Saturday, 15 January 2011

Between science and aesthetics: the ecological art of Ulrike Mohr

Ulrike Mohr Restgrün (2006)

On 4 April 2006 the demolition of Berlin’s Palast der Republik was halted for one day. The artist Ulrike Mohr was to be allowed to undertake a systematic botanical survey of the trees and other plants that had colonized the roof since German reunification. This vast public building had fallen into a state of disrepair since the early 1990s and had become a kind of ecological laboratory for the study of urban change. Small fissures in the concrete and bitumen had allowed an accumulation of organic matter, and in addition to the typical adventitious species of plants one might encounter growing out of cracks in roads or pavements there were now well-established trees such as birch, poplar and sallow, indicative of the early stages of a rooftop forest in formation.

Mohr’s investigation of the ecological consequences of urban entropy entitled Restgrün [Remaining green] raises important questions about the intersection between science and aesthetics. The study of abandoned spaces is not just a question of aesthetic curiosity but also holds significant scientific implications: in the case of Restgrün, for example, one of the trees found growing on top of Berlin’s Palast was Populus nigra, which is on the Red List for regionally endangered species.

For the 2002 project Versuchsanordnung Acer Platanoides [Test set-up Acer platanoides] Mohr chose a six-meter-high Spitzahorn, or Norway Maple, Acer platanoides, growing in the Künstlergärten Weimar, and stitched together the tree’s leaves with red thread so that they were unable to fall during the autumn. The entire leaf structure was then carefully removed by crane and put on public display in Mohr’s first solo show at the Kunstverein Hildesheim. With this “ecological interruption” Mohr performed a non-utilitarian intervention in nature: we are invited to reflect on the meaning of nature through its unexpected cultural appropriation so that there is both a temporal and spatial dislocation in a largely unnoticed yet remarkable everyday transformation: the annual shedding of leaves by a maple tree.

This notion of time in nature — referred to in ecological science as “succession” — connects with a fascination with the spontaneous re-arrangement of nature. Mohr plays on the boundary of human intervention in nature in two ways: first, by simply observing nature its meaning and significance change, bringing mundane elements such as a common tree or an assemblage of weeds into a profound form of aesthetic engagement; and second, by simply focusing on one element of nature and performing simple modifications, we contend with the scope and complexity of our relations with nature as an extension of ourselves. In this last sense, Mohr brings her exploration of nature into a historically specific scientific frame: her works connects powerfully with the development of urban ecology in post-war Germany as a form of intricate and passionate engagement with nature in cities. In particular it engages with the diversity of potential biotopes or habitat niches associated with the type of everyday instances of nature that have been largely neglected by mainstream ecological science.

Among the most ambitious of Mohr’s works is the 2003 large-scale tree-planting project 750 Kiefern in militärischer Anordnung/Konversionsgelände Wünsdorf [750 Pines in military formation / Conversion area Wünsdorf ] in which hundreds of pine saplings that had sprouted spontaneously in the parade ground of a former Russian military barracks in Wünsdorf were dug up, measured and replanted. The trees were arranged in five precise formations of 150 trees, with the tallest trees placed at the front of each of the blocks to suggest an ironic confluence of forestry plantations with military discipline. Photographs of the site from above reveal the ambitious scale of the project, and also its spatial accuracy, so that the young trees in combination with their supporting wooden posts resemble a battalion of soldiers standing to attention. This is, above all, a landscape of control: an attempt to regularize nature that connects with the historic purpose of the site as a training ground for military discipline and the exercise of state power. After the completion of the project the site was allowed to revert back to a process of natural succession towards “secondary woodland” so that the work connects both with a sense of ecological time and also historical time since all cultural or institutional forms are temporally limited in their scope.

The tree planting also signals a counterpoint to Joseph Beuys’s mass action entitled 7,000 Eichen [7,000 Oaks], installed between 1982 and 1987 for Documenta 7, where the placing of these trees alongside upright basalt columns was linked with an ecological critique of modernity in the context of pollution-induced Waldsterben [forest death], and also the nascent German green movement with which Beuys was closely involved. What clearly differentiates the work of Mohr from that of Beuys is her rational engagement with urban nature as an arena for cultural discourse rather than a hidden repository for ecological mysticism. It is Mohr’s critical distance from the German romantic tradition that renders her work especially interesting in an international context.

