A Year of Perpetual Summer

Can we imagine the world without human race? Are we really serious about the possibility of self-destruction of the human species?

Humanity’s attitude towards nature has always positioned itself at two opposite poles. On the one hand, there were attempts to restore the unity of humanity with nature, striving for harmonious coexistence with the surrounding world of flora and fauna, living in harmony with nature and its rhythm. At the opposite pole are all attitudes that sharply separate humans from nature, emphasising their spiritual separateness, treating nature as an object – only as a source of resources to meet the ever-growing needs of humanity. In the 18th century, with the beginning of the industrial revolution, the view of nature’s servitude towards humans was consolidated. The tendency to separate humans from other species and to exploit nature in an increasingly pushy manner deepened. We adopted the attitude of “lord and master” of nature, while at the same time considering our own species to be particularly distinguished by God. One of the representatives of such a vision of the world, Francis Bacon, claimed that progress in science was primarily to improve the human condition and increase their power over nature. This worldview presupposed the fundamental rationality of human beings, their ability to improve themselves infinitely and the inexhaustibility of the natural resources from which they can draw in an unlimited way. Humanity’s power over nature based on knowledge obviously gives them full control over the world. Thanks to science and technology, there is no such a problem that humanity could not solve. Much time had to pass before we realised that we are guilty of ecocide and that by our own actions, we are inevitably approaching self-destruction. Today, the “kingdom of man” prophesied by Bacon leaves a sour taste in our mouths.

The Year of Perpetual Summer exhibition presented at the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw is the result of the Man versus Nature: Biology in Art research study, carried out at the Faculty of Media Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw by three artists: painters Anna Panek and Irmina Staś, and photographer Iza Maciusowicz. The purpose of the project was looking for solutions that would allow the language of art to present a vision of the world understood as a whole, in which order and chaos are part of the cosmos and the “altruistic gene” is just as important for the survival of species as the desire to dominate. The artists pay attention to human connection with other species, which should teach us humility and limit our autocratic actions towards the environment. Instead of fighting, they postulate a relationship, an attempt at collective survival together with other species. The presented works, regardless of the medium used, directly refer to the degradation of the planet that has been going on for hundreds of years, leading to an inevitable ecological disaster. The artists ask the question whether the return of humanity to its roots, to its original connections with nature is possible at all? Can the language of art become a way to express and build a new ecological awareness? Is it possible for artistic creation to express the threat of annihilation of humanity resulting from an anthropocentric perception of reality?

The title of the exhibition was taken from Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future – a fictional story based on scientific research. In this book, a historian from the future describes the events of the “Period of the Penumbra” (1988–2093), a term used to describe the scepticism of Western civilisation about the foretold ecological disaster. In the 20th and early 21st centuries, scientific knowledge was completely ignored, leading to a climate disaster. In this fictitious but unbelievably real story, the year of the perpetual summer is 2023 (!). It was then that an unimaginable heatwave contributed to losses of about 500 billion dollars due to fires, crop failures and pet deaths. It also cost the lives of 500,000 people. Looking at current events – the year 2020 welcomed us with a wave of unbelievable fires in Australia – we have no doubt that Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book by no means belongs in the science-fiction genre.

The era of intensive human activity, which has a significant impact on the destabilisation of the climate, is referred to by many terms, including Anthropocene, Capitalocene and Plantationocene. The most popular is Anthropocene, popularised by Dutch atmospheric chemist and researcher Paul Crutzen. In “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin”, American philosopher Donna J. Haraway writes that we live in an era of mourning irreversible losses. “This is an era of destruction of places of refuge for living beings, the collapse of the system”, she concludes. Haraway believes that the use of the term “Plantationocene” is more precise because it more accurately emphasises the responsibility of humans for environmental degradation. It refers to the use of the planet as a large plantation; agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry on an industrial scale has led to an irreversible loss of entire ecosystems.

The painting sensitivity of Anna Panek has been shaped by the landscape, contact with nature, sensitisation to it and exploration of it. The artist is fascinated by the return of humans to their roots, to their original connections with nature: “I can’t get used to the city, to the reality I live in. I feel much more at ease in nature, in the forest, the places I spent time in when I was a child. When you go into the woods, you feel the cold, moisture, smells, sunshine, warmth, and a mixture of so many different impressions [...]”, she says. Anna Panek’s painting language, based on abstract forms, describes a sensual and emotional world. In these paintings, we can find organic and plant motifs, anthropomorphic shapes, as well as geometric figures. Panek’s paintings are very intuitive, strongly connected with her, with her everyday life. Anna Panek is an artist for whom tangibility and sensory experience are the main feature of painting. Her works are visualisations of sensations. The artist gives them a specific shape, colour, softness. She composes them by painting or sews them together from textile fragments. In the process of creating an image, the key is the impression, the sensation, as in the case of experiencing everyday life, such as looking at a landscape or feeling the cold. She is not interested in presenting specific narratives or telling stories through paintings. For the artist, the most important thing is that the painting becomes a sensation, an experience in itself. Her painting is a result of experiencing the world, an attempt to express what she thinks is important and meaningful. In the post-natural era in which we live, a return to nature seems impossible. Thanks to humanity’s “hyperagency”, the world has become their product. Awareness of these “exceptional times” is the subject of Anna Panek’s works. The artist poses questions: what have we gained and lost by creating an artificial environment, how much remains of the original human being in us – to what extent do our intuitions and sensory cognition skills allow us to understand the world we have long since left?

