Tag Archives: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary

Oceans: The Forgotten Habitat

This interview-based piece appeared in Chinese translation in the Conference Room section of LEAP magazine (April issue):

Hosted by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), The Current Convening #2 took place in Fort Kochi, Kerala on 13-15 December, 2016, coinciding with the opening of the third Kochi-Muziris Biennale which was dedicated to, among other, water and hidden rivers. Set up by TBA21 founder Francesca von Habsburg together with artistic director Markus Reymann, The Current is a three-year exploratory fellowship program dedicated to research on the oceanand specifically the Pacific Ocean and its archipelagoes. In addition to The Current fellows and expedition leaders Ute Meta Bauer and Cesar Garcia, who took part in recent expeditions to French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea aboard the Dardanella, TBA21’s own research vessel, this Convening brought together participants from the fields of art, ecology, law and policy-making to examine what the arts can effectively contribute to the debate concerning such pressing ecological concerns as climate change and deep-sea mining. The following text is excerpted from the three “structured conversations” or round-table discussions that engaged with the ocean as a mythical space, a complex ecosystem as well as a legal entity.

1. Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea

UTE META BAUER The ocean today is less explored than outer space. The three “structured conversations” address the urgency to protect the oceans as an irreplaceable resource for all forms of life and as habitat for tens of thousands of known and even a larger number of unknown species. Humankind has long seen the ocean as an unknown, monstrous and imaginary space. Such a view has been shaped by our limited experience of the oceans and is fed by mythological and cultural narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation. As the planet is confronted by unprecedented challenges in the age of the Anthropocene, including climate change, the rise of the sea levels, pollution of all sorts, overfishing and most recently seabed mining, it’s more important than ever to reexamine our relationship to the sea, to respect its manifold and complex ecosystem, to imagine new possibilities for coexistence. Admitting how little we know might also change our personal and collective attitude towards this large and powerful entitythe ocean.

DANIELA ZYMAN If the oceans are the last frontier, what does it mean in terms of the monstrous? Is it no longer the Leviathanthe mythical or biblical figure of the animal creature? Is the monstrous a figure that has more to do with global economies and the consequences to the oceans and the environment developed out of outrageous extraction strategies? One other picture of monstrosity: the Mediterranean that has lately become a graveyard of vessels and boats and people trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of accessing different forms of life. This has brought up again the need for us to intervene in those spaces with a regulatory system, trying to reconnect and create on a humanitarian but also a regulatory and ecological level new forms of legal bodies and entities that would allow this forgotten space to be redrawn and given a sovereignty that it has never had.

2. Ocean as Habitat: The rights of nature and the international law of the sea

T J DEMOS My provocation will be to try to get you to reconsider the term climate refugee” and what that means. What happens when the ocean becomes a kind of “sacrifice zone,” a term that environmentalists use for when areas of oceans or land become dedicated to forms of extraction that basically give up any hope of saving or preserving an ecosystem’s integrity? We’re living through the sixth mass species extinction; we’re entering into a period of a mass refugee crisis where we’re running out of refuges.The humanitarian desire is to produce the category of “climate refugee.” It’s an incredibly problematic category. Climate refugee is not even recognized within international law. A lot of people, including in the Maldives, would resist this category because it tends to produce a victimizing objecthood. In certain ways it’s a fatalistic discourse that gives in to the end result of rising seas and submersion and the loss of territories. A term we could think of in relation to this: wishful sinking.

MARKUS REYMANN The ocean offers a habitat for 90 per cent of the species. So far we’ve mainly talked about one, which is human. If we’re talking about reconsidering the rights of nature and the concept of common heritage of mankind, or humankind, then we need to consider organisms other than the big charismatic ones, the dolphins and the whales that have pushed legislation forward but only because we can create empathy for them. But what happens to all these organisms down there at the bottom of the sea that have the sedimentation of one millimetre per square meter per year? […] The organisms down below are not to be mined; if anything, they’re to be farmed.

