116 Ecotheory and the Bernsen Art Gallery

Edward Lossman

Earlier this semester, I was thinking about doing something different than usual. The shows on campus are great, and extra lectures are surely  appealing. None of these things seemed to spark my interest, however. Thinking about the culture and creativity you can find this far North, I decided to drive around and stumble upon something random that strikes a certain interest within me. That’s when I pulled up to the Bernsen Art Gallery in Ashland, NH. An interesting looking building with sculptures created from scrap metal laid out everywhere on the land around it, I had to see what this place was.

My experience in the building turned out to be one of the most interesting days I’ve spent here in the Plymouth area. The local hikes are fantastic, the college campus is a blast, but something about this unique little art gallery, run by a single artist by the name of Bill Bernsen, truly showed me just how special this area and the people within it can be. Clicking here will bring you to a presentation I created that gives a general overview of my trip to the art gallery, information about it, my thoughts while visiting, as well as some photos of the fantastic art on display.

Noticing the reuse of metal scraps outside opened me up to a few ideas in comparing the art gallery to Introduction: Critical Thinking, involving Tim Morton’s essay on The Ecological Thought. However, it was when I went inside the building that I really hit the hammer on the nail with the concepts of the theory in regards to the art displayed at the location. You see, Bill Bernsen is what could be identified as an ‘assemblage artist’. This means he uses scraps, natural artifacts, and pretty much whatever else he sees that sparks the creativity within him. Inside the building, Bill had about fifteen different pieces of art on display, all designed the same way. Bill goes out into the wilderness, not to enjoy Nature and its pristine lakes, trees, and wildlife; but to find the broken, dead, commonly uninteresting pieces of nature. The dark ecology, we can say.  When he finds the pieces he wants to use, which usually consist of dead tree stumps and logs, he gets to work. By snapping the wood in certain angles, Bill has mastered a very original and unique style of art. He shines bright colored lights on the inside of the snapped pieces of tree stumps, which brings out the abstract designs the splits create. Each piece looks like a different city skyline, and using the lights, he is able to make us perceive these skylines as different times of the day. He might use darker lights at a lower angle to make it seem like the sun is going down, or brighter lights up top to make it appear as if the sun is rising. Now, you may be asking yourself what this has to do with the ecological thought. Well, lets analyze this a bit.

To reflect on this, lets first talk about what makes up the ecological thought in Morton’s essay. “The ecological thought is also difficult because it brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them” (Morton 9). He goes on a few sentences later to say “We lose not only our undisturbed dreams of civilized cleanliness through this process but also our sense of Nature as pristine and non artificial” (Morton 9). Within the essay, we learn about society’s view on Nature as pristine; a perfect setting with no negativity. An escape from reality. For this reason, nature becomes Nature, a construction formed by society that only points out the beauty in the visually intriguing parts of nature. Going out to find this beautiful construct of Nature is what Morton refers to, in a general sense, for us as human beings.  Let’s, for example, use the beginning of Bills artistic process as the process  Morton refers to. Rather than going out to find waterfalls, or beautiful lakes, and tall standing trees, Bill goes out looking for the broken down pieces. The ones that have died, broken off; essentially been removed from this ‘pristine’ view of the wilderness. This right here is what Morton refers to as dark ecology.  “Dark ecology puts hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness back into ecological thinking” (Morton 16). Morton explains, within full-text essays, his idea that dark ecology is what brings the natural beauty to the real concept of nature. Without dark ecology, we fall into the spectrum of humanity that sees the world as a never ending resource, as well as only a visibly positive and uplifting place. Bill views the dark parts of the wilderness as beautiful. Based on the conversation I had with him at his gallery, his comforts within nature are with the broken down pieces. To him, it shows that there’s a beauty in everything. He uses this approach in his art and applies it to all aspects of his life.

With that being said, we come to the reshaping and emphasis of this theory within our community based on Bills form of expression. By promoting the use of metal waste pollution and broken down pieces found within nature, Bill follows Morton’s theory by emphasizing the importance of dark ecology within nature. His message and intent is to promote his thought that everything in life can have beauty, especially within a realistic view on nature. By reusing waste that gets left out on the streets and in the wilderness, Bill also reshapes Morton’s idea that people view Earth as an unlimited resource. He intends to give everything he sees a purpose by making it into an artistic masterpiece, thus turning the dark ecology concept into a more positive reflection for society.

Critical theory helped me understand Bill Bernsen’s art from an entirely new perspective. Without my knowledge on the ecological thought and dark ecology, I may have seen Bill’s art in a different light, not truly appreciating the process and perspective of beauty he puts into his work. Critical theory helped me reflect on this visit and shed some light on why he thinks the way he does and what his idea of ‘beauty’ is. In that sense, critical theory hasn’t just been another class for me. It’s been a journey through some of the most fascinating concepts I’ve learned about. It has opened me up to the culture of rare fine arts. It has taught me about the perspectives on society and the world around me. Critical theory truly can be applied to all aspects of life, and this experience 100% proved that to me.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Edward Lossman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book