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Dark Ecologies: Reflections on Paul Chaney at Goldfish

Robin Mackay


With Paul Chaney's 'The Lonely Now’, Goldfish demonstrates impressive commitment and trust in an emerging artist whose work, in the words of the mental-health-and-safety police, ‘may offend’.

The first work encountered in the show, visible from Penzance’s increasingly faux-swanky Chapel Street, is the video One for Sorrow (right) in which the camera operator – presumably Chaney himself – ‘re-enacts’ the final flight of a dead magpie by affixing it to a stick and propelling it around a field. That’s so, like, offensive, yeah? Realistically, however, Chaney’s work will offend only those determined to be offended in order to elicit conservative solidarity. It will ‘disturb’ only those for whom ‘disturbing’ is a comfortable aesthetic category designed to reassure themselves of the fortitude of their own cosmopolitan sensibility. In fact One For Sorrow is a perfect example not only of the mix of the grotesque and the tender that characterises the works on show here, but also of the sharp interrogative edge that the thoughtful viewer will easily discover below this surface.

In his book Ecology Without Nature,[1] Timothy Morton suggests that much reflection on the ecological and environmental is ultimately self-undermining: Expending much energy on evoking the glory of Nature as it might be without the intervention of humans and their divisive articulations, it attempts to erase its own status as discourse or inscription. But the most desperate attempts by artists and writers alike to allow a continuous, virgin and untamed nature to speak through them, unmediated, ultimately constitute only more mediation. Along with eco-writing, much ‘environmental’ art is afflicted by this willed obliviousness to the fact that ‘nature’ itself is a conceptual product, and a flawed one at that. Like Morton, Paul Chaney’s work seems to concern itself with this faultline in our relationship with our environment, in life as in art: Our delusion that we are not part of it, and the cognate ideal of co-existing with it in some non-interventionist way. Chaney’s work circles around these themes with great care, sensitivity and patience. It comprises a meditation on coexistence, and on a connectedness which is also a kind of incrimination, and from which a ‘dark ecology’ emerges. Chaney’s work does not even reveal to us a primal nature mockingly indifferent to the sense we try to make of it: rather, it bids us to accept that the very conception of ‘nature itself’ and our regret at its despoliation are but two sides of the same coin, a coin whose intellectual currency is depreciating as rapidly as the earth’s oil reserves.

Nothing expresses this more pointedly than Chaney’s touching sculpture Memorial to Roadkill Foxes (left), in which a skulk of foxes peer uncertainly and gloomily at one of their number laid out by a passing car. This scene is immediately moving, but takes a terrible turn when one learns that the simply but expressively sculpted animals are reprocessed car wheel balancing weights. The subversion of content by material is of course a commonplace in contemporary art, but Chaney’s own vacillating sensitivity to both sides of the thought is palpable, preventing the work’s irony from sliding either into hectoring eco-admonishment or grizzled cynicism. Mourning and guilt are forged of the same stuff, it says; What makes it possible to conceive of ‘nature’ also makes it inevitable that we have already betrayed it. But, following Morton’s thesis, if this is The Fall, then Eden is nothing but writing’s own retroactive myth of origin, its fantasy of self-effacement. The outcome of Morton’s deconstructive reading[2] is that ecology can only attain maturity in becoming an ecology without nature. The inextricability of the two elements in Chaney’s sculpture invites us to desist from simultaneously exalting an untouched nature and excluding ourselves from it.

Gallantly, the artist is the first to volunteer for his own experiment: He has even put himself in a position where he cannot help but do so. Chaney’s most important ongoing work Field Club (2004-present), the invisible centre around which most of the work showing here orbits, consists in his own attempt to live ‘off-grid’ in a remote field (see Bender Blueprint (right). Much of the work documents incidents in the day-to-day course of this experiment in living, small occurrences which never fail to blacken the name of Eden. In Vole-No Pulse (below), another video work a small rodent accidentally killed by a lawnmower turns out to be pregnant, giving rise to the kind of horrifically irresolvable moral dilemma common to any agricultural endeavour, but small change compared to the quotidian outrages perpetrated by Mother Nature herself. What would Jesus do? Install incubators? Open an orphanage…? The vole-mother is gently interred in a deep hole, her belly still pullulating with the unborn – an act whose persistent pursuit of reverence in the face of adversity dramatises the gruesome incongruence of talk of beauty and morality in this setting. Likewise, in Slug’o’metric (How Many Slugs Maketh the Man?), an ingenious gadget is constructed to simultaneously effectuate and tabulate slug elimination in the vegetable plot, upsetting the green fantasy of a non-aggressive ‘living with the land’.

As well as Chaney’s hand-drawn map of the Field Graveyard in which such casualties are laid to rest, the show also includes a number of other works on paper which show various in-progress interrogations of concepts of nature and life. These might be understood as diagrammatic guides to the other work in the show, but as works they cannot help but seem thin in comparison with the uncompromising physicality of the latter. Something similar might be said of Cembyx Cerdo, an anthropomorphised insect beautifully cast in precious metals which, although exquisite and desirable, somehow comes across like a Chaney diffusion line, lacking the discomfiting power of the Bee Unit, where the bodies of real insects endowed with rudimentary, sculpted faces are preserved in what look like diminutive science-fictional cryogenic chambers. In both works, Chaney seems to toy with anthropomorphism so as to emphasise the absurdity of applying the moral imperative to the denizens of nature.

