Your Kingdom to Command

Your King­dom to Com­mand
mur­al-foun­tain instal­la­tion, 84 × 20 × 20 feet; latex paint, bitu­men, red-iron oxide, shel­lac, and tar on ply­wood; stumps/fountain

Your King­dom to Com­mand alle­go­rizes the destruc­tive effects of humans’ depen­dence on fos­sil fuels on the nat­ur­al world. This ply­wood mur­al is paint­ed with bitu­men and tar, black molasses-like sub­stances found deep in the earth and nor­mal­ly refined into fuel. Paint­ed with nat­ur­al and syn­thet­ic pig­ments, phan­tom-like flo­ra and fau­na float along­side what looks like a tar pyra­mid or asphalt road reced­ing toward the hori­zon, above which looms a bitu­men and enam­el sky; these crea­tures rep­re­sent the dead organ­isms, from zoo­plank­ton and algae to megafau­na, that decom­pose over mil­lions of years to become bitu­mi­nous ener­gy mat­ter. These can also rep­re­sent the extinc­tion to come… future phan­toms in a des­o­late land­scape.

The tree stumps-cum-foun­tain stand in for the human dra­ma. Humans who are well-off con­tin­ue to piss on the rest, who slave away with­in the cap­i­tal­ist machine that ulti­mate­ly serves the upper crusts of soci­ety. One stump came from the Van­cou­ver wind-storm of 2015 (hun­dreds of trees top­pled due to glob­al warm­ing) while the oth­er nurs­ing stump (cov­ered in growth) came from a research for­est.

Marina Roy in conversation with Diana Freundl

Mari­na Roy’s instal­la­tion Your King­dom to Com­mand exam­ines the effects an exces­sive use of fos­sil fuels has per­pe­trat­ed on the nat­ur­al world. Her enor­mous ply­wood mur­al is made from bitu­men and tar—black molasses-like sub­stances made from sed­i­men­ta­ry rock—in addi­tion to latex paints made of both syn­thet­ic and organ­ic resins and pig­ments. Roy’s mur­al fea­tures a paint­ed ensem­ble of phan­tom-like flo­ra and fau­na, deceased organ­isms from a geo­log­i­cal past that break down to form bitu­men. Once extract­ed, the bitu­men is refined into fuels used to pro­duce prod­ucts from gaso­line to plas­tics and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. Overuse of fos­sil fuels (espe­cial­ly petro­le­um) has neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed the earth’s bios­phere, dam­ag­ing ecosys­tems and releas­ing excess car­bon diox­ide into the air, which plays a promi­nent role in glob­al warm­ing. Roy address­es chang­ing cli­mat­ic con­di­tions with a foun­tain made of a nurs­ing stump that spurts water onto anoth­er stump, sal­vaged from the 2015 wind­storm in Van­cou­ver. 

diana freundl: Murals have long been a valued form of public art used to express religious, political and social beliefs. They can also dramatically impact a viewer’s perception of social and political reality. Let’s say it’s 2516—what do you think a viewer would learn about our society from your mural? 

mari­na roy: Much depends on what that world will be like in the future. We find our­selves at a pre­car­i­ous moment in nat­ur­al and human his­to­ry. If deci­sions are made to leave fos­sil fuels such as bitu­men and tar in the ground in the future, due to our acknowl­edge­ment of glob­al warm­ing, then the use of these mate­ri­als will be seen as par­tic­u­lar to a twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry cap­i­tal­ist con­sumer econ­o­my that exist­ed in the past. 

I was thinking about the meaning of this work in relation to the role of an artist or art institution in raising awareness and developing a response to environmental issues. How important is it to you that viewers gain a collective sense of responsibility from this work? Did you create it with this objective in mind? 

Yes, but humans are pret­ty set in their ways once they fall into the rhythm of the desire econ­o­my, and most will do lit­tle more than appre­ci­ate this work on an aes­thet­ic lev­el. Many would have to see all the bio­di­verse life dying around them before being pro­pelled to change their behav­iour. Or the gov­ern­ment would need to impose laws and infra­struc­tur­al changes so as to force humans to act dif­fer­ent­ly than they now do. With gov­ern­ments so tied to big busi­ness, this is prov­ing to be a slow process.

I thought about mak­ing the art­work angry or mate­ri­al­ly ugly—throwing bitu­men and tar around in a more ges­tur­al manner—but imag­ined this would like­ly irri­tate peo­ple rather than engage them. In steer­ing the aes­thet­ic toward a com­bi­na­tion of the beau­ti­ful and the abject (attrac­tion-repul­sion), I hoped it might make peo­ple pause and con­sid­er the mean­ing. I do believe that seduc­tive mate­ri­als and colours can be a hook to draw peo­ple into the art­work. 

