What light does the global pandemic cast upon photography that is concerned with ecological issues? The exhibition Nach uns die Sintflut (After Us, the Flood) at Kunst Haus Wien offers an opportunity to reflect upon the entanglement of artistic practices, the production of cultural institutions and their economic and ecological incorporations.
A sensuous experience of artistic works has been a rare occurrence since the outbreak of the global pandemic in March this year forced many countries to dramatically slow down their non-digitalised economies and to shut down most of social life. While the environment experienced a slight reduction in CO² emissions during the first couple of months, the (still) uncontrollable coronavirus has thrown the fraudulent relationship between capitalism and nature into sharp relief, and with it the ubiquitous question of art’s social relevance recurred.
The themes of some art exhibitions and live performances that I was able to see in Vienna over the past couple of months seemed to allude to the contemporary political and socio-ecological crisis, as the cultural institutions that tried to continue putting artistic work on display seemed increasingly pressed to assert the social impact of their work and to justify their operations.
Despite the second lockdown and the closure of Vienna’s museums, people wandering through the city’s streets – on one of their rare city outings – might have unconsciously come across large poster reproductions of one of the images currently on display at Kunst Haus Wien. The exhibition poster shows Frank Thiels’ grand close-up photo of the Argentinian Perito Moreno, one of the few glaciers in the world that is not melting but advances as it seals off a lake – and has since been haunted by tourists who come to see this natural spectacle. The museum’s photographic group exhibition »Nach uns die Sintflut« (After Us, the Flood) shows images of natural environments affected by economic exploitation. As humans are either fully absent or immersively featured in the visually impressive landscapes, the ecological disasters caused by climate change take centre stage in the exhibition’s photographs and films.
Some of the photographic depictions of natural environments represent a romantic and yet stirring landscape aesthetic while they also push the impact of global warming into a spotlight. Benedict Partenheimer’s series »Memories of the Future« and »Methane Experiment« show the effects of carbon in the soil of Alaska’s defrosting permafrost regions. The first series depicts uprooted trees in barren winter landscapes, and the second captures a methane gas bubble surfacing on a frozen lake. Similarly to Partenheimer’s aesthetics of ruined, atmospheric landscapes, Benoit Aquin’s series »Chinese Dust Bowl« depicts overgrazed and dried up landscapes in the North of China and Inner Mongolia, and Solmaz Daryani’s ongoing project »The Eyes of the Earth (The Death of lake Urmia)« captures the Iranian salt lake Urmia’s process of drying up as well as its salt remains in the surrounding landscape.
More conceptual photographic works underpin the idea that any engagement with climate change depends on how environmental reality is perceived. The works of Michael Goldgruber and Gabriele Rothemann point towards the ecological crisis while reflecting on the medium and materiality of photography. Goldgruber shows a large site-specific wall installation, comprising of 420 partly over-layered single images of the Austrian Ötztal Alps, and Gabriele Rothemann presents a miniature series of surreal images of Icelandic drift ice, which she exposed on mammoth ivory, a leftover material that has been increasingly found as a result of the melting of the ice in Iceland. Contrasting the above cited works, Justin Brice Guariglia’s ›non-photographic‹ contribution »The End« and the abstract series »Agricultural Landscapes« can be read as a counterpoint to the romantic landscape aesthetics of the documentary photographs that frame the first-hand experiences of natural environments.
The show’s combination of conceptual and documentary photographic works gestures toward the impact capitalist operations have on the environment and the difficulty to visually grasp the consequences. Particularly the images of wide and deserted landscapes can be regarded as representing what Timothy Morton calls ›hyperobjects‹, things that are impossible to fully comprehend due to their vast spatial and temporal complexity.1 In contrast to the more abstract images of degenerated natural environments, Ursula Biemann’s film »Deep Weather« (2013) particularly stresses the social impact rising sea levels have on the Bangladeshi people, who work together to build only with their hands an embankment of plastic bags filled with sodden mud.
The ›green‹ and educative commitment of the Wien-Holding Kunst Haus: Museum Hundertwasser creates a space in which such mediated images of natural disasters – aesthetically decelerating images – remind us of the universally ungraspable damage that humans have done to their natural environments over the centuries, resulting in the drying up of water bodies, rising sea levels, polluted air/sea/landscapes, and increased social injustice in already disadvantaged and exploited areas in the world. The social impact the exhibition has can, of course, not manifest through the exhibition’s image aesthetics. Its social relevance, being a site where the global impact of the transnational capitalist machinery on the natural and social environment can be traced and investigated, is merely quantifiable in terms of the actual number of returning museum visitors, which is increasing. It is therefore the artistic and institutional labour, that goes into making ecological disasters visible and rendering it a serious subject within the public and art discourse, that matters.
Already in 1944, amidst the emergence of unregulated market economies, Karl Polanyi noted that »labour forms part of life, land remains part of nature, life and nature form an articulate whole«. As humans and ›nature‹ bring forth economic production and life, he argued that a market economy is built upon a society whose institutions are »subordinated to the requirement of the market mechanism«.2 The fact that, over the last decades, ecological practices have become institutionalised and organised forms of labour implies that artistic (pre)romantic ideals of self-sufficient ›nature‹ – being beautiful despite its crude condition – can now also fulfil an economic ›sustainability’ demand. Perhaps it is however the ›work‹ that does not primarily have and want to economically or morally assert its social and ecological relevance that is the most ethically engaging and can sustainably affect how humans act in their natural and social environments.
As the drastic and temporary socio-economic reactions to the global pandemic show, the environment can indeed, even if only partially, recover when human agency is forcefully put on hold. The virtually productive human activities that endure when physically and socially labouring humans are being locked out of their working habitats represent a utopian form of human agency – which is one that remains abstractly productive but cannot materialistically realize its abstract labour. The impossibility to ›really‹ act during lockdowns could be conceived of as a substantial form of a common non/human good. Such a concept of agency is however still only realisable on a fractional social level and is not (yet) sustainable in most performance-based neoliberal infrastructures. Looking at institutionally exhibited art that projects ecological concerns does not only help to visualise the global impact of the capitalist machinery on nature but can also prompt us to realise that individual and collective ecological (re)actions are socially relevant.
1 Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
2 Polanyi, K. (1994). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origin of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 187.