File Note #5: Alexis Rockman - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Sally O’Reilly

Alexis Rockman Images Quote References Biography Credits

Alexis Rockman

In 1889 J. Lawson Johnston came up with the name for his new concentrated essence of beef, Bovril, by colliding the Latin for ox, bos, with the fictional word ‘Vril’. Vril was an all-permeating fluid that combined the properties of electricity, death-rays, antibiotics, long-range missiles and general uncanniness that was used by an advanced species, the Vril-ya, in Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel The Coming Race (1871). So really, as a brand identity, Bovril was well ahead of its time, alluding to fantasy and aspiration within a strictly hierarchical era governed by status and birthright. In The Coming Race the power of Vril was proportionate to the worthiness and understanding of the person wielding the Vril Staff: ‘… this fluid is capable of being raised and disciplined into the mightiest agency over all forms of matter, animate or inanimate. It can destroy like the flash of lightening; yet, differently applied it can replenish or invigorate life, heal, and preserve, and on it they [the Vril-ya] chiefly rely for the cure of disease, or rather for enabling the physical organization to re-establish the due equilibrium of its natural powers, and thereby to cure itself.’ As in many utopian fictions, from The Garden of Eden onwards, the often dystopic outcomes are prophetic; Lytton’s imaginary fluid presents a moral dilemma similar to that of nuclear power today. But what is most alarming about Vril, is its promotion of self-supporting life. Its vaguely troubling omnipresence smacks of current discussions on nano-technology, while excitement and trepidation form an equal corollary around recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering — the reprogramming of the underlying data of life itself.

The cows that appear in Alexis Rockman’s The Farm, seem more than a little touched by Vril. There are three bovine variations — the primordial beast, the placid reared animal that we recognise today and a futuristic, pumped-up creature that, however monstrous-looking, would yield mounds of steak and lakes of milk and Bovril. The cows are accompanied by equivalent triumvirates of chickens and pigs, tessellating tomatoes, cuboid marrows, an over-bred Chinese Crescent, the famous mouse with the ear grafted to its back and various other indications of man’s interference with nature. 

Whereas Lytton’s Vril-ya were unequivocally advanced as a society, Rockman’s prediction is more ambivalent. His opinion of cloning or the human genome project is not clear from his paintings — the high-key colour suggests friendly fun, but this is a sarcastic take on promotional imagery. Rockman’s knowledge of the subject is thorough: he has often worked with biologists and travelled to rainforests to study insects; his work is notoriously accurate, finely wrought like anatomical drawings based on empirical fact. He also knows the history of genetics, which is fraught with clashes of ideology, instances of bad science and misinterpretations that have led to appalling social policies such as eugenics programmes and, at the most extreme, Nazism. Here, however, Rockman is extrapolating forwards, laying out possibilities of genetic engineering: a farm that rears what is essentially ambulant food, a pet shop displaying freakish hybrids, a Jurassic Seaworld Pleasure Park, sportsmen contorted by muscular over-development and a hothouse as gloomy and fecund as an adolescent. Rockman proposes a biotech future that is not quite as inconceivable now as an electrified world was in the nineteenth century, although his über-athletes seem as monstrous to us as frogs’ legs resuscitated by electrical pulses once seemed.

Rockman’s ambivalence towards biotechnology acknowledges society’s confusingly fuzzy pronouncements on the subject. Since Darwin, heredity has been thought vital to the formation of human nature and a potential way of harnessing the roulette of genetic defects. Yet religious texts — and this a tradition that is shared by Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths — stipulate that any violation of God’s creation is immoral. Secular reasoning too leads to a similar resistance: if we are all moral and conscious creatures, how can we be manipulated as if we are animals or clockwork gimmicks? Sense of self often overrules sense of biology or, as Rockman puts it, we still deny that we are animal. Yet we accept certain levels of interference such as, say, inoculation against disease. Moreover, we wilfully confuse which side of the nature-nurture fence we fall on in discussions of intelligence, sexuality or behaviour. For instance, the liberal view is that sexuality is determined largely by genetic make-up, while intelligence is down to opportunity and environment; in fact the truth about both these attributes is unknown. 

