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Nature and technology mix it up in Cheekwood show

Nature and technology mix it up in Cheekwood show

In light of anthropogenic ills such as ozone depletion, global warming and toxic pollution even in Antarctica, it's worth asking whether there's still such a thing as "nature" separate from technology. Even if we leave aside the existential question of whether a skyscraper is any more unnatural than an anthill, the fact is that our science has significantly changed the planet. We live in a world that is, for better or worse, partly one of our own making. The uncertain boundaries between natural and human creation—and the problem of how humanity should operate along those boundaries—are the focus of Michael Oliveri's Innerspace, Permaculture and UFOs, an installation of sculpture and photography on display at Cheekwood's Temporary Contemporary gallery through Jan. 4.

Oliveri describes his work as "cross-pollinating the arts and sciences," and each element of the exhibit embodies that marriage in a different way. Two glass sculptures, both called simply "Hydrocarbon Reflection," are models of the molecule dressed up in gleaming silver nitrate and placed on a mirrored surface. The resulting objects are very pretty abstract forms, but they are also a quiet rebuke: The viewer sees herself in each sculpture's reflective surface and is reminded of our dependence on burning hydrocarbons, one of the culprits in climate change.

For the numbered series of photographs called "Innerspace," Oliveri worked with nano scientists to explore a microscopic realm invisible to the naked eye, yet which seems to mirror our familiar world. The photos, taken with a scanning electron microscope, feature forms that mimic plant life, and point to connected issues of dependence on and abuse of the earth. "Innerspace 6" is composed of shapes resembling crumpled machinery lying at the edge of a field covered with wheat-like stalks. Like the hydrocarbon sculptures, it's an aesthetically pleasing image, but it's also violent, suggestive of some agricultural apocalypse. "Innerspace 4," by contrast, evokes thoughts of untrammeled nature with its scattering of fuzzy pseudo-blossoms. The knowledge that these images have a concrete origin outside our unaided perception gives them added layers of meaning. Oliveri implies that our conflicts with the earth are happening even on levels of which we are unaware.

The somber "Innerspace" images are complemented by Oliveri's whimsical UFO, which looks like a forgotten prop from Lost in Space. It's the classic sci-fi "flying saucer," a black vessel roughly 5 feet across that sits on spindly metal legs. A peek though one of the narrow windows reveals a brightly lit interior containing a living hydroponic tomato garden. The saucer itself could not be more clearly man-made, and yet we see it nurturing life as efficiently as any backyard truck patch.

We are conditioned to see such a union of technology and nature as unhealthy, even disturbing. (Think, for example, of the laboratory-grown babies in Brave New World.) Oliveri, however, seems to offer his fanciful sculpture as proof that our prejudice is misplaced. Permaculture, referenced in the show's title, promotes harmony with nature by modeling all life-sustaining technology—from agriculture to building design—on the earth's own systems; his fruitful spaceship can be seen as an expression of this principle.

Though it touches on familiar tropes of environmentalism and sustainable living, Innerspace, Permaculture and UFOs is not a show to please anyone's inner Luddite. Oliveri is inspired by human invention and conceptual innovation. His work expresses fundamental respect for the potential of science, even as it grapples with the harm technology can bring.

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