The End of the World, Again.
No stranger to me is this wanderer: many years ago passed he by.
Zarathustra he was called; but he hath altered.
Then thou carriedst thine ashes into the mountains: wilt thou now
carry thy fire into the valleys? Fearest thou not the incendiary’s doom?
The shores of Lake Geneva are fringed with some of the most expensive private homes on the planet. At its easternmost point the city reposes, gentile, orderly and static. Business is done with discretion and the clocks keep good time. Untroubled by invasion despite two world wars, and with excellent health care, the Swiss can expect to live longer than almost everyone else on earth. Per capita, they are also the wealthiest and – on average – consume eleven kilograms of chocolate each year. Good reasons, then, to fantasize about the country being swallowed up by a black hole – so many precision chronographs voiding their warranties as they cross the event horizon, and time – even Swiss timekeeping – coming to a yawning, cosmic standstill.
Is something like this possible? In the first decade of the twenty-first century the thought was seriously entertained. Just a stone’s throw from Geneva’s city centre is CERN, the European organization for Nuclear Research. The institution’s main building resembles a kind of bubble, recalling Robert J. Oppenheimer’s characterization of black holes as ‘bubbles’ in space and time. But it is below ground, in a gigantic circular tunnel spanning both Swiss and French territories, that the organization’s most significant built structure is located. In the Large Hadron Collider particles are accelerated to speeds approaching light itself and smashed into one another, in some of the largest and most complex experiments ever undertaken – expanding the horizons of what can be observed and putting to rest one of the more hotly contested theories in physics. Scientists would eventually confirm the existence of the Higgs-Bosson’ particle, but only after risking what some of their colleagues – and many more tabloids – proclaimed would be the production of ‘small’ black holes with the potential to grow and swallow up the world, starting with Switzerland. Such concerns even led to the formation of committees and court actions undertaken in attempts to halt the acceleration, and the risk of – in addition to black holes – cataclysms that might attend the production of stranglets and deSitter space transitions.
Charriere hails from Morges, just fifty kilometers from CERN. Appropriately, his interests encompass nuclear technology, subterranean information and acceleration – though of a different sort. Prior to ‘peaceful’ atomic science – offspring of the original sin at Hiroshima – a great acceleration inaugurated the geo-historical period now termed the anthropocene
: A period whose milestones are a litany encompassing the carbon layer deposited across the planet’s crust during the coal-fueled industrial revolution, and the release of atomic materials into the atmosphere as a result of weapons testing in the mid twentieth century.1
Symptoms of this age of are not limited to these examples and include countless other impacts both public – Fukushima; the BP Blue Horizon oil spill – and occult. If the anthropocene amounts the end of the world as it was in the holocene – before profound anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals leading to climate change and much else besides – then what, Charriere’s practice asks, are the stakes in art that chooses to address this current epoch?
We know the dead ends: Prelapsarian picturesques; Avatar fantasies that bracket car-exhausts, fracking and meltdowns in favour of wheat-grass smoothies, back to nature screen savers of babbling brooks and body-beautiful yoga as performance art; Ultra High Definition documentary photography of ‘unspoilt’ edens available at the end of a carbon offset flight. This is the culture of ‘my hands are clean’, beautiful soul syndrome – as if the pharmakon
fruit of techno-industrialism can be meditated, sung, or consumed into submission. On the other hand, golden calfs and balloon dogs peel back their cherry-glossed lips, baring perfect teeth in rictus grins. This is the nihilist culture of Nero, junk art because ‘who gives a fuck?’. But some things are difficult to ignore, put away or transcend. The anthropocene makes use of the ancient past in so far as it is powered by fossil fuels. It also extends into a future after petroleum, and even beyond mankind’s own extinction – as radioactive half-lives and the carbon cycle operate according to massive timescales. Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – incidentally, written in Switzerland with the Alps in view – art must come down from its mountaintop and plumb the depths of the anthropogenic earth, as well as the chemical and mineral interior of human life. It must get its hands and feet dirty.
