Saturday, December 6, 2008

Steve Miler's Health of the Planet project

I’m fascinated by artist Steve Miller’s recent project “Health of The Planet,” in which he X-rays diverse Amazonian flora, giving the Brazilian rain forest, and by extension our entire planet, a medical checkup. In Miller's words, "The Patient is the Planet." See:

For Michel Foucault the “gaze” of western clinical biomedicine (which preceded the actual emergence of X-ray technology) presupposed the privileged power/knowledge of the physician, who possessed unique capabilities for interior-directed expert looking into the body of the patient. Miller in this series, however, seems to be liberating the X-ray from its standard position as a technology of expert power/knowledge, by rendering these images in forms that are accessible to a worldwide lay audience.

How are we to understand the seductiveness of these images, deftly fabricated so as to evoke a sense of spiritual wonder in the viewer? (Consider, for instance, the print #3, "Roots,: in which the right-most tendril reaches out towards the light; or the delicate progression upwards of the elements in print #7, Solo Saco Velho; or the playful fairy like beings atop #14, "Night Orchard") My guess is that these motifs of yearning tends to evoke a sense of common destiny among all who view the images. I'm struck as well by the repeated hints of human form in these shadow works. The net effect is continuous transpositions between the natural world and the human body. A poignant example is #6, "Jaca" (reproduced above) which could be read as a parent nurturing a child. So, although Miller proclaims that the "patient is the planet", his patient would equally appear to be all of humanity itself.

As we enter 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origins of Species, and approach Charles Darwin's 200th birthday on February 12, Miller's project is an exquisite, if painful, exploration of the glories of biodiversity and the looming cataclysm of mass species extinction.

1 comment:

Ellen Schattschneider said...

I too was fascinated by what I read in Steve Miller's black and white series as echoes (conscious or unconscious) of early 20th century black and white spiritualist photography of fairies in the garden, of the sort famously celebrated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Some examples are documented in the website:

See for instance Miller's images:

Dark Orchid

Orchid Architecture

Central Orchid

and especially Night Orchid

I'm not quite sure of what to make of the seeming homologies between Miller's X ray images and the old spiritualist photographs of fairies. Some of this is presumably due to the fact that images of fairies were for centuries inspired by botanical forms, and are examples of the widespread human tendency to scan all manner of flora and fauna for anthropomorphic qualities. We are inclined to see human figures in the plant world. (Who knows, there may be evolutionary reasons for this?)

But I suspect, as well, that Miller is playing with some of the most interesting paradoxes of photography, which always hovers ambiguously between the epistemes of science, art and the occult. Photographs make claims for rationalist, unmediated scientistic access to the world of Nature, but they also, as Roland Barthes and others remind us, open up unsettling windows to the uncanny, to everything that doesn't quite fit within the reigning protocols of modernity. (We'll be spending some time in my Visuality and Culture seminar next semester exploring these paradoxes.)

So in this light, might we say that in addition to X-raying botanical specimens and the "health of the planet," Miller is taking delicate X-rays of the state of the human soul at the dawn of the new millennium, at the moment when, more than ever before, we hold in our hands the fate of every species on the planet?