Modern Societies I
January 15, 2021
Texas State Galleries (Jan. 19–April 11, 2021)
Single-channel video installation
Modern Societies I is the first installment in a trilogy of time based works revolving around commoditized ‘postnatural’ materials —flour, gelatin, and graphite— that explore the relationship between the domestication of nature and artistic production.
Exploring what photography historian George Baker has referred to as “photography’s expanded field,” Modern Societies I operates in the liminal format of a moving still image—a play on the genre of still life or nature morte. The video work marks a departure from a technique that Esther Choi began exploring nearly fifteen years ago, wherein the artist photographed “post-natural materials” using medium and large format cameras, and then pieced the photographs together by digitally weaving them to create a pictorial surface of continuous landscapes.
Choi’s conceptual and technical considerations for this new project are informed by her interest in bodegón, a kind of 17th-century Spanish genre painting, wherein everyday objects, often pantry items, were combined in dramatically lit tableaus with elements of nature, such as flowers or fruit, uncooked vegetables, and dead animals. The first in a trilogy, the work features sculptural materials derived from enriched wheat (bleached wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, enzymes, folic acid), water and salt, performing symbolically as the earliest materials used for modeling as well as the elements constitutive of the contemporary staff of life. Arranged in forms that elicit multiple associations to the geological, animal and the botanical, the sculptures operate in a state of representational ambiguity, offering up a commentary on the synthetic and ontologically entangled conditions of nature and culture today. Their performance in the time-based work, set to an audio composition by Allyson Baker, is an allegory of a moment: produced during the pandemic, the piece incorporates sculpture and photography as methods of description intended to mirror the indeterminacy of a contemporary state of being, between entropy, ruin, fecundity and new life.