Though engaged with mountains, lakes and landscape, Charriere’s art rejects the romantic topological aesthetics that would set man apart or above. Consider the paradigmatic Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
(1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. In this painting the eponymous wanderer stands at the edge of a precipice. Hand on hip, he surveys a sublime panorama of craggy peaks. Friedrich’s figure dominates the canvas, placed at its centre. By contrast, Charriere’s work The Blue Fossil Entropic Series
pictures the artist within a landscape, his body dwarfed by the iceberg atop which he is perched and framed by crepuscular sky – hands holding a blowtorch that is melting away the ground upon which he stands. In so far as Friedrich’s image speaks of visual distance – a detached survey of the world (beneath) which the philosopher Timothy Morton argues is a pictorial symptom of the Kantian philosophy; the above
of the work’s title being indicative of a transcendental/metaphysical perspective – Charriere’s indicates immanence. Without the comfort of a subject-object dichotomy what is so often taken to be ground – a surface fantasy – becomes slippery and unstable.
The anthropogenic (re)construction of ground is a key focus of Charriere’s work. His Panorama
video begins with a close cropped shot of what appears to be a snowy mountain peak. As the camera pans out this seeming geological feature is shown to be something much smaller and bathetic – a pile of construction-site sand and rubble. The piece demonstrates the artist’s interest in shifts of scale and interpretive blurring of natural and cultural elements, as well as his rejection of metaphysical plateaus. Rather than standing on mountaintop Charriere literally abolishes it – while highlighting our terraformatic capabilities. Though born in a country of mountains – elevated by birth – the artist is committed to the notion that there are no Green Zones in the age of the anthropocene. Mountains are ground to dust every day.
Such affronts to alpine romance indicate Charriere’s rejection of the ontological separation between humanity and nature. If, since Copernicus, we have understood that we are not at the centre of the universe we have only just come to realize that ‘we are not in a VIP box beyond the edge, either’.2
As Morton argues, the transcendental perspective has afforded climate change deniers intellectual space to maneuver – as if an unlimited ‘world’ of resources exists, coterminous with an absolute ‘away’ for spent plutonium rods and sewerage. This is not the case. As so many ecologists warn, operating according to such beliefs amounts to digging ourselves into a hole.
In a field somewhere in Ethiopia Charriere performed a moment of reflection upon this condition – digging himself into a pit before inviting bemused passers-by to discuss the nature of his act. This occasion for discursive analysis initiated an attempt to decrypt
the constitution of earth, surface and depth in relation to his figure. It was through this gesture of ungrounding that the artist sought to represent the intellectual basis for ecology after metaphysics. Rather than operating by what Iain Hamilton Grant asserts is the Kantian/Fichtean privileging of ‘world’ over ‘earth’, Charriere’s artistic language develops a commitment to the latter. The earthy focus, Grant contends, allows for a realism that embraces the ‘ungrounded’.3
Through reference to Schelling, the philosopher underscores how ontological displacement of the privileged human subject thereby proceeds: excavation or the mining process ‘opens onto an ungroundedness at the core of any object […] because there is no “primal layer of the world”, no “ultimate substrate” or substance upon which everything ultimately rests’. There is only ‘lines of serial dependency, stratum upon stratum, that geology uncovers [which] do not rest on anything at all, but the records of actions antecedent in the production of consequents’.4
Here Grant is not offering a metaphor but evidence
of the real as a process without discernable beginning or end, running against the priority of reified subject.
Developing this line of thought, one writer invokes the work of Jane Bennett while claiming that ‘living things, and in particular entities such as humans, thought to be separate (whether theologically or technologically) from the engine of nature, are in fact themselves stratified by processes’.5
This claim is symptomatic of a geological turn in recent philosophy which seems to have been influential upon Charriere, whereby the interpenetration of mineral and biological entities is continually rehearsed – man and non-humans bound together in productive entanglements, each entity inaccessible to the other at their core (Harman), while being constitutive of one another. Among the darkly rhapsodic prose and often convoluted exoticisms of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia
this idea is figured as an act of exhumation, in which surface is destabilized: ‘exhumation is equal to ungrounding, incapacitating surfaces ability to operate according to topologies of the whole […] In exhumation the distribution of surfaces is thoroughly undermined and the movements associated with them are derailed; the edge no longer belongs to the periphery’.6
In place of the language of surface there must, for Negarestani, be only discussions of porosity and nesting.
