Earthbound/ Earth Bound – Maya Kóvskaya

Posted On:Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 | by project88blogadmin

adjective: earth-bound
1. attached or restricted to the earth.”  ~a flightless earthbound bird.”
2. attached or limited to material existence as distinct from a spiritual or heavenly one. ~”her earthbound view of the sacrament.”


As unprecedented ecological catastrophe unfolds across our planet, new systems of knowledge and new ways of imagining the human condition emerge in response, sometimes reconnecting with old ideational systems in novel hybrid formations to make sense of the dynamics shaping our world. Scientists now debate whether we have left the sanguine evolutionary conditions of the Holocene, during which mammalian, including human, life found niches in which to develop. A new term describing our current geological era, “the Anthropocene,” is now being mobilized to describe the unprecedented causal force of human agency in shaping the material conditions of the planet on a geological time-scale.[1]

Scientists and philosophers across the globe are currently debating how to pinpoint the starting line of the Anthropocene in order to understand its inner workings, and identify a “golden spike” of relevant activity marking the advent of the new era. Some have argued for the Neolithic and the advent of Agriculture,[2] others the Industrial Revolution,[3] with its harnessing of fossil fuels as the beginning. Most recently, the international, interdisciplinary Anthropocene Working Group has declared July 16th 1945, the date of “the world’s first nuclear bomb explosion,” in New Mexico, as the critical juncture initiating the Anthropocene.[4] They argue that a “Great Acceleration” since the 1950s of “holistic, comprehensive and interlinked processes” has disrupted the crucial balance of the Earth System, “simultaneously sweeping across the socio-economic and biophysical spheres of the Earth System, encompassing far more than climate change.”[5] The resultant ecological crisis is inextricably bound up in asymmetrical systems of global power, supported by certain beliefs and values that have produced a world characterized by profound inequality and obsessed with limitless growth.

The dominant scientific consensus now holds that we have crossed the threshold of four out of the nine “planetary boundaries”[6] that form a “safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth System.” And transgressions of either of the “two core boundaries—climate change and biosphere integrity” have the capacity “to drive the Earth System into a new state,” with enormous repercussions for the habitability of our world. We have already transgressed both of these, and there is now “clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are…driven by human activities.”[7] These include land-system changes such as deforestation, changes in freshwater use,  aerosol loading of particular matter into the air, disrupted biogeochemical cycles (including disturbances in the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles), acidification of the oceans, the introduction of “novel entities” (such as radioactive materials, nano-materials, micro-plastics, and organic pollutions), climate change such as extreme and unpredictable weather cycles, and staggering biodiversity loss, leading to the extinction of half of the world’s species since the 1970s.[8]

Meanwhile, a tiny but vociferous group of deniers, with vested interests in maintaining the status quo of the fossil fuel supported hegemony of Neoliberal Global Capital, dispute that human factors are sufficient to change the geological conditions of the earth. And most of us with the means to do so keep on living in the ways that got us into trouble in the first place.

Within these debates about the Anthropocene and ecological crisis are traces of much older discourses about agency, causality, human life on earth, and our relationship to nature, as well as the positing of “higher powers.” These are often seen in terms of categories of the divine and essentially functioning as what Aristotle called the “unmoved mover” – the causal force that stands outside of all that is, which has no analogous force moving it, i.e. the prime cause of all causes or the motive of all being. Today, more than ever, people are often left feeling alienated from their own agency and helpless to act otherwise due to interconnected processes that outstrip individual intentions, combined with the visible persistence of genuine power asymmetries.


The artworks deployed in the Earth Bound exhibition form a constellation of shifting, rhizomatic relationships that we can read against any number of these interconnected concerns, shared and fragmented histories, evolutionary trajectories, conjunctions and disjunctions. Through diverse visual languages and processes of art-making, the various artworks in the show address permutations of a mix of questions about the Anthropocene, and offer meditations on causality and agency in the relationship between humans, other species, nature, and the planet. In doing so, the artworks in Earth Bound, draw on, glance off, challenge, or connect with a number of shifts in scientific, theoretical and philosophical approaches that have emerged in order to articulate and interrogate the capacity of human agency to shape major geological forces of the planet.

Artists are increasingly taking up the challenges of the Anthropocene in terms framed by an array of contemporary thinkers, such as philosophers of science from Donna Haraway[9] to Bruno Latour,[10] anthropologists such as Eduardo Kohn,[11] environmental futurists such as James Lovelock,[12] phenomenological ecologists such as David Abrams,[13] evolutionary microbiologist Lynn Margulis,[14] and numerous others, who have written extensively about agentive capacity of nature: ecological, botanical, microbial, mycorrhizal, and animal life, etc., as well those who have studied the tension between individual human agency and collective outcomes.

