Navigating Polarities at Nome, Berlin is named after the exhibition’s central video installation, in which various visuals, from drone footage to hand-drawn maps, scientific animations of ping-ponging molecules and stock footage of migrating animals, are projected into a large, bowl-like receptacle. If domestic bowls are used for soups, salads, things–already–blended or for mixing things up, this is surely the purpose here. The installation is also reminiscent of a planetarium’s celestial dome, but inverted, to be gazed down into, upending the expected direction of wonderment. Benches are placed around the concave screen, encouraging viewers to sit close and contemplate, to succumb to what aptly feels like the work’s gravitational pull. In the semi-darkness, a calm, female voice-over delivers historical speculations on physics, navigation and astronomy, calling on post-colonial and materialist feminist thought to debunk the notion of binaries in (and between) humanity and ecology. An extensive list of supporting quotes has been applied to a surrounding wall.
In the adjacent room, the film ‘Reclaiming Vision’ (2018), a collaboration with the artist Toril Johannessen, looks at a specific cross-over of human and animal activity typical of the Anthropocene. Echoing the soothing aesthetics of ‘Navigating Polarities’, the screen is filled with sequences of microorganisms and pollutants (such as microplastics or chemical dyes) found in Norwegian fjords, which twitch and meander under the microscope, sound-tracked with a suitably spare modern classical composition. What almost passes as a modernist experimental animation belies an inherent tension. These organisms are invisible to the human eye, but human activity will continue to affect them with consequences for us all. This is reflected in the title ‘Aberrations’ (2018), a series of colour-heightened C-prints extracted from the film’s footage. ‘Aberrations III’, a deeply tonal composition of algae glimpsed through billowing clouds of vibrant coloured dye, is afforded power through being stilled and enlarged to 150 x 120 cm. But I can’t help feeling that by freezing imagery that was more intriguing in motion, the prints are something of an indulgence, a concession to the market. They would certainly hang very well on an art collector’s wall.
To quote from the wall of quotes in Navigating Polarities, the exhibition clearly explores how, as Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston write in Spaces of Geographical Thought: Deconstructing Human Geography’s Binaries (2005), ‘Our binary worlds are in constant flux. There is nothing natural about being forced into one category or the other.’ Yet, at the risk of falling into categorical thinking, it was these wall-bound academic snippets, visually reminiscent of a science museum exhibit, that triggered thoughts about the ways in which contemporary artists have approached ecological or ‘animal’ subject matter since the days of classical taxonomic representation. Looking at how the line between humans and animals is crossed and blurred is certainly not a new concern, especially outside Western art, but as with other artists working consciously in the Anthropocene, Dijkman’s artworks ‘operate as speculative fictions rooted in scientific reality’ (as described in the gallery hand-out). This ‘root’ is obvious, and could explain why the work feels responsible and well-researched in the way it reaches across to academia, but somewhat illustrative and formally careful, rather than something unexpected.
Across town, at ŻAK | BRANICKA Gallery, Katarzyna Kozyra’s latest video work, ‘A Dream of Linnaeus’ Daughter’ (2018), makes an interesting comparison. As with Dijkman, Kozyra worries at binaries set between human and animal life, but she does this through the arguably more common artistic approaches of mimesis and mimicry. The video is essentially a record of a performance. Shot in Uppsala, Sweden, in the garden of the 18th Century Botanist Carl Linnaeus (who famously invented the classification system of organisms), the performance hinges on the character of Linnaeus’s daughter, Elisabeth Christina von Linné. Elisabeth took after her father, becoming an exceptionally talented botanist despite having no formal education. Her achievements, however, are not widely remembered. She died aged 39 after being subjected to spousal abuse.
Elisabeth is played by Kozyra, now in her mid-fifties having battled cancer for years (frequently the subject of her work), and whose art has long pushed at the borders of who is seen and heard, be that human or animal. Kozyra resurrects Elisabeth by dressing in a slipshod wig and 18th Century underclothes—presumably to suggest someone ‘half-formed’, or aberrant in some way—and assigns to herself the authoritative role of a musical conductor. A choir assembles on wooden pallets that come to symbolise Noah’s Ark as the music commences, and the choir sing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the ‘voices’ of animals. They moo, squeal, bray and bark their way through the piece, which is also, pointedly, the anthem of the European Union, until a loud clap of thunder sounds. At this point, Kozyra takes a powerful hose and turns it on the ‘animals’ and herself, and then, with uncomfortable hilarity, upon the audience. She does not stop until everyone has been drenched and forced to leave the area.
‘A Dream of Linnaeus’ Daughter’ broaches the social invisibility of women and animals in a fashion that is entertaining, and quite on-the-nose. That she does this as the ‘daughter’ of the founder of a classification system of organisms based on difference, is a winning irony, but nothing subtle is revealed as the camera tracks across the faces of the largely serious and passionate ‘animal’ choir, to the glib, chuckling humans of the audience, some of them covering their ears. Choosing an Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Symphony No.9—considered one of the supreme achievements of Western music and written by a composer born as the Age of Enlightenment culminated—is also a pointed comment on the power invested in white anthropocentric culture. I am reminded of Dijkman’s choice of music for the soundtrack of ‘Reclaiming Vision’, which complements the imagery well-enough, but reinforces bourgeois tastes and values in each measured, post-tonal strain of the violin. Perhaps that was intended?
The gallery text for Kozyra’s exhibition begins with a quote from Donna Haraway, the go-to theorist for any artist “working with animals”. In her classic Cyborg Manifesto of 1985, she wrote that ‘Biology and evolutionary theory over the past two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals’. For artists working with and through these ideas, there remains the question of whether it is possible to make art that could ever truly manifest a post-human condition.
Navigating Polarities, Marjolijn Dijkman, Nome, Berlin. December 15 2018 - February 23 2019
A Dream of Linnaeus’ Daughter, Katarzyna Kozyra, ŻAK | BRANICKA, Berlin, 24 November 2018 - 16 February 2019
Phoebe Blatton is from South East London and lives in Berlin. She writes fiction and criticism and is a co-founder of The Coelacanth Press