Curating Art in the Age of the Anthropocene

 oil on canvas  226.5 x 275 cmCourtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley Gallery

Daniel Boyd, We Call them Pirates Out Here, 2006
oil on canvas, 226.5 x 275 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley Gallery

Oil on canvas 192.2 x 265.4 cm

E Phillips Fox, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, 1902. Oil on canvas
192.2 x 265.4 cm

Mark Dion Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, 2012 Installation Explorers Club New York Courtesy of the artist

Mark Dion, Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, 2012
Explorers Club New York
Courtesy of the artist

Revisit Memory 1908 - 9 (installation detail) embroidery on linen 2013

Hu Yun, Revisit Memory 1908 – 9, 2013
(installation detail)
embroidery on linen
Courtesy of the artist and Aike-Delarco Gallery


Recent years have seen a surge in artists’ projects engaging with environmental questions and addressing these through novel forms for research, documentation, presentation, and public dialogues. As a consequence artists have sought new artistic strategies, constituencies, and institutional frameworks in which creative experimentation can take place. Frequently these projects are instigated by and enabled through a contemporary art curator.

I am particularly interested in artists who engage with ecological systems and constructions of nature through working in the modes of ‘field work’ and ‘expedition’. These modes, so I propose, are particularly useful for the study of the relationships between humans and nature, particularly environmental change, and within post-colonial contexts.

Within these artistic practices deploying the expeditionary mode I focus on performative projects – benefitting here from joint supervision within the Geography Department and by the Department of Drama and Theatre Studies ̶ that re-enact historic and contemporary scientific practices in the natural sciences in order to make visible the processes and consequences of human actions. Through re-enactments, be they performative or through history painting both, artist and viewer, can imagine and re-imagine a past historical world, that encompasses natural and human history, and reflect on the present.

Underpinning my research are notions of time and human actions, as currently taken up in the wildly varying debates around the geological ‘Anthropocene’, a term intended to highlight the significance of human agency within the Earth’s natural system (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000).

Currently I am exploring the geological imagination through works by American artist Mark Dion and the ecological imagination by collaborating with photographer Chrystel Lebas by studying the archives of British botanist and ecologist Sir Edward James Salisbury (1886 –1978), which are held at the Natural History Museum and Kew Gardens. I also work with Australian artist Daniel Boyd and study his imaginings of the cultures of the Pacific via archival collections and history paintings as well as his cosmological imagination.

Through these and other artists’ works, such as Chinese artist Hu Yun, I will open up transcultural spaces. I will show how artists make visible the contributions of scientific expeditions to the natural sciences and imperialism, and how ideologies, gender, and social class differences are manifested in the constructions of peoples, nature, and history. Furthermore I will explore how artists create new analytical, imaginary and mental spaces by introducing disruptions, humour, the poetic, and the absurd into the scientific and ethnographic moments of fieldwork and expedition.

From the perspectives of geography, performance studies, visual culture, post-colonial studies, and the history of science I will gain understandings of artists’ re-enactments that offer not only critical reflections and discourse, but show how they are conducive to creating a theatre of history. In the words of historian Greg Dening “…the realism of history, not of the past, will always be somewhat magical.”

Bergit Arends, PhD Candidate


See also:

Observing Environmental Change: Chrystel Lebas and the Sir Edward James Salisbury Collection

Daniel Boyd Tracing the Past at the Natural History Museum London

First Fleet: Daniel Boyd at the Natural History Museum London


Key words: Anthropocene, curating, contemporary art, environment, expeditions, exhibition, field work, history, science


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