How did you get here? Do you remember the last few clicks you made before entering this website? Can you recall them? I myself have trouble recalling the steps of my virtual surfing, as if the COVID-19 lock-down has affected my short-term memory. More likely though, this is a long-standing problem I’ve only become aware of recently.
I am a viewer, just like you. I was invited by the exhibition’s curator, Cale Garrido, to write a text about Urgent Arts of Living. Not because I created it, or participated in it as an artist, but because I’ve witnessed it in its physical form in Lisbon, in late 2019. The exhibition was supposed to be restaged at a venue in Luxembourg, but the global pandemic prevented it. As so many things, it’s being presented online instead, and you are in it. In fact, it reminds me of this book title, During the Exhibition the Gallery Will Be Closed by Camiel van Winkel. The book is about conceptualism and not directly related to this situation, but the title now seems very fitting with all these cancelled exhibitions moving into the digital realm. What dies in the transition is human interaction. That’s why I’m writing to you.
I wanted to share some thoughts with you about this exhibition. Urgent Arts of Living brings together the work of Marie Lukasiewicz, Fábio Cunha and Ana Zibelnik: three artists working with the medium of photography. As Cale Garrido explained in the original introductory text, while reality is overrepresented, we still seem to look away from the ecological and social emergencies presented to us. She asked if we are reaching a point of no return in climate change, and how we might be able to communicate this urgency. The participating artists go against the initial expectation which these questions might evoke – they do not work in a documentary fashion. Also, none of the artworks seems to directly address an urgent topic or current affair. Urgency here has another time-span, exceeding lifetime.
In American Sign Language, death is like a snap: one palm up and the other down. The simple gesture was projected on the wall at the exhibition, as a kind of endless domino effect. In the context of a pandemic, the ongoing repetition of the gesture now suddenly seems of ominous value. Ana Zibelnik, the photographer of this image, told me about another photograph in her series, of a clock. Her grandfather collected clocks and stuffed animals. When he passed away, her grandmother set all her husband’s clocks to 4 o’clock – the time of his death. It somehow made me think of an artwork by Guido van de Werve, Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world (2007), in which he turned his back to the sun for 24 hours while standing on the North Pole, going against the axis of the Earth. For one full day he did not participate and somewhat resisted time. The gesture seems grand, dramatic and poetic, but ultimately points out human insignificance. I don’t find that ironic, but comforting.
Death was present throughout the exhibition. Fábio Cunha’s photos dangled like carcasses from the ceiling. Until the age of fourteen, he lived with his grandparents in the mountains, somewhere in the north of Portugal (I’m not sure anymore if he told me exactly where). Every year they would slaughter a pig. Each part of the animal would be processed to provide them with food throughout a whole year. Traditionally, the families living in these rural communities raise the pig themselves before slaughtering it. When the time comes, families in a community help each other. That is also what he photographed: it is about killing the animal, but rather about the collective act made by human hands, in what used to be essential for survival. When Fábio now reads “green” and “organic” on the packaging in the supermarket, he is annoyed by the capitalist charade. He considers the tradition as a form of resistance, of involvement, of knowing the life behind such a label.
So much consciousness has been lost in the capitalist idea of progress. Most of our actions are as thoughtless as the young woman taking a coral supplement with a glass of water, which I saw as a video projection on the exhibition wall, by Marie Lukasiewicz. The young woman in the video work is mirrored by her elderly image: the supplement did not give her eternal youth, but she swallows it just as thoughtlessly. Quotes buzz through space about coral calcium as an elixir of life, from the book by a certain Robert Barefoot, who believes that coral can extend lifespan without ever being able to explain exactly how it benefits our health. Marie’s photos, of a research lab, ingenious laboratory experiments with steam, tubes, and hocus pocus, show a mix of science and marketing: an alienated truth. The photos are interspersed with pieces of washed-up coral that Marie found bleached by stressors such as pollution and climate change. ‘Little bits of truth,’ Marie called them when she spoke to me about it. Her photos are like an inventory of shapes, where she tries to give back their possible natural colour, like a photographic layer. Strangely enough, the layer seems to bring the pieces of coral back to life in three-dimension, like a soul trying to emerge from the dead. In reality, they are little more than chunks of lime, which, ground into pills, are a good source of calcium, but no more than any other calcium supplement.
