Naomi Campbell: Bread and Circuses

THE BROOKLYN RAIL

by Jonathan Goodman

At a time when the genetic modification of foods is a genuine threat to human well being, Brooklyn-based artist Naomi Campbell has created a hybridization of her own, merging her scientific interests with a creative investigation of genetics and technology. Her recent exhibition, Bread and Circuses, reflects her ongoing interest in engineered food staples, most especially corn, which, according to Campbell, has existed for 80,000 years. It is rare to see work so closely tied to contemporary physical sciences, but here that is the strength of the show. The work doesn’t explain scientific concepts so much as visually present them for the sake of intellectual clarity. It is no longer easy to incorporate technological and scientific information into an artistic statement; the problem is that the material is too sophisticated to be brought into light within the traditional languages of art. Yet the spectrum of art interests and expressions has widened to include issues not previously associated with the artist, who now has enormous amounts of information to deal with.

One of the most original pieces in the show is Campbell’s River (Yangtze) (2015), in which a thin thread of individual rice grains mimics the course of the Yangtze River. Lights directed against the rice line marking the twists and turns of the river cast a shadow against a piece of canvas draped against the wall. Essentially, then, we have two versions of the river. Campbell pointed out in conversation that the Yangtze is a source of much of the rice in the world, but also that China’s problems with water pollution, along with the genetic modifications possible with rice, make the river a symbol both of harvest and terrible contemporary ecological damage. China, with a population of nearly 1.5 billion people, will likely serve as a site where foodstuffs and manmade damage to the earth will converge; indeed, this has happened already. Each individual rice grain has been painted gold, and the impossibly slender line vertically threads its way for a distance of ten feet, so that the work becomes a drawing in space, reduplicated by its canvas shadow. As both a lyrical and cautionary image, River (Yangtze) serves as a beautifully ironic reminder of possible disaster.

Naomi Campbell, Umbra, 2015. Archival C-print. 56 × 40 inches. Courtesy The Center of Contemporary Art, Bedminster, NJ.

Umbra (2015) is an archival, black-and-white C-print of a corn root, with a small digital band in the lower center of the image. It is large, with dimensions of fifty-six-by-forty inches. The roots’ rough homeliness is offset by the digitally painted strip, which is dark on the left side and may well be mimicking roots on the right. Umbra manifests the corn roots’ complicated tangle of radicles in a manner that emphasizes its earthy origins, so that we appreciate its rude nature as a product of the earth. But the strip, no matter whether it is a picture of roots or an abstraction, presupposes cultural awareness and production. It is an image made by a person rather than nature. The contrast between the root and the bar of color is an insight based on the differing, often difficult relations between nature and culture. By combining the two, though, she is true to her theme: the influence of human activity on the external world.

Finally, the piece Why is this not working? (2015) consists of gold-leafed corn mounted on wood. The corn has been arranged in the language of braille, so that the piece’s title is spelled out. Campbell explained that the genetic modification of corn has become a profound issue in its own right, and as the title points out, something is going wrong. It is very true, given the industrialization of farming, and the use of pesticides and genetic changes to meet an ever-increasing world population, that something is going very wrong.

In Bread and Circuses, Campbell’s art is suggestive and descriptive rather than being judgmental. But there is a melancholy tone to the work, even if it is not visually apparent. This is a sadness based upon permanent changes in the environment, which look like they will deeply damage what we know as nature. As a result, this exhibition relates a truth that we are already aware of but find difficult to admit: the world is limited, the number of people in it is increasing, and the technological advances in food supply may harm as much as they help.