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
An apocalyptic vision of a future Brooklyn, created by painter Alexis Rockman, has been commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum of Art to celebrate the opening of its new Eastern Parkway entrance and plaza in April 2004. Alexis Rockman: Manifest Destiny, an eight foot by twenty-four foot mural, will portray a Brooklyn in which much of the borough is submerged under water as a result of global warming. It will be on view in the second-floor Mezzanine Gallery, overlooking the renovated Grand Lobby and new glass entrance pavilion, from April 17 through September 12, 2004, to be followed by an eighteen-month tour to other venues.
Rockman, whose works frequently blend science and fantasy, anticipates ecological disasters that are often created by human error or inattention. In Manifest Destiny, Brooklyn will become a vast floodplain from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In this visionary work, familiar landmarks will be submerged beneath the waters, creating a new geology and hosting a wide variety of aquatic plants and animals.
A former columnist and illustrator for Natural History magazine, Alexis Rockman will draw upon extensive scientific research, including consultation with NASA climatologists, to create this large-scale work. He has also worked closely with architect Diane Lewis, who has developed detailed architectural renderings to actual scale of the sections of Brooklyn to be depicted, which Rockman will then transform into an underwater ruin inhabited by botanical and zoological species. The architectural drawings will be exhibited along with the mural in the exhibition.
Rockman, who believes that the past holds clues to the future, will also draw upon the Museum’s renowned collection of American paintings for inspiration. Among the works he will be studying is Albert Bierstadt’s iconic Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866), the monumental rendering of a pristine Western landscape before the westward expansion of the railroad.
In preparation for creating previous imaginary future landscapes, in addition to his prodigious research, Alexis Rockman has consulted with biologists, zoologists, and paleontologists and has done field work in such remote locations as the rainforests in Guyana. Born in 1962, the son of archaeologist Diana Wall, Rockman spent a part of his childhood in a remote section of Peru, as well as endless hours exploring the American Museum of Natural History, where his mother worked for a time for the late Margaret Mead. Rockman has said that the dioramas at that museum have been an important influence on his work.
Rockman studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. For nearly two decades he has worked in his own Tribeca studio, where he creates his fantastic images of future ecological nightmares.
Alexis Rockman’s work as been exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions, among them Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors from the Robert Lesser Collection recently presented at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in a section which explored the impact of this genre on contemporary artists. His work is in many public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Baltimore Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is also in several private collections including that of X-Files star Gillian Anderson, who owns Rockman’s Ecotourist, a diorama-like painting in which the artist represents himself as a decaying corpse. Rockman has also been a contributor to many publications, and has taught at Columbia and Harvard Universities.
Manifest Destiny is organized by Tumelo Mosaka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from Tim Nye—The MAT Charitable Foundation & Foundation 20 21, and the Dorothea Leonhardt Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas. The May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation supported publication of the Exhibition Catalogue.