Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman's mural-sized painting Manifest Destiny (2004) was created on the occasion of the Brooklyn Museum's recent re-opening. Instead of selecting a triumphant scene typical for such celebratory occasions, Rockman depicted Brooklyn in the year 5,000 following the complete demise of Brooklyn's infrastructure. The mural depicts the release of the air, the waters, the land and the creatures from their conscription by humanity because civilization was vanquished by a great environmental debacle. The forty-one year old artist has been honored as a visionary for conveying an urgent social warning, but he has also been criticized for exploiting people's insecurities. Why did Rockman reject the opportunity to uplift people's spirits? He explains, "I noticed there was a niche available for paintings that concern ecology. Especially a political image that needs a broad audience. This is a populist project. I want people from different demographics to be aware of global warming."

"London Bridge is falling down." This familiar nursery rhyme intones that this 'fair lady' must either be locked up or shored up. The ditty offers several shoring strategies. "Needles and pins will bend and break. Wood and clay will wash away. Stone so strong will last so long." If the designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were to contribute a fourth verse, it might be: "Industry is so robust. Structural steel deserves our trust." Alexis Rockman has created an image that has inspired a fifth verse. The 24 foot mural envisions the future of the Brooklyn Bridge and all the structures that comprise this bustling borough of Manhattan. The equivalent of this visual panorama in verse, is:

"Brooklyn Bridge has fallen down.

It lies in waters neon brown.

Though no fair lady's left alive

Critters creep and microbes thrive."

In the mural, bridges provide an opportunity to interrogate the present from the perspective of the distant future (3,000 years from now when human indiscretions are glaring) and the recent past (one hundred and fifty years ago when industrialization empowered humans to extend and expand control over the environment). The painting offers two interpretations. One interpretation bemoans the tragic demise of civilization. This gloomy prognostication is conveyed by the massive suspension cables which once epitomized technology's role in assuring progress. In the painting, they lie collapsed upon the ocean floor. The theme of devastation is reinforced by the pitiful remains of the Brooklyn Bridge's ornamental arch and its monumental colonnade. These ruins are potent symbols of the collapse of human aspirations. Bridges 'keep our heads above water' in a literal manner, but the phrase also means that they keep us safe. Rockman explains, "When a bridge is under water, it is a complete symbol of failure. There is nothing more disturbing."

The end of civilization, however, does not signal the end of time. Rockman utilizes urban disintegration as an opportunity to display the resilient adaptive powers of ecosystems. After the artist worked with Chris Morris, an architect, to create a futuristic rendering of a collapsed suspension bridge that might have once connected Brooklyn and Manhattan, he gave it prominence within the rendering of Brooklyn's city blocks that was created by Diane Lewis, another architect. This imagined bridge of the future, however, does not share the misbegotten fate of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although its intended function is defunct, it now services the globally-warmed ecosystem of the future. In the painting, the bridge has become a rooting platform for plants, a feeding ledge for birds, and a shelter for sea life. Rockman explains how this image evolved, "I rejected the first drawing because it looked too retro-futuristic and too boxy. I suggested a suspension bridge with its platform under water which could serve as a support for a mangrove swamp, the nursery for the new ecosystem. The bridge was transmogrified. It was claimed by natural succession. It provides a new opportunity for renewal. The collapse is a disaster from the human perspective, but it is a boon for other organisms."

The painting's historical time line leads the viewer back to 1845 when a rallying cry was issued to all the citizens of the United States. It supplied the painting's title, Manifest Destiny. The proclamation asserted "... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth." With these impassioned words, John L. O'Sullivan declared that the citizens of the United States had a god-given mission to extend the boundaries of freedom. When O'Sullivan issued this statement, he envisioned the lateral expansion of U.S. boundaries across the western plains. Alexis Rockman has applied the phrase to the changes that are occurring in our vertical borders, those wrought below upon the soils and waters, and those that extend to the ozone layer above. Then as now, the principle of Manifest Destiny is controversial. It has been interpreted by some as an inspiring vision of duty, ambition, and progress. The mural presents the side of those who blame if for justifying dominance, greed, and exploitation.

By presenting the panorama of Brooklyn as it might appear in the future and not in its current state with littered banks and scummy waters, the mural makes 'manifest' the jeopardy of pursuing 'destined' aspirations, goals believed to be blessed by providence and foretold by fate. In the painting, once-littered banks are submerged under water. They have sunk along with bridges, streets, stadiums, power plants, banks, and other buildings that formerly comprised this densely populated borough. Submerged dikes and sea walls testify to the futile efforts to stem the raging tides. A beached oil tanker and stealth bomber lie useless in the muck while outsized SARS, West Nile, Mad Cow, and AIDS viruses flourish amid the wreckage. The principle of Manifest Destiny relates fueling ambition to a warming globe.