These shifts in thought include expanded notions of agency that are neither solely human nor divine, notions that have recently re-emerged into the popular discourse, sometimes in dissonance, sometimes in consonance with ancient knowledge and belief systems that have framed the ways our human civilizations have answered these questions about the nature of life on earth and our place in it.


A descriptive overview of the some of the artworks in the Earth Bound exhibition is offered below in counterpoint to the larger set of inquires and meditations in which this rich body of anthropocene-focused and earthbound works find extensive patterns of resonance.

The show opens with Tejal Shah’s drawings from her Anonymous Life Series (2012). A dark spiral that evokes the sucking power of a black hole is placed beside a hybrid sea urchin that appears to be at two different stages of its life-cycle, like a cell caught between mitosis and meiosis, evoking the fragility and resilience of life even under conditions of intense anthropogenic intervention.

Anonymous Life Series (Hir I and Hir IV) Dry pastel, gouache, ink on paper Size: 15 x 11inches each 2013
Anonymous Life Series (Hir I and Hir IV)
Dry pastel, gouache, ink on paper
Size: 15 x 11inches each

Who and what survives is a question that depends on the scale of time being used to measure a life. Consider the differential scales between the life of an insect, the life of an individual human, the life of a virus, the life of a species, the life of an ecosystem, the life of a star, the life of a planet. The concept of time is one of our most consequential human inventions and most powerful means for measuring and meting out the meanings of our days. Both Raqs Media Collective and Neha Choksi engage with questions related to time in their works shown in Earth Bound.

Installation View of Neha Choksi's, 'The Weather Inside Me' and Raqs Media Collective's, 'Proverbs'
Installation View of Neha Choksi’s, ‘The Weather Inside Me’ and Raqs Media Collective’s, ‘Proverbs’

Raqs Media Collective’s Proverbs I (2011) is part of a series of “textual sculptures that express a set of ambiguities about transactions and relationships.” In this piece, words have been incised into a panel that flashes intermittently to produce a shifting set of textual semaphores, morphing semantics that take us up and down between semiotic registers, from the playful to the profound to the absurd. The work manifests alternating iterations of shifting scales of measurement and meaning of time: “Time stops but does not die;” “Time stops not; “But does die”… How we scale between these beats of time determines how we might be in time, or be in time, in different ways. Will we find ways to be on time for the exigencies of the moment? Will we manage to devise timely responses to the crises of our times before it is too late? These poetic variations on a proverbial theme ask us to think of time in multiples, to place ourselves in time more consciously.

Raqs Media Collective Proverbs 1 panel (cured MDF, LED lights, wooden frame, lighting sequencer, ACP back) Dimensions: 8 feet x 4 feet x 3 inches 2011
Raqs Media Collective
1 panel (cured MDF, LED lights, wooden frame, lighting sequencer, ACP back)
Dimensions: 8 feet x 4 feet x 3 inches

Naming a new geological era Anthropocene – age of anthropos, age of “man” – is a self-reflexive strategy to shape our time by giving the “event-sized hole” of the human era a “man-sized” shape, which is to say, a space of human agency in which the ways that we choose to think and act and speak and make and do and be might just make all the difference in the world.

If our modern westernized notions of time are pegged to a solar calendar, Neha Choksi’s The Weather Inside Me (Bombay Sunset), (2007-2010) fragments that time with multiple suns. With an array of 8+1 digital videos on antiquated CRT tube television sets center-pointed in unison to form a line, accompanied by a photograph, Choksi limns the boundaries of presence and absence along an axis of time set against the diurnal clock, which breaks that horizontal line as the sun rises and sets. The sun becomes a metonym for cycles of life and being that emerge and recede in the world through time. The bounded nature of an individual life contrasts with the seeming infinitude of cyclical time measured by the ceaseless certainty of rising, setting suns and the energy conversion that allows life to exist via photosynthesis. In so far as we are earthbound, we are time-bound by the primordial energies of the sun. Yet even as infinite as the lifespan of a rising and setting sun may seem, the cycle is finite, the heat burns brightly before expiring, and dying suns themselves eventually become black holes, the ultimate embodiment of absence. In the photograph component of the work, the artist’s hand holds a photograph of the sun that has been lit on fire, giving the work a recursive quality. While the suns in the video rise and set, set and rise, the sun in the photograph is consumed by fire – it flares brightly, containing its own demise within its luminous expenditure of energy. If human civilizations began with attempts to master elements like water and fire, perhaps our attempts to tap the power of the sun by burning fossil fuels will end them.

