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29 July 2021

Images for an elusive future

If twenty years ago someone claimed that the end of the world was closer than it seemed — or that it would simply happen — they could only be labelled apocalyptic or crazy. To say so today, however, hides no extraordinary conspiracy or dystopian fiction, but painful scientific evidence. In 2020, the journal Nature published a study indicating that the amount of stuff on Earth coming from the hands of the human — plastics, buildings, roads… — exceeded the capacity of the main source of organic energy, the biomass. For all these reasons, critical ecology emerges as the only possible alternative to stop the ecosocial disaster.

The spread of ecological awareness must necessarily involve all areas of everyday life, from schools to television and public spaces. Gladly, it has also been fully introduced into the art scene, as it is the case of the exhibition Scratching the Surface on view at the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin until November. Focusing on the intersection of nature and technology, the exhibition tries to think aesthetically about two themes: how we got here and how to avoid extinction. Between these two great themes, an almost endless amount of pieces, sensations, reflections and formats opens up, which attempts to account for the plurality of pivotal discourses that ecocritical art gathers together.

Rhonda Roland Shearer, ©dpa

There is room for everything in the exhibition: Rodney Graham’s two-channel installation, which links the sinister presence of an out-of-field helicopter to a nocturnal vision of the forest, shocks the viewer by alerting them to the dangers of deforestation. In another room we find posters that Klaus Staeck has been developing over the last 40 years, which ironically reproduce the aesthetics of political propaganda to warn in an effective but sincere way of the imminence of ecological collapse. Among the posters, which cover the entire third room, stands out a small work by Joseph Beuys — who already warned about the climatic danger in Documenta 7 — in which a lemon gives energy to a light bulb of the same colour, reminding us how the aesthetic coalition, although it may seem so, is almost never arbitrary: the light bulb and the lemon may be associated by “primary qualities” such as shape or colour, but if we look at their connection — and Beuys insists on this — we discover a kind of hidden connection, the one between all that is natural and artificial, which decidedly shatters both concepts. The natural energy of the lemon keeps Beuys’ light bulb on, which some will understand — again, in a legitimate use of the imagination — as an image of artistic illumination, although the curators of the exhibition insist that it is a message rooted in environmentalism, a praise of renewable energies.

oseph Beuys, “Capri-Batteri”, Christie’s

This year’s Overshoot Day was on 25 May. This means that, as of that date, we are using resources beyond the planet’s capacity. Or in other words, that in five months we use all the natural resources that the planet is capable of producing in a year. We would need more than two planets to continue consuming at this rate, and yet we are far from implementing any policy effective in curbing down growth.

In a gorgeous sound installation, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa recovers the sounds of birds that are already extinct, and warns: this is also a struggle for beauty. Animals become extinct, landscapes disappear. The struggle to preserve them is being waged by artists such as Richard Long, who brings — materially — the remains of the landscape to the museum, Mario Merz, who recreates poor habitable spaces, or Diana Barquero Pérez, who, using the remains of soil from plantations in Costa Rica, achieves a beautiful composition reminiscent of watercolour.

Natural material is very central in the exhibition, reaching its climax with a panel made up of fossil-like soaps that Jeewi Lee creates from the ashes of a fire in Pisa, a sort of memorial to the earth that, while investigating the particularities of the transformation of matter, seeks to raise awareness of the devastating human presence in natural disasters.

Jeewi Lee, «Ashes to ashes»

The main interest of the exhibition’s curators — Sven Beckstette and Daniel Milnes — is to make us aware of our position as a species in the destruction of the planet. This is the aim of Candida Höfer’s zoos photos, Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s projects for the subjectification of the landscape, Thomas Ruff’s machines, Stan Douglas’s images of a ghostly Detroit or Asta Gröting’s superb fossil casts, which represent the remains of Goethe’s carriage, Adenauer’s Mercedes and the artist’s own Smartphone.

The exhibition questions our relationship with the natural environment and our own concept of Nature, so hackneyed by the romantics and the new age, to make us aware not only that art is possible thanks to it — and therefore always owes something to Nature — but also that the boundaries between the artificial and the natural are much less solid than we think and usually they are based on arbitrariness. When the resources will exhaust, what to do? The engine of capitalism was turned off for a few months by the covid-19 pandemic, but to this day not even the most alarming predictions of a future ecocide have shaken the foundations of the destructive system. A walk through the exhibition helps to reinforce the ideas: decrease or die.


(Imagen destacada: Basics09, Annette Herwegh. Diseño del logo)

Pablo Caldera (Madrid, 1997) is a PhD student in Artistic, Literary and Cultural Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. A graduate in Philosophy, he combines academic writing with narrative and visual arts criticism.

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