in Features | 07 JUN 99
Featured in
Issue 47

Nothing Natural

Inka Essenhigh

in Features | 07 JUN 99

It must be ten years since I swam through Lewis Mumford's 1934 classic tome Technics and Civilization, but his wacky, William Morris-inspired vision of a future so advanced that all technology would become obsolete, keeps coming back to me. Written two decades after the greatest slaughter the world had ever known, and on the eve of another that would dwarf the first in its technologically-enhanced ferocity, Technics and Civilization was less a prediction than a pre-lapsarian pipe dream of free love. Its notion of technological auto-annihilation weirdly foreshadowing the Atomic age and its politics of Mutually Assured Destruction, Mumford's assertion was not simply that technology would triumph over itself, but that its disappearance would leave nature hegemonic, allowing humankind to devolve back to its most primitive, natural state. A proto-hippie idea in the 30s, in the 90s it lives again as a slightly ironic, consciously naive fascination with a return to an unspecified Utopian moment before (or after) the end of credulity. In contemporary art of late deliberate innocence - and its ugly flip side, obdurate dumbness - is one manifestation; the resurgence of highly crafted realism is another.

Inka Essenhigh's paintings of vaguely humanoid deformations set in monochrome voids the colour of 40-year old linoleum make futuristic prognostications about technology's interaction with the natural world. Ozone Hole (1998), in which a brace of headless, limbless torsos free-fall against a pea green background, refers to the mutating effects of UV light on living organisms. Others, like Large Fire and Deluge (both 1998), equate natural forces with divine ones, confirming Essenhigh's engagement with the millenarian myth of ecological disaster as divine retribution. In these works, her cyborg-mutations battle, vainly, against the elements, which are depicted as enormous stylised motifs that rip through Essenhigh's patent leather surfaces. In her casting of the nature/technology dichotomy as one that pits humankind against some kind of spiritual force, Essenhigh refers to the grand tradition of apocalyptic painting that began with late-18th century European pot-boilers of floods, fires and eruptions of biblical proportions. These depictions of nature's power to crush mankind's puny efforts at civilisation indicated a deep anxiety caused by rapid industrialisation. Meant to evoke a cathartic shudder and renewed faith in divine power, these works were less about the awesome power of technology than about belief in God's ultimate ability to control it. At the turn of the 20th century our fears have grown in proportion to the integration of technology into our daily lives, but Essenhigh's neuromantic paintings, despite their contemporary gloss, offer a similar thrill, a kind of cybernetic sublime.

To brandish religious awe in front of the snapping maw of technology is a quaint notion, and it offers some indication how nostalgic, and ultimately how pessimistic, Essenhigh's project really is. The artist has called her fantastic scenarios 'a look back to the future' and indeed, the deformation of her figures seems to be the result of a kind of devolution, not towards Mumford's Mr. Natural, but towards a simplified mutation that is peculiarly inorganic in character. Reportedly drawn from 'Surrealist-inspired' automatic doodles, her rubbery, polymorphic droids recall the deformed and fleshy masturbators of vintage Salvador Dali. However, the stumpy torsos and phallic biomorphs that free-fall in the airless environment of Ozone, or melt horribly in Large Fire, share a certain suspicious sameness: they are a set of toys that have tumbled, screwing, wrestling, lactating, out of the same box - more product than object, more machine than mortal.

Today, a number of artists who have chosen to paint celebrate the medium's handmade and illusionistic qualities, as if equating the act of image-making with an act of nature. In the US particularly, there has been a rash of craft-oriented picture making: Fred Tomaselli's fabulous optical compositions of weed and various brightly-coloured controlled substances; and Kara Walker's room-sized scenes of old-time miscegenation executed in cut-paper silhouettes. Both impulses are consciously naive, retrogressive and, ultimately, affirmative - in the way that Mumford's scenario of a world beyond technology is. However much Essenhigh's work has been included as part of this 'new' efflorescence of painting, it is the result of a precisely opposite impulse. Hard and shiny like a first-rate automotive paint job, with images that don't seem drawn as much as retrofitted, her works are not so much painting as a kind of cybernetic substitute for it. Illustrating a technology that is, in the artist's words 'as uncontrollable as nature', they depict neither Utopia nor dystopia, but a technotropia in which the technological does not just imitate nature, it replaces it.

That this work, like-painting-but-not-painting, handmade in a most inorganic manner, takes its cues from the ironic 80s instead of the hopeful 90s is less interesting than its willingness to speculate on what are arguably the most significant issues of the millennium. Essenhigh's scenario in which the natural and the artificial have become indistinguishable is no more or less goofy than Mumford's image of post-technological primitivism. Both leave us grateful for the existence of visionaries, and for the fact that, as Lawrence Alloway put it, 'yesterday's tomorrow is not today'.