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Real Men Don’t Recycle – by Giorgia Zaffanelli

In 2017, a study conducted in the United States and China, led by Aaron R. Brough, marketing professor of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business (Utah State University). came to a surprising conclusion: men, even when committed to environmental issues, fear that eco-friendly behavior will harm their image as males.

Finally, science is doing feminism justice by declaring that there is one thing women do best: recycling.

Utah State University’s research investigated the relationship between eco-sustainability and perceptions of femininity, conducting seven experiments on a sample of over 2000 American and Chinese participants.   One example: candidates were asked to assign a degree of ‘femininity’ to a person using a canvas bag, and then to someone using a plastic bag. Both men and women agreed that using the more sustainable alternative (the tote bag) was more feminine – regardless of its color. Seven different experiments led researchers to agree that both women and men perceive eco-friendly products, behaviors, and consumption as more feminine.

It is therefore clear that a patriarchal environment, in which binarism wants males to be raised differently from females and in which males are expected to be less sensitive, emotional and compassionate, is a problem if empathy is identified as one of the key elements for taking responsibility on climate change. Not to mention that its consequences affect mainly women, who represent the majority of the world’s poor population, consequently suffering the greatest impact when it comes to desertification and natural disasters (UNDP, 2020).

In other words, the stereotype that legitimizes the cultural norms that define what makes a man a “man” (traits like dominance, aggression, misogyny, and homophobia) causes real harm to society as a whole – including men themselves.

There is a certain irony in this: men, which common sense tends to regard as less sensitive, seem to be extremely careful when it comes to defining their gender identity or controlling how it is perceived from the outside.

Prejudice is real and determines our reality, but fortunately artists use creativity to dismantle it, questioning the behaviors that relate to the exercise of power and to gender identity: an effective way to trigger a reflection that makes us all, simply, conscious human beings.

Taryn Simon is a multidiscliplinary artist living in New York City. Her photographs belong to permanent collections such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 2001 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In one of her latest works, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015) she explores the concept of the ‘impossible bouquet’, that first appeared in 17th century Dutch still lifes, and re-emerged in parallel with the blossoming of modern capitalism. The ‘impossible bouquet’ existed in paintings imagining floral compositions that nature would not allow – for seasonal or geographical limitations – anticipating what is possible today ‘thanks’ to a market that satisfies consumers’ desires, regardless of nature.

Source image with botanist’s identifications, Memorandum of Understanding between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Government of Australia Relating to the Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia. Ministry of Interior, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 26, 2014

Simon takes the cue from observing the tables of power (colonized by men) at the signing of important treaties or declarations of war: in the foreground, there often was an ‘impossible’ large bouquet of flowers. Together with a team of botanists, the author proceeded to identify all the floral species of these improbable compositions, and bought them online from the Dutch company Aalsmeer (which Taryn calls the Amazon of flowers), thus repoducing the same bouquets in her studio. In her photographic perfection, Simon is surgical in her judgment.

Taryn Simon, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (Gagosian & Hatje Cantz, 2016)
Taryn Simon, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (Gagosian & Hatje Cantz, 2016)

“I was interested in the idea of these men who feel they can control the evolution of the world through language, statements, the papers they’re going to sign,” she explains, “And nature is just this neutered, decorative thing in their midst”. Capitalism – the most effective patriarchal invention ever conceived – imposes itself on nature to serve the tables of the most powerful men in the world, who are not interested in where the flowers come from, in which season they bloom or in what latitude they prefer to sprout. I wonder if in 2019 Donald Trump, formally declaring the exit of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement (2015), and thus making it the only country in the world not participating in the pact, had an ‘impossible’ bouquet in front of him. I wonder if those flowers, the last remaining symbol of femininity on a global table ravaged by thoughtless policies, listened to those words – disregarding the fact that a 3°C (37.40 ℉) increase in global temperatures will drive millions of people into extreme poverty. In Simon’s work, flowers become witnesses to the succession of senseless agreements in history; they speak of broken promises and of a system that is inevitably destined to collapse.

Kristine Potter is an artist from Nashville, Tennessee who is extremely conscious about how much the environment registers human and social behavior – also in a threatening way.   In her two previous works, the author explored the performances and archetypes of masculinity: The Gray Line focuses on young male cadets, Manifest on the ‘occupying’ imagery of the American West. Both series trace the mythology of the indomitable man. The title Manifest references Manifest Destiny, expression of the belief that settlers were destined to expand westward, spreading democracy and progress (see John Gast’s 1872 painting ‘American Progress’, in which the representation of a female spirit guide – allegory of progress – proceeds from the Atlantic to the Pacific, bringing light and technology, at the same time pushing the Native Americans into darkness).

