Plastic Reef

januari 28th, 2010

From the 27th of January until the 12th of February 2010 I will be crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the Sea Dragon to look for plastic debris to feed the growing plastic reef below. Starting in Bermuda I will look for remnants of a society that still needs to disappear. You can follow the adventure on

plastic reef

Earth Without People

december 1st, 2009

Alan Weisman
Earth Without People, 2005

Given the mounting toll of fouled oceans, overheated air, missing topsoil, and mass extinctions, we might sometimes wonder what our planet would be like if humans suddenly disappeared. Would Superfund sites revert to Gardens of Eden? Would the seas again fill with fish? Would our concrete cities crumble to dust from the force of tree roots, water, and weeds? How long would it take for our traces to vanish? And if we could answer such questions, would we be more in awe of the changes we have wrought, or of nature’s resilience?A good place to start searching for answers is in Korea, in the 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide mountainous Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, set up by the armistice ending the Korean War. Aside from rare military patrols or desperate souls fleeing North Korea, humans have barely set foot in the strip since 1953. Before that, for 5,000 years, the area was populated by rice farmers who carved the land into paddies. Today those paddies have become barely discernible, transformed into pockets of marsh, and the new occupants of these lands arrive as dazzling white squadrons of red-crowned cranes that glide over the bulrushes in perfect formation, touching down so lightly that they detonate no land mines. Next to whooping cranes, they are the rarest such birds on Earth. They winter in the DMZ alongside the endangered white-naped cranes, revered in Asia as sacred portents of peace.

If peace is ever declared, suburban Seoul, which has rolled ever northward in recent decades, is poised to invade such tantalizing real estate. On the other side, the North Koreans are building an industrial megapark. This has spurred an international coalition of scientists called the DMZ Forum to try to consecrate the area for a peace park and nature preserve. Imagine it as “a Korean Gettysburg and Yosemite rolled together,” says Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson, who believes that tourism revenues could trump those from agriculture or development.

As serenely natural as the DMZ now is, it would be far different if people throughout Korea suddenly disappeared. The habitat would not revert to a truly natural state until the dams that now divert rivers to slake the needs of Seoul’s more than 20 million inhabitants failed—a century or two after the humans had gone. But in the meantime, says Wilson, many creatures would flourish. Otters, Asiatic black bears, musk deer, and the nearly vanquished Amur leopard would spread into slopes reforested with young daimyo oak and bird cherry. The few Siberian tigers that still prowl the North Korean–Chinese borderlands would multiply and fan across Asia’s temperate zones. “The wild carnivores would make short work of livestock,” he says. “Few domestic animals would remain after a couple of hundred years. Dogs would go feral, but they wouldn’t last long: They’d never be able to compete.”

If people were no longer present anywhere on Earth, a worldwide shakeout would follow. From zebra mussels to fire ants to crops to kudzu, exotics would battle with natives. In time, says Wilson, all human attempts to improve on nature, such as our painstakingly bred horses, would revert to their origins. If horses survived at all, they would devolve back to Przewalski’s horse, the only true wild horse, still found in the Mongolian steppes. “The plants, crops, and animal species man has wrought by his own hand would be wiped out in a century or two,” Wilson says. In a few thousand years, “the world would mostly look as it did before humanity came along—like a wilderness.”

The new wilderness would consume cities, much as the jungle of northern Guatemala consumed the Mayan pyramids and megalopolises of overlapping city-states. From A.D. 800 to 900, a combination of drought and internecine warfare over dwindling farmland brought 2,000 years of civilization crashing down. Within 10 centuries, the jungle swallowed all.

Mayan communities alternated urban living with fields sheltered by forests, in contrast with today’s paved cities, which are more like man-made deserts. However, it wouldn’t take long for nature to undo even the likes of a New York City. Jameel Ahmad, civil engineering department chair at Cooper Union College in New York City, says repeated freezing and thawing common in months like March and November would split cement within a decade, allowing water to seep in. As it, too, froze and expanded, cracks would widen. Soon, weeds such as mustard and goosegrass would invade. With nobody to trample seedlings, New York’s prolific exotic, the Chinese ailanthus tree, would take over. Within five years, says Dennis Stevenson, senior curator at the New York Botanical Garden, ailanthus roots would heave up sidewalks and split sewers.

That would exacerbate a problem that already plagues New York—rising groundwater. There’s little soil to absorb it or vegetation to transpire it, and buildings block the sunlight that could evaporate it. With the power off, pumps that keep subways from flooding would be stilled. As water sluiced away soil beneath pavement, streets would crater.

Eric Sanderson of the Bronx Zoo Wildlife Conservation Society heads the Mannahatta Project, a virtual re-creation of pre-1609 Manhattan. He says there were 30 to 40 streams in Manhattan when the Dutch first arrived. If New Yorkers disappeared, sewers would clog, some natural watercourses would reappear, and others would form.Within 20 years, the water-soaked steel columns that support the street above the East Side’s subway tunnels would corrode and buckle, turning Lexington Avenue into a river.

New York’s architecture isn’t as flammable as San Francisco’s clapboard Victorians, but within 200 years, says Steven Clemants, vice president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, tons of leaf litter would overflow gutters as pioneer weeds gave way to colonizing native oaks and maples in city parks. A dry lightning strike, igniting decades of uncut, knee-high Central Park grass, would spread flames through town.

As lightning rods rusted away, roof fires would leap among buildings into paneled offices filled with paper. Meanwhile, native Virginia creeper and poison ivy would claw at walls covered with lichens, which thrive in the absence of air pollution. Wherever foundations failed and buildings tumbled, lime from crushed concrete would raise soil pH, inviting buckthorn and birch. Black locust and autumn olive trees would fix nitrogen, allowing more goldenrods, sunflowers, and white snakeroot to move in along with apple trees, their seeds expelled by proliferating birds. Sweet carrots would quickly devolve to their wild form, unpalatable Queen Anne’s lace, while broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower would regress to the same unrecognizable broccoli ancestor.

