Curated by Hamsa Walker and featuring the work of a diverse group of artists, “Suicide Narcissus” confronts our collective culpability in the ecological disaster we’ve created by our overconsumption and abundant abuse of our environment. The exhibition is predictably somber and leaves one with a sense of both regret and hopelessness. You could argue it is even cynical, this collection of pieces, but then that would be to deny our current reality, one in which we must confront the consequences of our thoughtlessness. The consumption-driven apocalypse is visited upon some community somewhere every moment of every day, as the terror unfolding in the Philippines attests to. Right, right, we cannot definitively say that this particular natural disaster is a direct result of man-made climate change, but then we are living in the Anthropocene, an epoch marked by extreme climatic changes brought upon by human activity, so do we really need to argue that point?
When I made a note in my calendar to see this exhibition, I wrote down the title as “Surviving Narcissus” rather than “Suicide Narcissus,” which would be a more accurate title if the exhibit were shown in many other parts of the world. After all, the vast majority of the world’s population are victims rather than perpetrators in this dark play. So often mass shootings are done by a suicidal man, someone who decided to take the lives of his friends, family, or strangers before taking his own, and in this way our narcissism that the exhibit refers to is the same. Our self-centered consumption is not only suicidal but homocidal and ultimately ecocidal. It is not enough that our consumption would be our undoing; it must first destroy animal and plant habitats, oceans and waterways, and, of course, the world’s poor who have for generations put up with the nasty consequences (the outsourced downsides) of our resource extraction and disposal. Our unstoppable, pathological, self-centered gaze has led to our false notion that we are separate from the whole, and makes it impossible for us, apparently, to accept the consequences of our actions.
Hidden behind white walls at the entrance of the exhibit, with only six-inch slits in the walls to view it, is a skeleton of a small whale in Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan’s Edge from 2009. Are we being shielded from our own abuses, kept at a distance so we are not made upset? Certainly our capitalist, consumption-driven system demands that we keep blinders on to the consequences of our system; if we saw the truth we’d stop shopping. Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir have looked through the slit in the walls and have not only stopped shopping, but have also dedicated their lives to interrupting banks and shopping malls wearing Golden Toad hats in honor of a delicate, gorgeous creature that was made extinct by our insatiable hunger. Chris Jordan, a photographer who has been documenting our crazed consumption, and in particular the consequences of our addiction to cheap disposable plastics on the gorgeous albatrosses of Midway Atoll, asks in the trailer for his upcoming film, Midway, if we can be so moved by the beauty around us to actually change our ways. Is Skaer’s feather-light skeleton the beauty that will make us stop, or is it instead that sort of gorgeous relic that we imbue with regret and longing, but that does not move us to action?
Also in the exhibit is a collection of altered books from The Infinite Library (2007 to Present) by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer, presented in pristine, well-lit vitrines. Manipulation and obliteration, the books seem to point to, with some pages featuring perfect black dots partially covering the images on the page. We do often fetishize our destruction, don’t we, which fits into our lovingly sanitized, ritualized mourning. If we mourn appropriately, we have that cathartic release and can move on, or keep shopping, as it were. These books seem to be relics from the future, a remorseful look back at what we have done.
The most illustrative piece in the show might be Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch’s Spacial Intervention I (still), a 28 minute video from 2002 of a solitary man standing on a flawless sheet of ice hammering away with a pick axe at a circle around him. The film is beautiful and mesmerizing, even if the ending is entirely predictable. I watched all 28 minutes knowing he would eventually pick away his own solid ground and plop into the water. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of that surviving/suicide slip and wondered if the film should have been of a man picking the ice around a group of people, tied and bound. Just outside of the screening area for the film is Thomas Baumann’s Tau’s Sling of 2008, a loop of rope circling around a motorized pulley for absolutely no reason at all. The futility of the action, action for action’s sake, is a nice counterpoint to Six and Petritsch’s meditation on “suicide narcissism,” and the creaking, rhythmic sound of the mechanical device layers beautifully with the picking of the ice happening in the next space.
At the end of the entrance hall is Katie Paterson’s All the Dead Stars of 2009, a laser-etched piece of anodized aluminum. Bright spots of light on a black surface, All the Dead Stars is a celestial map, though I have no idea how accurate it is. When we see stars we are seeing the past — light that left its source hundreds or thousands of years ago. So why include this piece in this show? To demonstrate how out of our hands it all is? How minuscule these concerns are in light of the vastness of our universe? Or to add another somber tone to the proceedings, a reminder that death is a part of the process? If Baumann’s piece is the counterpoint to Six and Petritsch’s, perhaps Paterson’s is that to Daniel Steegman Mangrané’s film of 2009-11, 16mm, a slow walk into the cacophonous jungle. Placed in the context of this exhibit, 16mm seems to be saying, “this is why we flattened the forest — to finally get some silence around here.” It’s easy to forget that our sealed up city homes are actually quiet compared to the lively forest, with its layer upon layer of sound from insects, mammals, birds, and wind.
It is instructive to be reminded of our self-inflicted demise, which “Suicide Narcissus” certainly does. But in the middle of all this disaster there are people helping other people, having baths in trash dumpsters fired by burning lintels from their wrecked homes. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh cautions that ‘hope is an obstacle to the practice,’ that we have to accept the end of human life (after all, everything is impermanent, including human civilization). What’s the point of accepting this inevitability? Why abandon hope? The teaching goes that we do this in order to be in the present moment, where we realize the only important thing is to take care of each other and love one another right now, and in doing find that beauty that moves us to action that Chris Jordan talks about in his film. Do we have the courage to face this beauty and act? Or will we revel in the mourning itself, stopping short of doing something because we’re too enthralled by the sweet, sickly death present in relics?
Thought provoking and beautifully stunning, Suicide Narcissus is showing at The Renaissance Society until December 15, 2013. Check out the related events too, including concerts, lectures, and artist talks.