Beauty, Pessimism, Hope
(unedited version)

published in: RES (Istanbul), No. 7, June 2011, p. 122-124

There are currently two exhibitions on show – with different titles, in different museums, developped by different curatorial teams, even in different countries, yet they both touch similar points and deserve to be considered within the frame of a bigger picture. The one, on view in Istanbul Modern and curated by Paolo Colombo and the museum’s own Levent Calikoglu, is somewhat dramatically titled “Kayip Cennet /Paradise Lost“, the other one, presented at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf (Germany), curated by Doris Krystof in collaboration with Maria Anna Bierwirth, has the broad title “Big Picture”. Both shows are, media-wise, focussed on video or, accurately named, time-based artworks. Content-wise they both examine aspects of nature and humankind’s relation to it.

The results couldn’t be more different, and it’s worth a closer look in order to find out why that is. Let’s start with Istanbul’s “Paradise Lost”: the title already says it, an optimistic world view is not exactly what this exhibition aims to get across. On the contrary, “the disordered and damaged state of the environment today has been (…) under our very eyes in the most flagrant way all the time”, says Colombo in his introduction to the catalogue, and Calikoglu seconds him by writing in his own catalogue essay that the “rational planning, which was sustained for the sake of a livable future, a safe urban life, and a modern level of comfort, has pitted nature against culture. We still have not found a way to coexist with nature.” Well, that might be a bit thick, given that worldwide millions of people live in peaceful coexistence with their natural surroundings and other thousands of people dedicate their whole lives to develop alternative ways of generation of energy and of benefitting from natural resources without eventuelly anihilating them. But no doubt, Calikoglu and Colombo have a point, and we all know what they talk about – clearly, their questions are crucial to our existence and to the lives of our successors. So we also immediately accept that Colombo writes that, “not surprisingly, the issue of an entity – Nature – whose laws we no longer abide by and whom we have in large party destroyed or irreparably changed, is an issue that has been of particular interest to visual artists in the last decades.” – Sure, artists tend to make all aspects of life and society to their case, so it is indeed no surprise that environmental matters have their appearance in contemporary art as well.

The starting point for “Big Picture” is an altogether different one – it’s rather grounded in aspects that are intrinsic to the artwork or the media itself, but more on this later. “Paradise Lost” gathers some 20 works by a wide range of artists, such as Doug Aitken, Ergin Cavusoglu, Emre Hüner, Rivane Neuenschwander, Tony Oursler, Bill Viola or Kiki Smith and, as something like the center piece, Pipilotti Rist’s largescale video installation “Herbstzeitlose (Saffron Flower or Fall Time Less)” (2004). The layout of the expansive show is a little confusing, with some hidden extra rooms, but maybe this was on purpose. On the first view not all of the presented works make sense in the context of the show – some of them not even on the second or third. For example it is really difficult to see why Laleh Khorraman’s “Sonsuz Ben” (2008) is part of this show, a – beautiful! – visual poem around two lovers, made of orange peels, which get burned in a fire, or Bill Viola’s comparatively aged “Anthem” (1983) which shows a single scream by a young girl, stretched to more than 11 minutes.

In fact, there are really many works with wild creatures in the presentation: wolves, foxes, birds, kangaroos, lions, ants, to name only a few. And quite a few works can only so vaguely be connected to the subject of the show that their selection unfortunately seems a little random. However, there are brilliant works to be seen in the show – not least the ones with the animals – which reconciles with the unclear parcours and the usual acoustic interferences in a video art show. For example Doug Aitken’s “Migration” (2008) is a master piece which captivates viewers despite its length and silence. It shows, one by one, several North American animals – among them a horse, a deer and a buffalo – in ordinary motel rooms where we can watch them as they adjust in one way or the other to their new surrounding. The rampaging buffalo, the shy deer, the perplexed owl, they all make a pregnant and enduring image for the tension between culture and nature, as Calikoglu has put it.

Very close by is Francis Alys’ “Nightwatch” (2004) installed, part of the “Seven Walk” project by Alys in collaboration with Raphael Ortega. A fox which was released into London’s National Portrait Gallery is the main protagonist of “Nightwatch”. We can watch him straying around, probably looking for an exit into freedom, not paying the slightest attention to the artworks on the wall – of course not, one might like to add. It seems a little incomprehensible that Aitken’s “Migration” and Alys’ “Nightwatch” are shown so close together – or in the same show at all – because this way the viewer becomes aware of the similarities of the two projects which don’t provide further insights.

