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by Sebastian Cichocki

Wonders in the Heavens and in the Earth: Notes from the Dormant Exhibition

The exhibition "The Penumbral Age" at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw was not held at the originally scheduled time (20 March – 7 June 2020) due to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic. When the exhibition finally opened on the 5th of June 2020, the new situation affected the number of works presented at the exhibition and the manner of presentation. The very last weekend of the show, 12-13th of September, flags of Extinction Rebellion movement were added to the display, as a gesture of solidarity with the XR autumn wave of civil disobedience, the biggest mobilisation worldwide since the historic protests of October 2019.

In 1970, a group of Buddhist monks from the Shingon and Nichiren schools went on a pilgrimage to Japan, from Toyama to Kumamoto. They adopted the name Jusatsu Kito Sodan, i.e., Group of Monks Bringing the Curse of Death. It was one of the most radical but also poetic ecological and anti-capitalist manifestations in the history of Japan. Equipped with conch instruments and books with the curses of Abhichar (based on, among others, Vedic rituals from the 9th century), the monks wandered from factory to factory where they camped and performed their ceremonies. Their intention was to bring death to factory directors through prayers. The activities of Jusatsu Kito Sodan were a response to the environmental pollution and mass poisonings in Japan after a series of epidemics in the mid-1960s. New diseases appeared, such as itai-itai, caused by cadmium-contaminated rice, a side effect of hard coal mining. Japanese industrialists connected to, inter alia, American businesses or those protected by the government remained unpunished. One such example is, among others, the activities of Chisso Corporation, which for thirty-four years—aware of the damage it was causing—discharged wastewater with a high mercury content into the Shiranui Sea. This poisoned thousands of people and caused severe Minamata disease in many. The actions of Jusatsu Kito Sodan can be analyzed in terms of a radical artistic experiment or performance that combines spirituality as well as a general concern for the well-being of people and the natural environment.[1]

We live in a time of planetary change affecting each and every one of us. Climate change influences every sphere of life, including thinking about art: the systems of its production and distribution, its social function, and its relation to other disciplines, especially science. The Penumbral Age exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw[2] is composed of artistic works from the last five decades, based on observations and visualizations of the changes underway on planet Earth. It was supposed to provide a space for discussion on “managing the irreversible” and new forms of solidarity, empathy, and togetherness in the face of the climate crisis. The installation was suspended a few days before the opening scheduled for March 20, 2020, due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. We were not unaware of the irony of the situation: the consequences of violence against nature, the leading theme of the exhibition, have led to institutional paralysis.

Suzanne Husky, La Noble Pastorale (The Noble Pastoral), 2016/2017, tapestry. Courtesy of the artist.

The title of the exhibition was drawn from the book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,[3] where the protagonists from the future date the “period of the penumbra” from the “shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge

available at the time” and leading to tragedy. We are witnesses to this process: scientific findings have ceased to be regarded as dispositive and do not persuade people to act. As the American writer and historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote in The Atlantic, analyzing skepticism about climate change or outright rejection of the threat (climate denialism)[4]: “Science

becomes belief. Belief becomes science. Everything becomes nothing. Nothing becomes everything. All can believe and disbelieve all. We all can know everything and know nothing. Everyone lives as an expert on every subject.” The crisis in the culture of expertise and science is reinforced by fundamentalist movements denying such scientific findings as evolution and the harmfulness of air pollution, and disputing man’s impact on climate. Clearly, statistics, charts, graphs, and shocking photo and film reports from places affected by ecological disaster no longer make much of an impact on the imagination.

Observations by artists are akin to those of scientists, but they typically do not confront viewers with an excess of numbers, soaring bar graphs, or “pornographic” images of poverty and devastation. Art has “strange tools”[5] at its disposal, which we can use to discern “wonders in the heavens and signs on the earth.” When ordinary tools of dialogue and persuasion fail, artists enable an “imaginative leap” by working on the emotions, confronting the incomprehensible and the unknown. As the theoretician of visual culture Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it,[6] we must “unsee” how the past “has taught us to see the world, and begin to imagine a different way to be with what used to be called nature.” Art can help by organizing the work of imagination, sometimes more effectively than the tools developed by science and environmental policy.

