In The Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein produced one of his most puzzled over statements: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” Taken from a work that concerns the fundamental connections between meaning, context and language, it is perhaps not surprising that the exact significance of Wittgenstein’s gnomic proposition has been contested vigorously. Would humans not understand the speaking lion because of the irreducible difference of our subjective experiences as different species? In this case, the lion is something like the bat in Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, ‘What Is It Like to Be A Bat?’. It is not enough, Nagel argues, to imagine one’s self turning into a bat; one’s presuppositions and cognitive imperatives would have to start in a certain battish place to have any validity or meaning. Or, would the challenge be thinking our way into the world of reference of a lion? Or would lionspeak have a different grammatical base than human language?
The grounds for dispute are as infinite as language itself, but these are the kind of difficult, foundational questions raised by the exhibition, How to talk with birds, trees, fish, shells, snakes, bulls and lions, at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. The exhibition includes work by more than ten artists and centres on a number of ideas that grew out of conversations between the German artist, Ante Majewski, and the late Senegalese artist Issa Samb. Majewski has a number of her own works in the exhibition, but she acts as much as a curator as a participant. To begin at the originary point for the exhibition, her conversations with Samb—though it should be noted, the exhibition guide’s numbering system places rooms with works involving Samb later in the “official” organisation of the show—a brief consideration of Samb’s position offers a way of thinking about the exhibition as a whole.
Samb argues for an inclusive dialogue between humans, animals, and other features of the natural world that stretch beyond overt forms of consciousness and traditional Western notions of animacy. Samb’s belief entails a further belief, that one can engage the nonhuman world in dialogue, but dialogue is not always a matter of “talking”. Perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibition is an immersive work involving two films, ‘Rue Jules Ferry 17’ and ‘Yaadikone’ which feature Samb as he makes his way through the streets of Dakar, greeting people, places and objects, stirring the carcass of an empty oil drum, incanting with the skull of a bull. Filmed in the year before Samb’s death in 2017, one begins to gain some sense of the artist’s encompassing approach to the artistic practice. While ‘Rue Jules Ferry 17’—named for the address at which Samb lived and created along with the artist involved in his transdisciplinary project, Laboratoire Agit’art—is perhaps more explicitly concerned with dialogues across space, time, species and beings. These works feel sufficiently of a piece with each other that regarding them as distinct feels untrue to Samb’s principles.
Paintings by Samb also feature in the room where ‘Rue Jules Ferry 17’ is screened along with wall drawings by Alioune Diof and Ican Ramageli. The discursive networks are robust—if constructed via media of communication that long precede Friedrich Kittler. Samb’s attempts to pierce the veil of one’s boundedness extend even beyond the world of the living, not least in his attempt to evoke the spirit of lost friends such as the filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety. Taking Samb’s philosophical position on its own terms, the idea of language is almost superfluous to his methodologies of connection, indeed even in his communication with humans he uses many communicative approaches beyond language, for example, dress style, touch, and silence to convey meanings. Surrounded by this rich field of exchange, and the generosity of spirit it expresses, one could be forgiven for ignoring a small object near the corner of the room blazoned with the words DO NOT TOUCH. Upon closer inspection, one finds another vector for human-animal communication: a mousetrap. It would be churlish to suggest this necessity of quotidian Berlin life spoils the integrative imperative in which Majewski’s films of Samb exult, but it is a memento mori of sorts, an expression of the hierarchies inscribed in contemporary Western human-animal relations: violence is another form of communication.
Though it was not intended to be part of the show—at least it’s not listed on the press release as a work by anyone—the trap stayed in my mind throughout the rest of the exhibition along with a fundamental question: if one developed a way to “talk to” Wittgenstein’s lion—or bulls or snakes or bats for that matter—what would the lion make of our speaking to it? Communication is a two way street and it is as often obstructed by talking as it is facilitated by it. Indeed, Samb’s lived practice and philosophy would seem to suggest that talking is a kind of compromise. The question then, was why was “talking” centred in the exhibition’s title. What would nonhuman entities stand to gain from being “talked” to? It is not an entirely fatuous question, in that talking “humanises” both the entity to which a person talks and, more importantly, the human doing the talking.
There are suggestions of how this dynamic functions and becomes fruitful in the work of Xu Tan. The artist has several films included in the exhibition, but ‘Who Talked To My Mother When She Was In The Forest’ (2018) provides the most direct examination of the specific role of language as a communicative medium in human-nonhuman relations. The three channel video consists of three narratives, each has a central figure, a botanist, a farmer, another who could perhaps best be described as an urban agriculturalist, growing plants from the rubbish left throughout her city. In the videos, the interviewees express a particular relationship to the non-human world through language; ironically, it is often the spirits or the plants who actively solicit linguistic communication with the humans and there perhaps lies the answer to why “talking to” the titular animals of the show, and others, might be of value: language delineates the boundaries of the imagination for many people, some would even argue that the boundaries of a language are the boundaries of an entire cosmology. Through “talking to” humans, perhaps the natural world sees its only hope of survival. Indeed there is a hint of this proposition in Majewski’s film ‘Bäume und Menschen’ (2018) in the same room with Xu Tan’s works in which the significance of an ancient tree is considered in part by a man who considers the tree to be his “guardian”. The tree, and his continued filial relation to it, provides him with strength and self-belief, and, in turn, creates obligations to the tree for him. To care for the tree is to care for family.
This sense also pervaded the work of Agnieszka Brzeżańska and Eva Ciepielewska whose ongoing work, ‘Flow’, integrates the Vistula river as a collaborative and co-creative spirit. The installation includes video of the artists travelling along the river in a scow. The vessel, along with artworks, found objects, costumes for performances and taxonomies of the tributaries of the river, is included in their contribution evoking both the flux of the river itself, but also the legacy of human manipulation, exploitation, communion with, and undeniably, human abuse of water systems and ecologies. Standing beside a sculpture of a shell which plays recordings of songs inspired by the river, again, language’s role becomes visible (or at least audible): the songs to the rivers feed back into the people who hear them; ideally they feed forward, too, impressing the necessity of guardianship upon the hearers.
But talking (or singing) is only a first step, as noted above, communication runs in more than one direction: a number of videos produced from workshops led by Luciana de Oliveira which concern the destruction of the traditional hunting practices used by Guarani-Kaiowa peoples in Brazil suggest that there is perhaps more urgency in finding ways to listen to birds, snakes, trees, fish, shells, snakes, bulls and lions (and indeed other humans) than to “talk to them”. Perhaps if we learn to talk, we can also learn to listen. Indeed, a contemporary Wittgenstein might be less interested in whether or not we could understand a talking lion than in whether we would even care to pay attention long enough to notice it speaking to us. Our track record so far is not impressive. Majewski’s exhibition provides an instruction manual of sorts, every viewer will take a different experience away from it, but if talking is the way to begin listening, perhaps the lessons she provides won’t be in vain.
How to talk with birds, trees, fish, shells, snakes, bulls and lions, Hamburger Banhhof, Berlin, until 12 May 2019. Antje Majewski with Agnieszka Brzeżańska & Ewa Ciepielewska, Carolina Caycedo, Paweł Freisler, Olivier Guesselé-Garai, Tamás Kaszás, Paulo Nazareth, Guarani-Kaiowa & Luciana de Oliveira, Issa Samb, Xu Tan, Hervé Yamguen.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa, 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016) and the epic poem, Pull Factor (2016). Kherbek’s poetry collections, Everyday Luxuries and 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists are published by Arcadia Missa and If a Leaf Falls Press respectively.