NatureNation International Art Exhibition at the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem

Article published on July 10, 2009
community published
Article published on July 10, 2009
At the Museum on the Seam, a socio-political art museum, in Jerusalem, a NatureNation exhibition curated by Raphie Etgar shows works by 38 artists from around the world. The NatureNation exhibition moves between two poles of aesthetic reflection. One is a postmodern take on contemporary reality while another is a contemporary representation of post-modernity.
In this artistic mapping of the relations between modernity and modernism and post-modernity and postmodernism are the questions of nature and nation that receive aesthetic treatment from the diverse participants of this exhibition. While both modernism and postmodernism are terms that largely derive from European culture their de-centring treatment by international artists takes the ecological and global concerns as a common ground that goes beyond a narrower concentration on Europe or North America. Modernity in its capitalist guise has traditionally seen nature and nation as its both presupposition and foundation. Their erosion, however, puts us before the questions of post-national and post-natural development.

At the center of the exhibition lies a computer-animated video piece Microcosmos by Miao Xiaochun. Coming from China, he pays artistic homage to Hieronimus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights through the means of 3D animation. Richly reflective, visually sustained and dramatically captivating, this work handles major topics of this show across the lines of transition from Europe to its cultural others, from nature to its genetic modelling and from nation to its institutional deconstruction. While Miao Xiaochun proposes a postmodernist take on historical roots of painterly modernism, Edward Burtynsky seeks a contemporary aesthetics to capture the guises of post-modernity that has long exceeded the limits of ecological sustainability as global capitalism increasingly relativises the national boundaries of its operation. Impeccably structured and randomly colourful at once, Burtynsky's sizable photographic prints bring their viewers to where international liners get scrapped for metal, computer motherboards become mass recycled, and compressed fridges pile into formless heaps.

The enormous energy that the industrial modernisation of relations between nature and nation has needed is potently represented by Chinese artist Wang Mai in his installation The Fertility of Capitalism of four painted wood sculptures. A cross between Chaikovsky's nutcrackers and one-handed Black-Jack gambling machines, these carved figures protrude outsize oil-ducts. Logos of oil extraction companies adorn the outfittings of these Manga-styled figurines built to a scale of garden gnomes. The lack of proportion in relations between capitalist modernity and natural habitat is echoed in the video work of Costantino Ciervo from Italy who highlights the opaque dealings of post-modern capitalism with contemporary nation-state as notorious company names fed to paper shredders invoke the changing role of the state in the economic crisis of capitalist post-modernity. Post-modernity, thus, can be tied not only to visions of capitalist utopias of speculative investment but also to national dystopias of spectacular losses.

These themes are taken up with ecological and disciplinary twists respectively by works Stoptikon and Nature of Living by Jaroslaw Kozakiewicz from Poland. These video works make use of video montage to describe scenarios of the futures of nature going in the direction of green urbanism and of nation that sees itself disappear in the outer space of cybernetic control respectively. Voicing alarm and hope these two narratives draw lines of utopian connection between modernity and modernism and dystopian reinforcement of post-modernity and postmodernism. That these relations and their overcoming are not as straightforward is hinted at in the works of Israeli photographer Roi Kuper who counterpoises monochromatic studies of natural and national topoi in a series of different but similar prints. Repetition and difference seem only to reinforce their persistence without offering a theoretical or social way out. As much suggest photographic documentations of landscapes where nature and nation intersect by Israeli artist Gilad Ophir. Technical nature of modernity turns into still life of post-modernity that Gilad Ophir documents as a dialogue between post-modern nature and post-national modernity.

A turning point is reached in two large-scale photographic prints by German artist Andreas Gefeller that face each other. One is called Untitled (Holocaust Memorial) another (Ministerium) / Untitled (Office). The first blurs the boundaries between documentation and depiction while the other pits difference against repetition. Both works interrogate each other on both their own and each other's terms. Nature and nation seem to be connected to each other through negation and affirmation at one and the same time. Modernity and post-modernity and modernism and postmodernism as pairs of representation appear to be suspended between these pictorial spaces. Similar strategy employs Lebanese artist Annabel Daou who turns a honey-less honeycomb into a writing pad for what its title may signify or not in translation from Arabic. European modernity, in either its original or post-edition, meets with its cultural others in the work of Israeli artist Rania Akel who gestures to the hermeneutics of arcane meaning that her arabesque flow-charts pictorially suggest in Arabic.