One of the key historical references for the exhibition were the activities of the Slovenian OHO group—active from 1966–71 (these dates are rather arbitrary), described as "transcendental conceptualism." The development of the group can be divided into three rather distinct phases. In the first phase, members of the group devoted themselves to “reism,” a philosophical and artistic project based on a non-anthropocentric view of the world and discovering things as they are, a world of things, where there would be no hierarchical difference between people and things—seeing things beyond their function. They devoted themselves to, inter alia, creating "popular art" that could be found on matchboxes sold in bazaars. In the second phase, the group established a dialogue with the contemporary artistic avant-garde: the artists used the principles of Arte Povera, Land Art, Conceptual Art, Anti-form, etc. Many of their activities took place in nature and consisted of poetic and transient interventions using readily available materials: strings or sticks. In the last phase, OHO members undertook to leave the world of art through a combination of Conceptual Art and a kind of esoteric and ecological approach. The group’s composition was changing, especially in the first phase, when OHO functioned more as an artistic "movement," which was attended by representatives of various disciplines: poets, filmmakers, sculptors. The documentation presented at the exhibition focuses on the last phase of the group's existence. In 1970, OHO was invited to participate in the exhibition Information at MoMA in New York. In response, the artists then focused on activities they referred to as šolanje (education), organizing two summer sessions in the villages of Zarica and Čezsoča. They did not work on any specific project, but in a conscious and conceptual way approached living, cooking, walking, and breathing together, looking for patterns of behavior and relationships with each other and with nature. They were primarily mindfulness exercises, through which they trained in order to perceive OHO as a "collective body." The group was just starting an international career when the members decided they should abandon art as a separate area and really enter life; therefore, in April of 1971, the main members of the group settled on an abandoned farm in the western part of Slovenia and started a community—the Šempas Family. Meditation, cultivation of land, daily drawing sessions, weaving, ceramics, and animal husbandry were all a continuation of OHO’s hitherto searches into posthumanism, spirituality, and land art. After a year, the family went their separate ways; only Marko Pogačnik remained in the village, continuing to work for the benefit of the local community and environment while attempting to "heal the land" through his original "lithopuncture" method.

The Penumbral Age exhibition spans five decades and highlights the strengthening of environmental reflections in the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the second decade of the 21st century. The first period is linked with the intensification of pacifist, feminist, and anti-racist movements and the formation of the contemporary ecological movement. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, Greenpeace was founded in 1971, and the next year a think tank, the Club of Rome, published the report The Limits to Growth, describing the challenges posed for humanity by the exhaustion of natural resources. At the same time, new artistic phenomena arose, such as conceptualism, anti-form, land art and earth art. While introducing “geological” thinking about art, artists used impermanent organic materials or sought to entirely dematerialize the work of art. Many of those proposals forever changed the thinking about the role of art institutions and the relationship between artistic practice, professional work, and activism. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, treating household chores and motherhood as part of her artistic work, Bonnie Ora Sherk, transforming urban wastelands into green oases, and Agnes Denes, combining art with cybernetics and agriculture, were all part of the countercultural revolution, which ultimately failed to live up to the hopes placed in it. For us, land art is much more than a stream of Western art emblematic of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Agnes Denes, Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space – Map Projections: The Snail, 1976, four-color lithograph on Rives BFK paper, edition of 48/50. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Following the thought of the Pakistani artist and activist Rasheed Araeen, drawing from his “ecoaesthetics” agenda, we seek “global art for a changing planet.” Araeen formulated an ecoaesthetics program, expressed in a series of essays making up the publication Art Beyond Art. Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century.[7] In it, the artist postulates going beyond the supremacy of the Homo sapiens species and unleashing the "creative energy of the free collective imagination." Araeen's program is anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, as well as anti-capitalist. The system—wherein art functions— itself is criticized, which maintains hierarchies, glorifies growth and progress, powered by the intellectual fuel of modernity, separating creative energies from everyday life processes and petrifies them into "narego"—the narcissistic ego of the artist. Araeen uses the terms nominalism and cosmoruralism. The first one consists in launching useful processes—fluid, lasting, based on sustainable development—by artists, then implemented by local communities. For example, in 2001, Araeen proposed—utilizing his engineering experience—building a dam in the Balochistan desert, which would help retain water from periodic rivers, thus providing better living conditions for the nomadic population. The dam would be both a sculpture and a fully functional engineering solution. The second proposal, cosmoruralism, is a complete vision of a network of cooperatives and ecological villages based on fair cooperation between the Global North and Global South, which would result in, amongst other things, the reforestation of the Sahara.