Neha Choksi The Weather Inside Me Photograph accompanying video installation including 8 1 digital videos on CRT tube television, 8 1 wooden stands 2007 – 2010
Neha Choksi
The Weather Inside Me
Photograph accompanying
video installation including 8 1 digital videos on CRT tube television, 8 1 wooden stands
2007 – 2010

Attempts to harness the energy of the sun converted into early forms gave human beings the resources to create the Industrial Revolution by burning the energy of the sun that plants stored through photosynthesis and then subsequently compressed into carbon deep within the earth over millions of years. Experiments with nuclear energy began as technologies of warfare during WW II and the Cold War, and later have also included attempts to address the fear of the impending absence of fossil fuels as we burn them up on a time-scale vastly shorter than that of natural processes that produce them. The nuclear fusion of atomic weapons such as the hydrogen bomb is based on the same principle of physics that allows the sun to shine and emit energy, and as such is seen by some as the ultimate potential power source if we can adapt it to controlled, contained, energy producing conditions. The light of the sun and the stars above is produced through a fusion of atoms that converts (part of) their mass to energy. Yet while the shining of the sun is visible, nuclear power (from either fusion or fission) produces an invisible radiance that we have not yet been able to adequately control or contain, as evidenced by nuclear accidents such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi.

In their filmic essay, The Radiant (2012), commissioned for dOCUMENTA 13, the Otolith Group explores the question of how to “represent the invisible” radiance of nuclear energy. The work resonates along the same frequency as the argument that nuclear technology marks the advent of the Anthropocene. Otolith moves between the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and meltdown of three out of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima following the tsunami of March 2011 in Japan, and the dropping of atomic bombs by the American military on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 during the final stages of WWII. The Radiant juxtaposes human attempts to withstand nature through earthquake drills, reinforced concrete, and seismological predictions, with frank discussions of the staggering reach of radiation, something found in nature already, but amplified exponentially by human machinations. The film intercuts pro-nuclear power government propaganda with scenes from demonstrations against the building of the nuclear power plant by citizens with a living memory of the way that the A-Bomb formed a new kind of landscape animated (as in Japanese landscape paintings) by an invisible “wind.”

The Otolith Group The Radiant HD video, colour, sound 64 min 14 sec 2012
The Otolith Group
The Radiant
HD video, colour, sound
64 min 14 sec

This metaphorical “wind” changes the character of the landscape ineffably yet decisively – in this case metastasis, mutation, miscarriage, disease, and death have spread with the radiation. More generally speaking, the Anthropocene is shaped by the invisible wind of human intervention so exponentially great that the many interconnected systems of the earth now function in ways that are qualitatively different, ways so complex we can barely grasp. In this anthropogenic afterglow, the distinction between natural disaster and humanly created disaster has begun to melt down.

The work from Prajakta Potnis’ 2009 photography series, Still Life, explores metastasis and mutation on a micro-scale. From within the semi-sterile space of a refrigerator, she stages images of vegetables erupting with cellular growths as if overrun with cancer. The freeze frame cauliflower takes on an implicit movement as elements within it, proliferating out of control, spread like radiation. The contamination is uncontainable by even our best efforts to sanitize away the unpredictable in controlled environments. Like the nuclear reactor that was breached by the tsunam, our cells too can be breached by invisible forces that can reform and deform us against our will. A hysteria of contamination by processes out of control emerged following the drop of the atomic bomb, the rise of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and the realization that we have set in motion processes that function autonomously from human design. This, too, is the fallout of the unintended consequences of human agency in motion, and metaphors of cancer and radiation have given this discourse a particularly malevolent valence. Similarly, the consequences of anthropogenic environmental degradation ricochet out of control, the logic of interlocked butterfly effects reverberating through the web of ecological cause and effect.

Prajakta Potnis Still Life Digital print on archival paper Size: 34 x 60 inches, 2009
Prajakta Potnis
Still Life
Digital print on archival paper
Size: 34 x 60 inches,

Notions of attempts at control infiltrate the works of Pallavi Paul in the Earth Bound exhibition as well. Her Under Controlled Circumstances series uses photographs, found plants, resin, vinyl, acrylic, latex on paper to create “futuristic fossils.” Paul materializes her “botanical speculations” into visual images that play with the boundary between the fictive and the real. Forgeries of fossils, with their vertebrae-like stems appear alongside a photo of an earthmovers and another of a an abandoned beach, with orange life-vests hanging empty on a makeshift bamboo scaffolding, hinting at the scene of a disaster that’s already passed, leaving no survivors.

