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Lara Almarcegui, Gravel, 2018

Ph.D.: The Anthropocene and Visual Culture

Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Philip Ursprung, ETH Zurich,
and Prof. Dr. Karen van den Berg, Zeppelin University
Since 2017

The Anthropocene and Visual Culture. Material Strategies in Contemporary Art and Architecture in works by Lara Almarcegui, Pierre Huyghe, and Peter Zumthor  


The dissertation investigates visual culture and materiality in contemporary art in the context of discourse surrounding the Anthropocene. Taking it as a lens through which material strategies are analyzed, the project follows the shift in the cultural understanding of nature from the sublime and remote otherness toward an interdependent ecological system with human and non-human actors. By exploring the notion of materiality in visual culture, this project examines how this paradigmatic turn is illustrated and dealt with in artistic practices and strategies in recent years.


The project argues that an expanded definition of materiality has evolved as an immanent aesthetic strategy in the visual culture of the Anthropocene. This new material aesthetics has occurred through the increasing environmental consciousness informed by the advancement of research in different disciplines from natural sciences and humanities while offering tools to engage with the environment beyond politically motivated activism and the idea of autonomous aesthetics. The context of this new material aesthetics is analyzed in this project through case studies by the artists Lara Almarcegui and Pierre Huyghe and the architect Peter Zumthor.


The motivation for choosing the three case studies is grounded in their methods of dealing with materiality as a complex context of production and a strategy to demonstrate otherwise invisible and inaccessible matter. Their oeuvre is not looked at as illustrative representation but instead examined in their approach of reflecting on land reclamation and exploitation concepts, re-appropriation and re-creation of topographies, and the role of geological space and time in the realm of the Anthropocene.


Living and researching in the era of the Anthropocene mean watching scientific assumptions on the consequences of climate change materializing before our eyes. In the process of the Ph.D., it became apparent that it would be impossible to keep up with the weekly published scholarly research or the planetary events that shape our present. While geologists are still mapping out the legitimation of the term “Anthropocene,” environmental humanities are increasingly producing its theoretical and historical frameworks at high speed.


This conclusion has led to the decision to emphasize methodological questions: How can research establish alternative visions and facilitate new ecological modes of thinking? Informed by the elaborations on “situated knowledges” by Donna Haraway and “site-writing” by Jane Rendell, this dissertation seeks to underline the need for new narratives decentralizing our anthropocentric perspective. Therefore, in its methodology, the thesis follows the line of argument introduced by Amitav Ghosh, who argues that storytelling has a crucial influence on how we perceive and act upon climate change. As Ghosh discerns, Anthropocene is a challenge to various disciplines such as history, humanities, and arts, and thus also to the imagination. Consequently, the dissertation introduces an assemblage of different speculative and fictive text forms and insights beyond academic research that hint at how it is to live in the Anthropocene and how the consequences of climate change are soaking into Western cultural contexts.

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