Material stratification implies the intersection of non-human timescales and materiality with(in) the organic or biological – which Manuel DeLanda refers to as ‘non-linear history’. Art that addresses the great acceleration must, therefore, contend with moments prior to human thought as well as the idea of a time after humanity itself. Necessarily, it will traffic in the rhetoric of memento mori
. Fossils serve as key touchstones in this regard. In Negarestani’s writing oil performs the inhuman enormity of geological time as well as well as the apex of contemporary industrial modernity: its black morass functioning, on the one hand, as an index of mass-extinction – a million species of plants and animals drowned in a single shade – and, on the other, as the motor of modern development. Obviously, this fossil fuel underpins our ability to fly artworks around the world from exhibition to art fair, in addition to being the basis of many standard art materials. Even where the culture of our age does not directly refer to the fossil (fuel), a probe beneath its surface exhumes the nested strata.
Charriere’s broken hourglass, filled with ground fossils, places the relic at the core of our timekeeping. His On the sidewalk I have forgotten the Dinosauria
, a cylindrical core-sample of compressed stone taken from a Berlin sidewalk, asserts pre and post-historic stratification at the heart of urban experience. Both works marshal vanitas
– the hourglass symbol most acutely – while developing a neo-materialist iconography. In another work the artist turns his attention to salt: A food preservative, this chemical was the earliest energy storage mechanism utilized in human history. In a series of sculptures especially created for his exhibition at the Musee cantonal des Beaux-Art, Lausanne, Charriere installed great salt columns whose uppermost portions were carved into the form of Corinthian capitals. Operating by metaphor, these objects figured the structural basis of Western ‘civilization’ – symbolized by ancient Greek culture, with its attendant discovery of virtues and platonic forms – as being the material capacity for energy storage and release. One is reminded of Baudrillard’s observation: ‘[t]he idea of the Human can only come from elsewhere, not from itself – the inhuman is the only evidence for it’.7
The deployment of radioactive tokens further extends Charriere’s reliquary iconography. SOMEWHERE
is a video work that was shot at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in the northeast steppe of Kazakhstan, south of the Irtysh river valley. Also known as the Polygon, it was the primary facility for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. 456 tests took place there between 1949 and 1989, 340 of which happened below ground. Charriere’s film predominantly focuses on a series of concrete structures redolent of archaic obelisks or pyramids. These objects are among the first unintended (semi)permanent monuments of the anthropocene: a post-human architecture of the bomb, located in an environment too toxic for people to visit safely for longer than thirty minutes without protective gear. Constructed in order to withstand blasts, the monoliths in the video constitute undead counterparts of the flimsy clapboard houses and department store mannequins previously subjected to obliteration on the other side of the world at the US nuclear test site in Nevada. It was the latter offerings to the furnace that inspired Charriere’s Swiss predecessor Jean Tinguely to take to the American desert to perform Study for The End of the World, no. 2
(1962): an explosion of assembled consumer detritus. Charriere’s contemporary fieldwork at Semipalatinsk delivers a different message – that some things created or unleashed by mankind are incapable of being neutralized or destroyed in our lifetime, or in the lifetime of our species. We all inhabit the anthropogenic architecture of the nuclear age, and it inhabits us too – physiologically ungrounding us in the manner of a black hole growing beneath a bourgeois metropole or the undead half-life of irradiated soil.8
from the comfortable heights of the alpine homestead. Out
with the pious worship of the spuriously ‘unspoiled’. On
with the blowtorch. In
with the drill. Away
from homeostatic ‘neutral’ political territory, all the way to wasted territory – in steppes far from Lake Geneva – and new (old) earth; into a grave for the metaphysical baggage of the holocene. Julian Charriere’s work is an adventurous and unsentimental exploration of the strange, inhuman strata of our life and times.
1. The term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer
2. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2013, p.18.
3. Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, Continuum, London, 2006, pp.199-200.
4. Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘Mining Conditions’ in Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds.), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, re.press, Melbourne, 2010, pp.41-46.
5. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, pp.54-55 in Ben Woodward, On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy, Punctum Books, New York,2013, p.63.
6. Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia, re.press, Melbourne, 2008, p.51.
7. Jean Baudrillard, Fragments, Routledge, London, 2003.
8. by way of increased cancer and deformities.