Pallavi Paul Under Controlled Circumstances Series Found plants, resin, vinyl, acrylic, latex on paper + 2 photographs Size: 11 x 16 inches each 2014
Pallavi Paul
Under Controlled Circumstances Series
Found plants, resin, vinyl, acrylic, latex on paper + 2 photographs
Size: 11 x 16 inches each

The series of 38 annotated watercolor, brush and ink works by graphic novelist and artist Sarnath Banerjee, entitled The Colonel’s Brain (2008), also confound the fictive with the documentary. Banerjee creates a forensic tale that is part allegory, part metaphor, to reference what is still considered amongst the worst industrial disasters in the world — the Bhopal gas leak of December 2-3 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Corporate and managerial negligence were causal factors behind the leak exposed at least 500,000 people to the toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other hazardous chemicals and persistent organic pollutants, leaving an estimated 3800 dead and half a million injured. The case demonstrates, in part, the asymmetries of responsibility, the slipperiness of corporate and State accountability for environmental damage, and the tenacity of anthropogenic impact on the environment. Decades later, the soil, vegetables, water supplies and even breast milk of local women from the surrounding area still exhibit contamination from a range of toxic heavy metals and chemical compounds.

Sarnath Banerjee Colonel’s Brain (Series of 38 works) detail, water colour conte, brush and ink  Dimensions variable 2008
Sarnath Banerjee
Colonel’s Brain (Series of 38 works)
detail, water colour conte, brush and ink
Dimensions variable

Banerjee’s wittily narrated post-modern storyboard imagines the artist as a young documentarian on a journey to revisit Bhopal through an interview with a character named Dr. Sathpathy. The doctor is “head of the department of medical jurisprudence and forensic surgery and wearer of the best tailored suit in Bhopal,” and he wants to sensationalize the genre of documentary. Sathpathy’s health was also allegedly compromised by gas that escaped from the 200 pairs of lungs he autopsied following the disaster, but was able to receive compensation due to his social class and privilege (seen through his well-cut suit). The gruesome forensic samples in the doctor’s “Museum of Curiosities” are markers of “crimes” committed, and together, he tells us, constitute the material evidence – not unlike the chemical traces and residual contaminants left behind in the earth, water and bodies of locals post-Bhopal, and across the Anthropocene, more generally – that makes up the story of his life.

In Mahesh Baliga’s paintings on board, Seven Seas (2014), the artist offers a vision of a set of seven intersecting seascapes that converge in places and diverge in others. The waves form an interconnected pattern of conjunction and disjunction, highlighting the ways in which our nationalistic cartographic imaginations often treats the seas as separate entities, when in fact the oceanic waters of the globe are one. This move disrupts our notions of ground – foreground and background shift, and land, which is often seen as foregrounded on our globes against a background of water, is moved into the invisible background in this work.

Mahesh Baliga Seven Seas  Casein paint on plywood (Set of 7) Size: 12 x 16 inches 2014
Mahesh Baliga
Seven Seas
Casein paint on plywood (Set of 7)
Size: 12 x 16 inches

Waters also flow in the photographs from Shumon Ahmed’s Metal Graves (2) series shown in Earth Bound. These serene images offer a contrast to the violence in the other works in the series that are absent from this exhibition, but form an invisible backdrop to the black and white close-up of rippled beaches dotted with coral that we see. The series as a whole is about the Chittagong ship “graveyard.” On the banks of the Bay of Bengal, Chittagong houses a 60-acre site where many of the world’s ships come to their final resting places. Taken apart by cheap labor for scrap metal, particularly steel and iron, the skeletons of these ships offer economic infusion to Bangladesh at an enormous ecological and human cost. Laden with toxic materials ranging from lead paint to asbestos, virtually no retired ship is toxic-free. The ships are broken down into metal elements for re-aggregation and resale by workers living in squalid shanties, and working unprotected by safety or environmental health measures. The poisonous labor and dire environmental conditions would be illegal in most countries of the ships’ origins, such as the UK, USA, or other European shipping powers, revealing a complex set of intersecting asymmetries of power – both between Bangladesh and the developed countries that export their toxic old ships, but also across class and community lines in Bangladesh itself.

Shumon Ahmed Metal Graves (2) Archival print on Hahnemühle fine art paper Size: 24 x 120 inches 2014
Shumon Ahmed
Metal Graves (2)
Archival print on Hahnemühle fine art paper
Size: 24 x 120 inches

Beneath the serene surface of natural tranquility or superficial narratives of economic progress, often lie complicated histories of colonial violence, capitalist inequality, and ecological damage that are invisible at first glance. Perhaps the workings of anthropogenic agency are best read through the effects that instantiate its manifestations in situated cases, but exemplify a larger dynamic at work across cases. Like the radiation in the Otolith work, the gas and other chemicals in Bhopal in Banerjee’s work, there is an invisible violence in the submerged colonial history of the ship graveyard in Ahmed’s work.