Unless an earthquake strikes New York first, bridges spared yearly applications of road salt would last a few hundred years before their stays and bolts gave way (last to fall would be Hell Gate Arch, built for railroads and easily good for another thousand years). Coyotes would invade Central Park, and deer, bears, and finally wolves would follow. Ruins would echo the love song of frogs breeding in streams stocked with alewives, herring, and mussels dropped by seagulls. Missing, however, would be all fauna that have adapted to humans. The invincible cockroach, an insect that originated in the hot climes of Africa, would succumb in unheated buildings. Without garbage, rats would starve or serve as lunch for peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks. Pigeons would genetically revert back to the rock doves from which they sprang.

It’s unclear how long animals would suffer from the urban legacy of concentrated heavy metals. Over many centuries, plants would take these up, recycle, redeposit, and gradually dilute them. The time bombs left in petroleum tanks, chemical plants, power plants, and dry-cleaning plants might poison the earth beneath them for eons. One intriguing example is the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal next to Denver International Airport. There a chemical weapons plant produced mustard and nerve gas, incendiary bombs, napalm, and after World War II, pesticides. In 1984 it was considered by the arsenal commander to be the most contaminated spot in the United States. Today it is a national wildlife refuge, home to bald eagles that feast on its prodigious prairie dog population.

However, it took more than $130 million and a lot of man-hours to drain and seal the arsenal’s lake, in which ducks once died minutes after landing and the aluminum bottoms of boats sent to fetch their carcasses rotted within a month. In a world with no one left to bury the bad stuff, decaying chemical containers would slowly expose their lethal contents. Places like the Indian Point nuclear power plant, 35 miles north of Times Square, would dump radioactivity into the Hudson long after the lights went out.

Old stone buildings in Manhattan, such as Grand Central Station or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would outlast every modern glass box, especially with no more acid rain to pock their marble. Still, at some point thousands of years hence, the last stone walls—perhaps chunks of St. Paul’s Chapel on Wall Street, built in 1766 from Manhattan’s own hard schist—would fall. Three times in the past 100,000 years, glaciers have scraped New York clean, and they’ll do so again. The mature hardwood forest would be mowed down. On Staten Island, Fresh Kills’s four giant mounds of trash would be flattened, their vast accumulation of stubborn PVC plastic and glass ground to powder. After the ice receded, an unnatural concentration of reddish metal—remnants of wiring and plumbing—would remain buried in layers. The next toolmaker to arrive or evolve might discover it and use it, but there would be nothing to indicate who had put it there.

Before humans appeared, an oriole could fly from the Mississippi to the Atlantic and never alight on anything other than a treetop. Unbroken forest blanketed Europe from the Urals to the English Channel. The last remaining fragment of that primeval European wilderness—half a million acres of woods straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, called the Bialowieza Forest—provides another glimpse of how the world would look if we were gone. There, relic groves of huge ash and linden trees rise 138 feet above an understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders, massive birches, and crockery-size fungi. Norway spruces, shaggy as Methuselah, stand even taller. Five-century-old oaks grow so immense that great spotted woodpeckers stuff whole spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows. The woods carry pygmy owl whistles, nutcracker croaks, and wolf howls. Fragrance wafts from eons of mulch.

High privilege accounts for such unbroken antiquity. During the 14th century, a Lithuanian duke declared it a royal hunting preserve. For centuries it stayed that way. Eventually, the forest was subsumed by Russia and in 1888 became the private domain of the czars. Occupying Germans took lumber and slaughtered game during World War I, but a pristine core was left intact, which in 1921 became a Polish national park. Timber pillaging resumed briefly under the Soviets, but when the Nazis invaded, nature fanatic Hermann Göring decreed the entire preserve off limits. Then, following World War II, a reportedly drunken Josef Stalin agreed one evening in Warsaw to let Poland retain two-fifths of the forest.

To realize that all of Europe once looked like this is startling. Most unexpected of all is the sight of native bison. Just 600 remain in the wild, on both sides of an impassable iron curtain erected by the Soviets in 1980 along the border to thwart escapees to Poland’s renegade Solidarity movement. Although wolves dig under it, and roe deer are believed to leap over it, the herd of the largest of Europe’s mammals remains divided, and thus its gene pool. Belarus, which has not removed its statues of Lenin, has no specific plans to dismantle the fence. Unless it does, the bison may suffer genetic degradation, leaving them vulnerable to a disease that would wipe them out.

If the bison herd withers, they would join all the other extinct megafauna that even our total disappearance could never bring back. In a glass case in his laboratory, paleoecologist Paul S. Martin at the University of Arizona keeps a lump of dried dung he found in a Grand Canyon cave, left by a sloth weighing 200 pounds. That would have made it the smallest of several North American ground sloth species present when humans first appeared on this continent. The largest was as big as an elephant and lumbered around by the thousands in the woodlands and deserts of today’s United States. What we call pristine today, Martin says, is a poor reflection of what would be here if Homo sapiens had never evolved.

“America would have three times as many species of animals over 1,000 pounds as Africa does today,” he says. An amazing megafaunal menagerie roamed the region: Giant armadillos resembling armor-plated autos; bears twice the size of grizzlies; the hoofed, herbivorous toxodon, big as a rhinoceros; and saber-toothed tigers. A dozen species of horses were here, as well as the camel-like litoptern, giant beavers, giant peccaries, woolly rhinos, mammoths, and mastodons. Climate change and imported disease may have killed them, but most paleontologists accept the theory Martin advocates: “When people got out of Africa and Asia and reached other parts of the world, all hell broke loose.” He is convinced that people were responsible for the mass extinctions because they commenced with human arrival everywhere: first, in Australia 60,000 years ago, then mainland America 13,000 years ago, followed by the Caribbean islands 6,000 years ago, and Madagascar 2,000 years ago.

