Academic journal article Afterimage

Beyond Mourning: On Photography and Extinction

Academic journal article Afterimage

Beyond Mourning: On Photography and Extinction

Article excerpt

Widespread deaths can be observed from time to time among the forms of life on Earth. Please do not plan a trip to Planet Earth for the duration of these rare catastrophes.

--Hiroshi Sugimoto, notes for A First Visitors Guide (1)

Over the course of its approximate 3.5 billion-year history of life, (2) the Earth has witnessed five mass extinction events thought to be triggered by causes as diverse as asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, ice ages, and other extreme shifts in climate. The fifth and most recent mass extinction event, the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, occurred some sixty-six million years ago, and while it resulted in the loss of up to eights percent of species, (3) it is most known for the death of the dinosaurs. Fast forward to today, and scientists estimate we are currently losing animal and plant species at more than one thousand times the background or natural extinction rate. The evidence increasingly suggests we are living in a period of such highly elevated species loss as to warrant its naming as the sixth great mass extinction event. It is the first in the Earth's history for which human activity can be counted as a primary causal agent and, in turn, there is no guarantee the human race will survive it.

What will be the fate, then, of the planet after the event of human extinction? And what role can the photographic medium play in conceptualizing such an unthinkable event as the disappearance of human and nonhuman life? When the Japanese American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto presented his ruinous and highly personal vision of humanity's end days. Aujourd'hui, Le Monde Est Mart [Lost Human Genetic Archive/(4) at the Palais de Tokyo in 2014, the artist's response reflected what is emerging as a distinctly speculative turn in contemporary art in response to the present extinction crisis. For his Paris installation, Sugimoto mixed his vast and eclectic collection of objects witli images from his photographic oeuvre to construct thirty-three diorama-like scenarios extrapolating on how human civilization might end and featuring fictitious characters who had either agreed, or declined, to archive their genetic information for the future. Where visions of a future Earth bereft of humankind were once the domain of science fiction novelists and apocalyptic Hollywood cinema, Sugimoto's Last Human Genetic Archive signals the extent to which the imminent threat of extinction, both human and nonhuman, exercises the imagination and concern of a growing number of artists, including photographers.

As a trace, a document, and an index of the real that fixes a moment in time before its disappearance, the photograph has for some time now been implicated in extinction and conservation discourses, most notably as a memento mori that performs the work of memorialization and mourning for lost and vanishing species. Yet the future-oriented perspective invoked in addressing the fate of the planet after our own extinction, coupled with the proliferation of posthuman, new materialist, and eco-critical approaches that are reframing the question of extinction beyond the anthropocentric limits of redemption and survivalist narratives, poses a number of challenges to photography's relation to extinction in terms of death and mourning. Whither the photograph, then, in light of polemical calls such as those issued by Claire Colebrook in her Death of the Post Human: Essays on Extinction (2014), in which she asks what might emerge if we were to "imagine a mode of reading the world, and its anthropogenic sears, that frees itself from folding the earth's surface around human survival?" How, then, "might we read or perceive other timelines, other points of view, and other rhythms?'" (5)

To move beyond mourning, (6) the challenges faced by photography in the age of extinction thus appear manifold. Following Colebrook's schema, there is at the level of temporality a sense in which photography must adapt to register the passage of time not only at the scale of human events but also according to far vaster time scales of geological, and even cosmic, duration. …

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