The problem with environmental art is the undeniable gravity and unassailable rectitude of its theme. It may seem irresponsible for artifice to tackle a subject best left to scientific research or documentary record. Like any “worthy” topic, it can resolve itself as a preaching to the converted. Henrik Håkansson dodges this pitfall by showing nature to be as predatory and entropic as human beings, who of course are nature themselves. He implicates himself in the destruction he is diagnosing.
Håkansson’s exhibition at Meyer Riegger documented or presented dead or dying insects. And yet, a first glance into the gallery suggested an installation of formalist, abstract art. Along one wall were nine yellow rectangles, each encased in a plexiglass box frame. Comprising the “Indefinite Swarms series #01: Untitled (Sphegina sibirica), June 2009,” the sheets were gridded and perforated with dots down their left and right edges. All were the same width (about 1 foot), as though cut from the same roll, but their heights varied, implying—in conjunction with the grids, perforations and primary color—a series of aesthetically determined variables. This could have been a group of paintings leaning toward the monochrome. And, indeed, it was a form of painting: painting with insects. The sheets are sticky traps for hoverflies, which a cycle of storms and unregulated tree-felling caused to reproduce in unusually high numbers in Sweden in 2009. Each work is a record of a particular concurrence of circumstances, a general statement about the vulnerability of ecosystems made through a constellation of specifics. It allowed us to gauge our own reflexive assumption about the expendability of the flies. Håkansson frames himself as their killer, symbolically taking responsibility for human predations so that the responsibility a viewer takes upon himself can remain voluntary. This is the work’s lightness of touch within a notoriously heavy-handed field.
In another area of the gallery, a series of 10 white artist’s canvases—this time there was no escaping the intention of making objects resembling traditional paintings—had been mounted onto the fender of Håkansson’s car as he drove with the headlights on along the side of a German lake at a time of year when mosquitoes were rife (“Indefinite Swarms series #02: Untitled [Culicidae spp.], September 16-28, 2011”). From a few feet away, the canvases, in their pristine plexiglass cases, might have offered a form of pointillism, but the black flecks were mosquito corpses, smeared wings, the ooze of innards. As they are crushed, the insects disgorge streaks of blood, which may have been drawn from a human body. It stains the gesso like vermilion watercolor. Håkansson positions himself and his artistic process as a minor link within an apocalyptic chain of entropy.
A cluster of six flat screens (Electricity, August, 2010) carried over the grid from the fly traps. In extreme slow motion, a camera peers into the interstices of electrical insect-control systems. Neon strips traverse the screens horizontally like geometrical art junctures. The high-speed film flickers as insects approach, flare and fall, atomized into body parts. The slow motion is both a function of empirical scrutiny and a filmic sign for pathos, a reminder that these are records of individual deaths as well as memorials for death itself, in a universal sense. The dying insect, treated as a dispensable pest, is not so insignificant that it cannot assume the role of a sign for our own mortality. And, this being art and Håkansson’s art—which always returns us to art from nature—the dying insect is also a sign for the deathliness of the film medium, in that one function of its image of us is to outlast us.