Actions connected with the “canonization” of land art, such as Richard Long’s Throwing a Stone around MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, 1977, in which the artist followed a stone he tossed before him, the “terraforming” plans of Robert Morris, or Gerry Schum’s television programme (an example of the use of new media to expose audiences to “organic” art practiced in deserts or forests), are accompanied in The Penumbral Age exhibition by works from the 21st century, employing ecological education (Futurefarmers), protest (Akira Tsuboi), and involving spirituality and esoterics (Teresa Murak). Their works help visualize what seems omnipresent and overwhelming. The field recording is particularly efficient tool of transferring these ineluctable changes. One of the exhibition participants, the interdisciplinary scholar Anja Kanngieser (based in Wollongong, Australia) works with such issues as violence against indigenous communities and the natural environment of the Pacific region, related to the extraction of fossil fuels from the ocean floor or the consequences of nuclear tests done in the 20th century. Kanngieser was born and spent her early childhood on a boat sailing the Pacific. She remembers the sounds of the ocean, always mixed with the noise of the walkie-talkie that her father, the sailor, and electrician operated. Her work consists of field recordings, interviews, and turning scientific data into sound. The Penumbral Age exhibition includes the artist’s field recording, recorded early in the morning in Tarawa, the capital of the Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific. The Republic is on the front line of climate change: the ocean level has risen by three meters, and the island is regularly submerged in salt water. The water enters flats, hospitals, drinking water wells, fields, and gardens, destroying crops. Anja Kanngieser explains: “The people of Kiribati with whom I spoke do not want to leave the land of their ancestors, where they have lived for thousands of years. Some elders told me that they wanted to stay on their islands and did not want to talk about migration, that people were happy in their homes and that they didn’t know what would come but they put their trust in God. Kiribati's share of global greenhouse gas emissions is disproportionately low to the effects that the islanders face today.”[8] According to climate forecasts, Kiribati will disappear completely under water by 2050.

Artists sensitive to environmental changes also address such issues as climate debt, post-anthropocentrism, the unavoidable exhaustion of fossil-fuel deposits, the effects of limitless accumulation of goods and economic growth, planetary ecocide, and colonial exploitation. All of this is the context for land art. We thus propose to extend this term to cover a broad panorama of artistic practices concerning humans’ relations with other species, inanimate matter, and the entire planet, as well as “non-artistic” ventures by artists and activists (from community gardens to the battle for the rights of native populations and the establishment of political parties). Land art in this sense is not confined to any one medium, specific material, or geographical region. It can also cover activities that do not occur under the banner of art.

Ice Stupas Project, Ice Stupa in Ladakh, photo by Sonam Wangchuk, 2015/2020, photography, digital print, paper. Courtesy of the artist.

One example is the ice stupas in Ladakh, India, artificial glaciers created by engineer Sonam Wangchuk, with a fascinating form and a clearly defined function of delivering water to inhabitants of the desert at the foot of the Himalayas. In desert areas, located at an altitude of over 3,000 meters above sea level, it almost never rains, and agriculture is dependent on water from seasonally melting glaciers flowing down from the Himalayas. Currently—as a consequence of global warming— water no longer reaches the villages at the foot of the mountains, and when it does, it does so violently, destroying buildings and bridges. Wangchuk and his team use gravity and temperature differences between day and night to create the ice stupas. Using a simple pipe system, they direct water from peaks to the villages in the valleys below. The ice stupas, several meters high, melt slowly, supplying farmers with water until early summer. A beneficial side effect of erecting ice stupas is also the draining of lakes, which form as a result of the violent ripping of large fragments of glaciers, blocking the outflow of water and causing floods. According to local legends, in Ladakh, people have specialized in "breeding" glaciers for centuries. It is said that in the thirteenth century, an ice barrier was used to stop the invasion of Genghis Khan's army.