Yet one place on Earth did manage to elude the intercontinental holocaust: the oceans. Dolphins and whales escaped for the simple reason that prehistoric people could not hunt enough giant marine mammals to have a major impact on the population. “At least a dozen species in the ocean Columbus sailed were bigger than his biggest ship,” says marine paleoecologist Jeremy Jackson of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “Not only mammals—the sea off Cuba was so thick with 1,000-pound green turtles that his boats practically ran aground on them.” This was a world where ships collided with schools of whales and where sharks were so abundant they would swim up rivers to prey on cattle. Reefs swarmed with 800-pound goliath grouper, not just today’s puny aquarium species. Cod could be fished from the sea in baskets. Oysters filtered all the water in Chesapeake Bay every five days. The planet’s shores teemed with millions of manatees, seals, and walrus.

Within the past century, however, humans have flattened the coral reefs on the continental shelves and scraped the sea grass beds bare; a dead zone bigger than New Jersey grows at the mouth of the Mississippi; all the world’s cod fisheries have collapsed. What Pleistocene humans did in 1,500 years to terrestrial life, modern man has done in mere decades to the oceans—“almost,” Jackson says. Despite mechanized overharvesting, satellite fish tracking, and prolonged butchery of sea mammals, the ocean is still bigger than we are. “It’s not like the land,” he says. “The great majority of sea species are badly depleted, but they still exist. If people actually went away, most could recover.”

Even if global warming or ultraviolet radiation bleaches the Great Barrier Reef to death, Jackson says, “it’s only 7,000 years old. New reefs have had to form before. It’s not like the world is a constant place.” Without people, most excess industrial carbon dioxide would dissipate within 200 years, cooling the atmosphere. With no further chlorine and bromine leaking skyward, within decades the ozone layer would replenish, and ultraviolet damage would subside. Eventually, heavy metals and toxins would flush through the system; a few intractable PCBs might take a millennium.

During that same span, every dam on Earth would silt up and spill over. Rivers would again carry nutrients seaward, where most life would be, as it was long before vertebrates crawled onto the shore. Eventually, that would happen again. The world would start over.

Originally appeared in Discover Magazine, February, 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Alan Weisman.


november 25th, 2009

\ Zoology of Genetology \ ZG \ 1
Third quire of Genetology, November 2009

Zoology of Genetology

Zoology of Genetology

Size: 100 x 70 cm (poster) 50 x 70 cm (folded)
Published by Galerie Kunst-Zicht (UGent)
Text: Alan Weisman
Design: Raf Vancampenhoudt
Editor: Willem Vanden Eynde


november 7th, 2009

Martin Walde
AHIS, 2009

Martin Walde Hallucigenia

Thin walled glas bodies, filled with several different gases, are made to shine through high frequency technology. They are made to look like ancient small animals millions of years old which have been found in Kanada in 1977. S.C. Morris discovered these animals and called them “Hallucigenia”.

Black Cat / White Cat

november 7th, 2009

Red cat

South Korean scientists have cloned cats that look reddish under ultraviolet light by modifying a protein gene to change their skin color.

The team at Gyeongsang National University produced three Turkish Angora cats possessing altered fluorescence protein (RFP) genes.

The Ministry of Science and Technology said, “It marked the first time in the world that cats with RFP genes have been cloned. The ability to produce cloned cats with the manipulated genes is significant as it could be used for developing treatments for genetic diseases and for reproducing model (cloned) animals suffering from the same diseases as humans.”

Chaotic Warfare

november 4th, 2009

Pascal Bernier
Hunting Accident – Deer, 1996

Pascal bernier

Hunting Accident – Tiger, 2000

Pascal bernier

Pascal Bernier
Butterfly, 1996-1998

‘According to theories on chaotic systems, the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing can eventually produce a hurricane.  Waging war against butterflies could perhaps become the ultimate weapon in the chaos strategy’.

Pascal bernier

Pascal bernier

Animal Anomalies

november 4th, 2009

Thomas Grünfeld
Misfit (Pig/Bird), 2001

Thomas Grunfeld

Misfit (St.Bernard/Sheep), 1994

Thomas Grunfeld

Thomas Grünfeld’s anomalous creations are some of the strangest and most surreal of contemporary taxidermy. The creatures from his appropriately titled Misfit series are composed of bits and pieces of animals, all flawlessly sewn together to create entirely new species. The Misfits are reminiscent of early natural histories in which strange and unfamiliar animals were described according to the bits and pieces of well known creatures. For example, the camelopard, now known as the giraffe, was described having the height and neck of a camel, the head of a stag although somewhat smaller, the teeth and feet of an ox, and a leopard’s spots. The armadillo was a pig with a turtle’s shell, and the sloth, part bear, part ape. The platypus displayed complete anatomical confusion, seeming to “possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird, and a quadraped” as Thomas Bewick wrote in 1824. On inspecting the skin of a platypus for the first time in 1802, George Shaw, director of the British Museum, observed that it appeared to have “the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.” Such a hybrid animal seemed too strange to be true, and Shaw claimed that “it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been some arts of deception in its structure.” In fact the specimen Shaw examined still bears the marks from his efforts to prise the beak off. As Shaw highlights, it is only a small step from describing animals as if they were composite to actually making a new species.