In order to render the sordid grandiloquence of this epic narrative, Rockman studied the legacy of great history paintings, science fiction movies, and photographs of tropical ruins. One example of this encyclopedic cataloguing of different genres is the allegorical suite of paintings titled The Course of the Empire which depicts the inevitable fall that follows the rise of empires. Created by Thomas Cole, the renowned 19th century painter, the five part suite originates with a depiction of the American wilderness prior to the encroachment of European civilization and culminates with the return of wilderness after civilization's demise. As in Rockman's mural, Cole's scene is devoid of humans but it is not devoid of life. Broken pillars and ruined structures have been reclaimed by mosses and encircled by plants while the surviving animals have settled into a new equilibrium. Although nascent industrialization and advanced technologies comprise their contrasting cultural contexts, both Cole and Rockman contemplate the future beyond the collapse of civilization and discern signs of emergence, renewal, and continuance.

The imagined part of the scenario in Manifest Destiny is balanced with the rigorous projections of ecologists, botanists, zoologists, hydrologists, architects, engineers, pathologists, and other professionals. Rockman's own computer serves as the depot for the massive collection of images generated by his far-ranging research. Each is filed methodically under categories that reveal the breadth of study invested in the mural's production: urban ruins, neo-tropics, bird wings, Brooklyn buildings, bio engineered crustaceans, film history, viruses and bacteria, weedy species, and many more. For example, The Golden Guide: Fishes serves as the source for the lamprey fish which is assigned a dominant role in the mural's composition. First published in 1955, the book has been Rockman's lifelong personal companion, nourishing his childhood curiosity about the diversity of creatures that comprise the great commonwealth of biological organisms. Today, the illustrations in the field guide are models for Rockman's meticulously detailed portrayals. In addition, they provide information about aquatic species that might survive the great ozone deluge. The sea lamprey is one such species. Lifted from its neutral setting of a field guide, the fish contributes its hideous appearance to a distressing narrative. A gaping serrated mouth flares open at the end of its eel-shaped body. It supports the creature's nasty habit of sucking the life fluids from victims, thereby assuring their slow and agonizing deaths. As the Draculas of the fish world, lampreys evoke the gruesome spectacle of civilization as an aggressive, devouring parasite.

At the same time, the contorted relationship between lampreys and humans gave Rockman an opportunity to suggest society's role in causing and preventing environmental cataclysm. Human action was a boon for lampreys who took advantage of the Welland Canal that connected the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Erie. These uninvited users of the canal rapidly colonized all of the upper Great Lakes, threatening recreation and the fishing industries. In the 1950s, just thirty years after the opening of the canal, humans responded with chemical poisons. Now, once again, humans are determining lamprey fate. Eleven conservation groups have recently petitioned to list these aggressive and unsightly creatures on the Federal Endangered Species Act. These environmentalists assert that lampreys now occupy an important niche in the food chain. They not only transport ocean nutrients into freshwater ecosystems, they become dinner for predators who would otherwise feast on salmon and other desirable fish.

Manifest Destiny dramatizes the urgency of addressing today's environmental dilemmas. Can the relentless march toward global warming be diverted by human restraint? Can our actions prevent some populations from swelling beyond measure and others from shrinking to extinction levels? Can humanity avert the death sentence it has decreed upon itself? What is the fate of the earth? Rockman summons his impressive skills as a draftsman, colorist, researcher, commentator, and futurist to confront viewers with a likely answer: The earth's waters will rise and inundate the cities that once controlled its harbors and enjoyed its ocean views. Humans will vanish from this site, but is this scenario hopeful or hopeless? This expansive artwork leaves the question unresolved. Viewers may conclude that the mural's orange glow derives from the sun rising in the east. The dawn of a new day is a potent symbol of renewal. Alternatively, they might decide that the lurid glow stems from the toxic fall-out of past human indiscretions spewing into the atmosphere. The mural's visual splendor and its captivating narrative are powerful tools summoned to instigate such crucial considerations.

Linda Weintraub
New York, NY
November 2004

Manifest Destiny was made possible with support from Grand Arts, Kansas City, Missouri, Tim Nye – The MAT Charitable Foundation & Foundation 20 21, and the Dorothea Leonhardt Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas.

For production and conceptual assistance, the artist would like to thank: Martin Basher, Diane Lewis, Chris Morris, Andrew Vallely, and Kimi Weart.

Grand Arts and the artist would also like to thank Gorney Bravin + Lee, NY, for their assistance in mounting this exhibition.

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