Nodding donkeys

Why?

In Greek mythology the nine Horae were the goddesses of the Hours or Seasons, and the natural portions of time.

“They bring and bestow ripeness, they come and go in accordance with the firm law of the periodicities of nature and of life. Hora means ‘the correct moment’.” – Karl Kerenyi

The first triad, associated with Aphrodite and Zeus, are emblems of times of life, growth and the seasons of year: Thallo – spring; Auxo – summer; Carpo – autumn. The second triad, associated with Themis and Zeus, are of law and order: Dike – justice; Eunomia – order; Eirene – peace. The third triad are of the land: Pherusa – substance, farm estates; Euporie/Euporia – abundance; Orthosie/Orthosia – prosperity.

To take one of the nine, euporia εὐπορία is Greek for prosperity, plenty, abundance. I wasinterested to find out that it appears once in the New Testament, in a pretty pertinent passage in Acts 19.25. Here’s the context:

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, ‘Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.’

All of which is applicable, with respect to the source and type of wealth, to the modern oil economy. Oil  is very much a symbol of prosperity and plenty, and of conspicuous wealth. It is a modern god, but it is not God. It is leading us into inequality and climate change. We are heading for a precipice, unless we keep it in the ground. Now is the time, the hora, the correct moment to change our ways.

Oh why?

The cycle of the seasons has laid down vegetation over millions of years, compressed into coal, oil and gas. The circular motion of the nodding donkey (or pumpjack) is a clown-like, ridiculous, grotesque, bobbing mimicry of this cycle, contorting it into down-up-down-up-down pump action. The oil economy twists the abundance of circular natural seasonal fecundity, to linear exploitative extraction. So the donkeys are nodding to capitalism’s exponential growth message, always looking down even when their head is high, never looking up to reality or the future.

In another absurd twist, a number of oil companies have been sponsoring the arts for years, the very human endeavour that should be holding a mirror up to their activities. But recently, committed activism has been protesting against their involvement. I wanted to add my voice to the activitists’ in making art from the nodding donkey.

I thought and trialled and ultimately didn’t pursue my ideas. But that’s OK. Not everything needs to happen just because it has been dreamt up. Plus, what seems like failure may not in the end turn out to be failure. I’ve published these reflections on Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. He was acclaimed by the people, only to be later murdered by their leaders. But then…….

Idea 1 – “Taken for a ride”

What?

We are being taken for a ride by oil and oil companies. So… a giant nodding donkey near the sea, based on the idea of donkey rides at the seaside.

Could it actually be ridden? Would the pole just go up and down in a cylinder, or would it actually do something? Blow bubbles? Inflate balloons? Pump sea water? Damage something by continually pummelling it?

How?

I would minimise carbon emissions and resources in production of the piece, which would be a working model of a pumpjack in recycled wood (a more sustainable and renewable fuel than fossil fuel).

The materials could be eg a wooden cable drum, a broom handle, panels of old furniture brought to Exeter’s recycling centres.

It could be powered by a solar panel, but a stationary bicycle would allow more interaction. And then the bike could come from from Ride On, a social enterprise which through refurbishing donated bikes trains volunteers in bike maintenance and provides affordable bikes to the community, and the name could also allude to the Palm Sunday hymn.

The donkey could be decorated with depictions of the seasons; news print about divestment; oil company share prices; shells, or bird feathers covered in slick.

Where?

The obvious location would be Teignmouth Recycled Art in the Landscape during the summer holidays.

When?

Nothing has happened yet. It is one of those large-scale grandiose ideas that I will probably never make.

Idea 2 – “Nodding donkeys and fossil fools”

What, How and Where?

Largely as “Taken for a ride” but at the Met Office, inside in the Street or outside eg by one of the pools.

It could be decorated with eg climate projections or impacts. The cycle and the up-down motion could be linked to projection of climate data onto the Street wall or a screen.

When?

As with “Taken for a ride”, too big to pursue, complicated by involvement with the civil service.

Idea 3 – Recreate Burtynsky

What?

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #2, Belridge, California, USA, 2003
Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #2, Belridge, California, USA, 2003

Edward Burtynsky is a photographer and artist known for his photographs of industrial landscapes. In 2003 he photographed the oil fields of Belridge, California. There are nodding donkeys as far as the eye can see, set in an arid desert-scape. The only visible plant life is parched tussocky scrub in narrow strips between the access roads.

“When I first started photographing industry it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to. Our achievements became a source of infinite possibilities. But time goes on, and that flush of wonder began to turn. The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.”

So… Recreate one of these Burtynsky landscapes as a moving model.

How?

The donkeys could be 3D printed or lasercut:

They could be powered with a solar cell, driven by a complex root system of rubber bands. The sand landscape is (possibly) straight out of a model railway catalogue.

Where?

Who knows? Someone’s attic or garage, perhaps? Do away with the model landscape, and set it up in a post urban wasteland?

When?

The Fablab at Exeter Library has 3D printers and a laser cutter, but I had been going through a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. Then in 2020, Kris Sum from TechExeter brought his 3D printer into Kaleider and made it available to other residents to use. So it became worth a trial…

Q: Can I easily make a 3D printed nodding donkey that could be powered without wobbling, catching or falling apart? Wait for it…

A: Not really, but it was fun in the trialling. I used the Thingiverse model. It kept not sticking properly to the 3D print plate, but the main problem was in the assembly. First, it wasn’t designed to be powered, without some modification. Second, I made do with unbent paperclips, but I’d need to source pins and rods in order to assemble it properly.

In the end, some ideas just aren’t worth the effort of pursuing.

For art that is political comment on impact of fossil fuels, you can instead look up “The Rising Tide” by Jason deCaires Taylor: four horsemen of the apocalypse close to the Houses of Parliament.