Thomas Grunfeld misfits Thomas Grunfeld misfits

The River Is Always Greener On The Other Side

augustus 29th, 2009

Olafur Eliasson
Green River, Stockholm, Sweden, 2000

Olafur Eliasson

Green River, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson

‘One Friday at half past one there I was on the bridge with Emile and a bag full of red powder and people starting to stare at us. I hesitated for a moment then emptied the bag out over the parapet and the wind whipped up this enormous red cloud. I could literally feel people in cars slowing down, the cars went all quiet. And there was this cloud, floating over the river like a layer of gas. When it came in contact with the water, all of a sudden the river turned green, it was like a shock wave. There was a crowded bus ten metres a way and everybody was staring at the water. I told Emile we should maybe move on, as if everything was perfectly normal, then I carefully put the bag in a trashcan, as if colouring the centre of Stockholm was the kind of thing I did every day. I went down to IASPIS and when I came out again my heart started jumping up and down like mad: the whole length of the river was completely green and all these people had stopped to look at it. Next day it was all over the front page of the papers: “The river turned green”. The colorant was absolutely harmless and there was no pollution whatsoever’.

Abstract of a conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Olafur Eliasson, 2002

Industrial Gardening

augustus 28th, 2009

Hofkes, 1967

Panamarenko Hofkens

Three thick sheets of cardboard of about 1m2 are filled with a variety of inorganic trash and debris. From a prophetic kind of future vision Panamarenko nostalgically tries to restore and reconstruct the long lost city-gardens. These city-gardens functioned as urban alternative for life on the countryside and provided additional food for the unfortunate. By the steady increase of city residents (in 2008 a remarkable event took place: the majority of the world population lives now in a city) the necessity to have physical contact with the earth and live from the land is gone. People are used to this new, self-created landscape and recognize the urban environment as their natural habitat.

Ocean Earth

augustus 22nd, 2009

Peter Fend
Ocean Earth Construction and Development Corporation, 1980

peter fend

The aim of the Ocean Earth Construction and Development Corporation is research on alternative energy sources. They use satellite imaging to monitor and analyze global ecological and geopolitical hot-spots, largely for media clients. Considering the world a living earthwork, ecological aspects are linked to and interconnected with artistic aspects. Ocean Earth was conceived as an instrument for implementing the goals of the environmental art movement, directly building upon the ideas of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark. Through inter-disciplinary collaborations and by connecting ecological imperatives with experimental new technologies, Fend asks ‘How far can art go?’, in drawing attention to a belief that artistic research can generate productive dialogue about global ecological problems and that it can be used to develop effective solutions.

Local Fuel Production – Afganistan Iran Holland, 2009

peter fend

Maquette of Afganistan basin as skatepark

peter fend Local Fuel production - Afganistan Iran Holland

peter fend

Modern Fossils

juli 31st, 2009

Christopher Locke
Modern Fossil –
Asportatio Acroamatis, 2009
(commonly referred to as the Cassette Tape)


‘These Modern Fossils are made from actual archaic technology that was once cutting-edge. Most of these examples were discovered in the United States, although the various species are represented all over the world. It is sad, but most of these units lived very short lives. Most people attribute the shortened lifespan to aggressive predators or accelerated evolution, but this is not necessarily true. It has been shown recently that the true demise of most of these specimens came from runaway consumerism and wastefulness at the high end of the food chain.

This species was first seen in the mid 1960s, but is not widespread until the 1970s. Similar to Repondecium antiquipotacium, it is thought that the compact disc lead to the decline in the Asportatio acroamatis population in the late 1990s. Asportatio has often been found in close proximity to Ambulephebus sonysymphonia, suggesting a close relationship between the two species’.

Christopher Locke

Dominaludus Sexagentaquad, 2009
(commonly referred to as the Nintendo 64 Controller or “N64”)


Deferovoculae Cellarius
(commonly referred to as “Cellular Phone” or “Cellphone”. This particular example is a “Motorola Meteor”)


Homo Stupidus Stupidus; The Missing Meme

mei 27th, 2009

missing link

Ida – Researchers from the University of Oslo have suggested the specimen, which was found 95 per cent complete, may be the root of anthropoid evolution, when primates were first developing the features that would evolve into our own.

Discovered in Germany, Ida is so well preserved that even the outline of its fur can be seen. An incredible 95 percent complete fossil of a 47-million-year-old human ancestor has been discovered and, after two years of secret study, an international team of scientists has revealed it to the world. The fossil’s remarkable state of preservation allows an unprecedented glimpse into early human evolution. Discovered in Messel Pit, Germany, it represents the moment before anthropoid primates–the group that would later evolve into humans, apes and monkeys–began to split from lemurs and other prosimian primates. This groundbreaking discovery fills in a critical gap in human and primate evolution.

Maarten Vanden Eynde
Homo Stupidus Stupidus, 2009 A.D.

homo stupidus stupidus

homo stupidus stupidus

Richard Dawkins
The Ancestor’s Tale: A pergrimage to the dawn of Life
, 2005

Just as we trace our personal family trees from parents to grandparents and so on back in time, so in The Ancestor’s Tale Richard Dawkins traces the ancestry of life. As he is at pains to point out, this is very much our human tale, our ancestry. The Ancestor’s Tale takes us from our immediate human ancestors back through what he calls ‘concestors,’ those shared with the apes, monkeys and other mammals and other vertebrates and beyond to the dim and distant microbial beginnings of life some 4 billion years ago. It is a remarkable story which is still very much in the process of being uncovered. And, of course from a scientist of Dawkins stature and reputation we get an insider’s knowledge of the most up-to-date science and many of those involved in the research. And, as we have come to expect of Dawkins, it is told with a passionate commitment to scientific veracity and a nose for a good story. Dawkins’s knowledge of the vast and wonderful sweep of life’s diversity is admirable. Not only does it encompass the most interesting living representatives of so many groups of organisms but also the important and informative fossil ones, many of which have only been found in recent years.

Dawkins sees his journey with its reverse chronology as ‘cast in the form of an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past [and] all roads lead to the origin of life.’ It is, to my mind, a sensible and perfectly acceptable approach although some might complain about going against the grain of evolution. The great benefit for the general reader is that it begins with the more familiar present and the animals nearest and dearest to us?our immediate human ancestors. And then it delves back into the more remote and less familiar past with its droves of lesser known and extinct fossil forms. The whole pilgrimage is divided into 40 tales, each based around a group of organisms and discusses their role in the overall story.

