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Anima Mundi: Soul of the World at the Natural World Museum

Saving the Planet, One Brushstroke at a Time

Centuries before Jackson Pollock dribbled paint on a canvas or Andres Serrano relieved himself on a crucifix, a young Aristotle argued that all art inherently imitates nature. Such a rigid assertion might seem oversimplified today, but its essence holds true. All art is tied to nature in one way or another as artists attempt to transcend base cognition and speak directly to the spirit that binds us to our world. Whether we admit it or not, nature is man’s original source, ultimate ideal, and greatest muse. In all its brutal efficacy and sublime beauty we can only hope to apprehend a fraction of nature’s perfection.

Interestingly, Aristotle also proposed the existence of five individual elements: earth, air, fire, water, and ether, or space. Along with Eastern thinkers like Buddha and Confucius, he understood these elements comprise all things and keep life in a constantly evolving equilibrium. That sense of balance in motion, of five distinct sources contributing to one all-encompassing universe, underlies The Natural World Museum’s environmental art exhibit Anima Mundi: Soul of the World. By bringing the natural world into the gallery, vAnima Mundi presents a unified vision of art, nature, history, and technology, renewing the eternal connection between humanity and our environment. It’s a familiar, encouraging revelation, and though it might smack of New Age platitude, it’s certainty is inarguable: We’re all one.

Upon entering the exhibition, patrons pass through Hirokazu Kosaka’s “Carbon Walls.” These 10-foot-high black monoliths are studded with shards of burnt wood that gleam like soft obsidian. On the far wall behind the carbon corridor is an enormous, hand-brushed ring painted by Kosaka with charcoal ink, which he obtained by adding water to the burnt wood. In these simple, elegant statements, all five elements are utilized in concert while the walls stiff verticality offsets the painting’s sensual curvature, implying a male/female duality.

Kosaka also designed vAnima Mundi’s most immediately evocative, non-representational installation. The objects in his “Mineral Garden,” contributed by the California Academy of Sciences, again represent the five elements. Petrified wood, crystallized amethyst, a giant clam shell, a meteorite, and a massive hunk of jade are displayed above a clay floor. Each of these pieces is aesthetically intriguing in its own right; placed side by side their appearances and origins tell the story of an endlessly diverse universe. The clay floor is in flux, cracking along random faults as it slowly dries day by day. “Mineral Garden” shows the earth as a living organism and its seeds as beautiful artifacts of its growth.

A large portion of the hall is dedicated to the work of Canadian painter Robert Bateman. Despite their serene, mostly pastoral subject matter, Bateman’s paintings are immediately political. Detailed and technically flawless, his absorbing scenes of animals in their natural habitats retain a brooding mystery in their muted colors and flat backgrounds. Their primeval darkness suggests an uncertain future, as do his depictions of human devastation wreaked on the environment, like clear cutting, drift net fishing, and overdevelopment. The juxtaposition of two extra-large paintings is especially compelling. In “Egrets of the Sacred Grove,” a flock of egrets takes wing from a palm grove like feathery angels. Their lighter-than-air ascension is contrasted by “Ocean Rhapsody—Orca,” an underwater scene of a killer whale, ponderous and lethal and just as agile in its habitat.

Other multimedia works subsume technology and cultural history under the environmental art movement. Ancient Chinese pottery and Native American basketry prove that humans once regarded everyday tools as an opportunity to honor nature with creativity. In “Digital Garden,” designed by greenmuseum.org, five video screens sprout from a low, moss-padded platform. Each represents an element and shows a cycle of short films on creative bioremediation, recycling, and ecological activism. These installations remind the viewer that in work as in nature, the practical can also be beautiful.

Within a darkened corner of the hall, Bernie Krause’s “Wild Soundscapes: Five Stressed Habitats” chirps, gurgles, and flutters with ambient sounds. Krause’s field recordings from different global ecosystems are the perfect audio accompaniment to contemplating the museum’s innovative, sustainable approach. All the interior exhibition walls are made from recycled aluminum, the benches of compressed agricultural fibers, and soon the museum hopes to be powered solely by renewable energy sources.

A work of environmental art in itself, The Natural World Museum is a nexus for a new type of creativity. Even within its temporary home at the Presidio, it collects work that fuses nature and technology into expressions that both educate and inspire. The art world can so often be insular and useless, but in the context of Anima Mundi, the world is art, encompassing all of nature and the very reason for saving it.