In the last space of the exhibition, a number of works also form a constellation, echoing some of the previous themes in novels ways, and inserting new and related lines of inquiry of their own about the separations and intersections of heaven and earth, sun, sky, and water under the Anthropocene.

Sandeep Mukherjee’s drawing Terra Valley (2008), an acrylic, ink, and embossed drawing on duralene, is part of the series of “Risings and Fallings.” This body of work explores the Deleuzian notion of topology through pictorial landscapes. Topology, for Deleuze, captured the multiplicity of possibilities in being that can be captured or unpacked through what he called “the fold.” Mukherjee’s reading of topology focuses on “the properties of space under continuous deformation including stretching and bending but not tearing or gluing…including properties such as connectedness, continuity and boundary and the works [are] envisioned as a drop or gesture that falls in the space and spreads out (and in some cases contracts back) much like pulsation.” The image produced evokes an expanding coil, a radiating set of nested ripples, a mosaic of tree rings, this forming a visual resonance with works of Tejal Shah, Rohini Devasher, Shumon Ahmed, and a metaphoric resonance with the radiating pulse of atomic energy in The Radiant.

Sandeep Mukherjee Terra Valley Acrylic, acrylic ink & embossed drawing on duralene Size: 24 x 36 inches 2008
Sandeep Mukherjee
Terra Valley
Acrylic, acrylic ink & embossed drawing on duralene
Size: 24 x 36 inches

Rohini Devasher’s work has consistently engaged with aspects of scientific discourse, from evolutionary biology to amateur astronomy.  In her series of untitled archival pigment prints from the Bone Tree series (2014) she inverts the Freudian notion of the uncanny, making the strange seem familiar, even mundane. She writes: “The tree is not a tree, it could be bone, or cartilage, but again, bone or cartilage digitally generated.” To produce these startling images that blur the boundary between the human, the forensic, the biological and the botanical, she explores the formal heuristics of the grammar of morphologies embodied in L-systems. Otherwise known as the Lindenmayer system, L-systems are a set of recursive rules created in 1968 by the Hungarian botanist-cum-theoretical biologist Aristid Lindenmayer to model plant growth processes. Recursion is based on the sort of self-similar iterations that underlie fractal formations, and the L-system language mimics the branching patterns extant in the natural world. Rather than building the Bone Tree works with computer programming algorithms, however, she constructs these uncannily recursive images with still layers created using video-feedback.

Rohini Devasher Untitled I, II & III from the Bone Tree series Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta paper Size: (left to right) 34 x 66 inches, 45 x 66 inches, 34 x 66 inches 2014
Rohini Devasher
Untitled I, II & III from the Bone Tree series
Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta paper
Size: (left to right) 34 x 66 inches, 45 x 66 inches, 34 x 66 inches

Tejal Shah’s video Landfill Dance (2012) pulls us back several levels of abstraction from the formal mutations going on in the work of the preceding several artists. It is one channel out of her five-channel video installation commissioned for dOCUMENTA 13, Between the Waves (2012). While one of the channels (not presented here) offers a visual fable about queer and multiple new forms of community and communion and forms of belonging to and being with nature, and another channel features the waxing and waning of a burning sun reflected on a crescent moon shaped disc of shimmering cast-off CD plastic, in Landfill Dance, these solar and lunar semaphores offer signals linking the epilogue to the whole installation. A dance on a landfill hints at resilience and regeneration as it directs our gazes “into the future of the long past,” and asks us to “imagine a possible scope of what remains” in the aftermath of anthropogenic destruction.

Tejal Shah Between the Waves, Channel II - Landfill Dance HD Video, colour, sound 05:02 min 2012
Tejal Shah
Between the Waves, Channel II – Landfill Dance
HD Video, colour, sound
05:02 min

Like the human artifacts in the landfill that have taken on a geological character, indexing a lost time and place of grotesque consumptive excess, the human-made object depicted in Neha Choksi pencil drawing Pressure Sphere Recovered in South Africa / Space Debris series (2001 – 2002) must have seemed like an artifact from another world, or something as alien and wondrous as a meteorite when it fell back to earth from outer space. Somehow surviving the intense heat of re-entry into the atmosphere of our world, the sphere offers an odd counterpoint to the rising and setting of the sun in her weather works. If breaking the frontier of space by launching our vessels into the cosmos can be seen as a mark of human capacity, what does it signify when those pieces fall unbidden back to earth if not the finite limits of that capacity?