John Gast, American Progress, 1872

In the constant interweaving of myth and history, the dynamics and events are repeated and, sadly, it seems that ‘Manifest Destiny’ must necessarily overlap with the murder of human beings and the destruction of ecosystems. Potter courageously opens a window in this scenario: portraying ‘men of the west’ in unusual poses, not canonically masculine, she teaches us to accept the existence, even for the ‘stronger sex’, of a part of legitimate fragility. By giving it space, the author undermines the premises of the ‘Manifest Destiny’ granting us a view in which, in order to survive, force and violence are no longer the only option. Dark Waters is the latest body of work by the author, who writes, “Dark Waters investigates the circularity of the intertwining of nature and myth: just as a threatening landscape brings forth a culture of violence, in the same way a violent culture projects its own threat onto the landscape.” Indeed, Potter’s landscapes are imbued with the patriarchal and violent context in which they are immersed. Water and earth become symbols of the culture, they resonate with the lyrics of the ballads they have heard so many times and make their disguised stories manifest even after years of silence. Deep River (where Naomi was drowned), Break Neck, Hell for Certain, Poison Cove, are just some of the captions that Kristine Potter has chosen: sometimes they are the actual names of rivers and places, sometimes they refer to real facts.

Kristine Potter, Dark Water, from Dark Waters

Dark Waters is composed of three different levels: the music (a concert), the landscapes, and the studio portraits. In a video, an announcer invites viewers to enjoy the evening and introduces the musicians, each singing a Murder Ballad. The lyrics of the songs are violent, often even misogynistic: We went out for a little walk / To a dark and lonely place / And smashed it ‘crost her face. On the notes of the ballads, Potter shows us wonderful images of nature – the scenarios of the violence – alternating them with studio portraits of women: we might think these are the same women, who came back to life. They look strong. They stare at us, sometimes they turn their backs on us, they are no longer afraid.

Kristine Potter, Pretty Polly, from Dark Waters

Kristine Potter speaks extremely clearly: when violence pervades the land she learns blindness from nature. It is at this point that no one, man or woman, can feel safe anymore.

Melanie Bonajo is a Dutch artist working with video, performance, installation, music and photography. In 2021 she will represent Holland at the Venice Biennale. Her work focuses on themes such as the erosion of intimacy and isolation in an increasingly sterile and technological world. Her artistic practice is representative of a new generation of creatives who find their strength within communities, in mutual exchange.

Melanie Bonajo, Night Soil, 2015

Collectively titled Night Soil, her latest project comprises three short documentaries exploring three movements that actively attempt to counter or destabilize the pervasiveness of global capitalism and patriarchal structures. Night Soil examines the socially and ethically progressive facets of these practices – some of which are still considered illegal today. Establishing new attitudes and perspectives toward sexuality and the natural world, Bonajo’s approach to her subjects challenges the traditional split between man, nature, and technology. In a private email exchange, she writes : ‘I think toxic masculinity goes hand in hand with toxic culture. Toxic femininity often becomes the response enacted in the face of this problem.’ Fake Paradise (the first chapter of the trilogy) examines the spiritual, social, and healing dimensions of ayahuasca (the great mother, the spirit vine), an Amazonian plant with psychedelic properties. Navigating personal accounts of experiences and perspectives induced by taking this medicine, the video pays particular attention to the female voice, traditionally disregarded in psychedelic research and popular culture. Ironically, the project opens with Bonajo’s own voice literally insulting the shaman in charge of the session she is attending. It’s a defense mechanism that many women probably understand: attacking first in order not to appear vulnerable in front of men who want to keep control. In this case, the author is wrong: if you want to access the healing properties of ayahuasca you must trust yourself, no longer protect yourself, coming to understand what has generated this fear, the so-called ‘gender wound’. In a continuous game of visual Pindaric flights, Bonajo succeeds in making us believe that there is no such thing as destiny and that each of us can find our own tool to depower this violence – which is not always and solely inflicted by others.

Melanie Bonajo, Night Soil, 2015

Bonajo finds her tool in the natural world. No matter whether it is symbolized by a psychedelic plant, sexual intercourse (as in ‘Economy of Love’, the second chapter of the trilogy) or in a pre-colonial use of the earth (‘Nocturnal Gardening’). Each of these three experimental documentaries explores a cultural phenomenon outside the sociological and political norms of consumer society. By contradicting the linear progression of the capitalist system – and thus also the Manifest Destiny theory – it constitutes a mind blowing mechanism of resistance.

Taryn Simon’s cleverly chose, among all the ‘impossible’ bouquets in history, those who had witnessed the signing of treaties that were later disregarded. The transience of flowers is reflected in the instability of decision-making processes. What will endure the most? The answer might also be obvious: archaeological excavations have uncovered flowers in Egyptian tombs that were thousands of years old.

P.S.: to all men who will take these lines personally and justify themselves by saying “I am very careful in recycling” I would like to say: the theme is pretextuous and you are part of the problem.

Giorgia Zaffanelli is 26 years old and lives in Milan.
She studied photography at the Italian Institute of Photography, in conjunction with the course of Anthropology, Religions and Oriental Civilizations at the University of Bologna.
Her photographic research focuses on long-term projects, with particular attention to identity.
She collaborates with Micamera since almost two years.