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It was an unusual series of events and the natural curiosity that drives those with scientifically inclined minds that led American scientist Cleve Backster to attach a polygraph to a philodendron plant in his lab. Much to his surprise, the plant gave a pattern reading typical of that which a human being might give. Backster became quite tangentially excited about this sentient occurrence and began wondering what might happen if he decided to say, burn one of the philodendron’s leaves. As he was thinking about burning the poor philodendron, the polygraph reportedly showed a rapid upswing—the type of upswing you might see if you threatened to burn someone while they were hooked up to a polygraph. Whether or not this particular experiment was scientifically sound is a subject best suited for a different forum, but, if you are willing to take the information in for a minute and let the idea that plants are more sentient than we typically give them credit for the whole modern ‘man beat nature’ paradigm shifts rather suddenly. Regardless what has been proven and so on and so forth, the point remains that what Backster ‘discovered’ is fodder for aberrant minds—especially in times when dialogue about the environment and conservation plays such a huge role in our day to day lives.
Joseph Shaeffer’s new body of work, The Epoch of Encroachment is a dynamic and richly textured venture conceptually addressing multiple dimensions of mans complicated relationship with nature—and perhaps more specifically—natures relationship with man.
The provenance of Epoch of Encroachment was a single experience in which Shaeffer discovered “an industrial electronic bug trap, which while fully functioning, became a habitat for a colony of wasps.” This sort of blatant encounter clearly drives Shaeffer’s exploration of a potential reality in which nature manipulates the auspices of mankind for its own purposes. Shaeffer explains that the Epoch of Encroachment is “an attempt to convey a future scenario where nature will respond as a sentient entity by making the conscious decision to utilize aspects of human technology to both thrive in and protect itself from the environment we have thrust upon it.” In addition to collected experiences, the artist uses scientific movement in the field as a conceptual reference point, citing the work of Russian scientist Vladimir Karamanov, who conducted experiments showing that plants could auto regulate their environment by “manipulating, through movement, a series of electronic switches designed to control levels of light and the amount of water being dispensed to each plant.”
The resulting unearthly sculptures read as beautiful, albeit disturbing, renderings of biology and technology coming together in a wholly new way. The combination of natural objects such as porcupine quills and hornets nests with scientific glass, machine parts and antiquated equipment manages to come across as cohesive objects with the biological elements taking on the steely quality of the man made and vice versa. It is the stunning beauty of the objects and the careful craft that makes the body of work so wholly convincing.
Perhaps that, and the underlying possibility that Cleve Backster was absolutely right on.
Joseph Shaeffer is a Colorado based sculptor who has won critical acclaim for his innovative techniques and conceptual work. His most recent show was at Artyard Contemporary in Denver, Colorado where he showed Studies from the Epoch of Encroachment.