Catalogue essay for The Lotus Eaters written by Emily Brady

An Elemental Journey: 

Barbara Wildenboer’s The Lotus Eaters

Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,

And in a little while our lips are dumb.

Let us alone. What is it that will last? [1]

Barbara Wildenboer’s ‘The Lotus Eaters’ presents an elemental journey through humanity’s effects on the earth through space and time, expressing ideas about environmental tragedy, human apathy, and the play of control and inability to control our interactions with the environments we inhabit and consume.

This journey is executed through forms and meanings that are, in many respects, appealing, delicate, and fragile, rather than heavy or apocalyptic. The installation,  1%, consisting of ninety-nine borosilicate laboratory glass water droplet shapes standing upright on the gallery floor are quite beautiful, glistening and shiny, bringing home both the aesthetic and ecological value of the remaining amount of water suitable for human consumption. The molecular beauty of Maseru’s microscopic water crystals seen up close through glass over black digital prints in Prayer, pseudoscience and polluted water, is reminiscent of Kant’s idea that many natural beauties appear to be created for our pleasure.[2] This idea was not a hedonistic notion, rather, it was Kant’s attempt to explain the relationship between the perceiver and subject of perception, where something which emerges through nature’s teleology appears extraordinary, something that seems unusually fitted to our capacities for engaging with the world around us.

My emphasis on beauty in these works is intended to emphasize the sensitivity with which Wildenboer executes some very serious environmental themes, but I do not wish to hide other aesthetic expressions that can be found here. In Deluge, Wildenboer creates whirlpool shapes from hand cut paper, loosely based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings which examined water turbulence and patterns within moving water. These swirling paper disks laid upon maps suggest the sheer force and expanse of water extending without boundaries, bringing to mind notions of sublimity, yet held within the form of an artwork.

Water in all its forms – rivers, lakes, seas, oceans – has so often seemed unlimited, that is, the human ability to capture it, use it for transportation and consumption, pollute it, clean it, and carry on using it underwrites the belief that water is an everlasting resource. This is matched by sensory perception of water in its various sublime expressions – the vast expanse of oceans, tidal phenomena and huge waves, or the tremendous force of a river breaking its banks. Here, the sublime power of water would have us believe that this (classical) element is infinitely present. At once, water transmits a metaphor for our sense of control and our distinct inability to control. Returning to Kant, we find this interesting juxtaposition: ‘The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, to esteem it, even contrary to our (sensible) interest’.[3] Something which is appealing and attractive is easy to like or attach value to, whereas something sublime, or great, challenges us, demanding admiration and respect.

The aesthetic and moral become intertwined in these environment-human interactions. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his men’s passage to the land of the lotus eaters involves moral action, not merely sensory engagement. Eating the lotus flowers brought about – through intentional actions ignorant of their outcomes – a general lack of interest, a lack of care.  By contrast, we find the faithful Penelope awaiting for Odysseus’ return, weaving and undoing her death shroud. In Penelope’s Web, Wildenboer captures clouds and sky as a backdrop to a spider web delicately woven using thread and pins. Is this hope, looking skywards, rather than the despair so commonly employed to capture our current predicament? This speaks, again, to this exhibition’s intention to reveal serious environmental concerns yet to do so by moving away from bleak expressions of our ecological futures.

In ‘The Lotus Eaters’, Wildenboer imagines an aesthetic-moral journey, a passage characterized by shades of beauty and sublimity. Created generations ago, a Greek myth speaks directly to present generations who themselves must take responsibility for and respond to catastrophic climatic change in the name of future generations – where apathy is not a choice.

[1] From, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Lotos-eaters’, www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174631.

[2] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1790] 2000).

[3] Kant, 2000, General Remark, 5:267, p. 151.