D. GRAHAM BURNETT The future of the protection of the ocean lies in the codification of rights in nonhuman creatures, from the microorganisms that are capable of metabolizing complex minerals right up the food chain to the charismatic megafauna that we can create a cognitive or an emotional relationship to. You’re not going to get people to take seriously the need for a legislation unless you can make them care. This was what did happen when people mobilized to save the whales and get an international moratorium on commercial whaling; that happened because a bunch of visionary folks, Greenpeace and others, began transforming how people thought about those animals. Here’s the link between saving the ocean, law and the kind of work that many of us as artists and creative people or scholars or writers do: it’s to say minds have to be changed and they need to be changed by making the kinds of ideas that are real, true and important dynamic, vital, unforgettableto make them stick in our heads. That’s how it happens.

3. Ocean as Treasure Trove: Deep-sea mining–the next gold rush?

STEFANIE HESSLER Everybody who has a smartphone or a computer should care about deep-sea mining because it involves the extraction of minerals and rare earths from the seabed that are being used in consumer electronics, in batteries etc. We’ll most likely hear this term in the future because the extraction activity is about to become a reality. The conversation about deep-sea mining began in the 1960s with a publication by J. L. Mero entitled The Mineral Resources of the Sea. That book suggested there was a near limitless supply of what were called “potato-sized” nodulesmetals that were found in the sediment of the sea floor. The early attempts to make deep-sea mining a reality failed as a result of the collapse of world metal prices; however, in the past decade, with the soaring metal prices, especially for gold and copper, deep-sea mining is on the table again. […] The nodules that are being extracted are not dead matter but actually living beings so speaking about the rights of nature and rights of other than human organisms is also important for this conversation.

AMAR KANWAR We need to understand what it is that we’re going to lose and, unless we do that, we will not comprehend the meaning of the crime. In a certain way we’re talking about a crime to be. And how do you respond to a crime that is about to take place? If you look at extraction, any kind of extraction, and if you look at the evolution of the law, you can see that it has a very close relationship with the whole process of extraction, wherever you go. The law gets conceived for extraction. Before a crime takes place, it is conceived; after you conceive it, you plan to execute it. You can see the evolution of the law is the crime already. So when you’re looking at evidence–what would be evidence of massive destruction on the bottom of the sea when you can’t access it or see it?–I would say that the crime has begun.

NABIL AHMED I’m from Dhaka and we have a very long maritime border with India. In fact, the very first maritime dispute boundary that was presented and debated in the international tribunals for the law of the sea was the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and India. I would add that the seabed is also a spatial condition. The geospatial and the marine sensing that are used for those exploration purposes could be turned to monitor these and to set up a counter-forensics. Perhaps there is a way that these technologies could be shared to open them up to artistic practices that could use our kind of sensitivity, our background and experience to track what might happen. For example, I work around a landmine in West Papua. It is not a technical exercise; in fact, the work is there to support the self-determination of the West Papuan people. This kind of forensics must work with the people to whom these seas belong and not only to the state.

MARKUS REYMANN This is my question to everybody: how do we bring the dimension in which we operate to the table, persistently, in technical terms like the comments [TBA21 put] to the Mining Code at the International Seabed Authority or any other kind of authority. Becoming an observer to this United Nations’ body is for us–as a cultural agency, an arts organisation–an opportunity to insert a different language, a different thought and mode of operating. We saw it at the ISA, as soon as we start speaking their language we lose. It’s not going to change anything immediately but you have to be there, and you have to be persistent. It’s one drop, and another drop, and another. We’re there for life. But the beauty of this is that the crime hasn’t been committed.

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Rare Earth

This review of ‘Rare Earth’ at TBA21 in Vienna appeared on KUNSTforum:

“After the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, this is the age of Rare Earth” – or so Boris Ondreička and Nadim Samman, who jointly curated the stylish group exhibition titled Rare Earth at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) in Vienna, would have us believe.

