Geophagy: the practice of eating soil, clay or chalk. In some cultures it’s a folk remedy or ritual, or driven to it out of starvation (the latter is still in practice post the 2010 quake in Haiti in the form of baked mud biscuits). The first recorded use of medicinal clay is on Mesopotamian clay tablets around 2500 BCE, while the Ebers Papyrus (circa 1550 BCE, but recording a far older tradition) prescribes ochre for stomach problems. “Lemnian earth”, as described by Pliny the Elder, was widely taken medicinally in the Classical world in the form of terra sigillata (sealed earth), and was still used well into the nineteenth century. Sometimes geophagy is associated with pica, the irrational graving to unusual or non-nutritive substances and often associated with pregnancy. Etymologically the word breaks down to “Geo” – the earth, the world, and “Phage” – to eat, perhaps suggesting an imperial-colonial devouring of the world, or an ecological-environmental fear of the planet being metaphorically devoured. As Watson points out with her collaborator, poet Gregory Kan, it is a practice often dismissed in the West as primitive, “tribal”, “psychiatrised or pathologised”.[1]

As a concept, geophagy opens up all sorts of multifaceted questions about the relationship between the world and the self, the exterior and the inscape, and the contingency of language and image that mediates between the two. There is also the question of what actually defines “the world” – is it nature (in the Romantic transcendental sense) or is it a human social/intellectual construct? There is a faintly cannibalistic aspect to it; most cultures have myths about the first humans being created from earth, or being born from Mother Earth (the latter still used today, ranging from common speech to “Gaia” as a metaphor for the interdependency of all life on Earth).

Ruth Watson’s Geophagy, an installation that took over the entirety of Auckland University’s Gus Fisher Gallery (an unusual event in itself), contains elements of all of these things. The theme suggested itself to Watson on taking activated charcoal for food poisoning and evolved from there. It has a euphonious resonance with the strand of Watson’s oeuvre that she is probably best known for – “geography”, her work with maps and mapping, though of course her work is far more complex and diverse than that, rich in the nuanced exploration of identity, feminism, post-structuralism and alternative knowledges, expanding on the diverse iterations of Agnes Denes’ Isomorphic Systems in Isometric Space: Map Projections of the 1970s and ‘80s, Robert Smithson’s “non-sites”, Alighiero e Boetti’s Mappa, Mona Hatoum’s maps, and multiple other veins of human geography.

Central to the installation is the eponymous ziggurat of wooden pallets, second-hand clothes and monitors towering up the Gus Fisher’s exquisite foyer dome, forming the centrepiece to the intervention, with the two other components of the triad forming a kind of periphery in its orbit, occupying the Gus Fisher’s other spaces in this monumental lament for the late, great, planet Earth. We are in the territory of what Bruno Latour calls “Iconoclash”, the experience of violence to the meaning-charged image without knowing whether it is a creative or destructive act.[2] In this case it is the imago mundi itself, and the violence is both the literal exploitation of people and resources, and the figurative Lytotardian cultural fragmentation of post-modernity.

The monitor screens draw together a number of different threads. In one of the more assertive of its presence, a white, male mouth is chewing something brown, probably chocolate (a polyvalent surrogate for a range of things from earth, to the rampant African exploitation of the chocolate industry, to everything outside the Eurosphere) while a female voice reads from Susan Schuppli’s Slick Images: The Photogenic Politics of Oil (2015), describing depictions of the ecologically disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill and talking about the commodification of the natural world.

Another screen (and aren’t most of our experiences of the world mediated by screens these days?) plays a recitation of the introduction of Hito Steyerl’s seminal “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009) and its celebration of the democracy, ambiguous openness and cult-value of sub-par visual culture, accompanied by a screen-grab of a badly glitching Facebook video accompanied by the hearts, thumbs and smileys of social media approval. This video acts as a kind of primer, informing the audience that their experience and reading is a valid expansion of the frame.

Another video consists on the sort of Ikegami CRT TV familiar from installation art of yore plays a screen-grab of infamous Facebook game “Candy Crush”, a favourite recreation (one might even say obsession) of the artist. The stimulus-response-reward nature of the game as a good a metaphor for the global, cosmopolitan, addictive, and exploitative nature of capitalism as any, as “food”, well, refined sugar, is converted into imaginary money values.

