Sapien Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri
From November 11, 2021 to January 7, 2022
By JONATHAN OROZCO, december 2021
The Sapien Gallery, a small artist-run space in a former papermaking office in North Kansas City, brought together national and international artists for an ambitious group exhibition. Entitled “Cyborg Environmentalism”, the exhibition centers on the natural world and how humans connect to the earth, bodies and artifacts in delightful and often humorous ways.
Co-curated by RJ Junger and Casey Callahan, the roster of artists includes Connor Dolan, Tyler Nicole Glenn, Faysal Altunbozar, Kenia Lizet Balquier, Umico Niwa and Nick Witten, whose mediums range from the use of germs that eat l oil to the video edited to make you feel like you’re tripping under acid. Mainly focused on life, “Cyborg Environmentalism” imagines a social alternative where humans no longer dominate the natural world, and works towards a more amorphous and shared global responsibility with plants and animals.
Originally from Nebraska City, Nebraska, Kenia Lizet Balquier recounts their family’s interaction with the search for a place with an installation composed of photography and plant material on a dark background entitled “Gone to seed ⧫ What a dream”. Lizet Balquier comes from a family of migrant farm workers who settled in the American Midwest, frequently traveling between cities to find work. Although static in the gallery, the installation documents Lizet Balquier’s family’s attempt to find the home in Percival, Iowa, where they once lived. Fragments of physical homes and memories are evident in his photographs, where all that remains are cultivated fields, fallen trees and eroded structures.
Urgency and loss are strong emotions that surface in the photographic panels, as what was left of her family’s relationship with the land eroded in a very literal sense. The home their family once lived in has crumbled into nothingness, with only a concrete base existing as proof of their time.
For Japanese artist Umico Niwa, environmentalism sums up his untitled video of a decaying assemblage. A figure composed of a pumpkin, squash, okra, twigs and berries foraged in a neighborhood in Japan stands in the center against the sky as a backdrop, gradually drying out. As the video progresses, a dizzying edit has been done to expand and contract the figure’s impulses.
“The effect that’s on the video is ebb and flow, swelling deflating, and it’s to the beat of someone breathing at a steady pace,” she says. You would see the artwork and maybe synchronize with the breath, and you could feel the presence of your body.
At first, we’re meant to connect with the slowly dying humanoid figure, with the artist’s intention being to see our own mother, father, friends, or animals we care for, all for the sake of empathy.
It’s like Niwa is saying, we are all going to die and turn to dust, but what have you done to connect with others and nature?
A recent transplant from Omaha, Nebraska to Orlando, Nick Witten struggles with degradation with his untitled upbeat work, though he happily keeps his thoughts undefined.
This work is great. This is a vertical duct made to look like it has been aged with peeling white paint and a pumpkin growing from the center. The location of the object gives the impression that it was functional, that the pipe could move liquids, gases or wastes inside the building, such as veins or intestines.
Witten was directly inspired by his former workplace in a former factory building that has been redeveloped into a contemporary workplace. “As the building changes, the pipes change and become obsolete,” he says, referring to the exposed conduit pipes. It shows “the inadequacies of the building’s capacity to change over time”.
The work itself is a prototype for a more robust object that Witten is working towards. In the gallery, we can’t see the intricacy of the pipes interacting with each other, weaving above and below, ending weirdly in the same place, and curving into a wall. It leaves a lot to the imagination.
We know the work is not functional, but Witten’s lack of intentional meaning allows you to read the work by free association like a Rorschach test. When I first encountered his work, it was unmistakably phallic in two ways: that of the pumpkin stalk and the shape of the pipe itself. But it could also be read as a battle of humanity against nature, a comet on age and the passage of time. It’s as if the pipe had ceased to be operational for a hundred years, rusted, and now nature is taking over, undoing the centuries of industrialization that humans have worked for. Witten might not be arguing openly, but this article is a statement of optimism, especially now that the man-made climate crisis approaches irreversibility.
What the works of Lizet Balquier, Niwa and Witten all share, along with the other exhibiting artists, is a sense of erosion and how it affects us as humans and our natural world, or more specifically, how humans ignore and destabilize global ecosystems. While such a serious topic is covered, it does not strike you over the head or berate you for simply surviving our current crisis, but rather, the works are the result of living in these conditions. Artistic productions are more like artefacts from life at the 21st century.
It is both optimistic and hopelessly realistic. Regarding this, Niwa says: “I think it was Charlie Chaplin who said that we no longer need technological advancements to be able to get out of this conundrum in the future. None of this will matter unless we are able to cultivate empathy and kindness. We already have the means to end famine or to live in harmony with the land.
“Even though we have electric vehicles and we work from home instead of driving around, or we don’t eat meat; I don’t think all of this really matters. I’m sure I was going to find other technological ways to destroy what we have. MW