Alexis Rockman: Manifest Destiny
For centuries, artists have been inspired by natural beauty as it exists and as it might someday exist in a utopian future. But they have also addressed issues of environmental devastation and produced images of the end of the world. The artist Alexis Rockman explores these topics simultaneously in his monumental painting Manifest Destiny. Here we see an apocalyptic vision of Brooklyn approximately three thousand years in the future. Drawing on scientific research, Rockman learned that in that distant time, much of the borough will most likely be submerged, as a result of global warming (the worldwide climate changes, brought about by human activity, that threaten to melt large portions of the polar ice caps and mountain glaciers). But within that underwater universe, he shows, many species will continue to develop and thrive.
Since childhood, Rockman has been fascinated by zoology and botany, inspired by the interests of his mother, an archaeologist. Growing up in New York, he spent endless hours exploring the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. Rockman has maintained this early interest and has consistently addressed it in his paintings, creating visionary landscapes.
With Manifest Destiny, he focuses on the issue of global warming in particular, warning of the danger it poses. The painting offers a visual prediction: the future of biodiversity will be limited to those species able to survive in an environment dominated by human culture’s destructive effects on the planet. Rockman confronts us with what we fear and challenges us to acknowledge our complicity in the transformation of the ecosystem. His visual references are grounded in science and intimate observation, but they also draw upon time-honored influences, such as the Hudson River School painting tradition.
To produce Manifest Destiny, Rockman collaborated with the architect Diane Lewis, whose expertise concerning man-made structures complemented the artist’s zoological and art historical study. Lewis used current and historical architectural trends to project what Brooklyn’s built environment might look like in three thousand years.
Humans usually imagine a future that includes fantasies of their own culture. These projections, however, almost never take into account the effect of human activity on the plants and animals that share our planet.
My twenty-four-foot painting Manifest Destiny combines genre iconography from such practices as documentary film, nature photography, and science fiction to imagine a Brooklyn, and what lives in it, in the distant future—about three thousand years from now.
In collaboration with members of the scientific community, I focused on the geological future after the effects of global warming. In so doing, I am taking the impossibly abstract notion of global climate change and applying it to familiar territory, to convey the profound effect that humans are having on the environment. Research from ecologists, archaeologists, and paleontologists has informed the evolution of the painting. I also worked with Diane Lewis and Chris Morris, whose knowledge informed the design vision of future cities.
My large-scale painting draws on the model of grand Hudson River School “event” paintings (such as Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes, and various canvases by Albert Bierstadt, such as Brooklyn’s own Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie), which were created by artists who traveled the world to see and depict scenes of great botanical and geological variety. Works from that time frequently incorporated natural elements that simultaneously reveal the past, present, and future of a given site.
Manifest Destiny: Architectural Studies
The drawings shown here are by the studio of Diane Lewis Architect. They portray a transformed future city, constructed by the architects. The painting Manifest Destiny is Alexis Rockman’s view of that future cityscape.
The city plan and its perspectival projection were developed from research into the many layers that comprise the urban fabric. Thus the drawings exhibited here investigate many different aspects of the site, including the formative geological and landscape conditions, the early settlements and landings, ideal city plans, the actual urban form, and architectural projects of the present and the future, all leading to the image of the city as it might stand in a post-deluge epoch.
The drawings, which Rockman used as a foundation and a reference in making Manifest Destiny, are shown as companions to the painting, illuminating the collaborative nature of the architectural research.
Studio of Diane Lewis Architects, New York
Concepts, Sketches, and Texts: Diane Lewis
Design, Computer Drawing, and Research: Yael Erel
Assistant Projection: Han Hsi Ho
Perspective: Georg Windeck
Production: Paul Granger