The art of Ulrike Mohr is characterized by an attention to detail: not just the subtle textures of everyday things, but also an attempt to uncover relationships between aesthetics and science, and between past and present. Her interventions break with neo-romanticist associations and are suggestive of a cultural synthesis with nature that is free from the baggage of transcendental meaning. Her interactions with nature and landscape are far removed from the heavy symbolism of some artists (the work of Anselm Kiefer, for example) or the shamanistic utterances of Beuys and his followers. In the work of Mohr we find a subtle irony, that provides new insights not through further layers of mystification, but through a calm insistence on the social production of meaning.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Of time and the city

There is something mysterious about Terence Davies’s Liverpool from the outset: at the heart of this cinematic meditation on the city, released in 2008, lies a tension between urban change as a process that is brutal and unremitting and the persistence of memory as something that is delicate and filamentary. Memories become maps through places to which we can never return in a world that is changing all about us.

In Of time and the city Davies presents us with a wondrously idiosyncratic and elegiac journey that is filled with anger, joy and despair. Davies becomes the “angel of history” hovering over Liverpool, alternately caressing his troubled city or pouring scorn on the forces that have brought the city to its knees. The film is punctuated by quotes from poetry, literature and philosophy that are narrated to us by Davies with a sense of staccato urgency: poignant lines chosen from Chekhov, Engels, Joyce and others inform us that this is a serious film from the outset. This is not a film that panders to an existing audience but one that seeks to create a new one. Davies is not making a pitch to our touristic curiosity nor is he using the city in a narrowly didactic sense. This is a deeply personal mode of documentary film making that is imbued with a profound sense of emotional intimacy.

Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew [Il Vangelo Secondo Mateo], released to general amazement in 1964, Davies uses music to sublime effect. Both Pasolini and Davies select music that through its apparent incongruity generates a powerful sense of authenticity and immediacy: faces, images and landscapes are dramatically transformed into far more than their mere physical presence as stones, bricks or flesh. In Of time and the city Davies furiously juxtaposes music and place to transcend the petty cruelties of organized religion or the grinding toil of working-class life. Decaying housing estates are set to Bacarisse; cranes and industrial architecture to Mahler.

Davies reserves his real scorn for the British establishment in all their ineptitude and mean-spirited mediocrity. He exposes the flummery and sexual hypocrisy of organized religion with relish. He excoriates the monarchy and other archaic forms of gluttony that feast on the goodwill of ordinary folk. As we see newsreel footage of the royal marriage — “Betty and Phil with a thousand flunkeys” — and the gilded carriage passes through cheering crowds Davies reminds us that “Britain had some of the worst slums in Europe”. His droll disdain for the establishment is also extended to its would-be cultural assassins such as The Beatles who are rendered little more than a ghostly and ironic presence. Just as Joe Strummer rejected “phoney Beatlemania” back in 1977 Davies now derides the “fab four” as looking like “a firm of provincial solicitors” — “yeah, yeah, yeah” indeed.

As for post-war architecture Davies notes with acerbic understatement that “Municipal architecture, dispiriting at the best of times, but when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, makes for a cityscape that is anything but elysian”. These would-be utopias had by the early 1970s become spaces of decline and emptiness scattered with broken glass and overlooked by boarded-up windows. Instead of utopia we got a city in a state of retraction and disorder. “We hoped for paradise; we got the anus mundi”. These new architectural forms were often poorly constructed and maintained, displaying but a faint echo of their exemplary prototypes in European cities and containing their own versions of built-in senescence to match the social and political neglect of their new occupants.

Liverpool has been the traumatized epicentre of Britain’s full-scale industrial decline since the 1960s with a greater population loss than almost any other British city. Unlike former industrial cities in Europe such as Hamburg or Milan, which have successfully rebuilt themselves, it is apparent that Liverpool’s contemporary renaissance is slender indeed: not a replenished civil society or newfound industrial acumen but a retail desert populated by gaggles of drunken figures tottering around beneath the glare of streetlights and security cameras.

