Face Nature

Madeline Schwartzman

Reviewed by David L. Hays

10 Sep 2020


By David L. Hays

Since the late 1960s, eco­log­i­cal approach­es to art and design have placed humans inside nature, yet most of those still ide­al­ize nature as a con­di­tion set apart — as, for exam­ple, through the idea of envi­ron­ment (lit­er­al­ly, sur­round­ings). Artist Made­line Schwartzman’s work is eco­log­i­cal in a more inti­mate and play­ful way. In her ongo­ing prac­tice Face Nature, Schwartz­man begins by for­ag­ing for nat­ur­al mate­ri­als — leaves, flow­ers, seeds and seed­pods, lichen, bark, and more. Those explo­rations are both visu­al and hap­tic. Things are exam­ined, dis­as­sem­bled, and assessed. Then, Schwartz­man recon­fig­ures ele­ments of inter­est by attach­ing them to her face and hands, cladding those oth­er­wise most expres­sive parts of the body.

In these steps, we see Schwartzman’s nat­ur­al attach­ments, both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. The types and qual­i­ties of things she finds depend on where she is and when she is there. So, the process of for­ag­ing guar­an­tees that the work is place-based and sea­son­al, even when place and time are oth­er­wise unmarked. From the viewer’s per­spec­tive, the pow­er of Face Nature depends in part on rec­og­niz­ing a human body with­in it, through glimpses of eyes, skin, hair, or the gen­er­al form of a head or hand. But the medi­um through which we encounter the work also con­di­tions what we make of it. Seen in still images, Face Nature evokes orna­ment, cos­tume, and cam­ou­flage. It res­onates with an eclec­tic range of prece­dents — from the ancient Green Man motif; to Arcimboldo’s strik­ing, and arguably com­i­cal, veg­e­tal por­traits; to the glob­al prac­tice of cos­met­ics, in which nat­ur­al mate­ri­als (and, more recent­ly, syn­thet­ic ones) are applied to the face to make it appear either more explic­it­ly art­ful or more art­ful­ly nat­ur­al. But which of those is this?

Still images of Face Nature are frag­ile por­traits. Clad with tran­sient stuff, the human body peeks out as some­thing vul­ner­a­ble, like in van­i­tas images of ear­li­er times. But when Schwartz­man moves, live or in videos, the effect is alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent. She seems to become some oth­er type of being — a non-human ani­mal. The degree to which that impres­sion unset­tles us under­scores how much our sense of the human still depends on a mod­ern ide­al of dis­tance from nature. Inti­mate knowl­edge of nature is trans­for­ma­tive, even to the enlight­ened imag­i­na­tion, but, with­out mod­ern frame­works to make that knowl­edge seem objec­tive (i.e., dis­tanced), its trans­for­ma­tive capac­i­ty becomes cul­tur­al­ly sus­pect. Mod­ern log­ic and its insti­tu­tions con­strue peo­ple who get too close to nature, blur­ring con­ven­tion­al bound­aries, as var­i­ous­ly unnat­ur­al, unre­al, and unhu­man — that is, as the oppo­site of what they real­ly are: nat­ur­al, real, and human. And that is where mod­ern ecol­o­gy falls down.

In keep­ing with new think­ing about ecol­o­gy, anoth­er way to be with Face Nature is to prac­tice it your­self, becom­ing the body with­in it. Indeed, Schwartz­man guides oth­ers into Face Nature through work­shops and uni­ver­si­ty cours­es, like how com­pos­er and musi­cian Pauline Oliv­eros intro­duced oth­ers to deep lis­ten­ing. The mes­sage is, do try this at home — or, rather, out­side your home. Just be care­ful in your choice of adhe­sives. It may feel like strange cer­e­mo­ny, or it may feel like play, but con­nect­ing with nat­ur­al mate­ri­als will allow you to sense how those ele­ments con­nect with nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na — solar radi­a­tion, wind, pre­cip­i­ta­tion, and fau­na — and that will expand your own sen­si­tiv­i­ty, tak­ing you beyond your­self. Try this wher­ev­er you are, pay atten­tion to how it feels, and ask your­self ques­tions. Prac­tic­ing Face Nature chal­lenges our sense of dis­tance from nature. What might that mean for you? What kind of human will you be if you con­nect to nature in that way? What is at risk, and what might be gained?


Made­line Schwartz­man is a New York City-based writer, film­mak­er, and archi­tect whose work explores human nar­ra­tives and the human sen­so­ri­um through social art, book writ­ing, curat­ing and exper­i­men­tal video mak­ing. Her book See Your­self Sens­ing: Redefin­ing Human Per­cep­tion (Black Dog Pub­lish­ing, 2011) is a col­lec­tion of futur­is­tic pro­pos­als for the body and the sens­es. See Your­self X: Human Futures Expand­ed (Black Dog Press, 2018) focus­es on the human head — pre­sent­ing an array of con­cep­tu­al and con­struct­ed ideas for how we might phys­i­cal­ly extend the head, mind, and brain into space. Schwartz­man is a long-term fac­ul­ty mem­ber at Barnard Col­lege, Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and at Par­sons: the New School for Design.
Web­site: www​.made​li​neschwartz​man​.com
Insta­gram: https://​www​.insta​gram​.com/​s​e​e​y​o​u​r​s​e​l​f​s​e​n​sing/
Email: info@​madelineschwartzman.​com

David L. Hays is co-edi­tor of Forty-Five, co-direc­tor of the gallery Space p11, found­ing prin­ci­pal of Ana­log Media Lab, and Pro­fes­sor and Bren­ton H. and Jean B. Wadsworth Head of the Depart­ment of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign. Trained in archi­tec­ture and his­to­ry of art, his schol­ar­ly research explores con­tem­po­rary land­scape the­o­ry and prac­tice, the his­to­ry of gar­den and land­scape design in ear­ly mod­ern Europe, inter­faces between archi­tec­ture and land­scape, and ped­a­go­gies of his­to­ry and design. Hays is the edi­tor of Land­scape with­in Archi­tec­ture (2004) and (Non-)Essential Knowl­edge for (New) Archi­tec­ture (2013), both by 306090/​Princeton Archi­tec­tur­al Press. His essays have appeared in a wide range of inter­na­tion­al design- and his­to­ry-based jour­nals and as chap­ters in numer­ous books.
Email: dlhays@​forty-​five.​com