The Sleep of Reason

Essay / by Bruce Sterling /

Bruce Sterling reflects on artist Alexis Rockman's psychedelic, posthuman exhibit Half-life.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW Mimic by Alexis Rockman. Courtesy Nyehaus

He’s an American alligator and a contemporary New York painter.

Like any alligator in New York City (and there are many), he spends his days in the tainted urban water — meditating in his flooded basement in TriBeCa. With a dense, weedy growth of algae on his cracked, barklike hide, he might be mistaken for some long-submerged telephone pole.

His large golden eyes move, viscid and glimmering, above and below the murky waterline. Though he is known for the searing clarity of his paintings, there are things below the waterline that he does not paint.

Years ago, the alligator made up his mind about these central issues in his oeuvre. He decided, as an act of deliberate will, to maintain his amphibious ambiguity. An ambiguity about the boundary of man and animal. An ambiguity about the borders of nature and artifice. Of art, of science. Dabbling a brush in the swampy murk of his oils, he would depict that ambiguity.

The American alligator’s enormous tail stirs listlessly. A fetid vortex of Manhattan ooze coils lazily across his atelier. Alligators frequent the water because they are carnivores. Sooner or later, every animal shows up to drink.

Let us now consider, in a fine art-historical fashion, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s epic masterpiece of Victorian nature painting, Monarch of the Glen. Here we’ve got a noble, branch-antlered stag — a dead ringer for Bambi’s dad — poised in an ontological realm of pre-Darwinian nature worship.

Science cannot see a stag in the way that Landseer painted it. If you are a particularly perceptive scientist, every once in a while an uncanny emanation will step out of the shadows of the art world and confront you — rather like this stag does. It’s large, hairy, sunlit, impressive, and yet deeply mute. It crosses your vision, so you know it’s there, but since science and art are never supposed to commune, there is nothing you can say to it.  You can say nothing about it, against it or for it. You might, if you were a particularly lucky and well-prepared biologist, shoot it, dissect it and stuff it.  Then it will become “objective,” like you, the scientist.  Instead of mutely, powerfully and ominously subjective, like its large looming animal self.

Yet Landseer’s stag, this wet-nosed vision confronting eager hunters with its rough animal masculinity, has to drink. Since he’s a genuine wild animal, there are lots of fleas aboard him. He has wriggling internal parasites, as well as forest ticks the size of grapes in his mighty ears; the Monarch of the Glen is a hoof-trotting ecosystem, and every one of these tiny parasites, fiercely devouring him in units of less than one, takes some minim of his fluid.
What writhing, living fluid is this?  It might be blood, plasma, a streak of dripping lymph.

Eventually, tormented with thirst, the mighty stag must venture to the water hole. Every beast in the forest must go. They know that the odds were weighted against them eons ago. The extremity of their need makes them a hapless set of targets.

Landseer’s handsome stag picks his way to the much-trampled, muddy fringe of the pond, where suspicious stains wander diagonally through sopping clusters of beautifully rendered leaves. There he sniffs the curdled air, and retreats a few gracious steps, and secretly wishes that maybe a doe or a fawn would venture knee-deep into that suspicious murk there… But a doe or a fawn can’t very well do his drinking for him. So he dents the placid water with his muzzle. Concentric rings from his lapping tongue radiate across his view.

Then: eyeblink fast, camera-shutter fast — there’s an explosion of cold saurian aggression, like a rippling set of alligator suitcases lurching from the serpentine luggage tracks at JFK airport. Moments later, there is no visible distinction between the Monarch of the Glen and the mud. Everything is silent, everything is peace. Everything looks natural. Here and there, drifting like the serpentine whiplash of a Jugendstil drawing, there’s a delicately colored tint. A colored ribbon. Maybe it’s intestinal bile, cerebrospinal fluid…  More a suggestion of form, than a form… Every once in a while there’s a little camels’-hair brush action there, some interesting bristly clot.