The final tracking shots of gentrified docks and warehouses evoke a sense of placelessness: these waterside developments with their familiar “brandscapes” could be any one of a number re-fashioned industrial waterfronts from Baltimore to Buenos Aires. “As we grow older,” observes Davies, “the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated…and now I’m an alien in my own land”. We float with Davies across neon-lit landscapes or hover over boutiques and wine bars that were once factories or churches. At the close of the film we encounter Liverpool “gathered in at gloaming”, a myriad of strange illuminations in the failing light. What has Liverpool been? What have we been?

Beautiful and scathing in equal measure Of time and the city must surely rank as one of the best films about a British city that has ever been made. But the film is not simply about Liverpool: it is also a mordant response to the failures and disappointments of post-war Britain and a bittersweet exploration of the delicate connections between memory and place that anchor our sense of individual and collective identity amidst the tumult of historical change.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


In Erik Gandini’s disturbing documentary about modern Italy, Videocracy (2009), we find that politics and media ownership have merged to produce the Frankenstein figure of Berlusconi, whose fixed grin dominates visual culture. Invoking dentistry as a form of ideology Gandini suggests that many regard Berlusconi’s smile with suspicion as “the front of a perfect system of politics and TV entertainment”. Gandini traces the emergence of what he terms “videocracy” over a thirty-year period as the “president of TV becomes the president of the country”. Central to this phenomenon has been the increasing dominance of celebrities and wannabe celebrities — most often veline or show girls — and the corrosive effects on gender equality, press freedom and Italian public life. “I want to marry a footballer,” declares a would-be velina, catching her breath after completing a thirty-second dance called the stachetto. Gandini’s light narration is interspersed with interviews with a ghoulish cast of characters: a rich TV agent and friend of Berlusconi who admires Mussolini (he displays his fascist ringtones with pride); a man who controls “photo snipers”, not to sell pictures to magazines, but to extort money directly from his victims (a kind of “digital parasite” perhaps); and an assorted cast of hangers on. Italian television has become a hideous portal into Berlusconi’s mind and his lavish parties in Sardinia have become the destination for an international set that includes Vladimir Putin (who also enjoys a stranglehold over the Russian media), the disgraced former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (whose manic grin has acquired its own infamy), and the sons of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Berlusconi’s villa is conveniently located near to the Billionaire’s Club, where figures such as Paris Hilton and Denzel Washington flaunt their wealth alongside a desperate crowd of minor television personalities, aspiring weather presenters and sweaty businessmen.

In Berlusconi’s Italy, ordinary people, who lack real opportunities, are reduced to mere onlookers and spectators. And in a move beyond satire Berlusconi appoints a former velina, Mara Cafagna, to be his minister for gender equality: a logical extension to his post-feminist political firmament. At the end of the film Gandini reminds us that Italy is ranked 77th in terms of freedom of the press, 84th in gender equality, and some 80 % of Italians rely on television for information (of which 90 % is run by Berlusconi). Videocracy can be considered alongside two other striking examples of recent political cinema in Italy: Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008) and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008). All three films present us with visceral insights into the limitations of European parliamentary democracy: although Italy may be the extreme case, the recent economic turbulence affecting the so-called “PIIGS” [Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain] has exposed deep levels of corporate and governmental maleficence in Greece, Ireland and elsewhere. As Hugh Masekela recently remarked, in an interview for BBC Radio 4, politics is an “international private club”, a perpetual nomenklatura of the wealthy and the well-connected. We would be foolish to regard Italy as an exception.

Monday, 3 January 2011

El sol del membrillo [The quince tree sun]

Víctor Erice’s documentary El sol del membrillo [The quince tree sun] (1992) is a simple idea: we follow the artist Antonio López Garcia’s attempt, during the autumn of 1990, to paint a quince tree in his back garden. The film seems to emerge quietly in real time on a late September morning as we see the artist arranging his canvas and inspecting the tree; the only sounds are largely ambient, the rumble of a train, a radio playing and incidental moments like removing the stopper from a bottle of turpentine. With gentle time-lapse photography we observe the emerging canvas over coming days; preparation, patience and detail are interspersed with reminiscences with an old friend who comes to visit. Together, they marvel at the beauty of the tree: the shape, the colours and the fullness of the fruit. Garcia is consistently perplexed by small variations in sunlight and the fact the tree itself is changing over time: he paints small white markers on the leaves and fruit to trace changes in the shape of the tree and the gradual sinking of the branches under the weight of the ripening fruit. “I follow the tree,” he remarks, but the weather worsens, the sky is overcast and his sense of frustration grows.