– Douglas Palmer –



Richard Dawkins first introduced the word in The Selfish Gene (1976) to discuss evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief), clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches.

Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

A field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model. Criticism from a variety of fronts has challenged the notion that scholarship can examine memes empirically. Some commentators question the idea that one can meaningfully categorize culture in terms of discrete units.


mei 12th, 2009

Hyungkoo Lee 
Lepus Animatus, 2005–2006
Resin, aluminum sticks, stainless steel wires, springs and oil paint
111 x 60 x 70 cm

Hyungkoo Lee

By Howard Rutkowski

The Punch Line

A black room frames the installation, which is dramatically spot-lit. A presentation of two skeletons, not unlike what one might see in a museum of natural history; a predator chasing its prey. Then the dawning – it’s Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner! Reduced to a science exhibit! Brilliant, clever and very, very funny.
Once the laughter subsides, something very interesting begins to emerge. The work is not merely clever or amusing in the way that Cattelan’s taxidermy animals are. There’s a whole new bit of forensic activity at work and the viewer is drawn into an exploration of the process behind this reductio ad absurdum. First of all, cartoon characters are not real; they are two-dimensional exaggerations of human behaviour. Yet, over time, they have entered the pantheon of global popular culture and are more recognisable than the real personalities that shape our world (Just consider the multi-national empire that is Disney). Our own predisposition to anthropomorphise furry (and feathered) creatures allows us to endow them with personalities that reflect our own and to place them in situations that mirror the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. So, if these cartoon figures can represent us in a simplified, yet extreme form, it follows that this form can be deconstructed and analysed.
Lee Hyungkoo’s approach eschews the pop psychological approach to deconstruction. What he is doing is actually physical deconstruction – more pop palaeontology – and it is detailed, thorough and completely worked through.

‘Familiar Tree’

This was Lee’s original idea for the title of the exhibition. As a play on ‘family tree,’ he was looking to describe the evolution of his creations and to evoke the empathy we all have with these animated characters. This new body of work began with Homo Animatus of 2002–2004. This was an homunculus – Latin for ‘little man’ – a cartoon exaggeration of human form (think of Elmer Fudd as a skeleton). The original homunculus was a creature with magic powers that medieval alchemists claimed to have created. Considering that Lee’s studio looks more like a laboratory than a typical artist’s atelier, the connection is even more easily drawn. Plus cartoon characters do possess incredible strength, resilience and resourcefulness: how many times has the Coyote fell off a cliff, only to rebound fully-intact in the next frame?
Homo Animatus was an extension of a series of earlier pieces where the artist physically sought to alter – to reduce to cartoon simplicity – his own anatomy. Using plastic forms, enlarging and reducing lenses, Lee created a variety of body costumes that altered both one’s appearance and one’s vision of the real world at the same time. Homo Animatus is, for Lee, the ‘Origin of the Species;’ in a peculiar and devolutionary way, of course, and in keeping with how animated creatures serve as stand-ins for their human counterparts. Canis Latrans Animatus (Wile E. Coyote) and Geococcyx Animatus (Roadrunner) followed and are now joined by Lepus Animatus (Bugs Bunny), Felis Catus Animatus (Tom), Mus Animatus (Jerry), Anas Animatus (Donald Duck) and his three nephews, Animatus H, D and L (Huey, Dewey and Louie).
‘Familiar Tree’ remains an appropriate description for this body of work. These are the ‘skeletons’ of characters/personalities that are as close to us and as instantly recognisable as our own inner frames.

Hyungkoo Lee

The Process

Stories of any kind usually require a build-up before offering the denouement. The joke involves a narrative before providing the punch line. Lee Hyungkoo works backwards. Merely seeing the work gives no clues to the complexity of its creation. Visually, the work can strike a chord and delight, amuse or bewilder, but examining its origins and development frames it properly.
Lee’s studio is a laboratory and could not be further removed from a scruffy artist’s garret. With a white-coated, masked team of technicians working in ‘clean rooms,’ the space is unlike any other. Bones of real animals sit on shelves alongside those of the works in progress. Clay constructions of skulls of imaginary characters provide a reference to those reconstructions of our fossilised ancestors. The walls are adorned with drawings of the anatomies of both real animals and their animated renditions. The tools and working methods are more akin to the procedures seen on the Nature Channel than the usual brush and paint-pot strewn environments one usually associates with the creation of contemporary works of art.
The adoption of Latin names to describe the individual creations underscores the faux-scientific approach, utilising the classifications associated with ‘kingdom, phylum, genus, species’ that categorise every living thing on the planet. Fans of the Roadrunner cartoons will recall that schoolboy Latin was often used to describe the characters, e.g. ‘Coyotus imbicilus.’

The Sources

The work itself, while sublime, delightful and amusing, requires an in-depth understanding of how all of this came to be in order to be fully appreciated. Observing the creation of this various works does provide the modus operandi behind Lee’s work, but where does the origin of the Origin of the Species lie?
Lee has cited Rodin and Giacometti as sculptural artists to whom he has responded within the development of his own work. Rodin was a breakthrough artist who sought to imbue the natural human form – warts and all – with a heroic sense of space, rejecting along the way the idealisation of the body that was previously the hallmark of Western sculpture. Rodin changed the way one could look at the human figure much in the same way that Lee’s optical helmets and body-distorting devices create alternative physical realities.
Giacometti’s own work passed through a number of critical stages – representational, cubist and surrealist – until he reached his apogee in Post-War Europe and sought to render the human form in all its existential angst. Giacometti found the inner reality of man.
Lee has spoken about the ability of these two artists to create a new sense of sculptural space. ‘Space’ is a concept that all artists working in three-dimensions must come to terms with. With this new body of work Lee has gone from the virtual space defined by his Objectuals series and has made the virtual a reality.

