"Suicide Narcissus" at Renaissance Society: review
A thought-provoking but uneven group show considers how humans are carelessly screwing up the environment.
We’re slowly killing ourselves—whether we’re aware of this fact or not. That’s the premise of “Suicide Narcissus,” the new exhibition at the Renaissance Society. Indeed, it’s no secret that human actions have led to accelerated climate change, damaged ecosystems and decreased biodiversity. But do we realize the magnitude of our actions and the threat we pose to our own survival as a species? Despite our self-awareness, many of us turn a blind eye toward the consequences of environmental destruction—consequences that could lead to our eventual demise. As curator Hamza Walker writes in his introduction to this thought-provoking show, “We are, for better or worse, the narrator, one whose sense of standing outside the story as it involves our death is a form of denial.”
“Suicide Narcissus” presents six works created by eight contemporary artists—Thomas Baumann, Haris Epaminonda & Daniel Gustav Cramer, Katie Paterson, Nicole Six & Paul Petritsch, Lucy Skaer, and Daniel Steegmann Mangrané—who address the exhibition’s thesis in various ways, and with varying degrees of success.
Viewers first encounter Scottish artist Lucy Skaer’s powerful Leviathan’s Edge (2009), a whale skeleton that is only visible through three six-inch-wide gaps in the white walls that completely surround it. These skeletal remains immediately signify death, but also call to mind scientific displays in museums. The narrow wall openings allow only partial views of the whale, perhaps a reflection of our limited scientific knowledge and understanding of the natural world—and the role humans play in altering it.
Where Skaer’s work keeps the viewer at a distance, standing outside and looking in, Brazilian artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s short film, 16 mm (2012), provides a more immersive experience. Here, viewers enter a completely enclosed and very dark theater space. The first experience is auditory: loud and protracted sounds of insects chirping; the second is visual: a film projection of a forest scene. One slow-moving long shot carries viewers through a lush jungle. Mangrané creates a tension between the soothing verdant images and the insistent bug noises, reminiscent of the “green hell” described by early explorers of the Amazon, and perhaps reflecting modern humans’ own ambivalence of our place within the natural world.
The connection of Thomas Baumann's Tau Sling (2008) to the themes of “Suicide Narcissus” is more obscure. In this work, the Austrian artist, known for kinetic sculptures that explore movement, creates a mechanized pulley system in which a rope is pulled through a continuous, looping cycle. In ancient times, the Greek letter tau (τ) symbolized life and resurrection, so perhaps Baumann’s piece reflects life cycles. But tau also has many different associations with mathematics, science and engineering, among them “general tau theory,” a hypothesis that explains how purposeful movements are guided in living organisms. How this particular meaning of “tau”—or any other—may be connected to the themes of the exhibition is unknowable to the gallery visitor, considering the lack of label text (even minimal) to provide clues to the artist’s intentions.
Given the current ecological crisis—and its implications for our own survival—there seems to be a real lack of urgency in the six works presented in “Suicide Narcissus.” Instead, an unsettling, cool detachment emanates from each piece. But perhaps that’s the point. in some ways, this exhibition reflects our own emotional disengagement from imminent environmental catastrophe, despite our awareness of it.