Note: The first two works are in the In Balance/Imbalance exhibition and all the works included here are related to economic imbalance.
In On Earth Never Sown, a cloud seemingly carved out of stone hovers like a mirage. The vast majority of people in the world still work by hand, largely sustaining themselves through agriculture. Meanwhile, the “developed” world’s inventions to “benefit” humanity are typically proprietary and predatory—effectively created for monetary profit. In agriculture, they can ultimately lead to mounting debt, cash crops, and export economies that drive farmers around the world to suicide. On Earth Never Sown presents manual tools working (or attacking?) the stone cloud. The power of numbers and collective action convey an aspiration for agency and self-sustenance.
The series Wicked Aspirations: Parity or Bust (1998–2000), portrays creatures decrying conditions and consequences of capitalism and international economic policies that propagate profound inequity. They struggle collectively toward the mirage of economic parity and the alleviation of odious debt. They demand the eradication of suffering, a transition to prosperity, and popular sovereignty.
Basic Conditionalities or the Assumption of Burden: Stalking the Countryside, speaks specifically to genetic engineering of crops and their seeds. Genetic modification within agriculture and the chemistry of fertilizers developed in the first world may have its benefits but are ultimately proprietary. Their proprietary nature manufactures deleterious consequences, replacing simpler means of survival with dependency on expensive corporate technologies that create vast economic inequities and debt among farmers around the globe.
Andrew Ellis Johnson,Till, installation at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, chalked vintage tool handles, cast glass, concrete, 2007.
Till presents a collection of full-scale agricultural tools (hoes, scythes, sickles, machetes, pickaxes, etc.) with their heads or blades cast in glass. The title plays with three connotations: the temporal associations of “till,” as in the preposition “until”; the verb referring to field labor as in “tilling the earth”; and the noun’s reference to a cash register, a locus of capital. The work suggests aggression, as the tools lay in wait to hack the concrete ground on which they lay. Contradictions abound, as these objects may also “fetishize” labor, neutering any functional or oppositional impulses. If wielded, the tools would smash upon impact; thus, the futility of aesthetic utilitarianism.
In 2014, the World Bank reported that about 78 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and rely largely on agriculture. However, first world systems of measuring production are balanced toward mega-agribusiness corporations and cash crop profits; effective farming for local needs is not even on the scale.
Vandana Shiva, winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize (the Right Livelihood Award) for her work on globalization and poverty, exposes the invisible mechanisms of power and profit. The vaporous mirages of Wicked Aspirations and On Earth Never Sown, and the ghostly fragility of Till’s instruments of production, also invoke this invisibility, reflecting unacknowledged subsistence farmers and agricultural laborers. Unseen are the women who produce up to 80 percent of the food in developing countries. Unseen are the decreasing incomes of farmers amidst the record high food prices of 2022, accompanied by rising hunger and increasing vulnerability to climate change. Unrecognized are the three out of every eight people in the world who cannot afford a healthy diet. Our unsustainable and inequitable global food systems deepen debt crises and actually foster a debt and hunger loop that forces countries to choose between feeding people, or banks. The “till” becomes invisible in how it protects the speculators who are defined as “wealth creators” and in how it conceals their greed and its consequences.
As debts rise in both rich and poor countries, farmers are literally killing themselves. In the most bitter of ironies, some imbibe the very pesticides that they can ill afford and become ghosts of the land. Their absence is evoked by Till’s desiccated and emaciated handles, gathered like bones in a desert, their steel turned brittle and crystalline, like frosted death.
Image at top: Andrew Ellis Johnson, On Earth Never Sown, digital collage on Hahnemühle paper, 2004.