Julius Von Bismarck
Rachel de Joode
Mathieu Merlet Briand
Curated by Oswaldo Nicoletti and Camille Houzé.
Scenography by Ariane Bromberger.
28 September - 7 October, 2018
458-460 Hackney Road
E2 9EG, London
NICOLETTI is pleased to present without Nature, an exhibition that reflects upon the conditions of perception and representation of the environment in an ecologically-concerned, digitally-mediated era. The exhibition spans sculpture, digital painting, print and video from a selection of ten international artists, including Aram Bartholl, Julius Von Bismarck, Hugo Cantegrel, Petra Cortright, Chris Dorland, Rachel de Joode, Mathieu Merlet-Briand, Eva Papamargariti, Nicolas Sassoon & Rick Silva.
In De-coïncidence: d’où viennent l’art et l’existence (2017), the French philosopher François Jullien argues that modernity, less than a rupture or a process of systematic re-evaluation of prevailing systems of thought, scientific equations and artistic traditions, was a singular event which consisted, first and foremost, in acknowledging the death of Nature.
By that, Jullien suggests that the primary foundation which the idea of Nature hitherto constituted was no longer viable, progressively losing its function as the ultimate model of adequacy with which philosophical systems and artistic modes of representation were attempting to coincide. As such, it is obviously not nature or the ‘natural’ environment itself which was disappearing or being questioned, but a certain idea of Nature wherein it provided an incontestable reference against which were measured the relevancy and accuracy of the systems of thought, scientific equations and artistic methodologies stemming from acute observations of the exterior world. In science, Jullien observes, physics has demonstrated that Newton’s gravitational equations, which were until then posited as the universal laws of Nature, were, in fact, a relative formulation, only partially valid and locally adapted. In philosophy, Kant’s Copernican revolution establishes that it is not the object that makes the representation possible but the representation that makes the object possible, implying that our mind does not passively conform to the observed objects, but that these objects are adapting to the forms of our sensibility and to the categories of our mind.
In art, finally, Jullien remarks that ‘painting ‘de-coincides’ with Nature and even with landscapes... departs from the attempt to circumscribe the represented forms within contours, as if one could assign a specific location to the quality of things and enclose the latter within an essence: the apple overflows its features (ses traits).1
without Nature, therefore, describes a condition. A condition in which Nature no longer represents the identical, unified model which constituted the horizon of classical thought and art. The title of the exhibition, in this sense, refers to the loss of an incontrovertible referent and implies, thereby, an acknowledgement of the impossibility to discover or establish a unique ontological equation in which a universal truth would reside.
Taking Jullien’s reflection as a point of departure, the exhibition furthermore reflects on both the consequences and the possibilities that stem from our existence in a world without Nature. If modernity consisted in acknowledging the death of Nature as a metaphysical model, the artists presented here propose a series of visual scenarios which demonstrate the actual shift in the condition of perception, intellection and representation of the environment consecutive to the accelerating convergence of the natural and the computational.
The exhibition starts with a site-specific installation that NICOLETTI commissioned to the Lisbon-based, French artist Hugo Cantegrel. Taking the form of a futuristic cabinet de curiosités, Cantegrel’s piece features a series of hybrid objects and repetitive motifs and patterns printed on Plexiglas and aluminium. Inspired by the Surrealist science of Roger Caillois, Cantegrel’s work explores the functions of memory and the ways in which human perception of the surrounding environment always derives from an entanglement of imaginary and sensory experience. Cantegrel’s cabinet de curiosités thereby problematizes the distinction between the given and the produced, between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.
In the main gallery space, Petra Cortright revisits art-historical archetypes such as landscape painting and still-life, presenting three digital paintings which transpose late nineteenth-century Impressionist reflections on the ways of seeing nature into the digital landscape of the twenty- first century. Here, the flowers, water lilies and aquatic elements are directly sourced from the internet, gathered into a ‘mother file’, which the artist then manipulates and prints into large-scale compositions in which intermingle ‘natural’ figures and digital abstractions. If, overflowing its contours, Cézanne’s apple inaugurated a disengagement from the attempt to reach the closest coincidence possible to what is ontologically posited as ‘being’ Nature, Cortright’s flowers have almost no relation whatsoever with such an entity. Rather, observing the variations of lights and colours on the digital screen, the American artist attempts to grasp and convey the fleeting beauty of landscapes which are always already artificial.
The progressive entanglement of online and offline perceptual modalities is also explored in the work of Rachel de Joode. Consisting of a combination of printed images of nature mounted on flat sculptural frames, her series of ‘sculptural photography’ points to the increasing flattening and smoothening of screen-mediated materiality. Analy- sing the relationship between the three-dimensional object and its two-dimensional representation, the Dutch-Born, Berlin-based artist plays with today’s porous boundaries between the physical and the virtual world. Indeed, a world without Nature as an ultimate referent is a world in which the potential distinctions between truth/false, reality/fiction and actual/virtual progressively collapse. If there is no model, there is no copy, only simulacra: Plato’s nightmare on a global scale.
Similarly, Chris Dorland’s practice relates this problem to visions of current and future reality. Within his large-scale digital paintings – composed of layers of images alteredby digital glitches – the American artist superimposes distorted figures, texts and objects that attest to the increasing impregnation of the perceptual scope by a constant flux of digital images. Here, it is the boundaries between human and non-human action which are being tested, anticipating a condition in which it is not only Nature’s primacy which is losing its relevancy, but also that of human reason and consciousness, as they are being progressively decentralised by the incursion of artificial forms of intelligence.