Marguerite Humeau, Réquiem for Harley Warren (“Screams from Hell”), 2015.  Photo: Joe Clark / TBA21

The modish appeal of the Anthropocene – which is being mooted as the dawn of a new geological epoch as we speak – lies behind this and other such inflated claims in the press release and promotional materials. Unlike the Anthropocene, a term that emphasizes the impact of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystem “the age of Rare Earth” draws attention to the material substrate that has enabled the technological leaps of the past decades as opposed to centuries (in the case of the Anthropocene).

The so-called “rare earth” elements of the periodic table have numerous industrial, medical, ecological and technological applications, ranging from cathode ray tubes in TV and LED screens to wind turbines, hybrid car components, sunglass lenses, lasers and X-rays. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we come into contact with them every time we reach for our mobile phones, laptops, tablets and other high-tech consumer goods associated with digital culture and the Internet.

Suzanne Treister, Rare Earth, 2014. Photo: Joe Clark / TBA21

What’s in a name?
“Rare earth” may be something of a misnomer, since the 17 elements commonly designated by that name are not especially scarce (cerium, for instance, ranks 25th among the earth’s most plentiful elements), but it works beautifully as an exhibition title. As the curators explain in a video interview, it emphasizes the rarity or fragility of our planet, bringing to the fore ecological issues that underpin the show. The word “rare” has the meaning of not completely cooked, somewhere between the dual poles of structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s seminal 1964 study The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of Mythologiques, in which these categories respectively embody nature and culture.

Iain Ball, Neodymium (Energy Pangea) , 2011.  Photo: Joe Clark / TBA21

The titular words carry all sorts of new age and mystical connotations, which the curators fully assume, even flaunt with talk of “spiritual shibboleth” and “occult scenography”. The esoteric dimension is emphasized with David Rudnick and Raf Rennie’s somewhat abstruse graphics, which draw on the heraldic ensigns of exhibiting artist Erick Beltrán. The specially designed, barely legible font vaguely evokes Hebrew characters and conjures cabbalistic lore. Etched out in white against a black backdrop, these give the show a strong visual identity.

Prominently displayed on the threshold of the second of four gallery spaces, Suzanne Treister’s black-and-white wall drawing Rare Earth (2014) maps out all 17 rare earth elements of the periodic table – complete with their symbol and atomic number – as well as their discoverers, sundry applications, occurrences. The series of concentric rings that make up the mandala-shaped cosmological diagram culminate with the words “RARE EARTH” written out in flame-like Gothic capitals nested inside the smallest circle. New age symbolism is also present in the shape of a small Maitreya solar cross – an intricate, ornate object ordinarily used in Buddhist blessing rituals – in Iain Ball’s Neodymium (Energy Pangea) (2011).

Rare Earth Elements
In their selection of seventeen international artists – one for each of the rare earth elements in the periodic table – the curators themselves appear to have been guided by numerological considerations. Thankfully, the show’s ruling conceit did not extend to assigning each artist a particular element. Whereas some artists chose to literally work with one or several of the elements, others addressed the overarching theme obliquely or not at all. Of the seventeen artworks on view, ten were specially commissioned for the show and the remaining ones chosen on the basis of their affinity with the subject – presumably. The rationale for including Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue, for instance, presented on its own in the final gallery space as a culminating point to the Rare Earth show, was not entirely clear. The vertigo-inducing history of the universe’s creation in 13 minutes, told through a succession of vignettes projected on a computer desktop, won the artist the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Despite the video’s encyclopedic thrust, the connection with the show’s theme is tenuous at best.

Some rare earth elements, such as neodymium or europium, crop up in more than one exhibited work. Ball’s terrarium for a bearded dragon is lit up by a neodymium reptile lamp; a neodymium amplifier features in Marguerite Humeau’s spectacular sound installation Réquiem for Harley Warren (“Screams from Hell”) (2015); the element is listed among the rare earth minerals and precious metals (tantalum, gold) extracted from used hard drives in Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s b/NdAlTaAu (2015). Named after the continent, europium lives up to the name of a “rare earth” element, being among the least abundant elements in the universe. Neatly rolled up and arranged into a pyramidal pile, Ai Weiwei’s white beach towels in Rare Towels (2015) have the show’s title embroidered on them with a glow-in-the-dark europium thread. Europium, terbium and cerium combine in the liquid crystal displays of LCD touch screens at the heart of the Otolith Group’s psychedelic 2011 Anathema video.

