Between Projection and a Thought

Working at the scale of land art and with the unyielding eye of a foreman or marine biologist, David Brooks manifests the complex relationship between man and natural environment in curious, affecting compositions.

For example: at a man-made, natural-esque sculpture park in the Hudson Valley, Brooks has submerged a tractor into the soil, carving holes into the hillside order to apprehend it as some kind of animal in a cage. In the last undeveloped plot of land in Times Square, Brooks created a network of suburban rooftops which grew anxiously over itself, like a knot of weeds.

On a personal level, Brooks is dismayed by the ongoing violence of man against natural systems. But in his artwork, he employs the absurdity in that kind of juxtaposition, or habitat displacement, in order to facilitate connections in his viewers. Environmentalism, he says, is not merely a synonym for activism. It’s a way of understanding a global ecosystem which has for centuries breathed the air of market demand.

We spoke to him on the phone in Baltimore, where he teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, to learn about what he’s showing at Art Los Angeles Contemporary. Our conversation, which continued over email, has been edited and condensed.

Art Los Angeles Contemporary: Thanks for talking today. I understand you’re preparing a full-booth installation and also delivering a performative lecture. I suspect the two are related. Can you tell me about the installation? 

David Brooks: Sure. A lot of my work in the past has looked at environmentalist theory and perspectives on the natural world, not because I like tree-hugging, but because it poses such a crucial impasse for us to think about how we relate to the world on a metaphysical and existential level. For me [environmentalism] has to do with how we think of things, which are our first and immediate attachments to the ever-expanding environment around us.

The installation will be a number of sculptures which are made out of blocks of solid aluminum and solid marble. It really resembles enlarged children’s blocks—stacked in various ways to make up a composition which is perhaps reminiscent of an animal, the way one might see shapes in a cloud which look roughly like an elephant—but they are undeniably sculpture, like a big, cast aluminum David Smith sculpture, or a big modernist marble sculpture. 

The composition is determined by the amount of material needed to equal the exact weight of the animals being depicted. I’ve chosen a series of animals from a current listing of the most critically endangered mammals. Animals I’ve never seen, animals none of the [fair attendees] will likely ever see, and will likely go extinct before I ever get to see them. So theoretically the sculptures will outlive them.

ALAC: Initially you had conceived the installation as more concerned with ecosystem services—seemingly invisible, durational processes that we experience as things, only through its end result.

DB: That way of thinking remains. But I’m more focused on the moment of projection, where you’re combining verifiable facts—such as weight, level of extinction on the endangered species list—in combination with your own imagination at the moment of perceiving its compositional qualities. These sculptures will maintain their place within their modes of transport and display. They will never be taken out of their crates. Or else their compositions will fall apart.

ALAC: This sounds to me like some of your past works, where you problematize the systems we use to understand or codify the natural world—like taxonomies or family trees. Is this a concern you’re continuing to articulate?

DB: Yes. This installation has more to do with our understanding of duration within biological systems—duration within life. Robert Smithson was one of the more influential artists to me, but it’s hard to relate to his work unless you can relate to a rock. And people in general don’t really relate to a rock. The story is too big, too vast, too hypothetical. 

But one way to access geological time is through evolutionary time. We can relate to another primate. It doesn’t take too much imagination. If you keep pushing that idea of time, if you take evolutionary time further and further, it expands our notions of how to think of the systems around us, and how to think about the world in a more meaningful way in the present. Does that make sense?

ALAC: Sure, you approach these vast systems through analogy. Within your work, how is that process of analogy different from representation?

DB: It’s a very simple notion. My original proposal for this project was going to be a full-scale photograph of an elephant cut into pieces, with each piece housed in its own crate. It was going to be to scale. It’s like Walter de Maria’s one kilometer of brass rods. It’s chopped up in all these little pieces, but there’s a truth content to it, that makes it not just a representation of a kilometer, but it is a kilometer, in a particular way. 

So while these new sculptures don’t exactly resemble Baird’s tapirs, three-toed sloths, or pygmy hippos, they certainly weigh the exact amount of a mature adult. It’s that tethering to one verifiable fact that pushes [the work] into this world that’s not representational, but actually, a part of it. I’m trying to get away from the notion of artist representation, and actually engage in the real scale of things in the world. It’s just closer.

ALAC: I’m thinking now of your life-size sculptures of animals made with guano. 

DB: Well, those were actually a particular vernacular of fantastical garden sculptures that I placed in the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center where they got shit on by seabirds. Guano is a very archival, neutral material, almost pure nitrogen, so it was actually quite benign. 

But the concept is similar, yes. A real world scale, a real world truth content, very starkly juxtaposed with the idea of a compositional, artistic, almost fantastical projection. With this new work, the sculptures themselves are very David Smith meets Tony Smith, with some big modernist marble tchotchke, maybe a little bit of Louise Bourgeois. Very palatable geometric abstraction.

ALAC: So you’re deliberately engaging with the conventions of contemporary fine art.

DB: Oh, certainly. You automatically identify with it as art. "Oh, that’s really pretty, what is that?" (laughs) I think of it like the way one uses humor, as an immediate access point into the work. In this way, one engages the viewer with slightly more complex ideas by cloaking them in a normalized and familiar aesthetic language.

ALAC: You’ll also be delivering a performative lecture about hyperobjects, which are multi-dimensional concepts of such scale, both physical and temporal, that defy traditional notions of thing-ness itself. What attracted you to this idea? 

DB: Before Timothy Morton, who coined the term a few years ago, I could never find a thinker that was writing about environmentalist theory as a philosophical impasse, and not just as, "save the trees, save the whales." Of course I want to save the whales too, but that’s only part of it. That’s more of an activist side, which I certainly do as well when we go down to the Amazon to do certain biodiversity surveys and so forth, which I’ve been doing since 2004 or 2005. 

But it’s a different side of the brain. You have to make more connections between people and the world around them, to facilitate more links. The more links one has, the more possibilities there are for thinking about something quite differently. It’s about making tethers to these relationships. And I think art does that wonderfully. Or it can, at least. And thinking about an ecosystem service, or even an ecosystem, would be precisely a hyperobject.

Interview conducted by Sam Bloch.

Images from top: Gap Ecology (Three Still Lives with Cherry Pickers and Palms) (2013); A Proverbial Machine in the Garden (2013);Desert Rooftops (2011-2012); Still Life with Stampede and Guano (2011); artist's rendering of conglomerated blocks to be shaped for Choeropsis liberiensis (Pygmy-Hippopotamus) sculpture at Art Los Angeles Contemporary 2014; found image of pygmy hippopotamus.

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