Curated by Gregory Volk
Rebecca Bird (US), Marta Djourina (BG/DE), Adam Frelin (US), Klara Hobza (CZ/DE), Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens (CA), Ragna Róbertsdóttir (IS), Oscar Santillán (EC/NZ), Dimitar Solakov (BG) Leda Vaneva (BG/FI).
Several months ago, I was on a Zoom panel with two curators, one from Iceland and the other from the US. We were discussing our longstanding involvement with contemporary Icelandic artists and art. During the event I noted that some of the Icelandic artists that I find most compelling—including Ragna Róbertsdóttir who is in this exhibition Contact – are renegotiating our (human) relationship with, for want of a better term, nature, making artworks that collaborate with nature, ones in which nature is an active force not a subject or a site. In volatile Iceland, formed by the collision of two vast tectonic plates, nature is indeed a constant force, including volcanoes and earthquakes, geothermal water and the powerful ocean, sometimes fierce weather and thundering waterfalls.
After our presentations, there came the time for questions and the very first (if I remember correctly) went something like this: “All this talk about nature is well and good, but what sociopolitical issues are these artists addressing?” (I am slightly paraphrasing here).
I was stunned, and immediately said so. In this time of human-generated climate change, with increasingly dire and likely catastrophic consequences, coupled with the global Covid-19 pandemic, our relationship with the natural world is inherently sociopolitical and of fundamental importance.
Contact is not about sublime, beautiful, and inspiring nature, which I’ve certainly experienced in droves as an ardent backpacker. Instead, it involves distinctive artworks made in conjunction with nature, ones that also challenge the anthropocentric fantasy that we—quite recent additions to a four and a half billion-year-old planet—are somehow separate from and masters of nature.
This fantasy of human exceptionalism is looking not only absurd but also perilous. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, withering droughts, and amok forest fires are wreaking havoc everywhere. In my country (the US), as of this writing. 790,000 people have died of Covid-19, many stridently opposed to vaccinations, masking, and social distancing, many convinced of their superiority and invulnerability to a dangerous virus, although viruses predate our ancient human ancestors on the planet by some 3.5 billion years.
While Contact (and this includes its online format) was conceived and developed during the pandemic, as well as, most obviously, during global warming, it is not about either. None of the works are didactic or issued-oriented. Instead, all involve fruitful and sometimes surprising contact with nature, including lava, water, trees, birds, plants, fungi, singled-celled organisms. and sunlight. In her excellent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), Jane Bennett has written convincingly of “thing-power”—the agency and vitality of non-human organisms and objects—and has described them as “the vital materialities that flow through and around us.” Contact involves human and artistic interaction with these “vital materialities.”
During nerve-rattling months sequestering at home in Brooklyn, when merely venturing outside felt potentially lethal, Rebecca Bird closely observed the natural processes occurring in her backyard garden. In her engrossing watercolors, regeneration and decay, vigor and mortality help put the current pandemic in perspective. Dimitar Solakov, long interested in fungi, has contributed an enchanting new video in which he gently prods mushrooms that he discovers on his many walks in rural Bulgaria. Recent research suggests that the first mushrooms may well have evolved on Earth between 715 and 810 million years ago, much earlier than was previously thought. Humans evolved between five and seven million years ago. Solakov’s thoughtful, sensitive, and also humorous video involves inquisitive contact with new manifestations of ancient lifeforms.
Marta Djourina’s vividly colored works, which at first resemble abstract photographs, are made by an unusual process— direct exposure of analog photography paper to bioluminescent fungi, bioluminescent algae, sunlight, and seawater. She makes these works, but so too do organisms and elemental forces. Adam Frelin has strung illuminated circles and a white fluorescent tube between trees; his lights (which look wonderous) suggest advertisement signage but also moonlight, while the trees are just as significant as his interventions.
Ragna Róbertsdóttir gathers her art materials—among them black lava, red lava, red mud, seashells, and sea salt—at Icelandic sites that have long been important for her, including the great volcano Hekla. She channels her very special environment (or “her world,” as she once told me in conversation), into her novel and enthralling art. The exhibition also includes Róbertsdóttir’s photographs—not previously exhibited as art—of the impressive sites that she frequents. Leda Vaneva’s video was taken off the Bulgarian coast, on the Black Sea. In this mesmerizing work (which includes sound), up and down are conflated, sea and sky.
In 2012, Klara Hobza began a project that she optimistically estimates may well take 20 to 30 years. She has been scuba diving—without permission—through some of Europe’s most renowned and congested waterways, including the Main and Danube rivers, immersing herself, quite literally, in the watery Anthropocene. Hobza also shows documentation of her novel apparatus that lets humans see themselves as animals would. Venturing deep into his native Ecuador via canoe, Oscar Santillán made slides of actual Amazon River water, including suspended organic material. Normally exhibited as an analog slide projection, here he presents digital documentation: the river not as we might see it from afar or imagine it to be, but as it is for real, on its own terms.
One does not see birds in Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens’ video, but one hears them—their distinctive calls, their various, enchanting languages. These bird sounds are coupled with short texts: the names we’ve given birds, how birds have figured into creation myths, our faltering attempts to understand what birds are “saying.” The video is a marvel of cross-species interaction, misunderstanding, mystery, and non-anthropocentric openness to the bountiful world, in this case its birds, which evolved, after all, from dinosaurs.