This topic is touched upon in the film Wild Life, which talks about the affirmation of nature, the primitive forces of nature. The film is made in the found-footage style, based on François Truffaut’s film The Wild Child, which was inspired by a true story. It is the story of an eleven-year-old wild boy found in a forest in southern France in the 18th century. Until that moment, the boy had no contact with civilisation and people. He is cared for by a young doctor, who deals with his education and adaptation to life among people. In Wild Life, Anna Panek reverses the plot of the film and the vector of the protagonist’s transformation. The boy regresses instead of developing his social skills from wildness to being civilised. He starts out at the level of an adapted man and over time, becomes increasingly wild. He misses the nights spent in the forest and getting wet in the rain. Anna Panek is interested in the tension between the original state of humanity and its civilisation. Her film is about the strong relationship between humans and nature, about pursuing it, about a sensual perception of the world.

Irmina Staś, on the other hand, is fascinated by the impermanence and transience of life, as well as the uncertainty of functioning in the world and the phenomenon of cyclical nature. She often uses organic and biological forms in her works, such as bones, hair, blood cells, meat, stems and roots to create abstract landscapes. Staś consistently constructs her painting language. She has developed a very characteristic style, using multiplication of the motif. The artist simplifies and reduces the element of reality, leading it to abstraction.

The selection of works presented at the exhibition comes from two series, Sections (purely abstract works) and Ornaments. The latter is the latest series in which the artist also speaks the language of abstraction. In this series, however, echoes of figurativeness are more strongly reflected than in earlier works. Apart from oil paintings on canvas and watercolours, Staś created large format canvases – quilts, using material – textiles as a means of expression. The artist refers, on the one hand, to mural painting, on the other, to richly ornamented textile wallpapers. She refers to the meaning and function of the ornament, which not only raised the aesthetic value of architecture and artistic craftsmanship, but also carried symbolic content. Works from this series are compositions of multiplied shapes. The leitmotif here is fragments of the human body, such as teeth, bones, female breasts. The creation of these works was born of a sense of inevitable disaster. In her decorative Ornaments, the artist touches upon such issues as species relatedness, genetic similarities, blood ties, multitude of species, closeness, identity, attraction. Staś is anxious about the uncertainty of being in the world, the inevitable pursuit of annihilation and the accompanying stagnation, the annoying impasse. Multiplication of the tooth and bone motif can be interpreted as a shortening of life expectancy as well as a certain remnant of an extinct species. The artist signals an impending ecological catastrophe, which is more and more likely to result in the extinction of life on earth. In this context, the biblical motif of “wailing and gnashing of teeth” also comes to mind as an expression of the inevitable punishment for the shameful acts of humanity. The recurring motif of female breasts, on the other hand, emphasizes the multitude of species, reminding us of our kinship with other species. This gives us a profound idea of interdependence and makes us aware that our expansion affects other organisms, and if other species do not survive, we too will die. Of course, the female breast also symbolises the transmission of life, the survival of the species – the woman gives birth and feeds her offspring. The motif of the nourishing breast evokes the goddess Gaia: Mother Earth, goddess of fertility and motherhood. In today’s discourse on the human era, the Gaia hypothesis is questioned. This hypothesis assumes that all organisms living on Earth lead activities coupled to maintaining optimal living conditions on our planet and adapt to new ecological conditions, and in the event of, for example, an ecological disaster, biological balance will be restored and life on the planet will thus be preserved. Nowadays, earth sciences have adopted the so-called weak Gaia hypothesis, which states saying that Gaia’s stabilizing dimension can no longer be taken for granted.

Similar feelings accompanied Izabela Maciusowicz while working on her photographic series A Catalogue of Uncertainty. Her works are an expression of the artist’s doubts, uncertainties and fears related to the consequences of the ecocidal human activity on earth. The artist is accompanied by a conviction about inevitable changes, a feeling that it is already too late. The photographs presented at the exhibition are dominated by an apocalyptic vision of eco-extinction. The awareness of the irreversibility of losses is palpable in them. These photographs resemble abstract pictures; a little fuzzy, blurry. They present the real world, fragments of trees, plants, soil. By closely cropping the frame, the artist presents them in a non-literal way. She stimulates the viewer’s imagination by “forcing” them to reflect, look at the images closely and identify fragments of the real world. The set of photographs presented here describes potential views of the future, of course the less optimistic one – a desert landscape, barren, burnt soil, cracked tree branches, dry river beds. A world without greenery. In the world created by Maciusowicz, this colour no longer exists, shades of grey and black dominate, with perhaps the occasional flash of blue. Does this mean the artist see hope for a way out of the deadlock?

Agata Chinowska, 2020