Neha Choksi Pressure Sphere Recovered in South Africa/ Space Debris series detail, pencil on paper Size: 23.75 x 18 inches 2001-2002
Neha Choksi
Pressure Sphere Recovered in South Africa/ Space Debris series
detail, pencil on paper
Size: 23.75 x 18 inches

The Flight Found Plastic Chair (2014), by Huma Mulji, offers a tentative, metaphorical resting place within the exhibition from which to consider the legacies we humans have bequeathed to the earth in the form of the loss of biosphere integrity. A taxidermy sparrow sits atop a chair that is perched precariously on a mound of bricks. The artist describes the “unoccupied chair” as an image of the “dystopic everyday.” It is a space of absence normally filled by human presence, only to be occupied instead by the “transient presence of a sparrow, taking fleeting refuge.”

Huma Mulji The Flight Found Plastic Chair Taxidermy sparrow with plastic chair, plywood strip, bricks Dimensions variable  2014
Huma Mulji
The Flight Found Plastic Chair
Taxidermy sparrow with plastic chair, plywood strip, bricks
Dimensions variable

The sparrow, of course is a survivor, but also a destroyer. It is a species spread by humans to parts of the world where their resilient adaptive capacity has turned them – like humans – into an invasive species that pushes other species out of their niches, sometimes into extinction. There are cycles of life and death, but not all such cycles are natural ones. Indeed, we have hardly begun to understand the immense causal interactions of cycles of anthropogenic ecological violence set in motion by the destruction we’ve wrought on half the world’s creatures in less than two human generations. The specter of the sparrow, then, is a mundane manifestation of both human intervention into nature, unintended consequences of our shortsightedness, and also the ubiquitous persistence of life and the transformation of the natural within the anthropogenic landscape.



While all the other planets in the English language are named after deities, the name of our planet, Earth, means something more profoundly terrestrial and quotidian. Every living language has both a name for the planet upon which we live, and a concept of what might count as the ‘earth.’ Looking at the linguistic “pragmatics” of the concept (that is, the way the word is used and how that shapes its semantic meaning) can tell us something about both the common origins in many languages, but also about our diverse and changing ways of thinking about our earth, offering insights about ourselves and our world.

The original meaning of ‘earth’ held in common amongst a vast array of languages is first and foremost that of the ‘soil,’ ‘land,’ or simply the physical, material ‘ground’ beneath our feet and in which our photosynthesis-driven primary food sources are rooted.

This groundedness in the soil is shared across linguistic and cultural contexts as diverse as Chinese, Arabic, and the Anglo-Saxon languages and this commonality can tell us something about our own constructed ontologies of the earth that shape our relationships to it. For example, the Chinese character ‘di’ 地literally denotes the ground beneath us with the radical 土for ‘soil’ as its main meaning component. Our planet is a ‘diqiu’ 地球, a globe or sphere of soil, and the world is made of up of the realms of ‘tian’ 天 – the word for ‘day,’ ‘the heavens or the sky,’ ‘seasons,’ and ‘weather,’ and ‘di,’ the earth.  Likewise, the Arabic word for the earth, أَرْض  (ʾarḍ), from which the Hindi, Turkish, and words in many other languages, including Dutch, derives, connects with land and the ground, or place of mortal dwelling during the time-bounded earthly life of humanity, as opposed to the firmament or the realm of the divine. The Anglo-Saxon words for ‘earth’ are also derived from ideas of the grounded physicality of soil – with the Middle English ‘erthe,’ the Old English ‘eorthe,’ the Old High German ‘erda.’ So, too, the Latin word ‘terra’ denotes a terrestrial ground beneath our feet.

While the pairing of heaven and earth appears in the conceptual ontologies of most languages, it is fascinating to see how notions of temporality and agency vary in their clustering of conceptual relations. What kind of agency is conceivable within these various discursive permutations of heaven and earth and what is the nature of their causal relations and implications for how we are to live on this planet?

For much of written history, particularly within Abrahamic traditions, competing notions of agency and power have placed the divine and that of the human either set apart by a continuum, or in a dichotomous relationship, joined by vertical hierarchy. In Islamic, Judaic and Christian cosmologies the earthly sphere is contrasted to the celestial sphere of God and the Heavens, an earthly life contrasted with an afterlife, with the life-worlds of humans (‘dunya,’ ‘shijie,’ ‘woruld,’ etc.) often treated as a kind of intermediary space.[15] Among the repercussions of this division were the justification of a relationship of dominance and dominion over nature, as seen particularly clearly in the Christian notion that “Man” was created in God’s image and thus had the right to dominion over the earth.

