Monday, January 03, 2011

Karl Cronin's Experiencing Forms

Karl Cronin
"Populus tremuloides (Aspen)"

In late November, I visited "Ecoarchive: Meditations on Time and Nature," a group show on view at Intersection for the Arts 5M, in San Francisco. All of the work included in the exhibition (on view through January 22, 2011) is intelligent and commendable, but I most appreciated Matthew Moore's video, "Lifecycles," Sam Easterson's video, "The Museum of Animal Perspectives," and Karl Cronin's video sampler of his "Somatic Natural History Archive."

I spent most of my time with Cronin's project. For his "Somatic Natural History Archive," Cronin aims to "document with his own body representational expressions of 10,000 U.S. plants and animals," an undertaking that the artist estimates will take 50 years to complete. To date, Cronin has made "expeditions" to Nashville (TN), Santa Fe (NM), Yosemite (CA), Raleigh (NC), Plainfield (MA), and the Grand Canyon, and he's earned the well-deserved support of the Santa Fe Art Institute, Movement Research, and the Puffin Foundation. The documents of his "representational expressions" are archived in the SNHA Catalogue, each labeled with the observed species' Latin name and common name (e.g., "Populus tremuloides (Aspen)").

Karl Cronin
"Awaiting identification"

With so very many plants and animals to imitate (only 66 of the 10,000 have so far been cataloged online), it's not surprising that Cronin's earnest attempts are uneven; generally, I find his embodiment of plants more intriguing and successful than his animals, but even the less-realized "expressions" made me smile, giddily impressed by the artist's wonderfully quixotic efforts.

Importantly, however, Cronin's endeavor is not mere whimsy. The project may seem simple enough, but I'm certain that it provides the artist with a fundamentally new understanding of (and relationship with) the creatures he studies. Cronin first observes the plant or animal subject, then he perceives it physically, with his body. Watching the artist sway and lean with the breeze in a stand of a grass (an as yet unidentified species, perhaps related to switchgrass), it occurred to me that Cronin is something of a latter-day shaman. "Shaman" is a term abused by new-age prophets and their ranks of well-intentioned, but ill-informed followers, but the philosopher and cultural ecologist David Abram is one of a handful of writers who have given shamanism the thoughtful consideration that it deserves. As I watched Cronin channel a heron, Abram's definition of magic came to mind.
"We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human. [..] Magic is participating in a world of multiple intelligences with the intuition that every form one perceives - from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself - is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations that are very different from our own."
In essence, magic is empathy with other "experiencing forms"; it's communion with other facets of the animate world. Happily, by documenting his work with video, Cronin allows the viewer to participate in the magic. I'm grateful for that.

Karl Cronin
"Caelifera sp. (Grasshopper)"

Note: As a proud natural history geek, I was disappointed that Cronin titled the last of the three videos above "Caelifera sp. (Grasshopper)." In fact, the insect that Cronin imitates in this video is actually a katydid, a species more closely related to crickets than to grasshoppers. Still, while I presume Cronin will make the correction when he adds this video to the SNHA Catalogue, I don't envy him the task of trying to secure a definitive ID on many of the species he works with. Without the help of a entomology expert, he'll be hard pressed to determine the species of katydid in the video above.)

Image/artwork credit: all videos, courtesy Karl Cronin

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