Threats to biodiversity and causes for the extinction of ecosystems and species are often summarised with the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, overpopulation and overexploitation. Two recent artist’s projects are concerned with the i in HIPPO: Jacob Cartwright’s and Nick Jordan’s Alien Invaders: A Guide to Non-Native Species of the Britisher Isles and 2005 Turner Prize winner Simon Starling’s Henry Moore/Zebra Mussel project commissioned by the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto.
The former, a small artist’s book published by BookWorks, takes the form of an illustrated natural history guide listing invasive species introduced to the British Isles, such as the American Bullfrog, the Chinese Mitten Crab, the Giant Hogweed, the Grey Squirrel, the Pharaoh Ant, the Ring-necked Parakeet, the Ruddy Duck and the Wels Catfish. In the manner of a scientific guidebook, each entry gives information on the category and origins of introduction, problems caused by the introduction and efforts of control or eradication. It is only upon closer examination that one begins to doubt the scientific objectivity and reliability of the entries, which appear to be interspersed with rather obscure references and bizarre cultural anecdotes. The artists intervene by providing us with highly selective and sometimes dubious information. Thus we read under the heading ‘Origins of Introduction of the Grey Squirrel‘:
In ‘Dixieland‘, Gray Squirrels have long been desirable table fare, enriching the poor rural diet (Metzger, 1953). Skinned and simmered in broth until the meat falls off the bone, this traditional dish (called ‘limb chicken‘) was said to be a favourite of the young Elvis, and is typically served with jalapeno fritters and deep-fried grits.
(The reference ‘Metzger, 1953‘ isn’t traceable, since the book lacks both footnotes and bibliography; and do I need to mention that, quite fittingly, ‘Metzger‘ translates into ‘butcher‘…)
Simon Starling’s Toronto project involves sinking a replica of Henry Moore’s bronze statue Warrior with Shield into Lake Ontario, where it will become encrusted with Zebra Mussels, one of the most aggressive invasive species introduced to North America (for a synopsis of how English sculptor Henry Moore is linked with the city of Toronto, see here).
While Cartwright’s and Jordan’s book, sort of a cross-pollination of fact and fiction, of science and art, raises questions of authenticity and the impossibility of scientific objectivity and detachment, the Zebra Mussel project is concerned with issues of transformation and cultural colonialism. Both projects, which by far exceed instances of more ‘conservationist‘ environmental art from the 1960s onwards, are examples of how artists use processes of nature to reflect on broader cultural issues.