February 4, 2009

Women and the Environment

Filed under: Austin life — daz76 @ 6:58 am

This is an experiment – I wrote this rough draft tonight for submission to yet another writing contest (dumb idea I know but it keeps me on my toes) and I have a few days until I need to submit it. The theme of the contest is “Women and the Environment” and I chose to talk about artist Barbera Kruger and scientist Marie Curie. If, no, when, I finally place in one of these writing competitions I am going to get a Beret and never let anyone forget that I am an award (gift certificate to a bookstore) winning writer and will begin acting the part in earnest.

I can’t wait for that… Anyway any feedback or OCD grammar notes will be considered. Help me win the writing competition!!

Women and the Environment

What do women have to do with the environment? Good question indeed, and one I have never really considered before. It’s funny how I never thought of women in context of the environment, even though we say Mother Nature all the time. Traditionally women have played a role as that of symbolizing Earth, life, growth, bounty. The Venus of Willendorf is a prime example and an obvious connection can be made to the shape of the figurine, rounded, maybe pregnant, and that of the Earth itself. Psychically women have much to do with the environment, but I think most people if asked to consider the environment think of Al Gore with his message of global warming, or the lumberjacks in their plaid flannel chopping down the trees in Alaska. Obviously there are countless women out there in forestry, waste management, the EPA and other jobs that directly affect the environment every day, I guess I’m just suggesting that there seems to be something macho about the environment and the way people view it.

But that’s just a surface view, skimming my general thoughts about a very huge subject. To get more specific I had to ask a simple and obvious question; What woman has had a great impact on the environment? I pondered that for a day or so and it hit me, twice.

Barbera Kruger.

Barbera Kruger came into widespread prominence in the mid eighties when her minimalist slogan art began appearing in galleries, magazines, and most importantly in public spaces. Kruger is still active today but her iconic nature was defined by her raw work, often times a black and white photo greatly enlarged with a simple phrase or message placed on top in her trademark futura font, usually a comment on consumerism, power, or sexual inequality in modern American culture. Just as important as the message in the art was the way her art was experienced by the viewer. In magazines her work was incorporated into advertising design and in a provocative way often elevated the product being sold above the consumerism that she was commenting on. More to the point is her public work and it’s relationship with how we experience our immediate surroundings and who controls that. The environment is not just glaciers and icebergs, marshes and atolls. The street is just as much part of
the environment and it’s where most humans exist. Wherever we are IS our environment.

Imagine emerging from the subway onto New York’s Fifth Avenue only to see a large and crude poster stating “I shop therefore I am” behind the glass at a bus stop. For some, they relate to the critical nature of the piece, pointing a finger at the frivolity of commercialism, and then others who maybe are offended by the direct and one way nature of Kruger’s message. The words alone are not that caustic, but when placed in one of the most famous epicenters of extravagance and consumerism the work is contextualized and becomes meaningful and thought provoking, significant. Graffiti and street art in general are vilified but Kruger’s public work begs the question, “Just because someone paid for the space, it’s OK to pollute the environment with advertising, while graffiti or unauthorized street art is wrong?”.

I feel that Barbera Kruger’s artwork speaks to this concept and urges us to consider the
images and graphics, sloganeering and catchphrases we are exposed to daily as we drive, walk, take public transportation. Our environment is saturated with these urging promotions and ads, Kruger used the medium for her message, and the urban environment is  her vehicle.

Marie Curie.

While it is easy to talk about Barbera Kruger and the relationship of her art on the environment because art is subjective, and my thoughts are as valid as anyone else’s, I wanted to also try to figure out what woman was really, hands down, the most influential in affecting our environment and of course I came to Marie Curie, the polish scientist who discovered and gave name to radioactivity. The first female professor at the University of Paris, Madam Curie single handedly changed the way humans interact with the world, giving us power that some might say borders on the un-natural. The concept of radioactivity made some think that the idea of ever having to conserve energy would be a thing of the past, but at what cost?

Radio activity
Discovered by Madam Curie
Chain reaction and mutation
Contaminated population

These are the words sung by Kraftwerk in their song “Radioactivity” from the 1975 album of the same name. Need we look further than Chernobyl or Hiroshima to understand the level of potential for destructive force and enviormental horror that Curie unknowingly unleashed on the world? Obviously it was much later that nuclear technology was developed, but it was this  woman who may not have opened Pandora’s box, but did indeed bring it to the party. It’s easy to overshadow Curie’s scientific work with the terrors of nuclear disaster but it should be noted that her discoveries greatly shaped modern medicine and she was the first person to experiment in the treatment of neoplasms, or cancers, using radiation. She died because of the exposure she received while conducting her experiments as she was known to have carried test tubes containing highly radioactive isotopes in her pockets. To this day her papers are considered hazardous and are stored in lead boxes.

Marie Curie’s legacy is multi-faceted. A proto feminist, two time Nobel Prize winner, scientific pioneer, mother of radioactivity. There really are no words to describe her impact on the planet Earth, and this is an irreversible truth. Kruger too cannot be tied directly to one aspect of her work for definition, and I am making no real comparison of Curie and Kruger. One woman puts her stamp on the city wall and as we walk by we get the message consciously or subconsciously, a momentary distraction from navigating the urban streets. Barbera Kruger’s work in many ways reminds us that this is our world, our space, we should think more about how we share the collective visual spaces in which we exist and interact.

Both of the women I have discussed here are true marvels of intellect and action. Scientists and artists are similar in many ways, curious, always looking to find, define or master a process, and it is no doubt that they are both extraordinary examples of modern women who have changed the way we interact with and consider our environment, the immediate and the vast.


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