Israeli artist Larry Abramson takes a different tack in his painting that makes a simultaneous reference both to modernism and postmodernism in the post-national and post-natural representation of industrial modernity as a formless ruin. Technical reproduction and aura seem to occupy as central place in the works of Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman whose treatment of mythical and anthropomorphic references shies away from the revolutionary hopes of modernity or modernism in favour of postmodern melancholy of post-modernity. The disenchantment of modernist faith in the artist puts German artist A.R. Penck into a postmodern position of irony and subversion, as his The Way makes its viewer question the pictorial assumptions that modernist representation took for granted. A haunted look at modernist painting is what the work Pit by Chinese artist Xu Shun coveys as it casts a pall of whitewash over a surrealist urban scene.

While South Korean artist Yoo Junghyun problematises the boundaries within the natural realm as his flower ornaments seamlessly morph into fur-like surfaces, Chinese artist Shen Shaomin casts a critical look at the conventions within the national realm as he gives to his Bonsai tree a suggestively anthropomorphic shape. Italian artist Massimo Vitali approaches modernity and nature in terms of subsumption of one by the other in an eery excess of industrialisation as it becomes naturalised. On the opposite wall he turns the relation on its head as nature apparently subsumes the industrial waste into its habitat with inescapable ecological and, as the panoramic photo hints at, psychological consequences. American artist J. Henry Fair takes the topic of destruction of nature to its aesthetic extreme as eyes refuse to believe that nature can look so strikingly artful as his six almost abstract aerials explore formal properties of late-industrial landscapes.

American Peter Coffin wraps the representation of fruits of nature long gone into a pyramid of oranges looking every bit as real as actual fruits, save for their identical, industrial shape. Industrialisation of nature receives another representational twist in the work of Indian artist Bharti Kher who blew a fibreglass-made heart to staggering proportions calling to mind organ-trafficking and global south where late-modern relation of both human beings and nation-states are entangled. That the disenchantment of post-modern world does not leave the contemporary world without its contradictory charms reminds German artist Jorn Vanhofen with his captivating play with light aesthetically falling on piles of industrial waste. Plying neon lights into both ecological and political statement, Israeli artist Dani Karavan lets Olive Trees Will be Our Borders be both title and work at one and the same time as it explores the relations between difference and repetition between as the enigmatic sentence shines in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Translating not between languages but artistic media, Brazilian artist Thiago Rocha Pitta explores how video and installation can aid in performing man-made ecological catastrophe that a boat drowning under shovelfuls of earth symbolises. In another video work, he, however, suggests a sea-faring experience as an early foundation of modernity as dependent for its development on natural forces as on scientific knowledge. Israeli artist Michal Rovner joins video and collage together in a still image of a landscape of oil-rigs carved out from a footage of burning oil themselves. The confrontation between the natural idyll of the pre-industrial world and the social pains of industrial modernisation captures English artist Paul Scott by applying porcelain painting techniques to naturalist representation of trees and smokestacks. A sand installation by Israeli artist Micha Ullman pits conflict-ridden principles of modernism and post-modernism against each other as his shapes in the sand document human intervention, but suggest its unstable and passing nature.

As a space of reflection that moves between documentary and artistic, Foamywater video-work by Austrian artist Almut Rink immerses its viewers into behind the scenes of computer-generated virtual reality of underwater landscape that not unlike other industrial spaces feeds upon a self-referential transition from modernity of manufacturing to post-modernity of software. This transition to post-modernity carries a weight of destruction and trauma that monochrome compositions of German artist Via Lewandowsky project on a screen of postmodern sensibility that puts fading images of bombing, destruction and despair into a formal sequence of pictures on the wall. Off the roof-slope of the museum, Israeli artist Ahmad Canaan exhibits his metal sculpture that plays a mythic pun on ploughing and fertility from times when nature and culture were not as sundered apart as they are know. A vertical panoramic view opening on Temple Mount by German Wim Wenders offers an ecologically-minded perspective on the contemporary world where from international front-stage to a public backyard takes only a walk in Jerusalem.

Exhibition's curator, Raphie Etgar has, thus, set the stage for a visit to what The New York Times calls one of the more eye-opening and mind-blowing museums.

Pablo Markin is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for German Studies of the European Forum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.