Marina Zurkow on “Haunting, Enchantment, and Leaky Ecosystems”

Posted by on Oct 10, 2013
Marina Zurkow on “Haunting, Enchantment, and Leaky Ecosystems”

Marina Zurkow is the not only the inaugural speaker for the Rice Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences but her visit inaugurates a CENHS Arts and Media cluster project, “Consumption,” which features a rolling installation of Zurkow’s animation “Mesocosm (Wink, TX)” and “Outside the Work: A Tasting of Hydrocarbons and Geological Time,” which is a curated artist’s meal about petrochemicals and geological time and which will take place at Rice in March 2014. The animation will appear in different Rice buildings—who can say where?—until Zurkow’s second visit for “Outside the Work.” Viewers of the Mesocosm will be able to comment on the piece at

“Mesocosm (Wink, TX)” is a software driven animation that cycles through a 144 hour “year.” With additional animation by Michelle Mayer, code design by Veronique Brossier, and sound by Lem Jay Ignacio, “Mesocosm” combines technical expertise from several arts. “The animated elements are drawn by hand, frame-by-frame, yet their choreographies are dynamic—not predetermined or canned—dictated by constraints in real-time. Each of the works in Mesocosm is long in duration and recombines perpetually as inputs determine order, density, and interrelationships. They are looped, and have no beginning or end. Because change happens slowly, but can be radical over time, the works are intended to be seen in public places where people gather or pass through frequently, or lived with like a painting—in living rooms and meeting spaces.”

“Mesocosm (Wink, Texas) is part of an ongoing series of animated landscapes that develop and change over time in response to software-driven data inputs. The title is drawn from the field of environmental science and refers to experimental, simulated ecosystems, which allow for manipulation of the physical environment and are used for biological, community, and ecological research (Kansas State University, Division of BiologyRainfall Manipulations Plots description). Wink, Texas is the most recent landscape to be animated as part of this Mesocosm series. In the animation, a large sinkhole— the “Wink Sink 2” located on located on private oil company property in the small Texas town of Wink—boils, gushes, flows and expels objects: plastic bags, oil and dark clouds that whirl out of the sinkhole’s vortex in ghostly choreography. Oil refineries burn off gases in plumes in the background as an occasional train or coyote lumbers past. This sinkhole has been widening steadily since it emerged in 2002; here, it appears as a natural geological event, complete with picnic rest stop furnishings. By day, the landscape is inhabited by a diversity of bird life, prairie dogs, insects, pronghorn antelope, HazMat workers and—depending on the season—by migrating monarch butterflies, snakes and sandhill cranes” (quoted text from

The speed of “Mesocosm” and its looping structure enact the animation’s theme: ecology and geological time. Like an ecosystem, the animation’s basic form stays recognizable, much in the way that one can say ‘now I’m in a forest’ and ‘now I’m in a desert.’ But in fact the animation is never the same, just as even the most similar ecosystems differ from each other in space, and from themselves in time, never quite repeating the same configuration of lifeforms and processes. Like geological time, the temporal scale of the animation always outpaces us. No single viewer can ever see everything “Mesocosm” can do. The animations installed in Rice’s public space will go on creating differences even when no one is looking. Like the time scales of oil that so interest Zurkow, “Mesocosm” can only be observed in the narrow slices permitted by our mental and physical endurance—not to mention our schedules.

“Mescosm (Wink, TX)” exhibited at the DiverseWorks art space in Houston in spring 2012 as part of a larger project entitled Necrocracy. Translated as “rule of the dead,” Necrocracy’s central character is both one and many: oil, which in its natural state compresses the incredible diversity of vanished floras and faunas into one undead substance; oil, which in the world of artifice and commodity takes on a million forms in our foods, tools, clothing, cars, and electronics. Thus another piece in the installation, “Petroleum Manga,” consists of banners inscribed with drawings of petrochemical commodities: from condoms, flip flops, and plastic flowers to handguns, pharmaceuticals, and rope. Necrocracy is about the many scales of oil as it morphs through diverse forms and functions. In this peak oil moment, the installation studies the distribution of this master substance on, above, and below the surface of the earth.

Given that Houston is a (or perhaps the) global oil capital, CENHS is especially pleased to bring an artist to Rice who makes oil her central theme. Zurkow completed “Mesocosm (Wink, TX)” during a residency at DiverseWorks in Houston. While in Texas, she did field work in the Permian basin. “From Marfa to Midland, she met with geologists, naturalists, cattlemen, oilmen, and activists. She traversed the high southern plains of the Llano Estacado-the ecosystem stretching from Lubbock to the Edwards Plateau-a landscape so subtle most people call it The Big Empty” (text from Engaged as it is with the geography and economy of Texas, we hope that Zurkow’s visits and the mesocosm will give students a new perspective on the apparatus of oil production and consumption.


Crossing multiple disciplines with her practice, Marina Zurkow builds animations and participatory environments that are centered on humans and their relationship to animals, plants and the weather. Engaging audiences using film and video, sculpture, print graphics and public interventions, Zurkow’s work is by turns humorous and contemplative. Through the experience of her projects it is clear that nature has long been a stage upon which we project ourselves, making ourselves other.

Zurkow’s recent series “Friends and Enemies” mines the intersection of bias, inclusion, and kinship in our relations with other species. “Necrocracy,” exhibited at DiverseWorks in Houston in spring 2012, reconstructs the role of hydrocarbons in contemporary landscape and questions the inherited Romantic-era division between the natural and the human. “Crossing the Waters” focuses on climate change and considers catastrophe, picturing ways to imagine nature within us, and nature without us.

In 2011 a solo exhibition of Zurkow’s work was featured at the Montclair Art Museum. Past exhibitions of her work have also been featured at FACT, Liverpool; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Wave Hill, New York; National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.; Bennington College, Vermont; Borusan Collection, Istanbul; Pacific Northwest College of Art, Oregon; Marian Spore, New York; 01SJ Biennial, San Jose; Brooklyn Academy of Music; Museum of the Moving Image, New York; Creative Time, New York; The Kitchen, New York; Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria; Transmediale, Berlin; Eyebeam, New York; Sundance Film Festival, Utah; Rotterdam Film Festival, The Netherlands; and the Seoul Media City Biennial, Korea, among others.

Marina Zurkow is the recipient of a 2011 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. She has also been granted awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Creative Capital. She is on faculty at NYU’s Interactive Technology Program (ITP), and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For exhibition inquiries, please contact Laura Blereau at bitforms gallery.

Zurkow’s website is