Anas Animatus L; Anas Animatus H, 2006
Resin, aluminum sticks, stainless steel wires, springs and oil paint
49.5 x 31 x 33 cm; 52 x 28 x 34.5 cm

Hyungkoo Lee

Animalis Universalis

mei 10th, 2009

Joan Fontcuberta & Pere Formiguera
Felix Penatus, 1987

Joan Fontcuberta

Joan Fontcuberta´s and Pere Formiguera´s work Fauna is the Natural History of imagination. It consists of an Archive of impossible but possibly existing animals – hybrids and meta creatures.
The collector of the Archive is Dr. Ameisenhaufen, the Alter Ego of the artists. These pictures are a part of a series of Fauna consisting of dozens of different animals. All the animals have been originally “reconstructed” in their natural size.

Solenoglypha Polipodida, 1987

Joan Fontcuberta

Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia-Ratidae

Sighting: Found in a deciduous forest in the federal state of Tamil Nadu in southern India,
thanks to informant G-16, who was attacked while looking for truffles. Observation and capture lasted for a period of 30 days, during which it proved impossible to locate any othe} specimen. Survived in captivity until it was killed by artificial means to allow study of its internal structure.

Date of Capture: 30 April 1941.

Main Traits: Osseous internal skeleton. Pulmonary respiration. Typical vertebrate nervous system. It has not been possible to observe its reproductive system, but everything would indicate that it is oviparous with division of the sexes. The captured specimen is an adult male measuring 133cm in length.

Morphology: Corresponds to a mixture of reptile and non-flying bird. Although it has no wings now, it is quite possible that more primitive forms did have them. The morphological characteristics correspond completely to those of report 21 on the postRellic fauna of Mobolk, provided by Dr. Ray’s liaison. It would thus correspond to suborder 8 of the current New Zoology.

Habits: Extremely aggressive and venomous, it hunts for food and also for the pleasure of killing. It is quite rapid and moves forward in a curious and very rapid run, thanks to the strong musculature of its 12 paws and the supplementary impulse which it obtains by undulating all of its body in a strange aerial reptation. When facing its prey it becomes completely immobile and emits a very sharp whistle which paralyzes its enemy. It maintains this immobility for as long as the predator needs to secrete the gastric juices required to digest its prey, which can vary between two minutes and three hours, as determined by the size of the victim. At the end of the whistling phase, Solenoglypha launches itself rapidly at its immobile prey and bites the nape of its neck, causing instantaneous death. Immediately afterwards, if it wishes to eat its victim, the beast vomits part of the gastric juices all over the animal and waits for this highly acidic matter to begin to take effect, while it circles around the dead animal uttering the characteristic murmur of “Globe-toe,” with a 3-pause-1 cadence. Unlike known reptiles, Solenoglypha never rests after eating. Quite the contrary, it sets off on a wild chase which is only interrupted for the purpose of defecation.

Cercopithecus Icarocornu, 1987

Joan Fontcuberta

Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia

Sighting: Found in the Amazon jungle (Brazil) with the aid of the eminent anthropologist Dr. Edson Nelinho, who discovered it while carrying out studies on the Nygala-Tebo tribe. Once in Brazil, accompanied by Dr. Nelinho, whom the primitive tribes consider to be semi-divine, and my assistant Hans, I lived among the NygalaTebo for 12 days, observing the curious behavior of this extraordinary animal.

Dates of Observation: 28 February to 11 March 1944.

Main Traits and Morphology: It is a long-tailed simian with large wings which turn it into an animal eminently suited for flying. Its morphology apparently corresponds completely to that of a mammal and has nothing to do with a bird’s. At any rate, the close vigilance to which the natives subjected us prevented me from carrying out any detailed observation of the animal. From what I could observe, it is omnivorous with an indiscriminate diet of insects, fruit and small animals which it hunts in full flight with its long and resilient barley sugar horn. It would correspond to suborder 6 of the current New Zoology.

Habits: Cercopithecus Icarocornu is the sacred animal of the indigenous Nygala-Tebo tribes, for whom it represents the reincarnation of Ahzran (he who came from heaven). The females give birth inside a large cabin in the village to which only the great shaman has access. The baby animals remain inside the cabin until they have completely developed their ability to fly, at which point the tribe celebrates a lavish ceremony during which Cercopithecus undergoes an operation in which it is grafted with the skin of the silver fish of the Amazon, which covers all of the pectoral and abdominal zone. Once this has been done, the animal is set free, although it never strays very far away from the village, and participates by its presence in all of the sacred festivals of the NygalaTebo. During these festivals the animal is given a spirituous beverage which it drinks eagerly, sinking into a state of complete inebriety, at which point it begins to flap its wings so madly that it hovers in mid-air with its body immobile, singing like one possessed. Its song is strangely husky and deep, given its small size, and it articulates a series of sounds which constitute a kind of psalmody which the natives seem to understand and to which they listen with great attention. The sexual act occurs inside the cabin, which is also the place where the elderly take refuge when they feel that death is near.

Digging up the Future: On the Imaginary Archaeology in Art and other Sciences.

mei 9th, 2009

[a reaction to Dieter Roelstraete’s  The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art /e-flux journal] by Maarten Vanden Eynde, April 2009

The present returns the past to the future’ – Jorge Luis Borges

Besides prediction models based upon recovered data from the past and the present, there is nothing but imagination at hand to envision the future.

