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Michael Joo

Noospheric (Trans-Alaska JWJ)

About the artist

Michael Joo is a Korean-American artist known for using a combination of scientific language, processes and complex structures that speak to liminality, access, and transmission.

Michael Joo
Island Press
New Editions 2024

In the early twentieth century, thinkers like Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky and French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin popularized the use of the term “noosphere” to refer to the idea that human consciousness represents the pinnacle of evolutionary development. This concept, which casts humanity’s impact on the environment in a utopian light, comes under scrutiny in Michael Joo’s single edition print Noospheric (Trans-Alaska JWJ) (2024), created during his 2020 residency at Island Press.

Drawing from his background in seed science and penchant for technological experimentation, Joo works in media such as printmaking, photography, sculpture, and performance to contend with existential threats to humanity, the traces we leave on our surroundings, and the horizons where imagination takes the reins from science. Noospheric, the first installment in a thematically linked multimedia series, is 14-foot-long seven-panel print made using ink that contains pulverized trilobite fossils he collected while performing in the United Arab Emirates and carbonized wood from Wakayama, Japan. The artwork’s layers include an archival inkjet print of a panoramic photograph of an empty Alaskan road, where he, in another performance, walked against the flow of an oil pipeline. Superimposed on this substrate are silkscreen depictions of meteorites and wood. Additionally, snippets from his seven-year-old son’s notes on a book about orphans on the Oregon Trail appear in embossed and printed intaglio, intimating a father-son dialogue.

The specimens of scientific discovery and written language superimposed on the landscape slyly question the notion of evolutionary progress. The foreshortening of the white gravel road and the transfixing void in the hovering meteorite cast a sense of stasis and doubt over the vista. The ominous writing in the sky, as it were—“Dad dead / Mom dead / Legs broken / Camp fever”—reminds us of the legacy we’re bequeathing to future generations: a world addled by climate change, economic precarity, and geopolitical turmoil. Just as when he crawled across the Bonneville Salt Flats as part of his performance Salt Transfer Cycle (1993–94), Joo confronts the human-altered landscape’s subtle hostilities, but he does so in Noospheric not by centering a single human body and its exertions but by aggregating traces of collective thought and labor.

The realization of Noospheric during and after Joo’s Island Press residency provides a salient metaphor for inheritance and knowledge transmission. The four-year process, completed by multiple successive cohorts in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, parallels the kind of intergenerational collaboration found in Joo’s previous work Saltation, Traction, Precipitate (2018), a delegated performance for which he invited children living around the DMZ to play tangt-tah-mok-ki¬—a game that involves flicking pebbles across the ground to mark “territory”—inside the military-occupied zone between North and South Korea. A sculpture was then created based on amalgamated scans of the rocks the children launched. Like that sculpture, Noospheric is a record of durational action, social contact, instruction, and learning. With luck, that’s how our stint on this planet may be remembered as well.

By Jenny Wu, US Associate Editor of ArtReview

Editions from this project