It is late October and we see the stairwell in his house illuminated with light, set to the music of Pascal Gaigne — very little incidental music is used in the film but it drifts through specific scenes to mesmerizing effect. Garcia has now abandoned his attempt to paint the tree and switches to a drawing instead which he refers to as “a map of the tree”. He contrasts his approach with other artists who work from pictures or photographs since he wishes to avoid “aesthetic games” and struggle directly with the impossibility of representation. By mid-November Garcia describes the tree as being in “full decadence” and he picks up the first fallen fruit on the ground and smells it; the leaves of the tree are now beginning to yellow with small blotches and imperfections spreading. “It’s over,” he declares, and he collects up his things, leaving the garden strangely empty for the first time.

Garcia now poses for another artist, his wife María Moreno: he lies on a bed observing a cut crystal and falls into a deep sleep disturbed by vivid dreams. We see shots of Madrid at night: flickering television screens and moving traffic are interspersed with a bright moon and drifting clouds revealed in all their detail. He narrates a strange dream where he is standing with many others and sees his quince tree now transposed somewhere else. We see the tree next to a camera, the fallen fruit lying under the glare of a powerful light. “Dark spots slowly cover their skin in the still air…Nobody seems to notice the quinces are rotting under a light…turning into metal and dust”. And then the garden is shown next spring with shrivelled and misshapen fruit lying beneath the tree but new buds becoming visible on the branches.

This is a remarkable film of almost unimaginable subtlety that emerges from an intense encounter between an artist and his struggle to convey what lies in front of him. In the end it is time and light that defeat him: the growing tree is itself impossible to capture effectively and every small play of light continually transforms the appearance of the tree. Of course this is not a documentary in the conventional sense but something far more interesting: an exploration of the intersection between an outer world of beauty and decay and an inner world of dreams and imagination.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Miracles of life

I have just read J. G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of life — published shortly before his death in 2009 — in a matter of hours. Ballard’s extraordinary life unfolds before your eyes as he weaves together intimate details of his private world in the London suburb of Shepperton with dramatic incidents from his childhood in Japanese occupied Shanghai. Despite witnessing terrible cruelties and also experiencing domestic tragedy — his wife died in 1963 leaving him to bring up his three children alone — he gathers inspiration from the power of science, medicine and the human imagination. Ballard is a late-modern Orwell conveying his thoughts and observations with clarity and precision. Vivid motifs emerge such as the drained swimming pool, a “mysterious empty presence”, which he first encountered in Shanghai but which becomes a marker of a certain kind of social and architectural dislocation. Ballard develops a powerful attachment to American post-war optimism and technological exuberance which he contrasts with a dilapidated, shabby and class-divided Britain. Arriving back in Southampton in 1946 he is shocked to find a broken country quite unlike the steady stream of patriotic bluster he encountered among the ex-pat communities of Shanghai. “Even allowing for a long and exhausting war,” writes Ballard, “England seemed derelict, dark and half-ruined”. During the1950s Ballard discovered another England, more intellectually vibrant and internationalist in its outlook, and describes the exhibition This is Tomorrow held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, as “the most important event in the visual arts in Britain until the opening of the Tate Modern”. Ballard reveals a longstanding fascination with psychoanalysis, surrealism and what he sees as the innate irrationality of human beings, that challenged conventional parameters of modernist art and literature. “The ‘self’ lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses”. Ballard drew inspiration from everything around him and revelled in the proximity of his suburban home to the strange landscapes of Shepperton Studios where abandoned props were left in open fields: “figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever”. The complex and evocative world of Ballard has sometimes been dismissed as a fatalistic science fiction oeuvre of dystopian decline but these types of critiques advanced by Fredric Jameson and others miss both the historical context for his work and also the centrality of science and technology to his “cinematic” style of writing. In some ways Ballard forms part of an English literary triumvirate with his younger colleagues Will Self and Iain Sinclair: all three writers combine close observations with flights of imagination to produce radically unsettling accounts of the everyday. Above all, Ballard conveys the wonder and fragility of life; rather than wallow in the past or escape to the future he forces us to see the “now”.