This project began as a reaction to the very concept of an Anthropocene epoch, after reading an article in The Guardian in 2012. It was my first exposure to the idea that, due to the activities of the human species, we were affecting the entire planet to such an extreme degree that a new epoch would be designated. I was deeply troubled.
I wanted to create bold photographs that offered a warning, but could also suggest hope – perhaps a way for humanity to navigate into this new epoch with a softer footprint. As I was researching the subject I was struck particularly by one possible answer; combine the best of our civilization’s achievements - science, medicine, technology - with the ageless human knowledge of the planet's living systems (that arguably, up until the agricultural revolution, enabled humans to live more sustainably within their environments).
The human skull, a study specimen, sprang to mind as an object that could visualize the ideas of both warning, with it's rather obvious reference to death, and those aforementioned achievements of science, medicine, and technology. I also liked the inherent undercurrents of self-study and self-evaluation present in this object through the visual clues of screw, hook, and spring. The relics of other species provided references to the natural world and to the Sixth Extinction, the Anthropocene's partner in crime.
With these elements in hand I built many of these sculptures with reference to artifacts from ancient cultures, ones that venerated the natural world. I started looking at my own family's Scandinavian history and went on to others from around the world, pulling reference images from both ceremonial and everyday objects - masks being a predominant one.
There are many grand themes running through this project but we appear to be at a period in human history that demands serious and sustained discourse around them. Evidence rather strongly suggests that human civilization has lost its reverence for the natural world and its limits - and that we desperately need to find it again. At root level, these photographs were made to add fuel to this discourse.
After years of debate, on August 29, 2016 the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy recommended formalizing the term ‘Anthropocene’ as a new geological epoch. Based on global evidence that Earth's natural systems have been irrevocably altered by human activity this term redefines the current geological time period as being human-influenced.
Within this context of a single species having fundamentally changed the very mechanics of the natural world I am interested in grappling with ideas of science, mythology, evolution, human industry and our place in the natural order. Through the transmutation of skeletal remains - the very crystallization of life - it is my intention to speak to the physical and mystical connections between humans and the natural world.
These connections are reflected strongly within the pre-industrial cultural wisdoms that were forged from sustained and visceral observations of the intricate relationships between land, ocean, flora, fauna and atmosphere – wisdoms ensuring long-term survival within ones surroundings. While centuries of colonialism, war and globalization have extinguished much of this knowledge, re-learning and integrating it back into our technological, urbanized culture offers a path though the environmental challenges now upon us. These photographs represent a warning, but also a rendering of hope, speaking to this integration as an antidote to humanity’s subjugation, domination and consumption of the living planet.
Alongside a review of historical cultural artifacts, in which human and animal essences merge, this project was informed by the photographs made by missionary Martin Gusinde as he documented the last indigenous tribe of Tierra del Fuego from 1912 to 1918 and by Irving Penn’s mid-century skull studies. Anthropocene continues the traditions embodied within these works – exploring allusion and metaphor surrounding life and death and the relationship between humankind and the environment.
In answer to the one question everybody asks, the human skull came from the elementary teacher who taught my early science classes. From his personal natural history collection I was able to access this skull and many other artifacts for this series.
The others came from my own gatherings, that of my father and a family friend who has an extensive collection.