Essay: Beyond Nature

To the degree that natural means anything, it means very little ethically. Conversely, to the degree that it is understood as a normative concept, it has little to do with biology.

Elliot Sober


We like to think in terms of opposites. Dichotomies help us to structure the way we understand ourselves and the way we position ourselves on earth. The world can be divided into two distinct categories: nature and culture. The underlying assumption is that nature is inherently good (but defenceless) and that culture (as the product of modern techno-scientific thinking) represents a threat to this nature. Opposing man and what is man made to nature and what is natural is very common in Western thought. Even those who advocate a more harmonious relationship with mother earth depart from a belief that culture and nature are two separate domains.

The clear distinction between what is ‘man made’ and what is ‘natural’ is of particular relevance in environmental ethics. It enables us to consider the ethical implications of our actions from a specific normative perspective. Certainly now that the earth, as a result of human technological intervention, is in a state of ecological crisis. We have to clean up our mess. If temperatures on earth are rising because of human actions, we have to do something to counter it. If the number of species, biodiversity, is declining due to our dominant presence, we have to undertake action to restore the ecological balance. We have no right to bend nature to our will. Nature, distinct from us as a kind of omnipresent Other, is something we should respect.

But what exactly is this nature that is outside or distinct from man? Ecosopher Timothy Morton, a member of the object-oriented philosophy movement and one of the inspirations for Yes Naturally, is clear on the subject. You cannot separate man and his artefacts from nature. Everything is interconnected. In his view, the concept of ‘nature’ as something ‘out there’ is based on a fallacy. It does not exist.2

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek says something similar when he argues that ‘Nature’ does not exist. ‘”Nature” qua the domain of balanced reproduction, of organic deployment into which humanity intervenes with its hubris, brutally throwing off the rails its circular motion’ he states ‘is man’s fantasy’.3 In other words, nature can never be considered apart from man. But, if we were to give up the distinction between man and nature, would it still be possible to make objective claims about the value of nature and what is natural? What would be the foundation of our normative statements about nature? What could be our normative guideline in the current environmental crisis if there is no such thing as the inherent value of nature, that exists in and can defined by the absence of human interference? The answer to this question is: aesthetic values. Our image of nature is after all an idealized image. A part from ‘objective’ scientific arguments, aesthetic judgements play a key role in our moral judgements on nature. Only think about the kind of romantic longing for a primeval nature, which – although it has never existed – we feel strongly connected with.

The way all sorts of romantic, sometimes ethically problematic notions define our idea of nature is very well illustrated by Island for Weeds (Prototype), a work by British artist Simon Starling. Starling wanted to take the rhododendron, a species most of us associate with what we call authentic Scottish landscape, but in reality is a ‘foreign’ invasive species, back to its native habitat of Spain. Rhododendrons, brought from the south of Europe in the eighteenth century to Scotland are now seen as threats to the native ecosystem, therefore classified as weeds and destroyed. With his rhododendron remigration project, Starling raises questions. What makes a species a weed? How (un-) natural is it that this rhododendron feels so at home in Scotland? Why does this plant belong in Spain but is seen as an alien, an immigrant, in Scotland? How many generations does it take before you can call a species a native species? Starling himself saw his project, like the rhododendrons, grow out of control. It became more and more political. Originally he wanted to grow the rhododendrons in Loch Lomond as an island of weeds, but he stopped at the prototype – the current artwork – when somebody realized that the Scottish National Heritage, one of his sponsors, had just spent 5 million pounds eradicating the rhododendron.4

Rhododendrons are not the only living organisms that spread like weeds. Look at the photographs from the series Urban Future by Hans Scholten. There are very few human beings in his photographs. However, the pressure that their great numbers place on the cities Scholten photographed for the Urban Future project is intensely palpable. Everything we see in these cities is man made. Nothing looks natural. The official text accompanying these photos for the exhibition in the photography museum Huis Marseille is startling: ‘Particularly in his photographs of Shanghai and Beijing, where municipal authorities and project developers display quite some architectural vision, the similarity between man and nature becomes visible. Like rampant growth, millions of new inhabitants take over the recently constructed houses and apartment buildings. Having been built cheaply and quickly, the structures gradually collapse beneath this weight.’5 The confusion in this press release is evident. It is as though man were behaving naturally! Humans and their artefacts grow organically into large complex systems characterized by cycles of growth, blooming and dying off. All across the earth cities are growing into huge megapolises. There is no plan behind it all. These are ‘natural’ processes.

