“After the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, this is the age of Rare Earth” – or so Boris Ondreička and Nadim Samman, who jointly curated the stylish group exhibition titled Rare Earth at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) in Vienna, would have us believe.
The modish appeal of the Anthropocene – which is being mooted as the dawn of a new geological epoch as we speak – lies behind this and other such inflated claims in the press release and promotional materials. Unlike the Anthropocene, a term that emphasizes the impact of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystem, “the age of Rare Earth” draws attention to the material substrate that has enabled the technological leaps of the past decades as opposed to centuries (in the case of the Anthropocene).
The so-called “rare earth” elements of the periodic table have numerous industrial, medical, ecological and technological applications, ranging from cathode ray tubes in TV and LED screens to wind turbines, hybrid car components, sunglass lenses, lasers and X-rays. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we come into contact with them every time we reach for our mobile phones, laptops, tablets and other high-tech consumer goods associated with digital culture and the Internet.
What’s in a name?
“Rare earth” may be something of a misnomer, since the 17 elements commonly designated by that name are not especially scarce (cerium, for instance, ranks 25th among the earth’s most plentiful elements), but it works beautifully as an exhibition title. As the curators explain in a video interview, it emphasizes the rarity or fragility of our planet, bringing to the fore ecological issues that underpin the show. The word “rare” has the meaning of not completely cooked, somewhere between the dual poles of structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s seminal 1964 study The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of Mythologiques, in which these categories respectively embody nature and culture.
The titular words carry all sorts of new age and mystical connotations, which the curators fully assume, even flaunt with talk of “spiritual shibboleth” and “occult scenography”. The esoteric dimension is emphasized with David Rudnick and Raf Rennie’s somewhat abstruse graphics, which draw on the heraldic ensigns of exhibiting artist Erick Beltrán. The specially designed, barely legible font vaguely evokes Hebrew characters and conjures cabbalistic lore. Etched out in white against a black backdrop, these give the show a strong visual identity.
Prominently displayed on the threshold of the second of four gallery spaces, Suzanne Treister’s black-and-white wall drawing Rare Earth (2014) maps out all 17 rare earth elements of the periodic table – complete with their symbol and atomic number – as well as their discoverers, sundry applications, occurrences. The series of concentric rings that make up the mandala-shaped cosmological diagram culminate with the words “RARE EARTH” written out in flame-like Gothic capitals nested inside the smallest circle. New age symbolism is also present in the shape of a small Maitreya solar cross – an intricate, ornate object ordinarily used in Buddhist blessing rituals – in Iain Ball’s Neodymium (Energy Pangea) (2011).
Rare Earth Elements
In their selection of seventeen international artists – one for each of the rare earth elements in the periodic table – the curators themselves appear to have been guided by numerological considerations. Thankfully, the show’s ruling conceit did not extend to assigning each artist a particular element. Whereas some artists chose to literally work with one or several of the elements, others addressed the overarching theme obliquely or not at all. Of the seventeen artworks on view, ten were specially commissioned for the show and the remaining ones chosen on the basis of their affinity with the subject – presumably. The rationale for including Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue, for instance, presented on its own in the final gallery space as a culminating point to the Rare Earth show, was not entirely clear. The vertigo-inducing history of the universe’s creation in 13 minutes, told through a succession of vignettes projected on a computer desktop, won the artist the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Despite the video’s encyclopedic thrust, the connection with the show’s theme is tenuous at best.
Some rare earth elements, such as neodymium or europium, crop up in more than one exhibited work. Ball’s terrarium for a bearded dragon is lit up by a neodymium reptile lamp; a neodymium amplifier features in Marguerite Humeau’s spectacular sound installation Réquiem for Harley Warren (“Screams from Hell”) (2015); the element is listed among the rare earth minerals and precious metals (tantalum, gold) extracted from used hard drives in Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s b/NdAlTaAu (2015). Named after the continent, europium lives up to the name of a “rare earth” element, being among the least abundant elements in the universe. Neatly rolled up and arranged into a pyramidal pile, Ai Weiwei’s white beach towels in Rare Towels (2015) have the show’s title embroidered on them with a glow-in-the-dark europium thread. Europium, terbium and cerium combine in the liquid crystal displays of LCD touch screens at the heart of the Otolith Group’s psychedelic 2011 Anathema video.
