‘Imago: for the fallen world’ by Matthew Cooperman, images by Marius Lehene
“Pictures of the Anthropocene falling away.”
It has been just over forty years since the “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth was taken by the crew of Apollo 17. The image captivated a generation and was a catalyst for innumerable environmental and conservation movements and programs. The photograph allowed human beings to see their home as a single, contained unit for the first time and to universalize the environmental threats facing their planet. However, as Noel Sturgeon notes in the opening pages of Environmentalism in Popular Culture, it also allowed Earth to be “gazed upon at will, owned, and contained…present[ing] the planet as naturally harmonious and pure…to fantasize that all the occurrences on it are uniform and in balance, without conflict and pollution.” The image negates notions of colonialism, war, privilege, and degradation in favor of an idealized sphere of limitless potential.
Imago comes in two versions, color and black & white, and the word “imago” has two definitions: an adult insect post-metamorphosis, and the idealized notion of another person, usually a parent, that lasts beyond childhood. The question in Imago is whether there is any reason to maintain childish ideals about the planet or humanity in general. If 1972’s whole Earth image offers an incubator or chrysalis of human potential, then this book, long-hatched from the early days of space travel and the first Earth Day, is sexually matured and socially deviant, fractured and self-destructive: “Yes, it is a comfort, the image of earth from space we are told we are told again.” The book rejects containment on the macro level in favor of attempts to document the detritus of failed metamorphosis on a micro level. The first word or phrase in each of Cooperman’s poems is followed always by a colon, as in “Gathering: starlings, aliens, storms, angers, omens…” or “Clue: It was my father’s lighter lost in the war, I rub us both to weary,” creating a stream of enumerations or ratios on every page.
The book oscillates between Cooperman’s poems and Lehene’s photo collages, many of which are obscured through digital and hand-rendered effects, but whose subjects carry enough pop culture cache to manifest regardless. Framing the sections of poems and images are Cooperman’s short, epistolary narratives, each addressed to “________ Planet,” a salutation full of reluctance or confusion over how to address an Earth far removed from whole images and reduced to:
Pictures of earth. Pictures of extinguishment. Pictures of the anthropocene falling away, I look at space because I like space, Apollo Something neither avatar nor car…This is a picture framing a boy and his planetary sentence. How can the world seem so blue if you’ve never seen it? Just a NASA press release from total fucking obscurity.
The “planetary sentence” noted above is never spoken outright. It is impossible, and so obscured, chronicled in short missives from Cooperman and in Lehene’s photographic tesserae. But it is always present, looming just beyond the colon that gives way to each new list. High- and low-brow serve no purpose under these circumstances, nor do most categorical distinctions. This is an ecological or systems approach to the Anthropocene:
Designer: Chanel, Hilfiger, Koolhaas, William Morris, Petra Blaisse, Hurricane
Spycam: among the topiaries (llamas, lollipops, oil derricks), it’s the garden to
corporate headquarters, and there’s no fooling the gardener
The humans of Imago, like their products, weather, and animals, are both rhizomatic and virulent, globalized and reproducing endlessly and exponentially, even virtually. Despite its bleak landscape, Imago is by no means all apocalypse. Even if they only serve to keep the news cycle deluge at bay temporarily, lines such as “Kelvin: ‘Baby, it’s cold out here!’” and “Bliss us all every ruin” stem the book’s velocity at welcome times. Syllables pop and swagger, exclamations abound. Puns iterate themselves to the brink of preciousness, as do juxtapositions of pop culture and holy texts, Gollum and Jesus, martyred saints and Lara Croft. Many of the poems in the book are not so much commentary on as they are survival lists for the current age, as in:
Bookshelf: Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck viz. “nonteleological thinking”), Country of Pointed Furs (Jewett), Garbage (Ammons), Ecology: A Primer (Golley), Economic Foundations of the West (Katherine Coman), The Function of Reason (Whitehead), New Organon (Francis Bacon), The Death of Nature (Carolyn Merchant), Manifold Destiny: Eating What You Drive (M.B. Jones, misshelved)
Elsewhere in Imago, Lehene’s images act as a chronicling of urbane earth, pop culture and Earth post-culture, visceral complements to Cooperman’s litanies. Abstracted cities and wooded cemeteries, riot police and Damien Hirst share space with Dirty Harry and human-animal hybrids. Even Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” receives an updating in a modern surgical room with no lesser spectacle than the original. Lehene’s work perpetually gestures towards palimpsest and decay, pastiche and mashup.
It is difficult not to return to the book’s title again and again as one moves through its sections. It is a remarkably agile and slippery title. It associated notions of rebirth and improvement can no longer be projected onto our communities and planet in the midst of environmental and geopolitical crises. But of course, there is also the echo of “image” in the title, a word that rings of his interest the blue marble photograph and that is equally applicable to Cooperman’s and Lehene’s work. There is interplay with Cooperman’s last collection, Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move, a book that shares largely the same form as Imago (and for which Lehene provided cover artwork) and plays off of the work of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. However, while Imago is similarly an ark via its cultural inventory, there is no still here in any sense of the word. Cooperman and Lehene are keeping a manifest of frenetic change.