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Zachary Davis
Wendigo, 2012Zachary Davis

Nature by proxy

Still life? Amy Knight surveys nature painting in the age of GIFs and online art

TextAmy KnightIllustrationZachary Davis

Under Symbolism, editor of Symbol Paper and creative director of West Lane South gallery Amy Knight curates a monthly column investigating how new artists explore themes from duality to water.

In the strange realm of the Garden Club tracking stream, a GIF made from TLC’s Unpretty video loops between a time-lapsed moonflower and an eBay employee, standing awkwardly beside a row of pot plants. Here, the meanings of 'viral' as both a biological and technological phenomenon intersect and propagate in a never-ending scroll: a memetic garden of branding and botany. 

The ongoing group project is co-run by artist Kari Altmann, whose interest in applied biology manifests in much of her work. As a means of understanding developments in technology, Altmann’s ecological preoccupation dates back several years and continues to pervade her practice. In 2009 - after years of gathering found footage - she made Exotic-A, a digital merging of tropical flora in vivariums and terrariums. The lines separating each shaky handheld video lose clarity as new layers appear in artificially saturated colours; leaves are a vibrant, sumptuous, radioactive green. The flattened texture and depth of these miniature ecosystems is heightened by the video’s display – inside a vivarium tank, to be viewed as a specimen: Exhibit A. As with vivariums themselves, the video as exotic object of our desire becomes subjugated, more digestible, more consumable. Altmann's intention was to place the tank inside successively larger versions, situating the video further and further from the viewer, recalling the ubiquitous see-through layers of product packaging, lenses and screens. But interestingly, her ultimate aim was to distance the digital foliage to the point that it becomes 'wild and unrecognisable again'.

These ‘image ecologies’, as Altmann refers to them, abound in the artwork of Alex Mackin Dolan, providing a framework for his recent exhibitions. Pure Clear connects ‘eco-aware’ ideas through objects of particular colour sets and materials, while Deep Freeze constructs a visual language of temperature gradients. Organic substances are placed alongside high-tech machinery that substitutes or improves upon natural systems, but there is something primal and intuitive in his beguilingly ritualistic presentation of cold technological invention. 

Notes on a New Nature is a blog set up specifically to examine the ways in which artists are responding to the natural landscape through digital means. Its founder, artist and curator Nicholas O'Brien questions what constitutes ‘realness’ in the natural, suggesting that 'digital technology has forever changed our understanding of nature.' This is a concern shared by artist Mark Dorf, who amalgamates wilderness photography and 3D renderings in response to the way we transform the natural environment into abstract representations, in order to understand it better – look closely at the rocky woodland path and you’ll see geometric CGI forms amongst the jagged slate. The idea is also reminiscent of Zachary Davis’ Wendigo: a mountain sunset panorama presented through multiple rectangular lenses, each continually reframing the scene; the ‘real’ view is disregarded in favour of an endlessly manipulable digital screenshot.

It is a subject currently being explored by a multitude of artists whose work flows between the digital and the physical, each sphere informing the other. And in this state of consciousness, ‘real’ nature and its instantiation become virtually interchangeable. I’m reminded of artist Harm van den Dorpel’s words in Travis Jeppesen’s text, Revenge of the Spheres: “Nobody cares anymore if something is real. You’re no longer a fraud if you make something that doesn’t exist”. As our perception of nature is adjusted by digitally mediated culture, through which we experience the world more and more indirectly – through multiple layers – perhaps the very idea of realness is becoming less relevant.

Amy Knight is the editor of new London art paper Symbol. Every month she'll be exploring how new artists are dealing with a different subject in this spot.