Jed Dunkerley's Drawings of the Machines of Life
Jed Dunkerley is a local artist who first caught my attention a year ago with a show he had at Vermillion. The series of small watercolors was organized around the future of geoengineering, the human management of the environment—clouds, forests, volcanoes, and the wind. And what was so pleasing about the series was it had no irony or shine, but instead pictured these fantastically large, earth-moving, cloud-shaping projects (Mid-Altitude Rain Grid, Nebraska State Public Utilities) with the plainness of an amateur, a hobbyist (a lawyer or an accountant who likes to draw in his/her spare time). This plainness was by no means innocent, but Dunkerley's method for draining the science fiction from his science fictions: An offshore wind rig ended up being nothing more than an offshore wind rig, and tower cranes constructing a forest for the Canadian Ministry became exactly that. Dunkerley made the fantastic more fantastic by making it ordinary and even flat.
Dunkerley's watercolors also dissolved the nature/human binary and replaced it with a new mixture that did not separate human activity from other processes in nature. In these drawings, we saw that human intervention and manipulation was not artificial but natural, inside and not outside the ecology. Just as changes in the sun cause changes in the earth's atmosphere, so changes in human habits cause changes in the pattern and flow of an ancient river. Human-generated wind is the same kind of wind as that which results from oceanic events. Therefore, the watercolors did not so much humanize nature as naturalize humans. What is evolution about other than the development of biological solutions through real space and lots of time? Darwinian evolution is, then, continuous with cultural evolution. Only distance and degrees of intensity, and not ontological difference, separate cloud engineers from solar flares.
Dunkerley's new exhibit at Street Bean Espresso, Beautiful Forms of Utility & Extinction, is not futuristic but is about the big machines and technologies that make the current civilization possible and livable. The gouache and pencil drawings are of power lines, electric towers, microwave dishes, harbor cranes, and broadcasting dishes. These massive machines are behind the simple pleasures of life—a hot shower, the white meat of a banana, the fresh smell of toothpaste, the message left by your lover, the light in a window. The many objects of infrastructure are caught in the fading light of dusk or dawn, and we can't tell if it's the start of the end or the beginning of something big.
On the north wall of the cafe, however, one picture stands out in the series of cranes, excavators, and front-end loaders: the skeleton of a dinosaur. The drawing is called Extinction. But its purpose is not to communicate a sense of doom, to show us humans that all of our doings are empty and vain. No, the dead dinosaur is not doing that. Look closely at it and then look at the electric towers at the other end of the wall. What is seen is not a great difference, or disruption, or break, but instead a similarity, a resemblance, a unity. The dinosaur's bones are as much a form of big technology as the electric towers and harbor cranes fashioned by humans.
All of this (the continuum from the skeleton to the structure of power towers) brings to mind that wonderful section in the book A Thousand Plateaus that concerns the bowerbird. Basically it goes like this: Some male bowerbirds have bright blue features to attract the attention of female bowerbirds. Because they have this biological advantage, their nests tend to be simple and plain. However, the male bowerbirds that do not have bright blue features make up for the lack by building fancy nests and decorating them with colored objects—plants, buttons, string. What the authors saw in all of this was the movement from the natural to the cultural, from the body to the world, from the organic to the inorganic. This movement (or continuum), I think, can also be seen in Dunkerley's new and old work.
"As a kid, I had it for trucks and construction equipment, then warplanes... Beautiful, designed objects," says Dunkerley in his artist statement. "Questionably useful things... furiously loud... exceedingly chromatic smog sunset, how we can appreciate something appalling and dystopic as long as it looks good." The source of these enigmatic feelings is the new status of the sublime. In the past, the sublime was completely located in the domain of nature, and beauty in the domain of the human. This Kantian formulation is obsolete because, as the photographers of the Becher School made so clear, human and nonhuman domains participate in sublimeness. Both have terrifying aspects; both are now one and the same thing.