Another video teams a man’s hand ceaselessly crushing and releasing a rubber stress ball in the form of a terrestrial globe – a far blunter and less ambiguous image – teamed with a reading of Donna Harraway’s “Making Kin: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene” (2014), while another shows a screen-grab of (the artist) scrolling through image files.
Despite being seemingly disparate, these combine in a loose manifesto of practice and all ultimately relate to what Watson has called, “new cartographies”, writing in the catalogue for her installation Unsafe (2007):

Our idea of what mapping is supposed to do has had to radically expand in the last 30 years. Things, events and processes well beyond the geological or social are now being mapped. Our imagination has been captured by the Human Genome Project or mapping the universe. Another factor in the metaphor’s prevalence may be the exact opposite: the seeming obsolescence of the traditional map in this new era of global positioning systems and other ‘new cartographies’. The map may therefore have become even more available for other, metaphorical tasks.[3]
This striking core edifice invites audience speculation. Rebecca Boswell in a review for Art + Australia Online writes of “The cheap, dull tones of the garments clutter the surface of the structure, like discarded wrappers stuffed into a giant Jenga game.”[4] Emil McAvoy, in EyeConact, makes connections to Christian Boltanski’s Personnes from Monumenta 2010, and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s arte povera Venus of the Rags (1967, 1974), “a colossal washing machine agitator”, the apartment block in J. G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise (1975), and writes, “It is a kind of sublime geopolitical monster, a giant screw both spectacular and terrifying. A metaphor for inundation and displacement, of economic and environmental refugees, migrants, the homeless.”[5]

Virginia Were, writing for Pantograph Punch, also mentions Boltanski and Pistoletto, adding Nam June Paik, and makes the comparison with photojournalism of disaster aftermaths, how Watson feels inundated by such imagery on social media, and how those old clothes put microfibres out into the environment.[6] Victoria Wynn-Jones writes in Art New Zealand of the uncomfortable and domineering physical experience of the work, “Geophagy itself dwarfed its beholders; one could only slowly circumnavigate its bulk and crane one’s neck in an attempt to see its many different elements. The amassing of shapes and the cacophony of sound emitted by its monitors combined to form a feeling of imminent collapse.”[7] This is a point reiterated by Boswell, “This sensory burden makes it difficult on you, as the viewer, to focus on the content of any single message or channel and this is perhaps the point.”[8] A second iteration at the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) in Christchurch, increased the cacophony by redistributing the central mass as a spread of smaller rhizomatic nodes throughout the far larger gallery space.

Geophagy, the art work, didn’t appear fully-formed from the aether; it is part of a family tree (a rhizomatic and tangled family tree) of themes in Watson’s work, going back to Planetarium (1988) that showed at Artpace in Auckland, and what was then the National Art Gallery in Wellington (now Te Papa), bringing together moving image, ambitious installations, the mapping of the unknown, and in a delightful coincidence, the relationship with the physical structure of a dome. It is also, beneath it all, the Biblical Tower of Babel, an archetypal symbol of human hubris and the resulting chaos, from both Breugels to Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis: “Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”[9]

Peter Sloterdijk has argued for a reconsideration of the nature of globalisation, suggesting that it is merely the third wave of civilisation’s (and here German makes the useful distinction between technological Zivilisation and cultural Kultur) drive to annihilate distance, the first being the spread of Classical culture, and the second being the beginning of the age of imperialism and colonisation in the fifteenth century. While the previous waves, Sloterdijk implies, resulted in cosmopolitanism, the current phase is creating a global provincialism.[10] In other words, a second Babel.

In the smaller gallery/boardroom space, a number of different works come together. To varying degrees, they address the nature of the Anthropocene (the proposed epoch of significant human impact on the Earth’s ecosphere and geology) and the Cthulhucene (a more tongue-in-cheek term proposed period for the time of humanity living on a damaged and dying Earth) eras. Humans have a somewhat Freudian relationship with their planetary mother. As Kan and Watson note in their essay “Telluric Insurgencies: Through Hell Gates”, Western Civ is, as described by Bruno Latour in his 2013 Edinburgh University Gifford Lectures, “Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature”, facing a dilemma long familiar from science fiction (Kan and Watson make reference to Christopher Nolan’s 2012 movie Interstellar) and religion – whether hence: up or down, heaven or hell, flee into space or repair the Earth. Latour describes this as a bellum sacrum that may destroy us all, and favours the return to the soil.[11] Earth is necessary for life, the substance Jehovah moulded into Adam, but is also excrement – earth closets and night soil.

