2020 - by John MacLean
We rarely question that how we think, feel and act is anything more than a reaction to what is happening to us right now, directly in front of us. Yet frequently something other than what is here, in this present moment, is influencing us.
Each of us has within us vestiges of our entire evolutionary history, which have accumulated over thousands of years to form the fundamental characteristics we call ‘human nature’—the qualities we tend to have naturally.
The question ‘What makes us who we are?’ is one I also had in mind during my previous project ‘Hometowns’ where I photographed the childhood neighbourhoods of my art heroes. Now I aim to cast my imagination further back to create metaphors for aspects of human nature and its evolution, primarily by photographing the natural environment and how we react to it.
In the 21st century we know that we were not created as the beings we are today but emerged through an evolutionary process that may have been initiated by a simple, chance chemical reaction. Until recently, however, evolution was rarely explicitly invoked within psychology. We now understand that the underlying structure of the human psyche is the result of evolution too. Just as natural selection explains the illusion of design in plants and insects, it has also become important in beginning to understand human consciousness. Evolution connects us to nature, but consciousness sets us apart.
This is the ultimate, fundamental binary code of life and it embodies the primary predicament of existence—for all animals, not just human beings. All forms of animate life share this basic ‘stay or go’ conundrum, even the most primitive. Good or bad, stay or go is the original animal reaction to the world.
While our subconscious still inhabits a survive-at-all-costs hunter-gatherer world—the world of our distant ancestors—we have since accumulated mental strategies much more complex than ‘find warmth’, ‘drink when thirsty’ or ‘kill snake’. We have learned to use tools but also to co-operate and communicate in large numbers. Perhaps our defining—and most redeeming—acquired characteristic is a sophisticated ability to identify, empathise with and understand each other.
‘Hometowns’ had a reflexive component, and so does ‘Your Nature’. I have been making these pictures through an awareness of one aspect of humanity that seems to have no clear evolutionary benefit: the drive to express ourselves through depictions. We know that children are born with a latent ability to interpret marks: our primal brain found pattern recognition useful for survival, so it was retained through natural selection; pattern recognition enables us to make, see and understand pictures because we can translate our three-dimensional experience into two-dimensions. But why is picture making so prevalent across every culture and throughout human history?
Some of the world’s greatest pictures were made 40,000 years ago—they survive in the caves we once inhabited. In this sense art can be seen as not having progressed at all—but that is not the point. The pictures we make reveal us as symbolising, conceptualising animals driven to make sense of our experience. There are no frames in nature—we impose them on nature.
We humans are far from being the most graceful, peaceful or efficiently evolved life form on earth. However, our intelligent and curious nature creates a uniquely insatiable desire to find meaning in what we perceive. And picture-making has helped us to frame and analyse the gamut of our experience—from birth to death.
As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz said, art is a human survival mechanism, ‘an attempt to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand’.