The specific interest or intent of art and all existing sciences seems to flock together whenever a distinctive humanistic evolution is inevitable, creating an épistème of knowledge (1) . In the Middle Ages we struggled to find similarities and resemblances between micro and macro, humans and god, earth and heaven. – We are all alike, mirrored by the image of God – was the prevailing dictum. It took until the 17th century before we started to look for differences, classifying species in separate models (taxonomy, Linnaeus) and paving the way for individual existence. In the 19th century Darwin and Lamarck opened the door to the past and instigated the origin of history.  We discovered where we came from and started to reconstruct the string of our evolution. Marx introduced the theory of historical materialism and added why to the questions of when, where and how. Photography was invented and gave us the first artificial tool to catch a moment. Slowly but destined we became grounded in the reality of the present.
These new certainties, knowing where we come from and the ability to define the distinctiveness of being a homo sapiens sapiens, created an outburst of self-confidence during the 20th century in art and all the other sciences, opening up endless possibilities to act within the present. The result was there, immediately visible and the responsibility was all ours. This conviction in own abilities stimulated the industrial evolution, which changed the world beyond recognition and gave way to the largest population explosion in human history. We learned to genetically manipulate life, we unravelled the mysteries of most DNA strings (including our own), we figured out a way to recreate almost anything out of almost nothing by using nanotechnology, and found ways to be everywhere at the same time (radio, television, internet). We mastered the épistème of the present, leaving but the future to be destined.
The notion of consequence is the first manifestation of futurism; concern slowly replaced the initial euphoria about endless growth and infinite possibilities. The speed of new inventions and subsequently growing knowledge is accelerating just like the expansion of the universe and might bring us to what is currently known as the Singularity (2).  At that moment, predicted to occur around 2035, knowledge is doubled every minute, making it impossible to comprehend for ‘normal’ humans.

Andy Warhol
Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962

Andy Warhol Campbell soup Andy Warhol Campbell soup

The Club of Rome was the first to use computer models to predict the future (3).  Some predictions proved to be farfetched since evolutions in general behave more chaotic than anticipated, but many future scenarios became reality by now. Their first report Limits of Growth of 1972 caused a permanent interest in what is to come and it is still the best selling environmental book in world history. The second report from 1974 revised the predictions and gave a more optimistic prognosis for the future of the environment, noting that many of the factors were within human control and therefore that environmental and economic catastrophe were preventable or avoidable.
This notion of self-control in relation to making history by interfering in the present became the most important theorem of the 20th century. Also in the art world this feeling of being able to transcendent your own existence by imagining what might, what could and what should became predominant. Although a great deal of artists working with history are digging up old stories, forgotten facts and undisclosed objects of the past to reinvent and reinterpret history, a much bigger number of artists is involved in writing current history, looking at what might be relevant for future generations to remember us by. Preluded by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol was probably the first artist to fully realize the potential of freezing and claiming history by randomly choosing an insignificant object like a can of Campbell soup or a box of Brillo soap and lifting it above oblivion. This self-proclaimed Deus Ex Machina or act of vanguardism was copied by many other artists, like Heim Steinbach, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who, with changing luck, tried through object fetishization to declare or even force history to happen.
A similar strategy is the combination of elements from the past with the present, already cashing the idea that the present is also the future past and that future historians could unwillingly mingle both and by doing so creating a stimulus for an altered state of remembering or stronger; to rewrite history all together. These combined traces of different pasts create an endless chain of possible futures, visualised by artists like Simon Starling, Ai Wei Wei, Wim Delvoye and Brian Jungen.

Ai Wei Wei
Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo
, 1994

Ai Weiwei

To many critics and curators focus on the past to make sense of or give value to archives, artistic research or current art production in general. By doing so, they enforce a self-fulfilling prophecy upon the work and don’t do right to the imagination and sheer curiosity of the creator towards representation of the present in the future. What will remain? What is our heritage for the future? Even artists like Gerard Richter, Roy Arden, Peter Pillar, Batia Suter and Lois Jacobs who on a first glimps seem to work with the past are rather formulating different answers to what could or should remain of the present.
Roy Arden’s Versace for instance is not looking at the past in the historical sense but merely imagining how we might look back at the past in the future. It questions the relevance or value of anything present in our contemporary society to represent that same society in the future. Many other artists like Cornelia Parker, Mark Dion, Damien Hirst and Guillaume Bijl are doing the same thing; they lay the foundation of future history. They are telling a story, our story. Cornelia Parker uses remnants of (self) destroyed parts of reality and tries to put it back together again. Mark Dion is showing the left over’s of our society in a more ‘classic’ archaeological context and Damien Hirst and Guillaume Bijl subtract a certain object or entire space out of our present world, like a slice of cake, and preserve it directly for future generations. Although using different modes of working they all work with possible remnants of our current civilisation, imagining different pieces of the puzzle that could be used in the future to puzzle back together again the history we are currently creating. They work within the future, not the past.

Roy Arden
Versace, 2006

Roy Arden Versace

This interest, or calling upon, is visible not only in the current art world but across most branches of the science tree. In the field of Biology animals are duplicated, cloned, crossbred and pimped in all imaginable ways to become stronger, smaller, longer lasting, fluorescent (4), faster running,… in general better equipped for eternity. Humans haven’t only discovered how to eradicate life, destroying, willingly or not, several entire species and ecosystems in the past, by now we also know how to manipulate and maintain life. The promise of being able to cure almost any disease in the near future by using nanobots to do the dirty work, caused a real run for life extension programs like Alcor, the world leader in Cryonics (5). More than one hundred people have been cryopreserved since the first case in 1967. More than one thousand people have made legal and financial arrangements for cryonics with one of several organizations, usually by means of affordable life insurance. The majority chose to only preserve their head, assuming that the body could be regenerated very easily in the future, using the same technique as lizards do to grow back a limb.
The current emphasis on preservation seems also in Archaeology, a science that is traditionally grounded in the past, to overrule the act of excavation. Prophesising on an eminent crisis or apocalyptic disaster inspired us to bury time capsules deep underground containing samples of current societies including their historical highlights. In 2008 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened its doors for all the 1,300 gene banks throughout the world. The Seed Vault functions like a safety deposit box in a bank. The Government of Norway owns the facility and the depositing gene banks own the seeds they send. The vault now contains over 20 million seeds, samples from one-third of the world’s most important food crop varieties. In 1974 Ant Farm constructed Cadillac Ranch, ten Cadillac’s, ranging from a 1949 Club Coupe to a 1963 Sedan, buried fin-up in a wheat field in Texas. Much later, in 2006, during a performance work called Burial, Paul McCarthy and Raivo Puusemp buried one of McCarty’s own sculptures in the garden of Naturalis, the National History Museum of Leiden in The Netherlands. The buried sculpture resides underground as an artefact for future discovery.

