Your Kingdom to Command
Your Kingdom to Command
mural-fountain installation, 84 × 20 × 20 feet; latex paint, bitumen, red-iron oxide, shellac, and tar on plywood; stumps/fountain
Your Kingdom to Command allegorizes the destructive effects of humans’ dependence on fossil fuels on the natural world. This plywood mural is painted with bitumen and tar, black molasses-like substances found deep in the earth and normally refined into fuel. Painted with natural and synthetic pigments, phantom-like flora and fauna float alongside what looks like a tar pyramid or asphalt road receding toward the horizon, above which looms a bitumen and enamel sky; these creatures represent the dead organisms, from zooplankton and algae to megafauna, that decompose over millions of years to become bituminous energy matter. These can also represent the extinction to come… future phantoms in a desolate landscape.
The tree stumps-cum-fountain stand in for the human drama. Humans who are well-off continue to piss on the rest, who slave away within the capitalist machine that ultimately serves the upper crusts of society. One stump came from the Vancouver wind-storm of 2015 (hundreds of trees toppled due to global warming) while the other nursing stump (covered in growth) came from a research forest.
Marina Roy in conversation with Diana Freundl
Marina Roy’s installation Your Kingdom to Command examines the effects an excessive use of fossil fuels has perpetrated on the natural world. Her enormous plywood mural is made from bitumen and tar—black molasses-like substances made from sedimentary rock—in addition to latex paints made of both synthetic and organic resins and pigments. Roy’s mural features a painted ensemble of phantom-like flora and fauna, deceased organisms from a geological past that break down to form bitumen. Once extracted, the bitumen is refined into fuels used to produce products from gasoline to plastics and pharmaceuticals. Overuse of fossil fuels (especially petroleum) has negatively impacted the earth’s biosphere, damaging ecosystems and releasing excess carbon dioxide into the air, which plays a prominent role in global warming. Roy addresses changing climatic conditions with a fountain made of a nursing stump that spurts water onto another stump, salvaged from the 2015 windstorm in Vancouver.
diana freundl: Murals have long been a valued form of public art used to express religious, political and social beliefs. They can also dramatically impact a viewer’s perception of social and political reality. Let’s say it’s 2516—what do you think a viewer would learn about our society from your mural?
marina roy: Much depends on what that world will be like in the future. We find ourselves at a precarious moment in natural and human history. If decisions are made to leave fossil fuels such as bitumen and tar in the ground in the future, due to our acknowledgement of global warming, then the use of these materials will be seen as particular to a twentieth-century capitalist consumer economy that existed in the past.
I was thinking about the meaning of this work in relation to the role of an artist or art institution in raising awareness and developing a response to environmental issues. How important is it to you that viewers gain a collective sense of responsibility from this work? Did you create it with this objective in mind?
Yes, but humans are pretty set in their ways once they fall into the rhythm of the desire economy, and most will do little more than appreciate this work on an aesthetic level. Many would have to see all the biodiverse life dying around them before being propelled to change their behaviour. Or the government would need to impose laws and infrastructural changes so as to force humans to act differently than they now do. With governments so tied to big business, this is proving to be a slow process.
I thought about making the artwork angry or materially ugly—throwing bitumen and tar around in a more gestural manner—but imagined this would likely irritate people rather than engage them. In steering the aesthetic toward a combination of the beautiful and the abject (attraction-repulsion), I hoped it might make people pause and consider the meaning. I do believe that seductive materials and colours can be a hook to draw people into the artwork.
You’ve combined organic and synthetic materials and allowed them to react to one another. Visually, the mural reads like a taxonomy of the natural world of bacteria, fungi, plants and animal species. But it is also reminiscent of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblot tests used to psychoanalyze patients in the 1920s. What were some of your influences? How important is the element of chance in your process of pouring paint?
I feel an affinity to the Rorschach inkblot test and have used it as a psychoanalytic trope of sorts within my work in the past. That is also why I used the Surrealist technique of decalcomania—the process of pouring, pressing down and transferring the paint onto another surface to create biomorphic forms. I am drawn to “pure painting,” the idea that paint naturally reacts in particular ways based on chemistry. So it is perhaps as much about the agency of materials as it is about human agency. These biomorphic forms are the result of matter reacting naturally. They embody elements of both abstraction and figuration—their fluid aspect morphing in the imagination—and what we end up seeing might say something about what unconsciously inhabits our minds. I’m interested in the phenomenon of pareidolia, seeing animals in clouds or a face on the moon.
There is an element of humour in the stump fountain that feels somewhat removed from the seriousness of the mural. Was this satirical relief deliberate? How are the mural and tree stumps related conceptually?
The desire was to juxtapose two dramas, with the black tar pyramid of the mural serving as a stark geometric backdrop against which the stumps stand out. Making the tree a stand-in for the human and portraying this drama using puerile humour—as if one stump is urinating on the other—is allegorical. That is, privileged humans continue to dominate the rest, those who are enslaved to an economy that ultimately serves society’s upper crust. Everyone responds in one way or another to human bodily functions—perhaps the most base form of humour. Here one might experience a double take. One stump is watering the other—potentially read as an act of kindness. But the gesture changes when one notices the watering source looks phallic and hence could also be read as humiliating.
There are multiple references in the bitumen triangle. It is a paved road made from the flora and fauna ghosts that float along its sides. But it is also a reference to the Pyramid of Capitalist System, the 1911 critical cartoon of growing American capitalism in which the wealthy few sit on top while a considerable deprived population remains at its base. The rise and fall of economic systems is the normal course of history; capitalism doesn’t end, it only changes characteristics and adapts to a new environment. Your mural suggests a cycle of digression: buried organisms, transformed underground into a new form of viscous energy, are extracted to provide fossil fuels and a surplus of consumer products, until a scarcity of oil is reached. However, economic expansion is always re-engineered, producing a resumption of growth, only to be derailed again by a new shortage of natural resources in capitalism’s endless claim over the earth’s resources. Is the mural intentionally dystopic, or do you see an end to this cycle of ruin?
The mural and sculptural installation are realistic, in that the asphalt road exists right there in front of the mural [West Georgia Street]. And the life forms exist, although some like zebra mussels and pine beetles are proliferating while others are endangered or becoming extinct such as the poison dart frog. The stumps speak to how Vancouver used to be covered in trees, so they beckon to a Vancouver that still existed just 130 years ago, before the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 and before industrialization really dug its claws into the land.
One might see it as an allegory of things as they stand in a similar way to how the 1911 cartoon operates, but from a non-anthropocentric perspective. I was also thinking of how this installation might echo the “chain of being,” a medieval conception of the world depicted in a drawing from Didacus Valades’ Rhetorica Christiana (1579). The hope is that humans will aim higher than just their own interests and well-being, but one can only anticipate small victories. The urgency of a truly green revolution is essentially what Your Kingdom to Command cries out for. But even if it does arrive, I anticipate it being too late. So there is an element of dystopia there.