In this room was the video triptych The Surface of Things (2015), the only work not made specifically for Geophagy, was the result of Watson’s Fulbright-Wallace residency at the Headlands Centre for Arts, outside San Francisco on the site of a former military barracks and decommissioned Nike missile launch site. One screen plays footage of the missile site, an ominous reminder of the anti-missile missiles and our precarious relationship with our ability to annihilate most of the life on the planet in a few minutes of war. Another screen offers detailed tracking footage of the barracks/residency studio’s oak floor (processed nature) – a map-like surface of paint splatter and cracks, beneath which lies the speculative soil, heavily contaminated by missile fuel and other pollutants (ironically, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area).

The idea of spillage forming maps is one that occurred in a number of earlier Watson works: The World Interrupted (1999), a world map in red wine on grey carpet; Place on Earth (2000), a heart-shaped Werner projection world map made of linseeds on the concrete floor of Canberra Contemporary Art Space, accompanied by a looped DVD; and Cry Me a River (2003), a world map as meandering river drawn in water softening salt – the world defined by human detritus. Wine, salt and seeds all have sacramental qualities to them, and are also deeply symbolic: wine is blood, salt can be a pollutant (salting the earth), connect humans to the sea (humans are composed of approximately the same ratios of salt and water as seawater), and individual grains of salt or seed can represent the teaming billions of people on the planet.

Is the artistic act, symbolised by the paint on the floor, a similar pollutant? In literal terms, a discourse around the environmental ethics and sustainability of art practices has emerged in recent years, though me might also consider a more metaphorical kind of pollution. Douglas Huebler famously stated in a catalogue in 1970, “world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and place.”[12] Or might this poisoned earth be healed and purified by some kind of symbolic artistic ingestion and excretion, or even, like the Reverend Mothers of Dune, convert it into a valuable and potent new substance? Or if not purify it, then at least contain it for a while as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, as Dumbledore drinks the emerald potion of despair in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. These are not trivial examples for they hark to potent archetypes of self-sacrifice.

The central screen plays white text, with the occasional typo, scrolling against a black background with the faintest echo of the Star Wars prologue, a poetic meditation on the politics of surfaces, often mocked in our Western cultural pretensions of wanting to always seek out the hidden depths. There is a decidedly Ballardian quality to the whole, the recognition of an odd kind of imperishable beauty that exists in the detritus of our civilisation that supplants nature, even as is condemns that destruction and supplanting. References are made to the necessity of skin for an organism’s survival, and the shared Greek roots of the works Cosmos and cosmetic.

The other work sharing this space is Transient Global Amnesia (2017) which strikes a different sort of elegiac note, consisting of photographs of maps lying on wet grit imbedded in asphalt, in varying degrees of decomposition by the elements. At their greatest degree of fragmentation they rhyme, as Were notes, in attractive synchronicity with the speckle pattern of the Gus Fisher’s terrazzo floor,[13] and also Watson’s Second Nature (Names and Places) (1990) photograph of pieces of a New Zealand map jigsaw puzzle were haphazardly scattered across a found romantic image of crashing waves.
The earth destroys and absorbs the map (macrocosm devours microcosm). In the colonial context of New Zealand and Australia (Watson is a dual citizen), maps are an act of violence against the land, so this seems an apt revenge. It is also a kind of symbolic cannibalism – geophagy as autophagy.

Semantics are confusing and mere mortals are prone to the logical fallacy of “mistaking the map for the territory”. In his paragraph-long short story “On Exactitude in Science” (1946), Jorge Luis Borges imagines a country so obsessed with exactness that it fashions a map at a 1:1 ratio so that it effectively becomes the country and (it is implied) ruining the national economy in the attempt. This elaborates on a passage in the famously obsessed-with-scale Lewis Carroll’s novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) that runs:

