Naomi Campbell at Yellow Peril in Providence, Rhode Island
by Jonathan Goodman
Naomi Campbell, a Montreal-born, now New York-based artist concentrating on sculpture, has been devoting her time to the exploration of food’s increasing importance and vulnerability in her creative work. In her last solo show, at the Center for Contemporary Art in New Jersey, she concentrated on global staples, in particular the production of corn, as her theme, presenting two small installations, sculptures, photos, and drawings that drew attention to the increasing fragility of its production. In this current show at Yellow Peril, curated by Suzanne Karbin, Campbell focuses on food, calling the exhibition and its installation “Edacity,” which means the physiological need for food.
In the gallery space, “Edacity” comprises a complex blue-lit installation with glass, mirrors, and projections of what look like transparent creatures of the sea alive in the beginnings of earth’s geological time. It is an immersive environment. In its presentation in Puerto Rico earlier this year, visitors stayed as long as 45 minutes while taking in its rich ambience, context, and materials supporting a view of food that is socially directed and shows a deep concern for the future. Because Campbell’s installation is primarily light-based, the room it functions in should be relatively free of functional apparatuses such as doors, light fixtures, windows, etc., in order to keep the viewer’s attention fixed on the art environment. But this did not take place completely at the Yellow Peril space, even though the overall experience of the work was fine since the installation also needs good-sized dimensions for the work to expand and effectively take over the open atmosphere of the room—something the space in Providence was able to provide.
In the version I saw in mid-May 2017, a fairly large space was infused with a deep, somewhat dark, blue light. One’s immediate impression was that of an underwater grotto, with various transparent marine organisms registering as white-light forms on the blue walls. Over time, these amoeba-like, seemingly deep-sea creatures fluctuated within fairly fixed constraints. Their exoskeletons seemed to rise and fall as the imaginary aquatic species breathed in and out. On the floor, directing the visitor across its length, one found a line of small, luminous blue lights that rose about two feet into the air, supported by metal stems that resemble corn stalks. A sculpture hung from the ceiling, bathed in the cerulean iridescence of the light. The mobile work named "Damocles Sword" (2017) feels like an assemblage of unknown industrial parts found underwater; objects hang above each other, related in theme by Campbell’s ongoing interest in the technology of food production. "Damocles Sword" is a rich, allusive work of art whose context—a field of blue light—envelops the individual sculpture in a darkly luminous atmosphere.
There are not very many women sculptors making use of scientific notions in America. Campbell, who has had much experience working with veterinarians in Montreal, and who is currently working as a guest artist in a neuroscience laboratory devoted to genetic engineering, located at the Columbia University Medical School uptown, has never shied away from incorporating science into her art. If there were to be any criticism of this excellent installation, it would probably center on the difficulty of relating the scientific theme Campbell proposes to the particulars of the environment, which is completely self-sufficient as art. Because the work is so good, we trust her assertion that the show does address the concerns of contemporary food manufacturing. But maybe there should be an artist’s statement, one clearly establishing a connection between Campbell’s analytically driven scientific ideas and the exquisite, and intuitive, nature of her inventiveness.
To comment further, we know that the title "Damocles Sword" refers to the Greek story in which Damocles, given the power and riches of his king, must sit beneath a sword suspended by a single horse hair. Recognizing the constant anxiety associated with power, Damocles returned his position of command to the king. Clearly, Campbell uses the work to remark on technology’s power to increase food production, intimating that it is not the great gift it seems. The effect of a technologically altered food supply may be indicated in the far right of the gallery space, where a constellation of glass and mirrors dimly reflect what is occurring in the dark. The mirrors not only distort the visitor’s body as he or she makes his way toward this part of the environment, they also include images of the altered corn, which looks like a field of corn as it now exists in nature. The mirrors thus distort the reality of the two converging rows of corn, set on the floor of the gallery. These highly esthetic suggestions have much to do with the present circumstances of food production, highly altered from its original form, and also with the insidious future, in which people take for granted food whose genetic change is likely to harm them.
“Edacity” makes it clear that even a subject as fraught as the impact of technology on food can inspire the construction of something beautiful. Science is gradually connecting with art. I am told that there is a walkway between the neurosciences and art building, adjacent to each other at the Columbia University satellite campus on Broadway, located between 129th and 130th streets. This may well be a time when science is ahead of art, not only in its analytical results but also in its increasingly intuitive methodologies. Our art today has often been defeated by the reiteration of styles and thinking that belong to the past. Truly, we must give up our addiction to Abstract Expressionism here in New York! By working on tough scientific problems with major social implications such as food, Campbell puts herself in a relatively unrecognized place—at least in the art world. Even so, her imagination is made that much more useful and topical by her scientific concerns. It is a way of contemporizing art, by experiencing it through a different lens.
Even if it is hard to work out the bridging between the scientific points originating “Edacity” and its beauty as an installation, we can appreciate the experience of the environment alone. For the casual viewer, Campbell’s motivation is not needed to intensify the work’s visual claims, which are eloquent. But the visitor who has some sense of the research-based beginnings of “Edacity” will surely appreciate the relations between its scientific themes, evident from the start in the use of “edacity” as the title, and the completed visuals we are drawn to. It is very hard to bring in science-oriented material into contemporary art. Campbell’s environment functions both as a metaphor and as an actual space in which to contemplate the technological fury of the future. Today, despite its seeming marginality, art remains highly important to cultural discussion, even in a time of non-institutional support. Indeed, shifts in economies and power have been changing in light of natural conditions that are, at the same time, adjusting to changes caused by manmade interventions. In this exhibition, Campbell raises vital questions about current technological injuries to the biomass in general, and the food industry in particular. But her art is first a visual gift as well as a discussion of momentous topics. This installation, like Campbell’s work in general, is meant to trigger empathy and reflection and lead to the possibility for change. The artist’s wish to positively connect science to human values affirms her determination to bridge the two outlooks.
Jonathan Goodman, New York