Yet while the primary locus of agency and causal power in many ancient cosmologies was otherworldly, and agency was estranged from a nature that was conceived of as brute material on which the gods worked and from which humanity extracted, there are marked alternative cosmologies as well. One example of this is the Chinese concept of ‘Tian’ (which encompasses Heaven, the sky, the days, time, the seasons), although conceptually distinct from the ‘di’ of the soil, was not external to nature, but rather an integral part of it.

In spite of all their anthropomorphic gods, the ancient Greeks also had a different constellation of concepts for earth, as well, including the word γαῖα (transliterated as gaia), which is a personification of the earth as a diety. ‘Gaia’ is another word for the more basic word γῆ () which means ‘earth’ in the ground-bound way of many other languages.[16] Paganistic, animistic belief systems, like the Greek notion of Gaia, read agency into the behavior of plants, animals and even the planet as a whole itself. Likewise, various possibilities for a third space of relationality amongst all that exists – placing humans into a non-dualistic sort of relationship with ‘nature’ –  is also available through certain readings of ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist thought.

The earth, it would seem, is at once, and has always been, a great many things, and our relationships to it complex and bound up with notions of agency, power, cosmology, religion, and science. What do these diverse notions of what might count as the earth look like re-examined in the context of the Anthropocene? How might we recuperate strands of ontologies from various knowledge systems to produce new ways of living with the earth and not just on it or off of it?



With attempts to articulate the Anthropocene as an episteme, or embodied knowledge-system, come challenges to our dominant modes of thinking. If the conditions of our existence at the planetary level require us to make radical changes in the way we humans live in the world, then we must also accept that those changes are least likely to come from those who benefit most from the status quo. To change we must reconsider the terms of the relationships between humanity, other species, and our earth, and we are called upon to find ways to reclaim responsibility for ourselves and our effects on the world. Even as we must recognize the gross inequalities of our contemporary socio-economic and political arrangements, we are also challenged to reject the simple dichotomies of the powerful and the powerless, and with it the ideas of unmoved-movers. In a world of such immense interconnectedness, change must come from all quarters – changes that are lived out through myriad small, situated actions in our everyday lives – and if we do not each change then we are all doomed. If the Anthropocene is an index of our profound impact on the earth, then, it is also an equally powerful reminder of how bound to this planet we truly are, and how any path to salvation must be forged on the ground of this humbling recognition.

The exhibition Earth Bound can be read along lines of an inquiry into the Anthropocene, exploring how we are both bound to the earth, with our existence grounded in and constrained by its material conditions, but also how new systems of knowledge might change our own course of action as a species, putting us back on a track bound for the earth, as our native place of birth and death, all the time spent in between, and thus as our ultimate existential destination.

To acknowledge that we are earth bound, and not just earthbound, is also to acknowledge that we belong to the earth, we will return to the earth, that we are part of the earth and at one with its organic, biological, physical, chemical processes, even as we war against them.

A view of the earth that transcends the old divisions between sacred, spiritual, celestial realms of the divine, and the profane, mundane, earthly realm of pedestrian everyday life and death can be a view of the earth as a new sort of sacred space – a sacred that does not rely on externalized authority to grant rights for some species or hierarchical relations of dominion by some over the others. It is a view of the earth in which all the parts make up a whole that is greater than its sum, an ecosystem of interconnected being that encompasses the singularities that make up its constitutive multiplicities. And perhaps in acknowledging more consciously and conscientiously that we are parts of this complex emergent system that forms a whole, we might learn to live as a participants and members of the great community of life forms on our planet and not simply as exploiters and would-be conquerors hell-bent on extracting whatever we can from the planet during our finite sojourn here.

Maya Kóvskaya (PhD UC Berkeley, 2009) is a Delhi/Beijing-based, award-winning political cultural theorist and curator who has published widely on contemporary art as it intersects with the political, cultural and ecological. Recent book publications include @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, ed. David Spalding (2014); Louise Bourgeois: Alone and Together (2014). She was the Beijing Director and Asian Art Advisor to the Faurschou Foundation (2012-2013) and is currently Art Editor for Positions: Asia Critique (Duke University Press). 

© 2015 Maya Kóvskaya. All rights reserved.


[1] Crutzen, P. J. “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (2002): 23; Zalasiewicz J, Crutzen P and Steffen W, “The Anthropocene,” In: Gradstein FM, Ogg JG, Schmitz M et al. (eds) A Geological Time Scale 2012. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 1033–1040 (2012); Steffen W and Stafford Smith M. “Planetary boundaries, equity and global sustainability: Why wealthy countries could benefit from more equity,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5 (2013): 403–408; Steffen W, Crutzen PJ and McNeill JR. “The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of Nature?” Ambio 36 (2007): 614–621; Steffen W, Sanderson A, Tyson PD et al. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. The IGBP Book Series. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer-Verlag (2004).

