Jonathon Keats: Pangaea Optima


Jonathon Keats: Pangaea Optima

By Terri Cohn November 23, 2015

Pangaea Optima is Jonathon Keats’ proposal for a solution to climate change. Rather than an earnest response to this timely and urgent topic, Keats’ potential remedy quickly reveals itself as ironic philosophical musings on Pangaea, the supercontinent that comprised all of Earth's landmasses and began to break up about 250 million years ago. Based on geologists’ predictions that a new protocontinent will form in the distant future, Keats’ goal with this project—stated in his self-authored press release—is to “close the divide between conflicting countries through a vast geoengineering project…We need Pangaea Optima, and we need it fast.”

Jonathon Keats. Magnetron (Diplomatic Geoengineering), 2015; mixed media; 10 x 10 x 10 in. Courtesy Modernism Inc., San Francisco.

Keats’ proposal and its tangible realization at Modernism are conceptual reflections on how to help facilitate Pangaea Optima. Working under the auspices of his Political Tectonics Lab, Keats has created a series of objects intended to assist with the project of “diplomatic engineering.” Among these are two pedestal-mounted sculptures, Magnetron (Geoengineering Model) (2015) and Nuclear Power (Geoengineering Model) (2015), that look like homemade science projects created with cast-off parts. The works are housed in retro glass vitrines that infuse them with a pseudoscientific aura reminiscent of Clayton Bailey’s oeuvre (especially Bailey’s World of Wonders Museum). Nuclear Power appears to be a small, generic cooling fan held in place with thin uprights and wire. Magnetron also looks like part of some sort of electrical apparatus. The latter, however, has an additional conceptual layer created through a label affixed to the side of the work’s metal casing that reads “Litton Industries.” Litton Industries is a company that began in 1953 as an electronics firm building navigation, communications, and electronic warfare equipment. This history ties the object to Keats’ geoengineering project, while an “Atherton Division” subheading on the label domesticates the object, as that subdivision of the company was dedicated to developing microwave ovens. In Keats’ lexicon, everything matters: His scheme includes electricity generated by nuclear reactors, whose turbines will power subterranean magnetrons that will heat up magma in rift areas with intensely focused microwaves. His concept of diplomatic geoengineering is further illustrated in his Tectonic Geoengineering Map (2015), a modified and annotated version of NASA’s Digital Tectonic Activity Map of Earth, which marks the most concentrated centers of volcanic activity in the past million years.

Jonathon Keats. Tectonic Geoengineering Map, 2015; mixed media; 36 x 57 in. Courtesy Modernism Inc., San Francisco.

 The exhibition also includes a suite of six giclée prints, each representing a continent (Europe and Asia are combined as “Eurasia”). Each continent is rendered as a green shape, suspended over its shadow and floating in a sea of blue, suggesting that continental landmasses could in fact float to meet each other. In a separate print, Keats presents the potential look of the world’s continents, reformed as Pangaea Optima

In my conversation with Keats, he explained his deep interest in science and why, as an experimental philosopher, he believes artists today are drawn to the potential of science to bring back the sense of curiosity and open-endedness that characterized “natural philosophy” of the 16th through 19th centuries. He believes that the authority of science today has suppressed that curiosity, and that “art has gone where science has come from.” The resulting tension between that historical curiosity and the “flexibility of art” to challenge the dominion of science is rekindling that curiosity and holds great potential for contemporary artists (including Keats).

Jonathon Keats. Pangaea Optima, 2015; Giclée Print; Edition of 5; 16.75 x 24 in. Courtesy Modernism Inc., San Francisco.

The most nebulous aspect of this project is the Supercontinental Planning Kit (2015), a set of small cardboard mailing boxes arranged on a shelf. Each box is addressed to the United Nations, and an adjacent installation of the box contents reveals them to include a blow-up globe and a red Sharpie with no instructions, confusing the communicative potential of this gesture, which “is to facilitate public participation in the planning process.” Available to gallery goers for $9.99 (plus shipping), it seems improbable that this product would go further than a viewer’s curio shelf or a child’s bathtub.


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Jonathon Keats: Pangaea Optima is on view at Modernism Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through December 15, 2015.

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