“What a useful thing a pocket-map is!” I remarked.
“That's another thing we've learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What do youconsider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”[14]
Umberto Eco faux-seriously analyses all of the practical and logical absurdities in his essay, “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1”.[15] If art is a Rortian exercise in circumventing the Wittgensteinian dilemma “Wherefore we cannot speak, therefore we must remain silent”, Watson is creating a conceptual representation of such a 1:1 map, a Deleuzian Plane of Immanence that contains all in a self-consciously Western and recursive embracing of futility in a race to record what is destroying itself. As Watson has written:

In Western countries, mapping is currently a ubiquitous and dominant operational metaphor. It has superseded other metaphors derived from other fields; for example, today we rarely “chart our position”, “give an outline of …”, “offer a perspective on …”, “lay out the field of …”, and so on; we now prefer to suggest something is being mapped, or mapped out.[16]
Map as memory disintegrating in a kind of metaphorical dementia, which also calls to mind the kind of geographical erasure caused by the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 – something which surely must have struck a significant chord with the West Melton, Canterbury-born, Ilam-educated Watson. The photographs act as memento mori, reminders of the fragility and ephemerality of existence, and stand-ins for a crumbling world. As Watson has noted, “map” is also an archaic and obsolete verb meaning to confuse or bewilder.[17]

In the larger gallery, we move from acts of mapping physical geography to the artist’s mapping of her own emotional and genealogical geography with Unmapping the World (2017), a video work viewed from couches that one reclines on as if on a cruise liner or Freud’s leather couch at 19 Berggasse. This work touches on themes in earlier Watson works, such as Souvenirs du Monde (1994-96), Vantage (1997), Wonderlands (1997), and The Developing World (1997), but turning that exploration more directly on the artist’s own place in the world, an un-confusing.

This looped video work has a more documentary feeling to it, and is predicated on an internalised debate around the artist’s choice not to have children, particularly whether it was an ethical choice in the face of overpopulation and environmental collapse, or something else. This raw and brave work begins, by means of a monologue (a counterpoint to the babble from the monitors on the central installation), by considering the way European colonisation of countries like Aotearoa New Zealand implicitly politicised procreation and increasing the white population (outnumbering the indigenous) and the broader implications of overpopulation in general, including reference to the People’s Republic of China’s “one child” policy. The theme is introduced with a definition of “living memory”, a pair of ceramic hands, and a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men…”

The dreamlike, non-linear imagery combines aerial views of Antarctica (terra nullius mostly free of humans), a 1970s Encyclopaedia Britannica instructional film about maps, the scrolling contents of a hard drive (a digital and virtual map of places and experiences, echoing similar footage on one of the Geophagy screens) and various mementos of the artist’s colonist ancestors like the green handkerchief that belonged to Sarah here twice great grandmother who came from Northern Ireland in the nineteenth century and died during the birth of her ninth child. This begins a thread, meandering between past and present, that ends with Watson’s conclusion, with reference to the grim coroner’s inquest, that her choice not to have children was not a product of ethical reasoning, but a visceral fear born of this trauma – tokophobia, the fear of giving birth, which appears in many manifestations of our popular culture today, including the sinister children and body horror of many Hollywood movies (Alien comes very much to mind).

Watson notes that this whole area is so politically charged and sensitive that “it’s a conversation we’re not allowed to have.” Such is the primacy to reproduce amongst the rights enshrined by the United Nations in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To question it invites accusations dredging up the eugenic obsessions of the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany or the USSR or hating children. Hannah Arendt postulated that universal human rights, as such, didn’t exist – human rights could only be granted by nation states powerful enough to defend them.

The Antarctic imagery relates to Watson’s 2010 Antarctic artist residency at Scott Base, and what she has to say about it (writing in 2013) is illuminating:

On 26 December 2010 I was in Antarctica, staring at Mt. Erebus. Well, staring at it when I could – most of my time there seemed to be spent shovelling ice. That and an endless list of other purposeful activities, along with specialist clothing and the behaviours each of us had been inculcated to adopt, combined to create a culture bubble within which we functioned. Not that it would take much for the bubble to be violated: Antarctica does offer that often alarming experience of being a mere speck in the face of natural forces. In those conditions I gave no thought to the obvious, that there were satellites above gathering their data, with us now included. People far away from where we were, more than usually isolated from the rest of the world, would have an intimate access to information about that place; possibly more access than we had while actually there. Two years later I found some of those satellite-derived images online, knowing that our entire camp was recorded in less than one pixel of data. These kinds of images worry and fascinate me at the same time.[18]
Synergistically, one of the central themes of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a play on the idea that the world is a cultural projection; the titular fictional world seeks to manifest itself in the physical world through ideas transmitted through a doctored encyclopaedia as a parody of Berkeleyan idealism, the epistemology of how language dictates the kinds of thoughts we can have (the Sapir-Worf hypothesis) and in protest against the authoritarian politics of Argentina. Culture, fiction, the imaginary, displacing the authentic physical world in anticipation of Baudrillard’s simulacra and hyperreality. We are reminded of the artist’s own subjectivity in her interpretation of history, geography, present and self. Is art also an abomination, because it multiplies images, and as Walter Benjamin claimed, most of them inauthentic?

