by Colleen Foran
When the editorial staff of SEQUITUR agreed on the theme “UnNatural” for this issue over five months ago, we considered it a thought experiment. It was an exciting and productive thought experiment, certainly, but nonetheless abstract. But the first half of 2020 has been a cultural turning point, alongside devastating health, political, and economic challenges. As a global society, we have been forced to rapidly reevaluate our relationship to technology, to ecology, and certainly to each other. What felt natural, suddenly, no longer does. The previously unnatural is now our everyday. Almost every facet of how we relate and interact with the fundamental aspects of our world has been called into question. Indeed, how we relate and interact with one another has been upended, perhaps permanently.
And yet—the need for connection remains. When it could no longer be physical, interaction moved online or to conversations held six feet apart. Art has played a pivotal role in sparking new connections, offering points of reflection or refraction as we attempt to understand this moment in history. The creation of art, and our conversations around art past and present, will be vital as we shape new visions of the future.
The prefix “un” suggests a rigid demarcation between nature and technology, between nature and humans, between what is considered correct and incorrect behavior. The term “unnatural” is a severance between yourself and others. But, as the authors and artists of “UnNatural” reveal, these dividing lines are far more malleable and permeable than we commonly admit. Art gives us a focal point to evaluate the faulty lines we draw between ourselves and the world around us, particularly in moments of crisis and disruption.
This issue’s wide-ranging feature essays reflect the stimulating ways in which art and architecture have challenged the seeming dichotomy of the unnatural in human creative production. Each offering poses questions that blur this divisive line in ways that feel vital at this juncture, during which our preconceived notions of how things “should” be are called into question. In a discursive and personal mediation, Kristina Bivona disquiets the notion of who feels at ease within the latent power dynamics of art spaces as she moves through an installation by multidisciplinary American artist Malcolm Peacock that holds space within an academic art institution. Joonsoo (Jason) Park situates American installation artist Alan Sonfist’s controversial land-art work Time Landscape in its historical and urban context as sculpture. He tracks what was deemed acceptable maintenance for the piece over time to show that sculptural maintenance is not a neutral concept or a neutral act. Kate Hublou explores the materiality of naturalness in the design work of nineteenth-century British designer Thomas Jeckyll and his use of wrought over cast iron, as inspired by Ruskinian thought at a moment of ecological upheaval. Kristina Centore examines conflicting representations of the Aswan Dam by Egyptian modernists, as well as the propagandistic way that art can been used to naturalize technology’s reshaping of our environmental and human landscape. Finally, Francesca Soriano contends that alchemy is not necessarily the unnatural process of combining discordant objects. In the work of María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Soriano finds a potent visualization of the space of the Black Atlantic, its disparate parts, and the healing whole it forges.
In his research spotlight, Manuel van der Veen discusses augmented reality (AR), its connection to the much older artistic technique of trompe l’œil, and the way in which AR replicates this deception of the eye. Through his research, van der Veen underscores how contemporary artistic and industrial usages of AR offer a false promise of a new natural while, in fact, offering only a new overlay of the unnatural.
In her visual essay, Elizabeth Rankin uses the medium of painting to present and re-present the images that defined a famous Australian murder case. By exploiting notions of the uncanny and the abject, Rankin makes plain our societal acceptance of mass-media depictions of violence done to female bodies as normal and natural.
Two exhibition reviews examine recent reconsiderations of several outsized personas’ art-historical legacies. J. Cabelle Ahn revisits a show of Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s infamous fanciful drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum where she considers which aspects of Lequeu are emphasized by the exhibition: His innovative integration of the bodily into architectural plans, or his “unnatural” interests as a man and an architect. Shannon Bewley and Chahrazad Zahi discuss an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, of self-portraits by Lucian Freud that span his career. For the reviewers, the curator’s sharply delineated approach reveals some of the artist’s most productive preoccupations rather than simply focusing on his celebrity.
Danielle Ezor reviews a recent publication by art historian Anne LaFont on the ways in which depictions of Black bodies in eighteenth-century European art have shaped Western notions of race. In so doing, Ezor offers a call-to-arms for more scholarship which critically engages with art and art history’s role in both the construction of race and in perpetuating racism.
During social distancing, I have found surprising humor and grace in the Instagram challenge of recreating famous artworks with household items. This, alongside many similar trends, has been a reminder that art is not rarefied or frivolous (or, at least, it does not have to be). Art remains at the center of our consciousness, even in periods of duress. It is something that we share globally, and that can now be shared with an increasingly wide audience through technologies that allow for communication despite distance. Art is what we turn to for both comfort and discomfort, the thing that we look toward to feel better and bonded with others, as well as to ask the tough questions: What will our world look like when this is over? Right now, the myriad ways that at-home artists have used toilet paper in their recreations remind us that, even without physical spaces, the unifying connections made through art continue.
This creativity, discussion, and enthusiasm surrounding art over the past few months shows that it not only continues, but thrives in quarantine. But art rarely exists in isolation. Art posits a viewer, it invites discourse and engagement. Ultimately, art creates connections between people. We hope this issue of SEQUITUR will serve as a connection point for you.