Time has never spun so fast. What used to take millions of years now plays out in just a few decades. In 1947, Isamu Noguchi proposed to erect Memorial to Man in the desert, a huge relief sculpture resembling a human face which could be viewed from space. It was supposed to leave a trace of a civilization that would seek a new home following a nuclear war by settling on Mars. But fantasies of “planet B” have not been fulfilled. We have just one Earth. The awareness of the catastrophic agency of the human species, as well as the inevitable end of the order we know, requires another view of the activity of mankind—a vision stripped of anthropocentric arrogance, non-human, and closer to geology than the humanities. Only when we change our perspective and recognize that we live simultaneously on more than one scale will we perceive the consequences of the processes occurring since the Neolithic revolution (and later the Industrial Revolution and the post-war economic boom). The bounty we receive from “civilization” is also our poison. Eat Death, the American artist Bruce Nauman concluded in his prophetic work from 1971.

Life in a state of deepening crisis forces us to fundamentally change our thinking about the entire system of social organization and to confront ethical and existential dilemmas (climate migrations and new class conflicts). The world of art, with its museums and rituals for organizing objects and ideas, is no exception (to paraphrase the slogan of the Youth Strike for Climate, “No museums on a dead planet!”) and requires deep systemic transformation. We treat engagement in this discussion as a duty of the museum, and not as just another fashion or stream in art. Countering the calls for “ecological restoration” or the popularity of “art of the Anthropocene,” we stress the permanence of environmental reflection, based on continuity and responsibility.

Art will certainly not protect us against catastrophe, but it can help us arm ourselves with “strange tools” for the work of imagination and empathy. In her memorable manifesto from 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles posed the question: “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”[9] In works of art from recent decades, we not only seek a visualization of processes occurring on our planet, but also discern possible proposals for the future. If ecological catastrophe is already happening (as the residents of the inundated islands of Nauru and Banaba in the Pacific would certainly agree), together we wonder, will we ever manage to clean up our planetary mess and rebuild our relations with other sentient beings? Will we manage to start over again?


Sebastian Cichocki (b. 1975, Gliwice) is the chief curator and head of research at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Selected exhibitions curated and co-curated by Cichocki at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw include The Penumbral Age: Art in the Time of Planetary Change (with Jagna Lewan-dowska, 2020); Never Again: Art against War and Fascism in the 20th and 21st Centuries (with Łukasz Ronduda and Joanna Mytkowska, 2019); Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times (with Kuba Szreder, 2016); and Zofia Rydet, Record 1978–1990 (2015). Other recent curatorial projects include The Resistance of the Form: Non-Exhibition, Powszechny Theatre, Warsaw (2017), and Rainbow in the Dark: On the Joy and Torment of Faith at SALT in Istanbul and Malmö Konstmuseum (with Galit Eilat, 2015). Cichocki also curated the Polish Pavilion at the 52nd and 54th Venice Biennales of Art (in 2007 with Monika Sosnowska, in 2011 with Yael Bartana, co-curated with Galit Eilat). He has curated exhibitions in the form of books, radio dramas, libretto, anti-production residency program, and performance lectures.



[1] Koichiro Osaka, Curse Mantra: How to Kill Factory Owners (Hong Kong: Para Site, 2019), 4-47.

[2] https://wiekpolcienia.artmuseum.pl/en.

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (New York: Colombia University Press, 2014).  

[4] Ibram X. Kendi, “What the Believers Are Denying,” The Atlantic, January 1, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/what-deniers-climate-change-and-racism-share/579190/?utm_source=feed.

[5] Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015).

[6] Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More (London: Pelican Books, 2015), 195.

[7] Rasheed Araeen, Art Beyond Art. Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century (London: Third Text Publications, 2010).

[8] Anja Kanngieser, email to author, December 24, 2019.

[9] Mierle Laderman Ukeles, MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition: “CARE,” written in Philadelphia, October 1969, four typewritten pages, each 8 ½ x 11 in.

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