[2] Ruddiman, William. F. “The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago,” Climatic Change 61 (2003): 261-293. Ruddiman, W WF, “How did humans first alter global climate,” Scientific American, March (2005).

[3] Crutzen PJ and Stoermer EF, “The ‘Anthropocene’, IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000): 12;

Will Steffen, et al, “The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review, January 16 (2015): 1–18.

[5] Steffen W, et al, op. cit. (2015): 1.

[6] Rockström J, Steffen W, Noone K et al. “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity,” Ecology and Society 14 (2009): 32.  In the original report, the scientists identified “the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change. We have found nine such processes for which we believe it is necessary to define planetary boundaries: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading…Humanity may soon be approaching the boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, ocean acidification and interference with the global phosphorous cycle (see Fig. 1). Our analysis suggests that three of the Earth-system processes — climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and interference with the nitrogen cycle — have already transgressed their boundaries. For the latter two of these, the control variables are the rate of species loss and the rate at which N2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to reactive nitrogen for human use, respectively. These are rates of change that cannot continue without significantly eroding the resilience of major components of Earth-system functioning.” See the most recent report by Steffen, Will et al. “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet,” Science, 15 January (2015).  Here, the authors of the original Planetary Boundaries framework “revise and update the planetary boundaries framework, with a focus on the underpinning biophysical science, based on targeted input from expert research communities and on more general scientific advances over the past 5 years. Several of the boundaries now have a two-tier approach, reflecting the importance of cross-scale interactions and the regional-level heterogeneity of the processes that underpin the boundaries. Two core boundaries—climate change and biosphere integrity—have been identified, each of which has the potential on its own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.”  For graphs and breakdowns of the latest data, see the new report at:—new-and-improved.html

[7] Steffen W, et al, op. cit. (2015): 1.

[8] Living Planet Report (2014). WWF International.
See also ongoing reports regarding The Convention of Biological Diversity, signed by 150 countries in 1992.

[9] Haraway, Donna (1988). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,” in Feminist Studies, pp. 575–599; Haraway, Donna (1989). Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Routledge: New York and London; Haraway, Donna (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, and London: Free Association Books.

[10] Latour, Bruno (2004). Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (tr. by Catherine Porter). Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Latour, Bruno (1993). We Have Never Been Modern, tr. by Catherine Porter), Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[11] Kohn, Eduardo (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. University of California Press.

[12] Lovelock, James (2000) [1979]. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press; Lovelock, James (2006).The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity. Santa Barbara (California): Allen Lane; Lovelock, James. (2009) The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can. Allen Lane.

[13] Abrams, David (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World; Abrams, David (2011). Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books.

[14] Margulis, Lynn (1987). Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, Basic Books; Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan (1987). Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors, HarperCollins; Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan (1997). Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution, Copernicus Books; Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan (2002). Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species, Perseus Books Group.

[15] “Old English woruldworold “human existence, the affairs of life,” also “a long period of time,” also “the human race, mankind, humanity,” a word peculiar to Germanic languages (cognates: Old Saxon werold, Old Frisian warld, Dutch wereld, Old Norse verold, Old High German weralt, German Welt), with a literal sense of “age of man,” from Proto-Germanic *wer “man” (Old English wer, still in werewolf; see virile) + *ald “age” (see old). Originally “life on earth, this world (as opposed to the afterlife),” sense extended to “the known world,” then to “the physical world in the broadest sense, the universe” (c.1200). In Old English gospels, the commonest word for “the physical world,” was Middangeard (Old Norse Midgard), literally “the middle enclosure” (see yard (n.1)), which is rooted in Germanic cosmology. Greek kosmos in its ecclesiastical sense of “world of people” sometimes was rendered in Gothic as manaseþs, literally “seed of man.” The usual Old Norse word was heimr, literally “abode” (see home). Words for “world” in some other Indo-European languages derive from the root for “bottom, foundation” (such as Irish domun, Old Church Slavonic duno, related to English deep); the Lithuanian word is pasaulis, from pa- “under” + saule “sun.” Original sense in world without end, translating Latin saecula saeculorum, and in worldly. Latin saeculum can mean both “age” and “world,” as can Greek aion. Meaning “a great quantity or number” is from 1580s. Out of this world “surpassing, marvelous” is from 1928; earlier it meant “dead.” World Cup is by 1951; U.S. baseball World Series is by 1893 (originally often World’s Series). World power in the geopolitical sense first recorded 1900. World-class is attested from 1950, originally of Olympic athletes.”

[16] Smith, William Ed. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology.  Online at Tufts University.