Jedediah Caesar’s recent exhibition re-evaluated the ancient distinction between the natural and the artificial. Aristotle established it both materially and metaphysically; the natural has its own motion. If you planted a wooden bed-frame in the earth, and it miraculously sprouted, what would develop would be wood – a tree, not a bed. Ergo, wood is natural, bed artificial. But the question – ‘What is nature, exactly?’ – is a renewed issue in a climate of environmental collapse. Like failed lovers, we’ve taken nature for granted, and she’s hinting she’s had enough. Only now that we might lose her (or realize we never had her) do we see what she is – how beautiful, how indifferent. This fallen sentimentalism must have been part of Caesar’s encounter with the blasted stretch of the Mojave Desert that served as inspiration for the show – the Hauser Geode Beds, where rock-hunters go looking for homely stones hiding brilliant crystals, under a sun so punishing that virtually nothing grows there but a sense of futility.
In response to what he found there, Caesar made mundane objects with their own latent order, their own hostile landscapes. The first set comprised mostly black and white photos of scree hiding idiosyncratic alterations, some added physically by unseen hands, some virtually, by subtle but discernible Photoshopping: the same rock (or is it an arrowhead?) repeated in a regular grid, a homemade clay disk lodged in a vein of granite. The photos require a jaded regard for diametrical human impulses: to discover the unexpected and to confirm the pattern. Some were hard to look at, vacillating as they did between total artifice and pure randomness; the conceptual headache was reminiscent of those Magic Eye autostereograms that popped up in mall kiosks across America in the 1990s.
The second was a series of sculptures, wedges of polyurethane impregnated with semi-precious metal dust (copper, nickel) and once-precious spices (cinnamon, turmeric) and named by their lists of ingredients. The powders catalyzed the chemical reaction of the usually clear MDI resin Caesar has used before for his archaeological blocks of consumer-society garbage; they turned these pieces into a bubbled, multilayered, multicoloured foam, all galactic swirls and rust-stained nebulae, a moulded, pressurized, sliced-up microcosm of geological forces. One side of each resembled a sedimentary stratum, coarse and primordial; the other surface gleamed with the smooth gloss of creation by industrial mould. Both humble and overbearing, the little triangles were something between natural mineral formations and toxic waste slabs, without any of the faux-epic irony of, say, an Edward Burtynsky photograph. Their dimensions were mostly the same, but their orientations made them seem different; their process was identical, but their patterns were unique. Wandering through them, one felt the wonder of otherworldly forms in nature, but also the deadness of industrial production; they were gorgeous, gross, trivial, sinister, tame and noxious.
Thus the knee-high inclines embodied the word ‘plastic’ – cured to an impervious individuality but always mutable in the mind, polluting and seducing at once. The chaos of their chemical reactions vied with the precision of scientific formulae and the crudity of artisanship. The pieces nodded to Minimalism and Land art, but their near-kitschiness ribbed those movements as simplistic and grandiose, founded on puffed-up, spectacular pieties. Carrying only the barest conceptual whiff of their storied histories and industrially cheapened treasure – the scent of the Silk Road and the strip-mines of subjugated land – Caesar’s mutant materials moved not with borrowed life, but their own Aristotelian natures.
The sculptures and photographs also accommodated the possibility that their value might turn out to be a hallucination, like spices, metals or the desert mirages and Fata Morganas which Caesar cited in the gallery handouts. Unlike his previous projects, which used garbage as a material for more elevated commentaries, this stuff simply risked being trash itself. With it, Caesar eulogized the philosophy of Western civilization’s environmental exploitation like Hamlet in the graveyard, with a jaundiced eye and a trapped tenderness for the foibles of a doomed, beauty-seeking species. This, too, is nature, the work seemed to say. It might have been kidding around, but that hardly mattered to the sense of loss.
True, the artist had merely channelled a chemical process, arrested materials on their way to becoming something else. But could the matter in there, the spice and metal and petrochemicals, ever be recycled, even as atoms? Could they even be said to be part of a whole nature anymore? Could concept or artifice or art be good enough reasons to trap them thus, useless in near-perpetuity to the natural flux? And if one of these sculptures were buried in the dust and miraculously germinated, what being would rise up from it? Not a tree, for sure. Maybe a lonely man, looking for a pretty rock, in whatever wasteland he found himself wandering.