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, b/NdAlTaAu, 2015. Photo: Joe Clark / TBA21

Rather than a rare earth element per se, Swiss artist Julian Charrière’s The Third Element (2015) uses a lithium solution to produce misty colour gradations, ranging from sea green to acidic yellow, on the slanted rectangular window panes in the first gallery room. Barely visible at night, in artificial lighting, Charrière’s elusive colour projections are among the more understated works in a group show that does not shy away from loud visual and aural effects. The use of lithium – whose atomic number gives the work its title – as a colouring substance relates to Weiwei’s own interest in the fluorescent properties of europium which makes colours glow at nighttime.

Between Geology and Geopolitics
With more than 30 percent of the world’s rare earth deposits, China supplies much of the raw material and controls virtually 90 percent of the global rare earth market. This explains the prominence given to Chinese artists and cultural references in the show. Aside from the ubiquitous Ai Weiwei, whose Rare Towels draw attention to China’s predominant role in the rare earth production, Rare Earth includes two of Guan Xiao’s tubular metallic sculptures from 2012, whose shape evokes the titular “core samples” extracted from the earth and used to measure its age. Made from pigmented polyurethane, Olivier Laric’s striated Janus-faced bust of Sun Tzu (544-496 BC), the author of The Art of War treatise, likewise evokes geological strata.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is another key supplier of rare earth materials for multinational companies such as Apple. It offers a counterpoint to China’s successful strategy designed to move it up the supply chain instead of continuing to export less profitable raw rare earth materials. Voyant (2015), the Congolese artist Katambayi Mukendi’s contribution to the show, is a giant robot-shaped sculpture made of cardboard, recycled materials and electrical components, rather than any rare earth materials as such. Cohen and Van Balen’s metallic ore lump painstakingly extracted from discarded hard drives – the type of work that tends to be outsourced to workers in African conflict zones – is part of the artistic duo’s ongoing research project on coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both these works address the geopolitical and economic implications of rare earth extraction in a globalised world.

Katie Paterson, Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky, 2012.  Photo: Joe Clark / TBA21

Cohen and Van Balen’s installation exemplifies a process of material transformation whereby rare earth magnets regain their original mineral guise once extracted from hard drives. Something akin to this is at work in Katie Paterson’s seemingly futile attempt to melt down a Campo del Cielo meteorite bought from a dealer in Arizona only to recast it into a new version of itself in Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky (2012) – with the attendant project of sending it back into space in an unmanned rocket. What exactly has been gained in the process? The work beautifully illustrates Antoine Lavoisier’s famous dictum: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”

Given its stated subject, it is hardly surprising that the show is firmly anchored in the mineral (as opposed to vegetable and animal) kingdom. For her elegant sculptural installation Luminous Lining (2015), Ursula Mayer avails herself of found materials – from glass rods to discarded electronic components – to create a stone garden of sorts. Ball’s sculptural installation in the form of a terrarium combines driftwood, plants and artificial light to create a habitat fit for a live bearded dragon. Inanimate and animate matter merge in Roger Hiorn’s hybrid living sculpture Untitled (2012), part man part machine, in which a naked man whose pose evokes that of Rodin’s Thinker is seated atop a nimbus military helicopter engine, lit up at one end to produce a flame.

In choosing Rare Earth as the focus for their group show at TBA21 curators Boris Ondreička and Nadim Samman mine a rich thematic vein. The seventeen works on view by well-known and emerging artists alike come at the notion of “rare earth” from different angles, reflecting their interests, yet without adhering to it slavishly. The proposed parcours from room to room highlights the connections that the works have to one another in what is, all in all, a coherent and timely show, one that speaks to our ecologically-minded and digitally-savvy cultural moment.