This seems to be a problem of the show in general: the selection is not really precise which, no doubt, has its reason in the fact that the subject of the show is not precisely shaped – it’s about nature and culture and technology and labour and paradise and dystopia and environment and politics….this just seems to be a bit too much. The enthusiasm for each single works seems to have carried away the curators. One understands their wish to bring them all in this show, yet isn’t it a main aspect of curating a group show to carefully work out a theme – ideally evolving from art itself in opposite to grounding on theoretical ideas – and then to diligently select the works?

The atmosphere in “Big Picture” at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf couldn’t be more different. In the wide and high basement gallery are only twelve installations on view, smartly fitted in a custom-made architecture. Six of the works are part of the museum’s collection – among them works by Steve McQueen, Jason Rhoades and Kimsooja – , six are loans for this occasion, e.g. by Thomas Steffl, Natacha Nisic and Richard T. Walker. Other than “Paradise Lost” this exhibition focuses on ‘cinematographic installations’, that is rather on a certain technique and presentation than on a certain subject. How important the medium and the technique is for this exhibition becomes evident in different aspects: the co-curator Maria Anna Bierwirth is a video conservator, so it is no surprise that each work is exactly described, indicating if it s a HD, 16mm, video or else, duration, sound, number of channels, projection size, dimensions of the installations etc. – you can find all of these details in the catalogue as well as floor plans and architecture models of the exhibition layout. This not only keeps the exhibition as spatial presentation alive, but also puts emphasis on the complexity of installing works which each time have to be built up again according to more or less precise installation instructions and in relation to the respective space. Time-based artworks become apparent as highly complex and very special artefacts which can be challenging to install.

Besides this theoretical base coat – which probably pleases mostly the true video art friend or, rather, the nerd – the exhibition shows beautiful images of landscape, outdoors, yes, nature, and this is where both exhibitions, “Paradise Lost” and “Big Picture”, meet. Colombo and Calikoglu develop their theme from sociopolitical obervations and insights and illustrate it with, partly very strong, images of very different things, whereas Krystof and Bierwirth elicit images of beauty and sublimity through the authentic installing of the respective work. “Paradise Lost” is a solid thematic video group show with some highlights and some aspects to contemplate about. But one cannot help thinking that the presentation of “Big Picture” at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen with its accurate spatial settings and its precise theoretical foundation points into the future of video art presentation. It seems as if the exhibition started from the wish to revive beloved works in this particular context – in opposite to using artworks for illustrating a particular thesis – and it happened that something like a garden of images evolved from it, a reference to the garden in Jason Rhoades’ “Big Picture” (2000) which served as a point of origin for this exhibition.

The parcours starts with a veritable wow-effect: Mark Lewis’ “Forte!” (2010), projected on a huge screen, 5 by 9 meter, in a big, darkened, yet open space. The 6-minutes single-channel film installation begins with a long still shot that shows a snow-covered mountain range in the Italian Alps, just below the treeline. The quality of the image and its sheer size are overwhelming, one immediately gets drawn into the film. The camera circles a fortress on a mountain until one can discern in the inner courtyard, as little figures, the visitors who eventually, in a mass-movement, leave the fortress for no obvious reason. The curators describe what happens as follows: “Even when using choreographed extras, Lewis focuses on an analysis of the moving image which, compared to the static tableau of a panel painting, always entails a paradox: it is screened as a film image that attempts to remain as immobile as possible but also one which has to move in order to be noticed in the first place.”
One might need a second read to grab what’s said here but it certainly touches a crucial point: many of the works shown in this exhibition use very long shots and calm tracking shots, very subtle sounds or, as in the case of Mark Lewis “Forte!” no sound at all, and pin sharp images of sometimes even painterly quality – compared to the common video art exhibition, the visit of “Big Picture” is extraordinarily pleasant for eyes, ears and mind and almost leaves the impression of a painting exhibition.

A discovery is “The Hierarchy of Relevance” (2010) by Richard T. Walker. Shot in the Californian desert the HD video might remind of Land Art performances of the seventies, yet other than the huge monuments of that era, Walker’s works are rather small-scale. The artist always approaches the environment cautiously, respectfully, eventually entering a dialogue with the plants and stone formations of the desert by providing each of them individually with a musical performance. During the editing of the film these different songs are combined to create a devoted ‘song of distraction’ – this is heartbreakingly earnest and dreamily romantic. A bit silly too and utterly useless in the battle against ecologigal destruction, one might argue, but, after all, what does ‘human’ mean if not being hopeful, earnest, dreamy, and at least a little bit romantic?

Kayip Cennet /Paradise Lost
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
until 24 July 2011

Big Picture
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen
Düsseldorf (Germany)
until 14 August 2011