Marie believes her work is not about urgency, yet she wondered if coral could actually be a medicine for cancer, wouldn’t we then do everything to save coral reefs? This question remained in my head for a long time. Perhaps all coral reefs had already been harvested on a large scale by now. We consume so many earthly substances against our better judgment. A photo of a 17th century engraving by Philippe Galle shows divers fishing for coral. They wear diving goggles, but somehow the divers look blind. Only underwater do the goggles give focus, when above the divers seem to look around disoriented.
I just read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville, 2019). The book opens with a quote from Walter Benjamin: “Redemption preserves itself in a small crack in the continuum of catastrophe.” Like a pandemic interrupting capitalist society, perhaps. We may be drowning, but with our diving goggles we may suddenly see clearly what it really is all about. Urgency turned around – at least for a while, and perhaps much more often. Like ruptures in our human space-time continuum.
Odell quotes in her book a story about Diogenes of Sinope, the fourth century Greek philosopher of the Cynic school who looked down upon all material possessions and apparently lived in a tub:
“A report that Philip was marching on the town had thrown all Corinth into a bustle; one was furbishing his arms, another wheeling stones, a third patching the wall, a fourth strengthening a battlement, everyone making himself useful somehow or other. Diogenes having nothing to do — of course no one thought of giving him a job — was moved by the sight to gather up his philosopher’s cloak and begin rolling his tub-dwelling energetically up and down the Craneum; an acquaintance asked, and got, the explanation: ‘I do not want to be thought the only idler in such a busy multitude; I am rolling my tub to be like the rest.”
It somehow reminded me of what Fábio told me about another work of his in the exhibition: a large photo, taken from the top of the highest mountain in Portugal, capturing the shadow that the mountain casts on a large cloud formation. The print was on wheels and the visitor could take it for a walk – hence its title To Walk a Mountain. Like a poetic belief in the impossible. The photo comes from a series about the mountains we see ourselves confronted with. However, Fábio asked me if one could ever realize one is on top of the mountain. Or are we just worried about the next ordeal? The shadow cast by the mountain is a projection of reality – one could think of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. If reality can be whatever shadow is cast by the fire that sheds light on the wall of the cave, man can only judge what our senses can perceive. Our reality is only a projection, even if it leads to absurd distortions.
One of Ana’s photos in the exhibition shows a stone with a kind of flower on it, but in the black and white of the print it looks like a fossil growth. She told me about her interest in lichen, and that she is currently making new work on this. Her series We Are the Ones Turning is about death and the human idea of running out of time. But she realized that plants are unaware of their mortality. Does that make one immortal if one does not know about the existence of death or the concept of dying? Lichen is actually something close to immortal. I would have said it was a kind of moss, but it’s a composite organism of fungi, algae and bacteria that survive together in a form that is always attached to something else, such as logs, rocks and soil. Lichens are miniature ecosystems and may be the oldest living things on Earth. They are one of the first organisms to grow, for example, on a rock that has just been exposed after a landslide. They can survive for hundreds to thousands of years, and a lot can be read from their lifespan. Where photography captures a moment in a human life, lichenometry allows us to read when glaciers have shifted, the water level of lakes, rivers and seas have changed and when landslides have taken place. Ana explained lichen to me as a recording medium functioning in another space-time incomprehensible to us.
Photography could be considered as time that reveals itself instantaneously, yet the artistic projects in this exhibition cover spans of centuries. As Walter Benjamin said, “The idea of progress must be based on the idea of catastrophe. That things have gone this far is the catastrophe.” While the exhibition gallery is closed, I hope that even online these artworks inspire you in their exploration of the potential of collaborative survival that subsists not in rushing headlong into our daily urgencies, but in pulling the emergency brake on the runaway train of the capitalist notion of progress. The pandemic showed us we don’t need to become activists; COVID-19 banned most of us to the confines of our homes, made us stare outside from behind our windows. It decreased air pollution, cleared the waters and made us hear the birds sing – while our previous urgencies evaporated for a moment. You opened a new window, and a new one, and a new one, until you got here.
Maybe you should close this one now and take a look through your actual window, onto forms of living other than human.
Mirjam Kooiman is an Art historian and curator at Foam Photography Museum Amsterdam. In 2019 she was part of the jury that elected Urgent Arts of Living as the best exhibition of PARALLEL’s 2nd Cycle.