One of the most complex and most striking works in the show, The Library at St Kilda (pictures below x2), indicates new directions for Chaney’s practice, deploying the same problematising spiral as the earlier works but in more ramified and complex directions. It consists of a puffin recovered from the coast of St Kilda, a tiny island whose last inhabitants were evacuated in the 1930s after their indigeneous culture, isolated for centuries, had been blighted by missionaries and diseases from the mainland. The bird’s back yawns open to reveal a perfectly-sculpted miniature library. It couldn’t be any clearer: The artist can no more escape it than the writer can: the body of the‘natural’ caves in, splits open, and the entrails of language smile out. Everybody loves a Puffin, the subtitle tells us, but the work leaves us in no doubt that an apparently simple love of nature is the surface manifestation of a conceptual treasury, a literary legacy, a cultural history. For those contemporary with Chaney, who thus grew up with the junior imprint of British publishers Penguin, ‘Puffins’ will already be books. But the work’s visceral interpenetration of nature and knowledge cuts in yet other ways. The island of St Kilda itself is recognised by naturalists as a special case: Its isolation meant that the interplay between human culture and animal life transpired as if in a controlled experiment, species waning and even becoming extinct in symbiosis with the transformation and decline of its human culture. Thus it is emblematic of the interconnectedness Chaney seeks to emphasise. And like life in Field Club, life on St Kilda was no idyllic affair for man or bird: Up to 25,000 puffins per year were caught with snares set on precarious cliffs climbed barefoot by fowlers – Admirable commitment, and indeed ‘[o]ften the St Kildans caught many more puffins than they could eat, in which case they were fed to the dogs or the cattle’. Not to mention that ‘[t]he [puffin] season would begin with a rite. The first puffin to be caught was not killed, but plucked of all save its wing and tail feathers and then released.’ [3]…Ah, lost Arcady! The St Kilda library, of course, with its untold volumes on birdcraft and fulmar cookery, was in fact wholly virtual – contained in the hard heads that inhabited that one stony stormswept street – and therefore perished with the last islanders. In this work, Chaney’s talent for the poetic assemblage reaches out tentatively but assuredly beyond his own ‘field’ of experience, with impressive results.

A few words should be said about the curation of the show. So often, art in Cornwall plays second fiddle not only to tourism but also to thinly-veiled real-estate avarice. When the principal reaction to art is to remark on the ‘lovely space’ that contained it, I reach for my shotgun. As luck would have it, Goldfish consists of a vertical set of pleasant, but smallish and rather difficult spaces. Joe Clarke, the proprietor, obviously has the measure of the place and has made a virtue of the arrangement, employing it to great effect precisely by using it to promote the work rather than itself. The decision to present a sparing selection of pieces deprives the viewer of the easy option of skimming over the work, registering it as a generality. Instead it gently impels them to approach and focus fully upon each of the works in turn. Such discreet minimalist presentation is perversely effective: Antiseptically encapsulated in their perfectly neat cases, as the viewer draws near, the pieces yield their difficult, messy contents slowly and insidiously. This sequence is particularly effective with Goodbye Old Man, a miniature diorama made in the style of a railway-modeller, which seems at first to depict the bracing spectacle of a rustic type surveying his (extremely) smallholding. On closer examination it also harbours a disgruntled farmer, concealed in the trees, shotgun trained on the unfortunate peasant. Land is always property, territory, and the locus of a barely-suppressed warfare, as the work’s subtitle (In respect of the need for field defences) seems to suggest. But which is Chaney, blameless cultivator or jealous aggressor?

Particularly effective also is the first-floor room housing 24 Hour Field Club Museum, a large wine-chiller cabinet repurposed as museum case, powered by a solar-charged truck battery, and containing classified and inventoried artefacts discovered during Field Club activities. The gentle glow from the cabinet evokes the early morning light of a lonely dawn, and indeed the accompanying lightbox photograph does show the museum in situ, supplementing sunrise in the field with the radiant remnants of yesterday’s solar-power, and exhibiting to the land its own history – as if its illuminated interior constituted the memory register and the burgeoning self-consciousness of the field itself as it becomes cultivated and humanised.

‘The Lonely Now’ is both a confirmation of Goldfish’s importance as a gallery that dares to take risks and to promote work that belongs to our uncertain present and future, and of Paul Chaney as a truly challenging and original artist making such work. Chaney succeeds in repositioning ‘cognitive dissonance’ – our strange collective inability fully to take on as living reality what we ‘know’ about climate change – as a symptom of the more profound bad faith of what Morton calls ‘ecologocentricism’ – the continuous and futile effort to expunge from nature ‘itself’ the human marks that circumscribe and constitute it as such. Through this insight, we can understand our continual evasion and prevarication on environmental matters as a symptom of the resistance of common sense to something truly difficult to think, a resistance that will not be overcome by any amount of green goodwill, ‘holistic’ or ‘intuitive’ paradigm shifts. What is difficult is to rethink ecology by admitting that its logos is always already recoded, messed up, unnatural; to rebuild it as an ecology of (perhaps uncomfortable) co-existence and intervention, an ecology which, in Morton’s words, ‘may be without nature. But it is not without us.’. This is the future Chaney’s work seems to bear us towards, plunging us into strange situations, emotions and perceptions that expose us to the urgency and complexity, not to mention the humour and the irony, of the problem at hand.


[1] T. Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] ‘Just as Derrida argues that logocentrism underlies Western philosophy’s attempt to ground meaning in an essential form, I hold that ecologocentrism underpins most environmentalist philosophy, preventing access to the full scope of interconnectedness.’ – Timothy Morton, http://www.rc.umd.edu/blog_rc/?tag=timothy-morton .

[3] Charles Maclean, St Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World. (London:Tom Stacey, 1972; revised edition Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998), 98-9.