You would hardly expect to learn about biology when hearing an artist speak. Yet that was where installation artist David Brooks commenced his lecture in the Performance Penthouse at the Logan Center this past Monday. Touted in his introduction as “an explorer of material culture,” Brooks drew creative inspiration from his travels through South America with a group of ichthyologists, ornithologists, and herpetologists. He characterized the Amazon as a place of mystery and escape, a view popularized in the Western imagination by the fantastic journeys of Alexander von Humboldt. Yet its significance endures to this day: “It really is an organic abyss where biologists have not yet reached a plateau in biodiversity studies.” With enough energy to be mistaken for an evolutionary biologist, Brooks used the example of the armored catfish of the family Loricariidae to describe how geologic and evolutionary factors have created that unique ecosystem.
However, there is a method to the madness of an artist displaying such deep knowledge of biology. Brooks introduced the topic of art by talking about Preserved Forest, his installation at MoMA PS1 in New York. He claimed that this piece was directly inspired by the Interoceanic Highway cutting across Brazil and Peru. “This mega-infrastructural level of construction, in my mind, is almost like paving the Amazon,” he said of the project, which bisects large tracts of rainforest. For the installation, Brooks planted South American trees and plants procured in Florida on an earthen hill within the museum to represent “a remnant forest.” He then covered the greenery with concrete “to entomb, almost to drown, but also to preserve the entire forest.”
What was most fascinating about Preserved Forest was that it was still alive and never unchanging: “With the very fragile traces embedded within the concrete, there’s really a fossilization, and a crystallization, but also a decomposition, all happening simultaneously.” Branches break off and fall, exposing living matter to moisture in the air and allowing trees to regrow. “This subverts the stasis of a monumental sculpture, since here was something that’s meant to change over time.” What is so powerful about Brooks’s work is his interpretation of art as a mutable entity, challenging the viewer’s idea of what art constitutes.
Brooks’s other works include Still Life with Stampede and Guano, a traveling piece in which mundane statues of animals are covered in bird droppings. A Proverbial Machine in the Garden, located at Storm King Arts Center, features a tractor buried underground, visible through steel grates covering exposed, unearthed sections of the work. A work entitled Lonely Loricariidae, shown at Art Basel in 2014, displays the five unclassified South American catfish with which Brooks was enamored. It captures not only the intrigue of trade within the high-end aquarium industry, but also the failures of taxonomic classifications, as the species exhibited have yet to be fully described by biologists.
Desert Rooftops was installed in the heart of New York City. In the piece, shingled rooftops evoke the banalities of suburbia, with interpretive signs about desertification situated on the side designed in the style of National Park Service signs. What is unique about many of Brooks’s pieces is a conscious element of sustainability. Desert Rooftops, for instance, was designed to make disassembly easy. All materials were then given to Habitat for Humanity, allowing real rooftops to be constructed. Even in Preserved Forest, the vast quantity of concrete was ultimately recycled. “It takes a cumbersome and suffocating amount of material to create a visceral portrait of the situation, so it’s important that it continues on to have a life after that,” Brooks said. And that is what is so compelling about Brooks. He is an artist who not only challenges the boundaries of art itself, but is also aware of environmental and ecological concerns that plague today’s world of consumption and excess.