To imagine that a living, breathing beast that size could be reduced to a rainbow swirl…  molecule thin… Well, there were living fellow creatures in the Cambrian Era, leaping swimming things mashed-flat between page-thin layers of ancient shale…  earthly creatures quite beyond human imagination. They have Latin names like “hallucination” and “anomaly.” By the placid ticking of the alligator’s internal clock, they’re no weirder than a French poodle.

Alligators, having persisted longer than dinosaurs, are naturally inclined to take the long view. We could have re-framed this piece without the noble Monarch of the Glen, and substituted a leathery, duckbilled,  mooing hadrosaur that, in its mighty thirst, could kick a stag aside like a kitten… Yet it too, its itching hide swarming with commensal organisms, would ambivalently hesitate. Before venturing to guzzle, it would gaze into the water hole. The murk swirling there hasn’t clarified in eons.

Life is what life is. Crocodilians exhibit rich variety: alligators, gavials, caymans… Much older things… A breathing, blinking, feeling creature the size of a Manhattan bus can only be rendered with fangs like jackhammer bits. Evolution, so rich in wonderment and marvel, will conjure those.

Nature never writes history, though if she did, historians would be a footnote in an epic dominated by Nature’s popular stars: plankton, stromatolites, wriggly annelids, the beetles.  Nature has her own formats of heroic cinematography. Nature likes aching, endless, sixty-million year tracking shots. There are epic struggles within her subcellular realms that outdo the sadistic combats in the Roman Colosseum. When a painter leaves Manhattan for the tropics, off to admire some eco-tourist Tarzan lianas, he might well drop dead of malaria. Nature, like Eisenstein, is firmly on the side of the masses. The insurgent millions of sporozoites crack human blood cells like Hollywood popcorn.

Nature’s alchemical laws underlie all human intention, a ribbon, a smear, a wind, a torrent, a gout of blood, a layer of humus generated by a trillion little lives and deaths. Human beings flit in and out of the meniscus of the natural, a water strider on the membrane of geologic time.

Trapped in the inevitable wallow of earthly decay,  mankind is, increasingly, sinking in the mulch of human artifice. Human debris, sinking to the inky bottom of the alligator pond, a harvest too bitter even for the worms…  Glassware, toxic vinyl,  and shiny aluminum; a styrofoam soup in the Pacific,  polar ice gone missing with no forwarding address, a foodweb blown to rotten lace, with gothic cobwebby holes of the vanished in the Sixth Great Extinction… A fantastic mulch of the natural and political. Yesterday’s brilliant inventions, more mortal even than their masters, become an ooze in the planet’s hidden waters, a toxic dust, the plaything of the whipping winds.

Dripping mayhem covers the canvas: north, east, south and west, center, pole and periphery, forward and back in time.  On any scale a monster might care to depict: glaciers, tornadoes, down the busily swarming bacteria, swapping their pirate cassettes of antibiotic resistance, like the music-tape pirates down at Saint Mark’s Place. New genes, plucked like snarled wire from the guts of a shattered piano, then kinked, knotted, plier-jammed into the tasty flesh of pigs, chickens and cows. Over-eager weeds break from concrete sidewalks bridging sullen, forgotten, still-dripping New York streams.

Before Manifest Destiny, salmon was the cheapest chow in New York. Salmon swarmed up the Hudson in flocks to beat passenger pigeons.

The alligator takes a break for lunch. Some lox is in order, maybe a poppyseed bagel…  He watches what he eats, the alligator; the art press, in its facile way, claims that he’s a good-looking guy…  The distended fangs reel painfully into his jaw.  His scaly tail breaks into writhing maritime tentacles,  evolving into structures at least roughly bipedal…  Time for a walk…  Instead of scaly waving claws alive with leeches, he has hands now. Because mankind has hands. Rock-chipping, fire-starting, evolved, jointed digits, with opposable thumbs.  Members that could wreck a planet.

A man could be a fine artist with hands like that.

Reprinted with permission from Nyehaus gallery.

Originally published March 1, 2009

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