In Are you Human? (2017), Aram Bartholl furthermore demonstrates the relevancy of Dorland’s post-humanist questioning by presenting a series of landscapes based on the Google reCaptcha system, a program which controls access to online services. By asking the user to prove that s/he is not a robot by identifying street signs or cars
in a tiled picture, it collects information that is used to develop Google’s picture recognition and self-driving car algorithms. Bartholl’s landscapes thereby suggest that humanity’s daily interactions with the world are already being mitigated by the presence of Artificial Intelligence. Besides, visually speaking, the digital diagram imposed on the landscapes also indicates humanity’s tendency to see the world through a set of conventions stemming from the scientific methodology of observation, experimentation and classification. The framing and diagramming of the natural landscape, in this sense, pertains to the logic which originally instigated a neat separation between natural phenomena and scientific reasoning, reinforcing in the same dialectical gesture the monolithic idea of Nature as the silent, inert entity that human reason is able to analyse, control and master. From the instantiation of that division results the increasingly unbalanced relationship between humanity and what is considered by the latter as the inexhaustible reservoir of resources to be exploited: that thing ‘over there’ called Nature.
In his new series of sculptures, Julius Von Bismarck attempts to reconsider this relationship between science and nature, generally understood as forming two incommensurable poles of knowledge. Mounted on stainless steel tripods, the Apocalypsoid (2018) are composed of fragments of granite upon which the German artist painted sections of the Periodic Table of Elements – used in science to classify the chemical elements according to their atomic number, electron configuration, and recurring chemical properties, whose structure shows periodic trends. The superimposition, on blocks of raw matter, of this complex system of classification and codification of the elements points to the tendency to rationalize nature, perceived in terms of isolated objects to be analysed, measured and ordered. Here, however, the sculptural arrangement of crackling/crunching blocks of granite almost suggests the de/re-composition of a living organism. These post-apocalyptic creatures, as the title of the sculptures suggests, could be seen as anticipating a vision of the geological future in which humanity’s debris will merge with organic matter to develop new biological systems of their own.
Thus, although the progressive entanglement of nature, culture and technology demonstrated by the artists in without Nature problematizes the distinction between natural/ artificial, human/non-human, and physical/virtual, it alsoprovides an opportunity to redistribute the coordinates of the ecological question. Indeed, if without Nature firstly describes a condition, it also indicates a gesture. Thinking without... or making art without Nature consists of seeing and representing the environment in terms of the relations and networks between all beings and things regardless of their apparent ‘naturalness’, thus dissolving the neat separation between nature and culture which acts as a conceptual basis to understand the ecological crisis today, both at an environmental and political level. As Timothy Morton explains in Ecology without Nature (2007), ‘one of the ideas inhibiting genuinely ecological politics, ethics, philosophy, andartistheideaofnatureitself.’2 Incontradistinctionto the ideological vision of Nature as ‘what has always been’, Morton adds that ‘if we consider the nontheological sense of nature, the term collapses into impermanence and history – two ways of saying the same thing. Life-forms are constantly coming and going, mutating and becoming ex- tinct. Biospheres and ecosystems are subject to arising and cessation. Living beings do not form a solid prehistorical, or nonhistorical ground upon which human history plays.’ 3
The second portion of the exhibition therefore considers the role of aesthetics in the (re)formulation of the ecological question via the re(con)figuration of the dialectic of nature and culture. Indeed, it might be specified that ecology, as the logia of the Oikos – the science, or knowledge of the household – refers not so much to the relationship that humanity entertains with its surrounding environment as it does to the set of relations taking place in a given but transient environment between all types of entities – whether organic or synthetic, material or immaterial, mineral or digital. Responding to the emergence of new ecological paradigms, the duo of artists Nicolas Sassoon (Vancouver, BC) & Rick Silva (Eugene, OR) presents SIGNALS 1 (2014), an immersive audio-visual installation featuring an oceanic panorama inhabited by artificial substances and enigmatic structures. Drawing from oceanographic surveys, climate studies and science-fiction, Sassoon’s & Silva’s work demystifies the representation of natural landscapes and poetically considers the constant mutation and contamination of the latter, always already taken in a process of mediation with what is a priori characterized as the unnatural.
In the same room, Eva Papamargariti’s digital video Always a Body, Always a Thing (2017) pursues an exploration of future ecologies by observing the course of transformation and mutation of a group of interspecies, frog-or-tadpoles- like living beings. Speaking in the first person, a distorted voice recounts the successive passage from liquid to solid states, the alternative process of melting and reshaping while ingesting toxic substances such as oil and plastic remnants. Signalling the way in which plastic, which comes from nature, returns to it as a non-biodegradable waste, Papamargariti contemplates the emergence of future organisms resulting from the intertwinement of organic matter, industrial remnants and synthetic fluids.
In Mathieu Merlet-Briand’s practice, it is the relationship between physical and digital ecosystems which is being scrutinized. Commissioned by NICOLETTI to produce a new series of work, the French artist realised three new pieces which further his ongoing exploration of digital (im)materiality. Starting with the analysis of thousands of images collected from research on Google – where he searched for words such as ‘flower’ or ‘tree leaves’ – Merlet-Briand conceives complex algorithmic protocols through which he recycles and re-materialises these flows of data into sculptural fragments and pigment prints. Pointing to the industrial production and pollution engendered by the development of purportedly immaterial technologies, Merlet-Briand’s work speculates on what might become the ruins of our technology-driven societies in an indeterminate future.
1. François Jullien, De-coïncidence : d’où viennent l’art et l’existence, Paris, Grasset, 2017, p. 139. My translation.
2. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature : Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 14