Read into Elisabeth Kohnke’s (Dual MA / MFA, 2017) research and artwork, which employ humor to engage the rhetoric and reach of the Anthropocene and environmentalism—from education to action.
Briefly introduce yourself.
I’m an artist and art theorist currently in the last semester of my third year in the Dual Degree (MFA/MA) program at SFAI. Previously I attended Mills College and earned my BA in music composition and video production. Starting in 2006 I began actively collaborating both in performance and video within the bay area, showing work in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Stanford and Albuquerque, NM. Since 2012, I’ve been pursuing sculpture and installation work, which was showcased last year in the INTRODUCTIONS 2016 exhibition at Root Division.
Tell us about your current research.
My research during the past year at SFAI has been focused on learning more about art in the context of the Anthropocene, to fully understand the pitfalls and counterproductive effects it can have on the viewer. Many of the traditional methodologies of environmental art are being applied to current art practices in the attempt to convey social awareness to audiences through environmental impacts. However, a global awareness of climate change has become increasingly present and current socio-economic practices are not adapting. My argument is that this environmental art rhetoric of simply educating the public is no longer a relevant discourse. In the effort to find works of art that address the Anthropocene differently, I’ve been analyzing four contemporary sculptures by Wilfredo Prieto, Virginia Overton, Michael Sailstorfer, and Tom Friedman. I believe these artists are addressing some of the core contributing issues of the Anthropocene in a latent, somewhat playful manner—effectively engaging a connection with the viewer through irony and wit, instead of displaying overwhelming data or disturbing imagery that often furthers reactions of shock and denial. None of these artists are known for making specifically “Environmental Art” but by drawing attention to consumer infrastructure through the decontextualization of fetishized commodities, they are able to directly address the cognitive dissonance occurring within modern society.
How are you merging data-driven, scientific research with your own on Environmental Art?
It’s important to understand the trends in climate science and the scope of current environmental problems but my goal is to not inundate the viewer with this information. I myself do not go to a gallery to read about the work, I believe the art can do more on its own. I think a crucial part of my practice includes the distortion of a common reality, resource, or consumer object that speaks for itself and has helped to define who we are as a society. Inevitably, objects like outlets or power cables carry with them a complex history of energy resources, global relations, and environmental impact. I am aware of the trending Anthropocenic issues as are many others, but my goal is not to reproduce environmental data, my goal is to get these educated audiences to recognize the idiosyncrasy in their (sub)conscious daily denial.
As a dual MA/MFA candidate, how does your art practice relate to your scholarship?
I think it’s extremely relevant; when I began school at SFAI I was in the MFA program, but as my artwork developed and I became more aware of my focus, I wanted to dig in and learn more critical theory. I decided to apply to the Dual Degree program because I desired a clearer understanding of my art practice in relation to the rest of the art world. I decided to search for artwork that worked in a way I wanted my art to work, whether or not the artist’s intentions were similar to mine.
Like the artists you focus on in your thesis, your installations are somewhat playful—a web of power cables, water flowing from an outlet—while still referencing enviro-political, psychological, and social issues. How does this approach engage viewers with your work?
To answer this question simply I’d say by not being didactic. I think humor and the destabilization of the familiar is a better way to intrigue viewers and get them to engage and scratch the surface of the work.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be installing a large-scale inflatable avalanche at the Madrone Art Bar in San Francisco. The opening will be July 6th and the show runs through September 30. I’m really looking forward to getting back into my art practice after I graduate in May. I’ve been living in San Francisco since 2008 and I’m definitely sticking around!
Additionally, on May 18 I will be discussing my thesis in detail at the SFAI MA symposium, and exhibiting my most recent artwork in the SFAI MFA Exhibition at the San Francisco Mint from May 17-21.
Image credits: 1) Elisabeth Kohnke, Hominization, 2016, Courtesy of the artist; 2) Michael Sailstorfer, Popcorn Machine, 2008, Courtesy of the artist; 3) Photo of Elisabeth Kohnke by Guta Galli; 4) Wilfredo Prieto, Closed Circuit, 2005, Courtesy of Annet Gelink Gallery; 5) Tom Friedman, Untitled (packing peanuts), 2002, Courtesy of Pietmondriaan Online Studios; 6) Elisabeth Kohnke, The Fall (detail), 2016, Courtesy of the artist; 7) Virginia Overton, Untitled (Pedestals), 2012, Courtesy of the artist.