Curated by Boris Ondreička and Nadim Samman, Rare Earth at TBA21 announces itself as ‘nothing less than an attempt to define the spirit of our age: an exhibition relating myth, identity and cosmology to current advances in technology.’ To fulfill this purposefully overblown claim the approach taken by the curators is a didactic one: 17 artists are each paired with 17 rare earth elements. These elements, found within such ubiquitous objects as electric motors, LED displays and fluorescent lamps, are key for the technological support of contemporary human life – yet their extraction from the earth also has dramatic environmental effects and ethical consequences.
The exhibition begins not with inorganic matter but with organic life, albeit life rendered inert: a nude male in Auguste Rodin’s ‘thinker’ pose is perched on an engine with a small flame on its tail for Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (2012) and a motionless bearded dragon lizard is trapped in a perspex chamber in Iain Ball’s Neodymium (Energy Pangea) (2011). Taking a different approach towards representing life, a room-sized installation anthropomorphizes the earth itself: Marguerite Humeau’s REQUIEM FOR HARLEY WARREN “Screams from Hell” (2015) emits sounds mimicking the groans and shrieks that erupt from fissures in the earth’s crust. While this installation explicitly employs at least two rare earth elements, Erbium and Neodymium, many works refer to their elements metaphorically; The Otolith Group’s Anathema (2011) is a characteristically abstract video installation which takes liquid crystals as inspiration.
As might be expected when single works by so many artists are matched one-to-one with concepts they are supposed to illustrate, the exhibition splinters at times into a collection of same-sized fragments. One of Oliver Laric’s series of Polyeurethane double-faced Sun Tzu heads (Sun Tzu Janus, 2013), and an adjacent mandala wall mural by Suzanne Treister (Rare Earth, 2014), here seem instrumentalized and simplified to illustrate concepts of ‘war’ and ‘esotericism’. While both Laric’s and Treister’s work deals heavily with those respective subjects, they do so by complicating rather than simply representing them.
The strength of the show’s premise is the notion that technology doesn’t progress according to a predetermined goal but is shaped by power and belief structures. Yet some works come across as unquestioning proponents of technological determinism. The most mystifyingly linear take on historical progress is Arseniy Zhilyaev’s pentagram-shaped vitrine, Cobblestone Weapon of the Proletariat (2015), which contains tools of liberation throughout human existence – from iron swords and pitchforks to mobile phones.
Positioned in its own room at the very back of the exhibition is Camille Henrot’s brilliant video Grosse Fatigue (2013). Rather than form the 17th component of the exhibition it serves as its culmination. Henrot’s video is essentially a creation story: the history of the universe narrated in spoken-word poetry over footage of humans interacting with nature. Rather than charting from A to B (pitchfork to nanochip), the video rejoices in the complexity of evolution, both biological and technological, and presents a welcome non-Western-centric notion of progress. A circle motif recurs throughout the video, inscribing a non-linear historical arc rather than the straight arrow of the man/machine dichotomy.
In a 2014 article in frieze titled The Stories They Need, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie noticed a common thread in recent artistic practice: a fascination with ethnographic research and the adopting (or parroting) of the work of social scientists – the ‘Anthropological turn’. Rare Earth puts forth what can be seen as a parallel trajectory, a ‘Geological Turn.’ Henrot’s work, which is discussed in Wilson-Goldie’s essay, is perhaps the key to understanding how both tendencies function in tandem. In the Anthropocene Era, when human life has so drastically altered earth’s ecology, right-minded geological studies must also be anthropological ones, and vice versa.