Maya kòvskaya
Marg, Art & Ecology


(Selected excerpts from Maya Kovskaya's essay)

A new existential condition is casting its shadow across the world, and with it comes a new word for the anguished mental and cultural state accompanying this condition-"solastalgia", coined by the eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht. Its sibling concept "nostalgia" is the melancholic state of homesickness we experience when separated from our beloved homes. Solastalgia takes the natural world as our truest and most basic form of home. It expresses the psychological and cultural trauma of the loss of home in the most profound sense. It is a loss induced by climate collapse, biodiversity loss, and other intensely destabilizing and grievous planetary-level environmental transformations. These transformations are producing collective solastalgia across the globe, as the stable conditions for everyday life are disappearing into droughts, wildfires, freak weather, airpocalypse level pollution, toxic water, dying oceans, mass extinctions and so on. If solastalgia is the emotional and cultural symptom, the "Anthropocene" is the affliction. Also a neologism, the Anthropocene concept describes the earth after the Holocene, in a state caused by ecologically destructive human activity that will endure in geological deep time long after the extinction of our species.

To ameliorate this crisis of the Anthropocene driving our collective solastalgia, we need new narratives of what it means to live a decent, meaningful and fulfilling life to help us rethink the human condition, challenge our assumptions, shatter extant paradigms and recuperate usable strands of older cosmologies and knowledges to address the problems of living in the world today. To solve the huge systemic problems we are facing, we require systemic solutions that can be put into embodied practice, which means we need bold new systemic narratives and optics that illuminate new modes of being and belonging. Art is urgently needed to do this hard work. The Anthropocene can be taken as a crisis state caused solely by "anthropos" rather than any nonhuman species, but that would be an incomplete explanation. More precisely, the Anthropocene was set in motion, driven and perpetuated by a very specific form of human civilization that came to dominate the world through European white-supremacist settler colonialism, indigenous genocides, industrial scale monoculture plantations and intensive animal agriculture, and industrial-scale extractive hydrocarbon industries. Understood this way, the Anthropocene concept offers fertile ground for engaging with questions of the human and more than-human condition through art. I will look at a few examples of Anthropocene-related works and practices in Indian art (by no means exhaustive) that reflect these crises as we both suffer and also inflict the rapid destruction of the natural world that we rely on to survive on this planet.
Installation view of Sonia Mehra Chawla's 'Residue' from the Critical Membrane series at Yinchuan Biennale 2016, China
The spectre of dying seas, dammed rivers, displaced people, clear-cut forests, strip-mined wastelands, is representative not only of our human mortality, but indeed mortality across the biosphere. The biosphere is comprised of all life on earth, of which we are but one very small species casting a very large shadow over all the others. Our biosphere cannot survive without a healthy hydrosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere-water, land, air-basic necessities for life on this planet, that are causally mutually entangled. Taken together, the destruction of complex ecosystems such as coral reefs, rising sea levels, the warming, acidification and plasticification of oceans, the disruption of elemental food-chain components such as plankton, climate change, melting sea ice, and rising temperatures that feed back into unpredictable weather patterns all spell doom for life in the ocean, on land and in the air, as well as for the human lives that depend upon them. The biosphere is the space of both resilience and frailty, evolution and extinction. But while most evolution for life as we know it takes place at a time scale much slower than human generations, mass extinctions can happen in the space of a single lifetime. And have in our lifetime because of human activity.
Installation view of 'Altered Growth' from the artist's Salt Lab series at Khoj International Artists Association, New Delhi, 2018.
Indeed, every extinction is immeasurably violent, because each loss reverberates across the web of life in ways so interwoven that we can barely begin to understand until it is far too late.

Bringing traditional knowledges into dialogue with contemporary art and science in critical zones and ecological hotspots could be one measure against solastalgia. For the past half-decade, Sonia Mehra Chawla's work has taken an art/science-focus on climate change and other anthropogenic impacts on endangered coastal and mangrove ecosystems along India's Coromandel and Malabar coasts. She seeks to make art through research drawn from traditional knowledge systems and current scientific studies. In The Salt Lab she focuses on the agricultural crisis in coastal India, looking at the effects of climate change on rice ecosystems, and investigates the climate adaptation capacities of both transgenic and ancient indigenous rice strains. This ongoing project examines the effects of salinity on food crops, comparing both transgenic tobacco plants modified with genetic material from mangroves and more than 20 indigenous coastal saline-tolerant rice cultivars, such as Pokkali, Matla, Kaksal, Nona Bokra, Nona Soren, Gheus and Rupsal among others, which have been cultivated in a lab and documented by Mehra Chawla.

I would like to conclude by thinking about the profound mutualism and intersectionality of all ecological processes. In spaces and systems where land and water meet, we can see this especially clearly.

We often fail to see the ecological value of these so-called "wastelands" and reclaim them for "productive" human use. But salt flats, salt pans, or salt marshes form ecologically critical intertidal zones between land and sea. Far from being unproductive dead zones, these tidal salt flats are as ecologically generative as tropical rainforests. They support both aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna. They are agents of photosynthesis, and function as depositories for organic matter and sites of vital decomposition processes that are critical to the aquatic web of life, supplying nutrients that nourish a plethora of organisms in coastal waters. Undisrupted, salt marshes form a critical thread in the web of interconnected living systems that cannot function normally if that web is broken.

There is a meticulous intelligence to this web of life, and such coastal salt pans are an index of ecological well-being in the relationship between land and sea. Images of these capture the intertwined processes shaping the world and bring us back to the irreducible entanglement of all life. In our shared mortality and mutual material contingency, are we humans and nature not one and the same body and being? And if our activities on this earth destroy that nature on which our lives depend to survive, is not ecocide a profligate form of suicide?

We have a brief window to make dramatic changes to the dominant systems of everyday life before the Anthropocene becomes the staging ground for cataclysmic crisis that will change life as we know it irrevocably. Our collective solastalgia is a warning bell that we fail to heed at our peril. Only a radical reimagining of what it means to be human and live a decent, dignified life in balance with the more-than-human world, rather than existing parasitically from it, can save us from the destruction unleashed in the Anthropocene. Without new visions of what constitutes being human and new narratives of how to be in the world, how can we begin to change how we live, or know what kind of home on earth is worth fighting for?
'Solastalgia, the Anthropocene and Indian Contemporary Art' by Maya Kovskaya

MARG, Art & Ecology

Vol.71, No. III

MARCH 2020

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