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In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders. The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.
However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone. Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon. Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales. The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.
Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century. Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”). The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name. Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around). Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically). Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.
Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.
As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist. Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell. Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet. To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting. His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem. In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks. His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it. Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems. Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans. His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.
Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative). Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity. There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too. The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig! The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable. It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.
That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems. The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”. Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness. Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.
Is Rockman’s art gothic? I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail. There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech. I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”. Life endures and adapts even as the world changes. Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature, but we will need to grow quickly!