You’ve combined organic and synthetic materials and allowed them to react to one another. Visually, the mural reads like a taxonomy of the natural world of bacteria, fungi, plants and animal species. But it is also reminiscent of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblot tests used to psychoanalyze patients in the 1920s. What were some of your influences? How important is the element of chance in your process of pouring paint? 

I feel an affin­i­ty to the Rorschach inkblot test and have used it as a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic trope of sorts with­in my work in the past. That is also why I used the Sur­re­al­ist tech­nique of decalcomania—the process of pour­ing, press­ing down and trans­fer­ring the paint onto anoth­er sur­face to cre­ate bio­mor­phic forms. I am drawn to pure paint­ing,” the idea that paint nat­u­ral­ly reacts in par­tic­u­lar ways based on chem­istry. So it is per­haps as much about the agency of mate­ri­als as it is about human agency. These bio­mor­phic forms are the result of mat­ter react­ing nat­u­ral­ly. They embody ele­ments of both abstrac­tion and figuration—their flu­id aspect mor­ph­ing in the imagination—and what we end up see­ing might say some­thing about what uncon­scious­ly inhab­its our minds. I’m inter­est­ed in the phe­nom­e­non of parei­do­lia, see­ing ani­mals in clouds or a face on the moon. 

There is an element of humour in the stump fountain that feels somewhat removed from the seriousness of the mural. Was this satirical relief deliberate? How are the mural and tree stumps related conceptually? 

The desire was to jux­ta­pose two dra­mas, with the black tar pyra­mid of the mur­al serv­ing as a stark geo­met­ric back­drop against which the stumps stand out. Mak­ing the tree a stand-in for the human and por­tray­ing this dra­ma using puerile humour—as if one stump is uri­nat­ing on the other—is alle­gor­i­cal. That is, priv­i­leged humans con­tin­ue to dom­i­nate the rest, those who are enslaved to an econ­o­my that ulti­mate­ly serves society’s upper crust. Every­one responds in one way or anoth­er to human bod­i­ly functions—perhaps the most base form of humour. Here one might expe­ri­ence a dou­ble take. One stump is water­ing the other—potentially read as an act of kind­ness. But the ges­ture changes when one notices the water­ing source looks phal­lic and hence could also be read as humil­i­at­ing. 

There are multiple references in the bitumen triangle. It is a paved road made from the flora and fauna ghosts that float along its sides. But it is also a reference to the Pyramid of Capitalist System, the 1911 critical cartoon of growing American capitalism in which the wealthy few sit on top while a considerable deprived population remains at its base. The rise and fall of economic systems is the normal course of history; capitalism doesn’t end, it only changes characteristics and adapts to a new environment. Your mural suggests a cycle of digression: buried organisms, transformed underground into a new form of viscous energy, are extracted to provide fossil fuels and a surplus of consumer products, until a scarcity of oil is reached. However, economic expansion is always re-engineered, producing a resumption of growth, only to be derailed again by a new shortage of natural resources in capitalism’s endless claim over the earth’s resources. Is the mural intentionally dystopic, or do you see an end to this cycle of ruin?

The mur­al and sculp­tur­al instal­la­tion are real­is­tic, in that the asphalt road exists right there in front of the mur­al [West Geor­gia Street]. And the life forms exist, although some like zebra mus­sels and pine bee­tles are pro­lif­er­at­ing while oth­ers are endan­gered or becom­ing extinct such as the poi­son dart frog. The stumps speak to how Van­cou­ver used to be cov­ered in trees, so they beck­on to a Van­cou­ver that still exist­ed just 130 years ago, before the Great Van­cou­ver Fire of 1886 and before indus­tri­al­iza­tion real­ly dug its claws into the land. 

One might see it as an alle­go­ry of things as they stand in a sim­i­lar way to how the 1911 car­toon oper­ates, but from a non-anthro­pocen­tric per­spec­tive. I was also think­ing of how this instal­la­tion might echo the chain of being,” a medieval con­cep­tion of the world depict­ed in a draw­ing from Dida­cus Valades’ Rhetor­i­ca Chris­tiana (1579). The hope is that humans will aim high­er than just their own inter­ests and well-being, but one can only antic­i­pate small vic­to­ries. The urgency of a tru­ly green rev­o­lu­tion is essen­tial­ly what Your King­dom to Com­mand cries out for. But even if it does arrive, I antic­i­pate it being too late. So there is an ele­ment of dystopia there.