Rather than a rare earth element per se, Swiss artist Julian Charrière’s The Third Element (2015) uses a lithium solution to produce misty colour gradations, ranging from sea green to acidic yellow, on the slanted rectangular window panes in the first gallery room. Barely visible at night, in artificial lighting, Charrière’s elusive colour projections are among the more understated works in a group show that does not shy away from loud visual and aural effects. The use of lithium – whose atomic number gives the work its title – as a colouring substance relates to Weiwei’s own interest in the fluorescent properties of europium which makes colours glow at nighttime.
Between Geology and Geopolitics
With more than 30 percent of the world’s rare earth deposits, China supplies much of the raw material and controls virtually 90 percent of the global rare earth market. This explains the prominence given to Chinese artists and cultural references in the show. Aside from the ubiquitous Ai Weiwei, whose Rare Towels draw attention to China’s predominant role in the rare earth production, Rare Earth includes two of Guan Xiao’s tubular metallic sculptures from 2012, whose shape evokes the titular “core samples” extracted from the earth and used to measure its age. Made from pigmented polyurethane, Olivier Laric’s striated Janus-faced bust of Sun Tzu (544-496 BC), the author of The Art of War treatise, likewise evokes geological strata.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is another key supplier of rare earth materials for multinational companies such as Apple. It offers a counterpoint to China’s successful strategy designed to move it up the supply chain instead of continuing to export less profitable raw rare earth materials. Voyant (2015), the Congolese artist Katambayi Mukendi’s contribution to the show, is a giant robot-shaped sculpture made of cardboard, recycled materials and electrical components, rather than any rare earth materials as such. Cohen and Van Balen’s metallic ore lump painstakingly extracted from discarded hard drives – the type of work that tends to be outsourced to workers in African conflict zones – is part of the artistic duo’s ongoing research project on coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both these works address the geopolitical and economic implications of rare earth extraction in a globalised world.
Cohen and Van Balen’s installation exemplifies a process of material transformation whereby rare earth magnets regain their original mineral guise once extracted from hard drives. Something akin to this is at work in Katie Paterson’s seemingly futile attempt to melt down a Campo del Cielo meteorite bought from a dealer in Arizona only to recast it into a new version of itself in Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky (2012) – with the attendant project of sending it back into space in an unmanned rocket. What exactly has been gained in the process? The work beautifully illustrates Antoine Lavoisier’s famous dictum: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”
Given its stated subject, it is hardly surprising that the show is firmly anchored in the mineral (as opposed to vegetable and animal) kingdom. For her elegant sculptural installation Luminous Lining (2015), Ursula Mayer avails herself of found materials – from glass rods to discarded electronic components – to create a stone garden of sorts. Ball’s sculptural installation in the form of a terrarium combines driftwood, plants and artificial light to create a habitat fit for a live bearded dragon. Inanimate and animate matter merge in Roger Hiorn’s hybrid living sculpture Untitled (2012), part man part machine, in which a naked man whose pose evokes that of Rodin’s Thinker is seated atop a nimbus military helicopter engine, lit up at one end to produce a flame.
In choosing Rare Earth as the focus for their group show at TBA21 curators Boris Ondreička and Nadim Samman mine a rich thematic vein. The seventeen works on view by well-known and emerging artists alike come at the notion of “rare earth” from different angles, reflecting their interests, yet without adhering to it slavishly. The proposed parcours from room to room highlights the connections that the works have to one another in what is, all in all, a coherent and timely show, one that speaks to our ecologically-minded and digitally-savvy cultural moment.
The show is on view until May 31.