Sarah’s handkerchief indirectly links this work to Watson’s Without Parachute, which showed at The Physics Room in Christchurch in 2002. That installation drew on the concept of silk parachutes being recycled into dresses during rationing and silk maps carried by British airmen in the Second World War, digitally printing aerial views of the Canterbury Plains onto silk and assembling it into a dress modelled on one worn by Watson’s other Irish great great grandmother Martha, which connects to the use of clothes in Geophagy the artwork.[19]

Geophagy, taken as a whole, is an interconnected and intersectional meditation that, powered by the Latourian yoking together of art and science (a “third culture” between the “two cultures” of C. P. Snow), acts as a “missing link” between environmental art, social commentary, and relational aesthetics. It proffers no solutions – its bailiwick is the Rortian waters of ironic pragmatism, the scenic route of discourse and praxis rather than the omega point. It is as complex as the problems involved themselves, as provocative and enigmatic as the black monolith in Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – ambiguously non-didactive enough to act as an aesthetic reparative bridge,[20] as urgent and overwhelming as our approaching Malthusian environmental crisis. The only straightforward statement it desires to convey is that we are all connected by our dependence on the earth, on the Earth, for nourishment which we eventually excrete, and dust to dust at the end. Like geophagy, the therapeutic values are ambiguous in the Western context, but must be committed to in order to be effective.

[1] Gregory Kan and Ruth Watson, “Eating the Outside”, Matters 7, 2017, pp36-7.
[2] Bruno Lautour, “What is Iconoclash or Is there a world beyond the image wars?” in Iconoclash, Beyond the Image-Wars in Science, Religion and Art (edited by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour), ZKM and MIT Press, 2002 pp14-37.
[3] Ruth Watson, Unsafe (catalogue), Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland, 2007.
[4] Rebecca Boswell, “Ruth Watson’s Geophagy”, Art + Australia Online, (accessed 25/09/2017).
[5] Emil McAvoy, “Eating Dirt”, EyeContact, (accessed 25/09/2017).
[6] Virginia Were, “Complex and Disturbing: a review of Ruth Watson’s Geophagy”, Pantograph Punch, (accessed 25/09/2017).
[7] Victoria Wynn-Jones, “Provisional Arrangements: Ruth Watson’s Geophagy”, Art New Zealand 163, Spring 2017, pp92-3.
[8] Op Cit, Boswell.
[9] Genesis 11:9 (KJV).
[10] Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization, Polity Books, 2013.
[11] Gregory Kan and Ruth Watson, “Telluric Insurgencies: Through Hell Gates”, Parahistory 3 (edited by John Mutambu and Bridget Riggir), 2015, p40.
[12] Roberta Smith, “Douglas Huebler, 72, Conceptual Artist” (obituary), New York Times, 17/07/1997).
[13] Op Cit, Were.
[14] Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Macmillan and Co, 1893, Chapter 11.
[15] In Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays (translated by William Weaver), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1992.
[16] Ruth Watson, “Mapping and Contemporary Art”, The Cartographic Journal, Vol. 46 No. 4 pp. 293–307 Art & Cartography Special Issue, November 2009, p295.
[17] Op Cit, Unsafe.
[18] Ruth Watson, “Art at the Interface of Data and Image” (a review of artist Laura Kurgan’s book Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics, 2013), Metamute (11/12/2013) (accessed 25/09/2017)
[19] Andrew Paul Wood, “What Colour is Your Parachute”, Without Parachute (2002), The Physics Room, Christchurch.
[20] See Susan Best, Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Comparative Art Photography, Bloomsbury, 2016.


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