Ant Farm
Cadillac Ranch, 1974

Ant Farm

Ant Farm

Currently, four time capsules are “buried” in space. The two Pioneer Plaques and the two Voyager Golden Records have been attached to a spacecraft for the possible benefit of space farers in the distant future. A fifth time capsule, the KEO satellite, will be launched around 2010, carrying individual messages from Earth’s inhabitants addressed to earthlings around the year 52,000, when KEO will return to Earth (6). In Cosmology as well the focus is on the future. Experiments are conducted to create black holes, possible portals to travel through time. Terraforming attempts might create an atmosphere around a distant planet or moon creating a possible escape for human kind if planet earth is not viable anymore.
In 1971 the first artwork was placed on the moon. Fallen Astronaut, created by Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, is an aluminium sculpture of 8,5 cm representing a sexless abstraction of a human. It was left on the moon by the Apollo 15 crew next to a memorial plaque stating all the names of astronauts that died on their way to the moon. In 2003 a work of art by Damien Hirst consisting of 16 multi-coloured spots on a 5cm by 5cm aluminium plate was send to Mars. The colours would be used to adjust the camera while a special composed song of the British pop-band Blur would be played to check the sound and accompany the arrival of the Mars Lander, the Beagle 2. The sequel of Darwin’s exploration vessel was last seen heading for the red planet after separating from its European Space Agency mother ship Mars Express on December 19 2003. Part of a mission estimated to cost $85 million, the probe was supposed to land on Mars a few days later on Christmas Day and search for signs of life, but vanished without trace…

Damien Hirst Beagle2

Closer to earth itself many artists have made works that can be seen from outer space. The biggest one, Reflections from Earth is made by Tom Van Sant in 1980: a series of mirrors over a 1.5 mile stretch of the Mojave Desert in the shape of an eye. In 1989 Pierre Comte did something similar with Signature Terre: sixteen squares of black plastic fabric with sides measuring 60m creating the “Planet Earth” symbol. Two noble attempts to leave a trace and write history but as a work of art not surpassing the early Land Art by Robert Smithson (Asphalt Rundown, 1969 and Spiral Jetty, 1970) or even smaller interventions by Richard Long (A line made by walking, 1967) or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands of 1980-83. No single work of art however can compete with the collaborative global effort to create a new geological layer over the earth, consisting of asphalt, concrete and plastic, contemporary materials representing our current civilisation. No matter what happens, we will all be remembered, that is for sure. We just don’t know how. ‘Will we arrive at a moment of sufficient self-alienation where we can contemplate on our own destruction as in a static spectacle’? (7). I don’t think so. We will be to busy with self-preservation, looking back to figure out what lays ahead. Like the speakers of Aymara, an Indian language of the high Andes, who think of time differently than just about everyone else in the world, we should also position the future behind us, because you can not see it and the past ahead of us, since that is the only thing we can see. This is precisely what so many artists are doing today; looking backwards to discover the future. Whatever lies in front of you and can be seen is used as inspiration source to imagine the unknown.

(1) Michel Foucault used the term épistème in his work The Order of Things (Les Mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966) to mean the historical a priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses and thus represents the condition of their possibility within a particular epoch.
‘I would define the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific’.
(2) Ray Kurzweil, The Law of Accelerating Returns, 2001
An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.
(3) The Club of Rome is a global think tank that deals with a variety of international political issues. It was founded in April 1968 and raised considerable public attention in 1972 with its report Limits to Growth. In 1993, it published followup called The First Global Revolution. According to this book, “It would seem that humans need a common motivation, namely a common adversary, to organize and act together in the vacuum; such a motivation must be found to bring the divided nations together to face an outside enemy, either a real one or else one invented for the purpose….The common enemy of humanity is man….democracy is no longer well suited for the tasks ahead.”, and “In searching for a new enemy to unite us we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like, would fit the bill.” This statement makes it clear that the current common adversary is the future itself.
(4) Alba, the first green fluorescent bunny made by artist Eduardo Kac in 2000, is an albino rabbit. This means that, since she has no skin pigment, under ordinary environmental conditions she is completely white with pink eyes. Alba is not green all the time. She only glows when illuminated with the correct light. When (and only when) illuminated with blue light (maximum excitation at 488 nm), she glows with a bright green light (maximum emission at 509 nm). She was created with EGFP, an enhanced version (i.e., a synthetic mutation) of the original wild-type green fluorescent gene found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. EGFP gives about two orders of magnitude greater fluorescence in mammalian cells (including human cells) than the original jellyfish gene.
(5) Cryonics is the speculative practice of using cold to preserve the life of a person who can no longer be supported by ordinary medicine. The goal is to carry the person forward through time, for however many decades or centuries might be necessary, until the preservation process can be reversed, and the person restored to full health. While cryonics sounds like science fiction, there is a basis for it in real science. (
(6) ‘KEO, The satellite that carries the hopes of the world. What reflections, what revelations do your future great grandchildren evoke in you? What would you wish to tell them about your life, your expectations, your doubts, your desires, your values, your emotions, your dreams’? (
(7) Walter Benjamin (Technocalyps – Frank Theys, 2006)