Bordercrossings, 20:3 (Sept 2001), pp 82-4
Visually austere and conceptually dense, Michael Maranda’s
provocative exhibition, “invisible hand,” is a wakeup call; a reminder
that political activism, no matter how well intentioned, is ill-served by sloppy
thinking. More specifically, Maranda takes issue with the simplistic and unexamined
rhetoric employed by cultural workers and other anxious citizens protesting
the development and marketing of genetically modified organisms — GMOs
— by multinational corporations like Monsanto. Concerns about GMOs have
been voiced globally but are particularly relevant for Saskatoon, where Maranda
lives and works, because the city’s economy is agriculture-based and the
University of Saskatchewan supports a renowned agricultural research department.
In “invisible hand,” Maranda is proposing that Darwin’s 19th-century theory of evolution and Adam Smith’s 18th-century defence of mercantile capitalism are the ideological couplet that has imperceptibly spawned the arguments of environmentalists and corporate capitalists alike.
To bring Darwin’s and Smith’s positions into intimate contact with one another, Maranda painstakingly inscribed key portions of On the Origin of Species and The Wealth of Nations on the surfaces and undersides of 189 shiny, green, rubber tree leaves harvested from 10 healthy, domestic, rubber-tree plants. The text is written in white ink, a substance that brings to mind the milky liquid or latex secreted by rubber trees and used for the manufacture of natural rubber.
Maranda chose the rubber plant as a “medium” or working metaphor because of its association with late 19th-century capitalism and economic neo-colonialism, and because, as a tropical plant, it is symbolic of environmental politics.
Bordering on the performative, Maranda’s madly methodical inscription process evokes the sanctified but wearying labour of the scriptorium as well as the agonizing grade-school punishment of “writing lines”: labour as punishing and punishment as labour.
As with most conceptual, process-oriented or performative artworks, the piece could very well end here (materially speaking), with conversations about Maranda’s obsessive performance serving as a catalyst for further analysis and passionate debate. Instead, the artist has chosen to extend the project’s life by way of an elegant installation of souvenirs that bear witness to his intellectual process and proposition. Maranda digitally scanned the altered rubber-tree plant leaves so that a single, crisp, life-sized image of both sides of each leaf floats on one of 378 standard-sized, stark white sheets of paper.
For the AKA exhibition, the 189 underside images ornamented with Darwin’s
text (Chapter 3: “Struggle for Existence” and Chapter 4: “Natural
Selection; Or the Survival of the Fittest”) were arranged in grid formation
on one wall while images of their upper side counterparts, inscribed with Smith’s
text (Book 3: Of the different Progress of Opulence in different nations),
were installed on another wall.
The altered rubber-tree plant leaves themselves, which had undergone yet another
transformation (by way of ‘natural’ processes this time), were pinned
to a third wall painted a warm copper-toned colour. Though death and decay has
rendered the leaves fragile, gnarled and brittle, the milky white text remains
The fourth and final component of the installation consisted of two framed pages of pre-existing text: the title page of an 1843 copy of An Inquiry into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and an 1872 title page from The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Ironically, even to this day, many of us unknowingly articulate and represent
nature with terminology and concepts popularized by Darwin, who, like many Victorian
intellectuals, looked to Adam Smith for both ideas and metaphors. For example,
the idea of “letting nature take its course,” free from the interventions
of meddlesome (read: bad) corporate-sponsored scientists, is a concept near
and dear to many environmental advocates. It’s also an idea that’s
surprisingly similar to Smith’s “invisible hand” — the
proposition that free-market capitalism is a natural, ethically neutral and
self-regulating system that should remain unfettered. It is also the basis of
the rhetoric with which multinationals defend their interests.
Michael Maranda’s the “invisible hand” is a reminder that
cultural workers — artists and intellectuals — have a critical role
to play in public debates. They know full well that representations, metaphors
and interpretations are not, in fact, “neutral” or value-free. They
know also that concepts and beliefs are most potent when we are unaware of the
seemingly invisible grip they exert on our imaginations, interpretations and
Cultural workers contribute to significant political change by fabricating and
placing into the public arena new concepts and objects that generate new perceptual
experiences. However, their contribution does not come cheaply or easily. Metaphorically,
it requires that they forgo the immediacy of “taking to the streets”
and, instead, renew their dedication to other, equally significant, practices
and pleasures — the kind that require a luxuriously unhurried time and
space for thought, analysis, reflection and experimentation.
invisible hand was at AKA Artist-run Centre, Saskatoon, from April 6 to May
Sigrid Dahle is a Winnipeg-based curator and art writer