Marina Zurkow’s Necrocracy will be available for viewing at Houston’s DiverseWorks until April 21, 2012. The art exhibition was inspired by Zurkow’s two-week research trip to the Permian Basin in West Texas, where she met with geologists, naturalists, cattle ranchers, people working in the oil industry, and activists. While she was there, she became aware of the fact that everyone in the United States is “soaking in petroleum” and that “we wouldn’t know how to live, feed, shelter, clothe, or express ourselves without oil-based products.” The name of the show itself means “rule of the dead,” as it seeks to make viewers think about how we use and are so dependent upon dead organisms which have transformed over millions of years into hydrocarbons.
The exhibition begins with a looping animation taken from an old industrial film, which has been manipulated to show chains and chains of hydrocarbon molecules. The carbon atoms introduce themselves and latch onto other carbon atoms with their “hands” to show the bonding that is occurring. Eventually the endless chains dance about until they blot out the screen, and the layers of carbon talking about their bonding process becomes an indistinguishable wall of sound.
The majority of the exhibition space is taken up by large banners hanging from the ceiling, which the artist has titled “The Petroleum Manga.” The Japanese term manga, or picture book, was chosen because Zurkow envisioned the banners to be a picture book, with each banner representing items made out of a specific petrochemical. The banners, which are made of an indestructible type of plastic called Tyvek, are being donated at the end of the show. Zurkow hopes that, instead of keeping these banners as art objects, people will recycle them and use them around their households. The mix of so many items depicted, from the serious to the mundane, was the part of the exhibition which personally affected me the most. I realized that I did not knowze how extensive our society’s use of petrochemical materials is. Anhydrous ammonia? A hamburger. Polyurethane? Condoms, bras, boots and diapers. The banner depicting items made of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, had the startling comparison of flip-flops and an IV bag. Everybody can function perfectly well without flip-flops, but IV bags are important in helping sick people to receive their needed medication or fluids.
Further into the exhibition was “Mesocosm (Wink, Texas),” a large-scale animation depicting the changes occurring around a sinkhole in the Texas town of Wink. This animated landscape changes slowly, although the changes became significant over time. Upon first seeing the animation, I noticed that there were lots of birds that I could see and hear at the beginning, and these birds would often fly across the screen. Far into the horizon of the animation, the oil refineries could be seen, burning a steady plume. The animation lightened and darkened in response to the changes in time, and the sinkhole roiled and expelled oil, dark clouds, and plastic bags which floated upwards toward the top of the screen. Eventually, no birds were visible, though the plastic bags floated around in their place.
The end of the exhibition was a space dedicated to informative videos and books. The videos depicted interviews with Houstonians, asking their opinions on climate change, the origins of plastic, whether they thought about what their things were made out of, and what was needed to have society change its dependence on petrochemicals. The participants seemed to agree that climate change was happening, as one remarked that Houston has had record-breaking hot and cold temperatures recently. Others stated that though it was preferable to walk and bike for transportation to minimize pollution, Houston as a city was not designed for walking and bicycling. Some participants thought that he only way society could change was if something really drastic happened to force the change, while one felt that local government should pass regulations, like when certain rules were instituted during a recent drought.
Marina Zurkow’s Necrocracy is effective in its multimedia approach to exploring the United States’ dependence on petrochemicals. The viewer sees how petrochemicals are formed, the multitude of products they become, the environmental effects caused by their production, and the reactions of the general public to the whole process. All of this information made me acutely aware of just how crucial an issue this dependence will continue to be in the future, as the source of these materials, fossil fuels, continues to dwindle.