“We have changed the atmosphere, and that will change the weather. The temperature and rainfall are no longer to be entirely the work of some separate, uncivilized force, but instead in part a product of our habits, our economies, our ways of life.”
Bill McKibben, The End of Nature(1989)
For those of us living in Los Angeles the hot winds, the red sky just over the hills, and the stench of smoke have made the consequences of the climate crisis a terrifying reality lurking just over the horizon. And still for many people how we got to this place is not always apparent, obscured by media, politics, commerce and our own habits and assumptions.
Although we have seen the photos many times over, the reflex is to distance ourselves from the meaning of these events and the future they predict. The raging hurricanes, each more devastating than the one before leaving a destroyed landscape in their wake, uncontrollable fires consuming forests and towns, and even a whole continent in flames. Millions of dying animals, fleeing people waiting on beaches to be evacuated by boat, massive floods, melting glaciers, Venice under water, floating islands of plastic, oil spills, droughts, the list is long. Because each is framed in its own time and place, for many people the connections between events are not made. The map of cause and effect, of actions and consequences is missing. Scientists and environmentalists fill in the facts if you take the time to read the books. For a more immediate immersive experience it is left for intermedia artists to juxtapose and assemble the images into a coherent narrative that illuminates how the separate parts are actually a series of interlocking four-dimensional, evolving global processes.
In her newest work Infinitely Yours, Los Angeles animator, designer, and performer Miwa Matreyek has taken on the climate catastrophe in the Anthropocene, our current era in which human actions in the name of technological progress, and economic enrichment have irrevocably affected and altered all realms of the earth’s natural systems. Combining live performance with her signature multi-layered animated projections she has created an emotionally effective representation of the ways creator, destroyer, and destroyed are bound together in a complex co-dependent system in which we are all participants. As humans we are both perpetrators and recipients of environmental abuses, trapped in the grip of what we have created and the lifestyles it has afforded us..
In this new work the progression of her metamorphic imagery takes on an historical, evolutionary narrative interfacing the human-made landscape with the human body, other living species, and the earth itself. The images that embody the familiar media reportage have been syntactically reordered to create different relationships between subject and object, action and effect, as one thing transforms into another. The result is a multi-dimensional “mapping” seen from above and below and at eye-level, cross-sections under ground, and under water, inside the body and outside. At the same time Matreyek’s live silhouette interacts with the projected film like a shadow puppet moving through a dream. Burnt trees are outlined against an orange sky. She struggles through flames and falling branches, sparks flying through the air. A fault line opens in the ground, buildings rise up from the chasm. Power lines race across the desert. Cranes carve out oil fields.
What is different in Matreyek’s message is that she makes it personal by employing the everyday objects that populate our lives as signifiers of our role as insatiable consumers littering the planet with indestructible trash. Images of mass production, animal carcasses hanging in the slaughterhouse, plastic water bottles racing down conveyer belts, sewing machines whirring, turn into heaps of garbage, landfills of plastic waste. The perspective shifts as Matreyek interacts with her environment. Swimming underwater she picks up a passing plastic water bottle, encounters schools of fish trapped in nets, masses of dying and dead sea creatures. She traverses the mundane industrial landscape where brown water spews from a cement mixer, and air tainted with pollution hangs over a gas station, traffic-clogged highways, and overdeveloped suburban sprawl. The consequences are felt in the body, in images of damaged lungs overlaid on Matreyek’s silhouette. And when she struggles through a torrential downpour and river’s rising waters. Falling trees are caught in rushing currents that sweep over buildings, flood houses. Waves of the ordinary plastic objects that populate our lives swell into a dense mass that engulfs us like an ocean.
But this is not the end of the story for Matreyek believes in nature’s transcendent cycle of creation, destruction and rebirth, and in its ability to recover. It is an optimistic hopeful view in keeping with the whimsical aspects of her earlier work. Thus she enters the earth’s core. Networks of new tree roots spread out underground, vegetables take root, and seeds sprout and blossom. In the womb of the Earth a newborn baby is cradled in a bed of greenery surrounded by mushrooms and butterflies. Unfortunately the entire cycle repeats again and again. Oil rigs pump. Tires fall. Planes fly. Flames and smoke rise above forests and towers on the planet’s rim. It culminates in an exploding mushroom cloud, and we come full circle to the fire at the beginning.
This is a warning and a plea. Humanity’s stubborn resistance to the facts and our unwillingness to change the way we live and the system that perpetuates that life style endangers the entire planet and all its life forms including us. Entire species may have been wiped out by the inferno that still rages across Australia. It can happen anywhere, anytime.
Extinction is not limited to any one species, but each and every loss leads to our own demise. No one is exempt. Thus Matreyek’s usually lyrical movement and gestures in this work take the form of protest. Grace and wonder turn to sorrow and indignation. Fluidity is replaced by angularity, even awkwardness.
The power of this work is in the poetry of its juxtapositions and the complexity of its visual analogies. The ways Matreyek builds, unravels, and reconstructs the world exemplifies the ways in which each part is connected and interdependent in a unified ecological system. Every action has a reaction. If the planet is a complex and intelligent living organism, we have become a virus in its body, poisoning it and devouring it. Thus the question is – can we cure ourselves before mother earth’s own antibodies destroy us.
This is ironically represented by Matreyek’s unfortunate choice of music for this presentation. Performed live on stage by Sorne, it was not only excessively loud and abrasive, but it competed rather than supported her imagery and performance. As a dominating presence it became an increasingly irritating distraction. The heavily processed, overdubbed percussion with too much reverb sounded synthetic (like plastic music), and the piercing falsetto pitch of his vocals was as unbearable as an amplified screaming baby. Some might argue that that was the whole point, that the music with its techno-industrial pounding and screeching was a sonic representation of what we have done to the planet in the past century. Maybe so, but the problem with that is that it undercuts the inherent “tenderness“ of Matreyek’s aesthetic, as well as both her sorrow and her spiritual appeal. Matreyek’s work stands on its own, and her message is too important to be overshadowed. Hopefully in future presentations she will consider a more compatible cinematic soundtrack reflective of her perspective and vision. She asks us to awaken and see the world through new eyes, with love for the earth and all living things.
The title Infinitely Yours suggests that humanity will survive, or at least that Matreyek believes in the human capacity to redeem ourselves, restore the garden and the wilderness, and live in it harmoniously. But before that dream can be fulfilled, we will have to have a profound awakening, a willingness to radically change how we see the world and our place in it, and the courage to act on it politically. Can a work of art move you in that direction? Or does it require another cataclysmic act of nature?
All photos courtesy of REDCAT
Miwa Matreyek – Infinitely Yours
January 16-18, 2020
REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles