Column: Lotus

by Arjuna Neuman

Before Lotus: Pre-Internet Art in a Post-Internet World, and the Religion of Consumerism
In After Microsoft (2007) the artist collaborative Goldin + Senneby re-photograph the actual rolling green hills from the default wallpaper of Microsoft Windows XP. The work reminds us that there are real and material precedents to what we see on the screen. This pre-internet art seems to run counter to the ahistorical post-internet trend, which willfully forgets what has come before the immaculate Internet and focuses instead only on what comes through and after. One such post-internet artist describes himself as having been born on the Internet in 2011 as if it were an orphanage.

This kind of willful amnesia, more generally speaking, invites a type of art that serves technology. Especially when artists (usually unbeknown to themselves) make projects that glorify, decorate, fetishize, or mystify the technology, simply for technology’s sake (and perhaps for its partner in crime, market remuneration—for example, see artists under the Stefan Simchowitz brand—a collector who made his fortune by selling his tech start-up to Getty Images, and trades art with the same kind of flippancy as Getty treats their stock images). In fact, one could make the argument that art’s role has always been to serve technology—from the carvings on prehistoric stone tools to medieval illuminated manuscripts to the backdrops and wallpapers of computers and smartphones today. Hence the reason many context ignorant artists default to this advertising mode of production.

Fortunately, not all art about technology defaults to product celebration. In Nymphaea Transplant (2014), the artist Pierre Huyghe also looks back to a material precedent for a contemporary phenomenon: A particular set of three sculptures from the exhibition In. Border. Deep are man-made ecosystems in specially designed, faintly modernist aquarium tanks. On the surface float pretty lilies, descendents of the first Latour-Marliac hybrid, while through the glass and below the surface there are roots, mud, fish, and other creatures. All of which are borrowed from Giverny—the ponds and water gardens Monet built that inspired over 300 water lily paintings. Huyghe uses a type of glass that transitions from transparent to opaque in sync with the aquarium’s lighting—these shifts in light and visibility correspond with historically recorded natural lighting conditions drawn from the specific dates that Monet was making his water lily painting. In Nymphaea Transplant, what is abstracted, manipulated and compressed is the timeframe, or time itself—a year passes in a few hours, a day in a few minutes—and yet, the natural elements, the snails and flowers, remain in their original and native temporality.

Nymphaea Transplant performs our desire for mastery over time—and over ecosystems and plant genetics, perhaps forecasting a wishful total mastery of the geo-ecosystem of earth itself (the slogan from the Whole Earth Catalogue comes to mind, “We are as gods, and might as well get used to it”). Huyghe warns that through technology not only can we recreate the exact lighting conditions from a day over 100 years earlier, but, like a god we can speed up or splice nature to suit our more modern tastes and sensibilities. The work reveals the hubris of our desire to control nature, an anthropocentric arrogance founded on a reverential relationship with technology (made by humans still)—with little care for the consequences of our actions. All too often art about technology in general takes this relationship for granted—or rather humans are conflated with gods because we have technologies that control space, time, and life itself—the artwork then functionally justifies and even normalizes the unethical ramifications such a conflation permits.

These human-as-god ethics (or lack thereof) have led both to the widespread destruction of nature, the climate crisis, and the destruction of other humans—a historical precedent that unintentionally reappears in the new iPhone 6 wallpaper and its branding. If we look at the wallpaper’s wider historical context, like Goldin + Senneby’s After Microsoft approach, we can understand this perverse link. The current Apple advertising campaign uses a purple lotus flower to associate new iPhones with New Age spirituality, the ubiquitous fad of contemporary times. The lotus flower is traditionally the representation of chakras and an important symbol in globalized yoga. Of course, this merging of technology with spirituality is only a lifestyle marketing strategy, albeit a hypocritical (read: normal) one that bypasses logic through a manufactured desire that borders on reverence. However, Apple isn’t the first to borrow from Hindu mythology to spiritualize, justify, and mythically promote a technology. The SS military commander, Heinrich Himmler in his Posen speech also calls on the lotus flower from the Baghavad Gita (incidentally, J. Oppenheimer also justifies the Manhattan Project with this book), to separate duty from sin in the technological industrialization of murder. Himmler paraphrases the line, “One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water.” Later, as a product of such official thinking, the SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann famously states on trial, “I am neither a murderer nor a mass-murderer, I was merely a little cog in the machine.”

Huyghe’s aquariums flirtatiously hide and reveal what is beneath the surface of the real lilies in their tanks: their life supporting ecosystems, their man-made hybridity, Monet’s water lily paintings and the human-as-god fantasy at play in both science and culture respectively. This use of technology to understand and unpack its own context is vastly different from the iPhone 6 backdrop on a monolithic billboard. The Apple advertisement only shows a mandala-like purple lotus flower, hygienically severed from its invisible roots that are deep in the murk and mud.