Actually, it is when man has abandoned an area that it feels particularly ‘unnatural’. This can be seen in the photographs of Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) by Jane & Louise Wilson. There are things growing and blooming there, among the deserted buildings of Chernobyl. Yet something is not right. It is sinister. When you look as these photos, you sense that something is seriously wrong. Man became ‘extinct’ there not so long ago. These are ruins of recent date. But what was the cause? You cannot see it. Radioactivity is invisible. The same is true of Allan Sekula’s photographs from the series Polonia and Other Fables. The photos elicit a sense of unease. Why? These photos are about the cultural meaning of landscapes. The identity of this Polish landscape has changed radically over the years, according to its use. What used to be virgin forest is now a military area. We see the declaration of a no-go zone for people against a backdrop of wild green landscape. The dark forest harbours a secret. Here, impenetrable nature serves as a defence mechanism.

In addition to the romantic primeval image of nature to which we ‘long to return’, there is also a ‘nature’ as an object of science. By looking at nature scientifically, by submitting it to investigation, dissecting it, we can understand it better. Science tells us the truth about nature. The fact that this is at the very least a problematic assumption, is demonstrated, for example, by Damien Hirst’s work With You. Another work from 1991 that looks a lot like it – it can freely be called a reproduction – is entitled Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding. The image and the title speak for themselves. The scientific gaze is limited; it rips natural elements out of their context. A natural scientist never looks at nature as a meaningful whole. He isolates elements and classifies them in order to test his own hypothesis. The ‘nature’ that remains after this dissection is by definition incomplete. To Hirst, this is one of the many examples of the deadly – because limiting – aesthetic gaze that characterizes our current age.

The controlling gaze of science and the role that technology plays in it can even make nature superfluous. Competing with nature is only one step away from replacing it. Sandbox, by artist duo Driessens & Verstappen, does not merely reproduce nature: it improves upon it. The diorama in which wind and sand engage in a symbiotic relationship highlights the interaction of natural forces better than the desert itself.

Cherchez la Truffe/Into the Wild by Hilarius Hofstede brings together romantic ideals of nature into a powerful anti-aesthetic visual statement. The sculpture is in-your-face and mocks long-cherished boyhood fantasies about riding a motorcycle to freedom. An impossible quest toward what today seems to be the new gold: pure nature. The sculpture embodies the paradoxical relationship between man and nature that is the hallmark of our society: a predilection for pure, authentic experiences, as long as they are presented as exclusive commodities.

These works of art are an argument for advocating the recognition of art and aesthetics as legitimate elements of a meaningful debate about our nature. After all, aesthetic appreciation reveals how we relate to nature. With creativity we can find solutions for the challenges we now face. To idolize a nature in which man has no place is a rather pointless strategy. The expectation that everything will turn out right if man ‘returns’ to nature is not an option either. Nature cannot be imagined without humans being part of it, and there is no such thing as an unnatural human being, no matter the number of artefacts the latter conceives and creates. Total Faecal Solution, The Technocrat by Atelier Van Lieshout demonstrates this like no other artwork. No matter how much science and technology we unleash to produce it as efficiently as possible, the low-tech efficiency of human manure is very difficult to surpass. An observation that is also the focus of the medieval farm that Atelier Van Lieshout is constructing for Yes Naturally. Man is a creature that eats, drinks and defecates.

Let us conclude with Damien Hirst’s reply to the question ‘how do you feel about nature?’ Laughing: ‘I’ve seen better. There isn’t anything else.6


1 Sober 1986.

2 Morton 2007,

3 Slavoj Žižek, ‘Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses’ (lecture), Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, 26 November 2007.

4 Stuart Jeffries, ‘“I got a lovely poem from a lady in St Albans about sheds”’ (interview with Turner Prize winner Simon Starling), The Guardian, 7 December 2005.

5 See the Huis Marseille press release ‘Hans Scholten: Urban Future #2’. Creatures from the Collection and Other Themes. Including photographs by Charlotte Dumas, Esko Männikkö, Rinko Kawauchi, Roos Theuws and others.’

6 Stuart Morgan, ‘An Interview with Damien Hirst’, in: Damien Hirst, Stuart Morgan, Raymond Foye, No Sense of Absolute Corruption, New York 1996.