So, the unknown is Rockman’s terrain. Although the future has always been a foreign country, the present is steadily becoming an unfamiliar neighbourhood. Space is expanding, matter is imploding and, on the surface of the planet, social divides are becoming more and more porous. Human form is segueing into the technologically annotated cyborg or the chemically altered microcosm. Deleuze and Guattari talk of human psychology’s amorphous state of flux in terms of various ‘becomings’, such as becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming-molecular and becoming-imperceptible. Identity has evolved into a casserole that seeps into the very inbetweenesses of life. 

But what may sound like existential horror, Rockman somehow manages to render buoyant. The humour of his paintings lies in their holiday brochure gaiety within such a discomfiting predicament, like the ever-optimistic Winnie buried up to her neck in sand in Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days. Borrowing from the lexicon of natural history iconography and the assertiveness of poster art, Rockman constructs his tableaux of monsters as if they were interesting fish from the deep —entertainingly strange but essentially benign. There is also a pathos in his creatures’ will to succeed while ultimately failing. They are the results of a pyrrhic victory: despite heroic triumphs over biology, we cannot ignore what we perceive as a loss of integrity — the dog-bag in Pet Store may be quite a feat of hybridisation, but not such a smart move practically or emotionally. But, again, Rockman does not find this dismal; rather he is gleefully unsqueamish, like the schoolboy pulling the wings off the crane fly, or the Victorian entrepreneur squeezing a cow until the Bovril flows.

'All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.’ — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.3


  The Genetic Code Isaac Asimov, New American Library Reissue edition (1962) ASIN 0451621107

  Concrete Jungle Mark Dion, Alexis Rockman and Donna Haraway (eds.) Juno Books (1997) ISBN 096510422

  Oblagon Syd Mead 2nd edition (1997) ISBN 4062015250

  Future (from the series Eyewitness Books), Michael Tambini DK publishing (1998) ISBN 0751361283

  Archigram Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Revised edition Princeton Architectural Press (1999) ISBN 1568981945

  Future Evolution Peter Ward, Images by Alexis Rockman W H Freeman & Co. 1st edition (2001) ISBN 0716734966

  Superhuman Robert Winston and Lori Oliwenstein DK publishing 1st edition (2001) ASIN 0789468271 

  Our Posthuman Future Francis Fukuyama Farrar Straus and Giroux (2002) ISBN 0374236437

  Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism Marion Nestle University of California Press (2003) ISBN 0520232925

  Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age Bill McKibbe Times Books; 1st edition (April 2003) ISBN 0805070966

  The Fly Kurt Neumann (dir.) (1958) and Return of The Fly Edward  Bernds (dir.) (1959) and The Curse of The Fly Don Sharp (dir.) (1965)

  Sleeper Woody Allen (dir.) (1973) DVD ASIN 0792846117

  Toxic Avenger Michael Herz, Lloyd Kafman (dir.) (1985) DVD ASIN 6304723113

  Swamp Thing Wes Craven (dir.) (1981) DVD ASIN 0792846494


Alexis Rockman was born in 1962 in New York, where he continues to live and work. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts, New York, and is prominent among a younger generation of artists who have returned to figurative content, with his paintings, watercolours and murals inspired by the natural sciences.

Since 1985, his work has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe and Japan, among them the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington (Future Evolution, 2001), London Projects (1998/1996) and Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio (Alexis Rockman: Second Nature, 1995). Most recently, he has also been commissioned to produce a large-scale mural for the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York (Manifest Destiny, 2004), imagining the distant future — geological, botanical and zoological — of the borough of Brooklyn. Rockman’s work has been included in many international group exhibitions since the mid-1980s, including Paradise Now (University of Maryland, Baltimore, 2004), Get Together, Kunst als Teamwork (Kunsthalle Wien, 1999) and Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away (Serpentine Gallery, London, 1993, curated by Damien Hirst).

A major monograph on the artist was published in 2003 by Monacelli Press (with texts by Jonathan Crary, Stephen Jay Gould and David Quammen). His other publications include Future Evolution: An Illustrated History of Life to Come (a collaboration with Professor Peter Ward, 2002) and Concrete Jungle: A Pop Media Investigation of Death and Survival in Urban Ecosystems (1996), co-edited with the artist Mark Dion.


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Sally O’Reilly is a writer and a critic.