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Editorial Review

Art review: ‘E-CO’ at American University Museum

By Michael O’Sullivan
Thursday, June 9, 2011

The title of a new photography exhibition at the American University Museum involves a bit of wordplay, both intentional and unintentional. Called “E•CO,” the show features environmentally themed works by photography collectives from around the world.

“E” for “environment” + “CO” for “collective” = “E•CO,” as in “ecology” — get it?

But there’s another sense of “collective” too, beyond the works’ collaborative origins. That’s the sense of “collective” that refers to us, as in our collective responsibility as global citizens.

It’s a big deal, and a big show, with works running from the polemic to the poetic. Originally commissioned by Spain’s cultural ministry, “E•CO” features pieces from 20 groups, each ranging in size from a handful of artists to a dozen or more. The traveling version of the show at AU is an abridged edition of the European original, and it still takes up an entire floor.

It’s also something of a rabble-rouser.

What that means, according to curator Claudi Carreras, is that the show doesn’t just want to teach, but to transform. That it does so — at times with a kick to the head, at others with a sickening gut-punch and at others still by softly plucking on our heartstrings — is a testament to the strength of the connections it makes. Connections between people, between places, between species even, but mostly between our individual actions and their cumulative consequences.

Where, for instance, did that old computer you got rid of last year end up? You’ll find out here, courtesy of Pandora Foto. The answer isn’t pretty. The Spanish group’s contribution to “E•CO” shows dumps in Pakistan and Ghana, where toxins from a mountain of electronic waste have created what looks like a living hell.

There are, somewhat surprisingly, some beautiful, even haunting, images here. Take the series of black-and-white photos of taxidermied animals — all endangered — that Kameraphoto found in Portuguese living rooms. They’re surreal, maybe even a little funny. Still, this is not a feel-good show. But it’s one that feels important, even necessary.

Among the standouts: Brazil’s Cia de Foto, whose members documented Sao Paulo’s recent torrential rainfalls. Not through deadpan photojournalism, though, but through a series of arresting images — digitally drained of color — that lend the phenomenon of weather an eerie, heightened drama. (The still pictures are accompanied by a video showing a flooded street and a steady downpour.)

Another powerful essay comes from Peru’s Versus Photo. Shot in the rain forest, in and around a psychiatric hospital, the photos are lurid, color-saturated and kind of wild, with a randomness of subject that makes the point of the essay a little hard to read. Is it about society’s undesirables? An allusion to human garbage? Hung salon-style, from floor to ceiling, the pictures are among the show’s most visually powerful, though they work on a level that is more visceral than cerebral.

The work of the London-based Documentography group is more direct. Its members explored the theme of trash from multiple angles, including works that meticulously record — in the manner of a dispassionate museum curator — a single day’s worth of garbage from two urban families. These pictures fetishize garbage, making it almost beautiful, until you contrast them with other nearby pictures of grotesque and sprawling Third World landfills.

At times, the ideas that “E•CO” makes flesh can be overwhelming: Italian cancer victims; a poisoned river in Buenos Aires; the deceptively spotless innards of a German nuclear plant; pollution in China.

The temptation is to turn away. Out of sight, out of mind. Tell yourself that it’s someone else’s problem.

In the collective view of “E•CO’s” artist-activists, there’s no such thing as someone else.

The story behind the work in ‘E-CO’

Climate change, poisoned water, garbage dumps — sometimes the damage we’re doing to our home planet is obvious. Less obvious is the human toll of our actions.

As “E•CO” makes clear, there’s an econ-omic divide that parallels the environ-mental one: between the haves, who can afford pristine nature, and the have-nots, who can’t.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the photos of Garapa, a Brazilian collective whose work documents the so-called “eco-wall” under construction in Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly to prevent the encroachment of the city’s sprawling slums, known as favelas, on Rio’s green spaces. Criticized as a form of economic apartheid — as well as an attempt to hide an eyesore from tourists coming to the 2016 Summer Olympics — the wall is being built largely by favela residents, many of whom are desperate for whatever work they can get. “In the end,” one construction worker is quoted as saying in the “E•CO” catalogue, “we got something to build our own cage.”

— Michael O’Sullivan