A Chthulucene Narrative
By Xiao Zong, June 8, 2022
“What happens when human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economics become unthinkable in the best sciences across the disciplines and interdisciplines? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with.” Witnessing major wildfires and other disastrous incidents happening around the globe, posthuman thinker Donna Haraway put forth these questions in 2015, and it has been haunting us ever since. Or rather, similar questions have always been haunting us since Modernity, and we are only more aware of their pressure nowadays – in the midst of the global pandemic, countless environmental disasters, and escalating regional conflicts and warfare. Are we doomed? Anxious about the coming dystopia, Anthropocene and Capitalocene theorists have made tremendous effort in pointing out the precariousness of the world due to human activities and global capitalism, however, their theories contribute little in terms of encouraging genuine imagination and action for terrain recuperation. Unsatisfied with these theories, Haraway proposed Chthulucene as an alternative narrative for us to reckon with – one that consists of ongoing multispecies stories and practices and hopes to rejuvenate the biodiverse powers of terra. Chthulucene advocates for a temporality where the world is not described according to the “progress” of human society. On the contrary, we are the minorities, and imagine being and being with other species are the core of Chthulucene narrative.
Unlike modern science, which might be able to explain certain animal or plant behaviors but could hardly tell us how being another species – for instance, a bat, or a pine tree sapling – actually “feels”, the non-anthropocentric thinking method of Chthulucene beckons us to imagine, reimagine, speculate and remain open to multispecies stories. This is precisely what artist Michael Eade aims to practice in his most recent solo exhibition, “After The Burn”: to provide a non-anthropocentric speculation, a Chthulucene narrative, of a land populated by myriad plant species. “After The Burn” addresses disasters, something we are so familiar with these past couple of decades that we have even grown to be numb in the face of them. However, the exhibition does not seek to analyze disasters from an Anthropocene perspective nor a Capitalocene one, both of which constantly remind us of the far gone past, and a coming pessimistic future – an inevitable, unescapable dystopia. Rather, the exhibition situates itself in the Chthulucene’s ongoing temporality. By inviting cross-species speculations and imaginations, “After The Burn” grapples with the impact, implications and repercussions of disasters to all critters on earth.
The Chthulucene narrative in Michael Eade’s landscape rejects certain ways of seeing. More specifically, it rejects biologist readings and natural historic perspectives, both of which are implicated in colonial histories as well as human-centric, progress-oriented motivations. The ways in which plants are documented and analyzed in biology and natural history discourses serve utilitarian purposes, e.g., for medicine, for construction, for food, or for pleasure – in short, for humans. Nature has been viewed as “the other”, if not altogether just a resource to human beings, in the binary understating of nature and society since Modernization. To counter these perspectives, Eade specifically chooses to depict the plants documented in early biology books but ruptured the biologist interpretations of these plants by speculating on their stories, and transposing them into an enigmatic landscape, where human beings are at the periphery, and various plant species occupy the realm. Eade’s landscapes are often described as other-worldly, mystical, or imaginary. While these descriptions are very much valid, there is one more essential feature: they are no-man’s lands. In fact, “no-man’s land” is far from accurate when it comes to describe Eade’s landscapes. However, lacking the vocabulary to describe a land without human – our human-centric perspectives provide us with a vocabulary that is always relative to ourselves: deserted land, extraterrestrial land, or alien land – we have to accept the problematic term of “no-man’s land” for the moment. Human beings have virtually no power in these landscapes. Instead, we are only invited to see them. We see familiar plants populate the world, but none of them follow the “correct” proportion: for instance, the Pearl Everlasting flowers in "Wild Flowers and Sunrise", 2020 (Figure 1) appear to be bigger and sturdier than the pine trees behind them; and in "Vista" (Panel No. 2), 2021 (Figure 2), scattered across the land in the background of the painting, the trees are just as big as the wild flowers and grass beside them. This non-hierarchical, “non-realistic” arrangement of the plants contributes to a sense of unfamiliarity, and further deprives us of the feeling of control – when human being’s “rationality” no longer applies, we lose the apparatus to comprehend, utilize and intervene. This technique is not unfamiliar to us, as it is also adopted by the historical avant-gardes such as the surrealists. Surrealist artists often break the utilitarian functions of everyday objects, for instance Man Ray’s spiked iron titled "The Gift", 1921, or rearrange mundane objects in a fashion that could never be situated in reality, such as Rene Magritte’s "Les Valeur Personnelles" (Personal Values), 1952. However, unlike the Surrealist artists, who seek to negate and subvert rationality or pursue a journey into the subconsciousness, Eade invites us to resonate with the plants in this unfamiliar land. The plants encourage us to imagine being them, and to consider their stories and even emotions.
In "Volcano and Full Moon", 2021 (Figure 3), Eade captures the very moment of a violent volcanic eruption. However, the painting draws our attention to the lively, luscious flowers at the foreground – the thin stems of the plants and their beautiful yet fragile-looking blossoms claim almost half of the composition and are undoubtedly the protagonists of this world. What does it feel like to be immersed in a volcanic eruption, the upcoming scorching heat, and the devastating lava? We won’t suffocate since we are plants, so evaporation and carbonization? Would it be fast, or slow, painful, or sublime? The painting encourages us to reflect on these questions. Eade started to depict volcanoes in 2001, as a response to the devastating event of 9/11. While the world remembers this tragic event and the subsequent retaliation and war against terrorism declared by the U.S, Eade offers a genuine mourning to the lost lives by positioning us at the very moment of destruction. By speculating on the stories of the plants and resonating with them, our human lives and plant lives become interchangeable and intertwined in “Volcano and Full Moon”, and through mourning for them, we also sing a requiem for ourselves.
There is still hope, and we are not doomed, not yet. Though destruction and death are the main theme of “After The Burn”, there is still a silver lining. At least we still want to believe that there will be salvation for all critters. This is best illustrated in the “Pine Tree Sapling” series (Figure 4), which depict young pine tree saplings rising tenaciously from the burnt ground. The pine tree saplings are not optimistic or pessimistic about the future. They focus on the intense present, and they grow with other survivors on this scorched land. They are also not so ambitious as to focus on the “big picture” of restoring the land, but rather, they interact and exchange with other plants, which perhaps “unexpectedly” contribute to the recuperation of the landscape. To embrace a Chthulucene narrative, we are to let go of our ego that puts us at the center of the universe, and to recognize other species as crucial in determining the fate of Earth. A shared future is not for human beings only, but for all things existing on Earth. In our precarious time, let’s live together, die together, and dream together.
 Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,” e-flux Journal, Issue #75, September 2016, accessed on May 6th. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/