Back to the Land 

A Berkeley Art Museum show explores imperiled habitats.

Since environmental challenges are now generally accepted by Homo sapiens' chattering classes, Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet at the Berkeley Art Museum is a timely art-world call to preservation and enlightened progress. Sponsored by BAM, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and Rare, an international conservation nonprofit, the project sent eight artists into UNESCO World Heritage Sites — remote, endangered natural/cultural habitats like Komodo National Park in Indonesia, the Three Parallel Rivers area of China's Yunnan Province, Brazil's Atlantic Forest Southeast Reserves, and Waterton Glacier International Peace Park in Montana and Alberta. The expeditionary artists, who were granted creative carte blanche, include Mark Dion, Marcos Ramirez (ERRE), Rigo 23, and Dario Robleto.

Some of the artists chose to work socioculturally — and sociably. Dion, fascinated by giant monitor lizards since childhood, found himself instead "struck by the nobility (a word I seldom have the chance to use)" and "the depth of knowledge, esprit de corps and self-sacrifice the rangers embodied." He created for them a much-needed supply cart containing books, batteries, flashlights, maps, and first-aid materials; a replica is shown here. Similarly, ERRE was less taken with Yunnan's giant panda and golden lion tamarin than with the traditional way of life, eroded or enriched by globalization's material comforts and blandishments. Working with local carpenters, he created a monumental symbolic house adorned with traditional painted cornices and Buddhist-themed paintings (flowers, fish, lamps, snakes, wheels). Set in the windows are plasma TV screens displaying videos of daily life: women hauling baskets of dirt on their backs and Nike-shod young monks with cell phones, all set against the Himalayan backdrop. In Cananeia, Brazil, Rigo 23 enlisted nearly a hundred craftsmen, craftswomen, farmers, and fishermen to work on an intertribal art project of universal concern, transforming wood, banana fiber, and clay into benign, organic versions of the Polaris submarine and the cluster bomb.

Other artists worked alone or with assistants. The inevitable disappearance of Waterton Glacier led Robleto to explore the broader theme of transience in nature (which includes us). His vitrines, resembling reliquaries, specimen cases, or satin-lined coffins, preserve and display objects made from fossilized 50,000-year-old wooly mammoth tusks and cave bear paws, glass beakers, cuttlefish sepia, ground fulgurites (sand fused by lightning strike into glass branches), braided hair, and curled audiotape of extinct bird calls and human languages without living speakers. Human/Nature runs through September 27 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). BAMPFA.berkeley.edu or 510-643-6494.

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