated by human activity that increasingly and frequently strike various parts of the planet, to the media superstructures that condition our thoughts and actions, to the art system itself that is challenged from the roots up. The projects of the two artists reveal the fractures and contradictions of capitalism and, at the same time, elaborate proposals for overcoming the impasse between nature and culture.
Their artistic paths are “radical routes” that chart a clear direction without accepting shortcuts or compromises, in a present that is itself more dystopian than any illusion or science fiction and far surpasses the imagination.
In Pers’ double painting The Root is in the Air (2021), the artist portrays a suspended tree: uprooted, its branches are caught in the electricity cables. It’s a vision at once dramatic and majestic and a re-worked version of a real photograph.
The tree depicted is a spruce tree brought down by the violent storm Vaia that hit northeastern Italy in 2018. A devastating meteorological event that caused the destruction of tens of thousands of hectares of alpine forests and whose impact can still be seen today. In the painting, the tree seems to be observing the forest from above, as if it wants to speak to it. It’s an iconic image that remains fixed in the mind, just as the photograph of that suspended tree has remained fixed in the artist’s memory, so much so that she decided to portray it several times, as if to commemorate and celebrate it. The title is taken from a verse of Pierluigi Cappello’s poem Piove or It’s raining (“…l’albero è capovolto, la radice è nell’aria”
- “...the tree is upside down, its roots are in the air”), in which the rain described has nothing to do with the un-controlled violence of storm Vaia, but is instead associated with a caress given to a loved one, becoming in this case an act of care addressed to the forest. The trees felled by the storm are recovered in physical form by the artist for a second work of the same name in which the artist creates a large-scale installation by painting on circular sections of spruce trunk. In the work two stories are intertwined and two different environmental catastrophes caused by anthropogenic factors coincide: storm Vaia and the gradual disappearance of is-lands in the Pacific Ocean, which are threatened by rising sea levels.
Prlja also reflects on the negative impact human beings have on the environment, but her ideas are generated within the system of which she is a member, the art system, with the contradictions and negligent practices that this entails.
AdaN, Call to Borrow, Reuse & DeArtify (2019-ongoing), is a multi-episode graphic novel set in a dystopian future-present that draws inspiration from the artist’s personal experi-ence at the Venice Biennale, when she was invited to represent her country, North Mace-donia, in 2019. In that most established international art context, the artist became aware of the overconsumption and waste of resources and materials, especially in the set-up and take-down phases of the pavilion exhibitions and installations. Incoherent behaviour ac-cording the artist, especially given that most of the national pavilions addressed issues re-lating to climate change and the environmental crisis. AdaN, the leading character in the graphic novel, is therefore Nada’s alter-ego, an artist, but also a superheroine who paints Kazimir Malevič’s black square on her face, a symbolic return to the “ground zero” of painting and art. In NadapradA, on the other hand, a project inspired by the end of the world setting of the AdaN novel in which different high-end branded garments are assem-bled and sewn together, the artist again plays with her personal name. This time it’s to start a discussion on the value a designer dress can have, or one or more parts of a gar-ment that become a work of art, as in this case. The materials used are recycled and the form of the dress is deconstructed and rethought by the artist who becomes the author of something new. A dual authorship and signature shines through the word play in the title, which includes both the name of the famous fashion designer and the artist.
Pers and Prlja establish themselves as radical artists, who through their research and prac-tices not only bring forward a critique of the capitalist socio-political system and consum-erism that encourages excess and waste (Z. Bauman, Consuming life), but also question themselves and their way of working, as well as the system in which they are embedded, in order to dispel any illusion and reach “the root” of the problem. In today’s society, if an art-ist wants to maintain a certaindegree of coherence and talk about climate change, envi-ronmental impact andthe end of the world that is upon us, they will also have to take into consideration
the ways in which works are produced so as not to encourage the same mechanisms they struggle with ethically.
Pers and Prlja thus propose a sharp change in perspective, promoting artistic practices that through recovery, recycling and the “borrowing” of existing materials and objects, do not weigh too heavily on the environment and other non-human life forms. Their works are the result of a process: from the past we come to the present and look at the issues face on with new eyes.
Lara Gaeta, curator and Director of the aA29 Project Room gallery, based in Milan. She graduated from the master’s course in History of Arts and Conservation of Artistic Heritage at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice with a thesis on the political and ecological aspects of Joseph Beuys’ artistic practice. She has worked for different museums and institutions such as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana (Venice) and the Pirelli Hangar Bicocca Foundation (Milan).