Aporias of the Anthropocene: The Graphic Ecology of Andy Davis

Filmed in the Bourgogne region of France, Malady of the Vine takes viticulture as a case study to explore man’s relationship to land and the threat posed by its affliction. The historic Château du Clos de Vougeot, which dates to the mid-sixteenth century, is visible in the distance.

Curated by Lucy McGuigan

Andy Davis’s work wrestles with the fraught condition of being human in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which shifts in climate and ecologic stability are primarily driven by mankind’s unsustainable practices. Given the recent influx of climate change skeptics to the highest offices of American government, the attention that Davis’s work asks be paid to its subject matter—natural landscapes, lush vegetation, and other terrestrial artifacts—seems all the more urgently needed. A Latourian attitude toward the agency of non-human actors is reflected in both Davis’s compositional hierarchies, which decentralize and obfuscate the human figure, and his rhizomatic mode of practice.[1] Davis’s works constitute a dynamic “graphic ecology,” encompassing two-dimensional works and art objects which resurface as components of inhabitable structures and videos.[2]

Davis’s video works employ chromakey compositing (“green screening”) in a way that calls into question the ancillary role of landscape in the long history of Western pictorial and cinematic composition. In accordance with Albertian hierarchies, landscape has long been relegated to setting or bywork, with human figures given primacy of place.[3] In works like Malady of the Vine and A Seasonal Document human bodies—clothed in green bodysuits or shrouded by viridescent drapery—become screens on which to project, circumscribing the contours of embedded filmic images. In Watergrass Act II: Above the Surface, parerga frames parerga, thus reasserting the landscape as a subject in its own right and impugning its subordinacy. These interventions not only suggest the profound interdependence of man and environment by constituting corporeal forms with images of nature and subverting conventional figure/ground topographies, but also disrupt the simulacrity of the filmic image, challenging the mimetic functions of lens-based media. As landscapes increasingly become known through images rather than embodied experience, these quiet, wistful mise-en-scenes are charged with the elegiac lament of our estrangement from the natural world.[4]

Davis’s works also scrutinize the conventions of image-making through deconstructions of the pictorial means of signification. In two recent suites of drawings, “Days With High Winds” and “A Quiet Season,” Davis crafts a self-reflexive visual vocabulary that is deliberately enigmatic while at once referencing—and in fact underscoring the semiotic dependencies of—art historical topoi. In these vignettes, parsed metonyms of the natural landscape are interspersed with disembodied hands and feet in varying proportions. Foliate biomes boast floating gesticulating hands, orbs, musical notes, and cartographic markers that allude to the iconographic symbolism of premodern art but frustrate any kind of definitive interpretive resolution. These tableaus’ resistance of perspective and depth underscores the suggested symbolic import of their components, as objects are seemingly isolated for the viewer’s hermeneutic study. Yet, any such attempt catalyzes a cyclic discursive endeavor which perpetually returns to literal referents, emphasizing the intrinsic wonderment of the terrestrial, biological world.

Augmenting the mystique of gestures which hint toward ever-inaccessible signifieds, Davis pens poetic phrasings in mirrored script, purposively frustrating immediate comprehension but heightening intrigue by proffering the possibility of decipherment. With whimsical miniscule details, the drawings reward the kind of close looking and studied contemplation that is largely absent from our contemporary culture of perception and arguably driving our apathy toward (and alienation from) the unbuilt environment. Lacking distinguishing features and delineated only in silhouette, Davis’s figures arouse sympathies with pathos-laden postures, giving form to a profound, collective sorrow at the natural world’s destruction. These arcane archives simultaneously point backwards to the representational schemata of early civilizations and forwards to a post-apocalyptic future in which flora and fauna reclaim the earth and mankind is but a specter.

Fossilized Hermeneutic from Days With High Winds, 2016, graphite on paper Days With High Winds encompasses nineteen graphite drawings and one watercolor produced as the artist traveled between the U.S. and Mexico during the summer of 2016, which saw record-high temperatures across the globe.

Fossilized Hermeneutic from Days With High Winds, 2016, graphite on paper

Days With High Winds encompasses nineteen graphite drawings and one watercolor produced as the artist traveled between the U.S. and Mexico during the summer of 2016, which saw record-high temperatures across the globe.

A Seasonal Document, 2016, single-channel digital video

In A Seasonal Document, Davis’s hand acts as a surrogate for the viewer’s as it leafs through the pages of A Quiet Season. The folios have been placed into a coffer that resembles the case of a codex and serves as a screen for embedded filmic images.

Fossilized Hermeneutic from Days With High Winds, 2016, graphite on paper Days With High Winds encompasses nineteen graphite drawings and one watercolor produced as the artist traveled between the U.S. and Mexico during the summer of 2016, which saw record-high temperatures across the globe.

Fossilized Hermeneutic from Days With High Winds, 2016, graphite on paper

Days With High Winds encompasses nineteen graphite drawings and one watercolor produced as the artist traveled between the U.S. and Mexico during the summer of 2016, which saw record-high temperatures across the globe.

Study for Watergrass, 2014, performance This performance, in which the artist emerges from a mantle of seaweed on the shores of a Dominican beach, is documented in a series of photographs. Davis further explores the motif of the crawling, overlaid figure in the video work Watergrass.

Study for Watergrass, 2014, performance

This performance, in which the artist emerges from a mantle of seaweed on the shores of a Dominican beach, is documented in a series of photographs. Davis further explores the motif of the crawling, overlaid figure in the video work Watergrass.

Watergrass Act II: Above the Surface, 2016, single-channel digital video

The second act of Watergrass features a billowing chromakey screen that mounts a mise en abyme of somber shorescapes


[1] See Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Andy Davis, email message to the author, January 12, 2017.

[3] For landscape as bywork in early modern painting and the Albertian underpinnings of these hierarchies, see Christopher Wood, Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993), 63-78.

[4] In “The Conditions of Visuality Under the Anthropocene and Images of the Anthropocene to Come,” e-flux 63 (March 2015), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/63/60882/conditions-of-visuality-under-the-anthropocene-and-images-of-the-anthropocene-to-come/, Irmgard Emmelhainz posits, “the Anthropocene era implies not a new image of the world, but the transformation of the world into images” such that vicarious image-viewing supplants first-hand experience as a primary way of knowing.