Monday, December 10, 2012

Beneath a Petroliferous Moon

In 1940, Pablo Neruda published his poem, "Standard Oil Co," which concludes

They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.
A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.

How Pablo Neruda knew this about oil and its place in our lives in 1940 eludes me, except that I suspect it has something to do with my profound and embarrassing lack of knowledge about how oil companies exploited South American governments who either could not or would not hold them to ethical standards.

Neruda's description of a world "Beneath a petroliferous moon" is the title of an exhibition at the Mendel curated by Jen Budney.  She has gathered together artists from as far afield as Benin, Rome, Austria, and Canada in an aesthetic query of lives that are made possible by the energy that comes from oil.

Immediately inside the gallery the viewer is faced with Louisa Conrad's "Disintegration:  A Catalogue of Arctic Flowers 2009."  Scraps of drawing paper have been carelessly cut and adhered to the wall in a kind of constellation; each of these contains a beautiful, detailed pen and ink drawing of the flora Conrad saw on her trip to the Canadian Arctic in 2009.  The form these take on the wall figures forth the disintegration of our arctic, the thawing of the permafrost and the melting of the polar ice cap brought on by climate change.  

Next, one is faced with Ernst Logar's "Documents and Drawings."  These contain a sequence of large photographs (perhaps 24" by 30"), each presenting a serene and seemingly unspoiled landscape--a field or a sea shore.  Except that in the foreground of each of these there are awkwardly built tripods with assemblages nailed to them--plastic bottles, tools, oil cans.  I didn't quite know how to read the tripods:  were they an artist's ironic easel?  Or the tripod for a weapon or a camera?  Or a surveyor's levelling instrument--so crucial for marking off the ownership of land?  Whatever they were, they obscured much of the beauty beyond them.  

Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoume of Benin has created masks out of containers for motor oil and other oil products.  While these clearly reference the African masks appreciated and collected by Virginia Woolf's friend, Roger Fry or written about by D.H. Lawrence in Women in Love, or even the more edgy faces represented by Picasso, they also marked a shift in the tradition.  While those masks were crafted into their formalized shapes, these were violently cut and smashed.  Oil has done something to the human face, they seem to suggest.

Most easily read and yet most dramatic were Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the oil sands.  Taken from the height of an "establishing  shot," they first give the viewer a sense of the immensity of the landscape.  Then one sees that the earth's skin has literally been peeled away or has been pocked with machinery, roads, and vehicles necessary for getting at the oil beneath.

Many of these artists spoke of the way in which the energy from oil that makes our lives possible seems almost invisible--present in our communities only in the little corner gas stations where we grab a coke or a newspaper or even a bundle of firewood.  They sought through their work to make oil more visible, something Robert Ladislas Derr did quite literally by videotaping a street in Oil City Pennsylvania, America's first oil town, through the film of oil gliding down the window the viewer looks out of.  It is beautiful and horrifying at the same time.  

In a little gallery next door to these works I found Terry Billings's elegiac "Reassembled Moult," a carpet of Sandhill Crane feathers that flows lyrically down the gallery wall and onto the floor.  Nearby was Billings's "Revealed Wasp Drawings," made (how I am not entirely sure) from the paper of wasps' nests.  These were the thoughtful monochrome of Art McKay's mandalas, while the movement of the subtle designs recalled the spinning of the stars in Van Gogh's "Starry Night."  Something has happened to art, this juxtaposition seemed to say.  Cranes and wasps can unconsciously be and make beauty (albeit mediated by an artist), while the human presence is deforming the planet.  Yet oddly enough, this was a hopeful exhibition:  around the world, artists are giving us portraits of ourselves, landscapes of the world we have made.  None of these works was what my friend Diane Whitehouse used to derisively call "a one-read painting."  They all asked for our imaginative attention, our engagement, which is the first step toward reflection and perhaps change.

You can find the rest of Neruda's poem here:

You can find the Mendel's website for this exhbition here:

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