Sapien Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri
November 11, 2021 through January 7, 2022
By JONATHAN OROZCO, December 2021
Sapien Gallery, a small artist-run space in a former paper manufacturing office in North Kansas City, gathered national and international artists for an ambitious group show. Titled “Cyborg Environmentalism,” the exhibition centers the natural world and how humans come to connect with land, bodies, and artifacts in delightful and often humorous ways.
Co-curated by RJ Junger and Casey Callahan, the roster of artists includes Connor Dolan, Tyler Nicole Glenn, Faysal Altunbozar, Kenia Lizet Balquier, Umico Niwa, and Nick Witten, whose mediums range from using microbes that eat oil, to video edited to feel like you’re tripping on acid. Primarily focused on life, “Cyborg Environmentalism” imagines a social alternative where humans no longer dominate the natural world, and works toward a more amorphous, shared global responsibility with plants and animals.
Hailing from Nebraska City, Nebraska, Kenia Lizet Balquier recounts their family’s interaction with finding place with an installation composed of photography and plant matter on a dark backdrop titled “Gone to seed ⧫ What a dream.” Lizet Balquier comes from a family of migrant farm-workers that settled in the American Midwest, frequently traveling between cities to find work. Though static in the gallery, the installation documents the attempt of Lizet Balquier’s family to find the house in Percival, Iowa where they once lived. The fragments of the physical houses and memories are evident in her photographs, where all that remains are crop fields, fallen trees, and eroded structures.
Urgency and loss are strong emotions surfacing in the photographic panels since what remained of her family’s relationship to the land has been eroded in a very literal sense. Housing that their family once lived in all degraded into nothingness, with only a concrete base existing as proof of their time.
For the Japanese artist Umico Niwa, environmentalism encapsulates her untitled video of a decomposing assemblage. A figure made of a pumpkin, squash, okra, twigs, and berries foraged around a neighborhood in Japan stands at the center against the sky as a backdrop, gradually desiccating. As the video goes on, a dizzying edit made to expand and contract the figure pulses.
“The effect that’s on the video is that of an ebb and flow, inflating deflating, and it’s at the pace of someone who’s breathing at a regular pace,” she says. You would see the artwork and maybe sync-up with the breathing, and you can feel the presence of your body.”
At the onset, we are meant to connect with the humanoid figure slowly dying, with the artist’s intention being to see our own mother, father, friends, or animals we care for, all for the purpose of empathy.
It’s as if Niwa is saying, we will all die and turn to dust, but what have you done to connect with others and nature?
A recent transplant from Omaha, Nebraska to Orlando, Nick Witten battles with degradation with his optimistic untitled work, though he blissfully keeps his thoughts on it undefined.
This work is tall. It’s a vertical conduit pipe fabricated to look as if it were aged with flaking white paint and a pumpkin sprouting from the center. The object’s placement makes it seem as if it were functional, that the pipe could move liquids, gasses, or waste within the building like veins or intestines.
Witten drew direct inspiration from his former workplace at an old factory building refurbished into a contemporary work center. “As the building changes, pipes change and become obsolete,” he says, referring to exposed conduit pipe. It shows “the inadequacies of the building’s ability to change with time.”
The work itself is a prototype for a more robust object Witten is working toward. In the gallery, we can’t see the complexities of pipes interacting with each other, weaving over and under, ending oddly in one place and curving into a wall. He leaves much to the imagination.
We know the work isn’t functional, but Witten intentional lack of meaning permits you to read the work through free association like a Rorschach test. When I first encountered his work, it was undeniably phallic in two ways: that of the pumpkin stem, and the form of the pipe itself. But it could also be read as a battle of humanity vs. nature, a cometary on age and the passing of time. It’s as if the pipe has ceased being operational for a hundred years, rusted, and now nature is taking over, undoing the centuries of industrialization humans worked toward. Witten may not be overtly making an argument, but this piece is a statement of optimism, especially now when the human-caused climate crisis is approaching irreversibility.
What the works of Lizet Balquier, Niwa, and Witten all share, along with the other exhibiting artists, is a sense of erosion and how it affects us as humans and our natural world, or more accurately, how humans disregard and destabilize global ecosystems. Though such a serious topic is covered, it doesn’t hit you over the head or chastise you for merely surviving in our current crisis, rather, the works are the result of living withing these conditions. The artistic outputs are more like artefacts of living in the 21st century.
It’s both optimistic and depressingly realistic at the same time. On the topic, Niwa states, “I think it was Charlie Chaplin who said we don’t need any more technological advancement to be able to catapult our way out of this conundrum going forward. None of that is going to matter unless we’re able to cultivate empathy and kindness. We already have the means of ending starvation or living in harmony with the land.
“Even if we get electric vehicles, and we work from home instead of commuting with cars, or we don’t eat meat; I don’t believe any of that really matters. I’m sure were going to find other technological ways of destroying what we have.” WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author