…in which your host talks the Anthropocene, the mermaid scene and tells her favorite Finnish joke.
Welcome to Artipoeus, art you can hear.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a mysterious message on Facebook from someone called Special Guest: Hey, it said. Are you going to be out and about at the gallery openings tonight? Uh-oh, I thought. Now what? “Yyyyyeeeee— why?” I asked. “I’m putting up some new work tonight, and I’d like to know what you think. I love your show,” said Special Guest.
Oooh…. this was intriguing. Was it street art? Graffiti? Was this Banksy??? (No, it was not Banksy). Anyway, it was exactly the kind of invitation I can’t resist — like a siren song.
That could potentially get me killed.
So I said, “Great! Can’t wait to see it!” (Because I live on the edge like that.)
A few hours later, I got a second message from this Special Guest: “I just finished,” they said. “My work is done for the night. You can see it in the public bathroom at Koenig Galerie.”
I said, “Great… ? Can’t wait to see it… ?” (Because I back away from the edge like that.)
And then a Greatest Hits collage of slasher movies flashed before my eyes: Silence of the Lambs / Seven / Scream … why do all these movies start with an S?
S is for slasher film. S is for Susie….
Koenig Galerie, if you don’t know it, is a private gallery in an old Brutalist style church, St Agnes. The main work on display is usually showcased in the nave, a soaring minimalist space built of stone, giving the nave an industrial feel. It’s a really popular gallery, especially on opening nights for new installations, and on this night, when I got there, it was especially packed. It was the opening of Julien Rosefeldt‘s latest video work, In the Land of Drought, on view upstairs in the nave.
But I went straight for the bathroom. Where there was a queue. In which I waited. And waited. And waited. No one was coming out …
Just kidding. No one was coming out shaken, or harmed, or weirded out, or upset. So I figured, whatever was in there waiting for me couldn’t be that bad.
I waited in that queue for so long, that the vernissage was almost over when I finally got upstairs to the nave to see Rosefeldt’s work. I passed gallery owner Christian Koenig, who was saying to his assistants, “I’m freaked out about all these people here!” which I found kind of strange, since the opening had been heavily promoted on Facebook, and featured in all the online art event guides for the week. I mean, their digital press campaign was so relentless, you couldn’t not go to the opening. So… I’m not sure why he was freaking out that it worked.
To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing the Rosefeldt’s video comment on the Anthropocene — according to some, the geological age we’re living in now, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Earlier that week, I had already seen Manifold, the video installation at Decad Gallery by Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė. If you’re a long-time listener of this show, then you already know how I feel about Lithuanians, and Emilije is no exception. As a Lithuanian.
As an artist, she is 100% exceptional.
Somewhere around the 6th grade, mathematics stopped making sense to me. I was good at it, and then suddenly I wasn’t. Of course now that I’m entering the 44th grade, I kind of understand why, but back then it was a mystery to me. Which, in turn, made physics a mystery, and astronomy, the planets, and space… and the more mysterious it was, the more it called to me. Like a siren song.
When I first met Emilija, she had just finished editing her video Sirenomelia and was a little punch drunk. It was at a party, there were a lot of people, and I was on my way to being drunk drunk. She said something about the North Pole and satellite stations, and NATO and submarines and Norway and can she show me her video and I said “Greeeaaaat, can’t wait to see it.”
Because I’m edgy like that.
She promptly showed me a clip on her Smart phone, which was hard for me to see, and the next day sent me a link to her private Vimeo page. I clicked on teh link and watched it. And that’s when I fell in love.
It’s a slow-moving, high resolution film of the arctic, shot on the NASA satellite base near the North Pole. Emilija trekked up there and spent several months hanging out with the scientists, shooting footage by hand and by drone, of the jagged Arctic landscape. The camera pans over snow and ice in crystal clear, pristine footage, giving you the sense that even though Emilija had to be there to shoot it, no one has ever been there before. The landscape is alien, from the mountain cliffs to the lakes, icy waves lapping and knocking together huge chunks of ice, making a sound oddly like frozen plastic. The view changes, and suddenly we are looking down, down, down a long tether to a tiny figure dressed in red, lying in one of the giant white satellite dishes. It’s the artist herself, turning the camera on herself, and herself representing all of us, colorful, tiny and vulnerable in the gentle giant curve of the universe. It’s breathtaking, and wild — who climbs inside a satellite dish? A hum grows and softly swells and expands across the entire video — the sounds emitted by quasars, recorded by NASA and slowed by about a thousand times until those intergalactic radio signals become music, the siren song of space.
The film cuts to the other leg of Emilija’s journey, and suddenly we are deep underwater, so deep it’s dark and hard to see, but we can make out iron tracks, a kind of tunnel we are following along. This is an abandoned NATO submarine station in the northernmost part of Norway, for god’s sake, and that is Emilija behind that camera, deep underwater in wet suit and mermaid tale, a siren come to reclaim the sea. This part of the film is from her other work entitled No Place Rising, a comment on the remnants of the Cold War, when this submarine station was first built, and its impact the life in the surrounding sea.
Spliced together with the arctic footage, the entire experience covers all the unknown parts of life for us — the last frontiers of space and sea — and our probing, tickling technology that tries to capture the technology of the stars. The work is just so grand, encompassing both humanity’s biggest vision, and then the universe, even bigger than that. It’s enormous.
This video is currently being projected at Decad Gallery, a simple store-front type gallery space in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. The main room has a door in the floor, propped open so you can look down into it. In the dark of the main space, I couldn’t see the steps leading down into the cellar at first, and I thought you were just supposed to peer into the cellar… and, I don’t know, tell it to put the lotion on the skin or something. But I finally found the stairs, managed not to fall down them, and discovered more of Emilija’s video work in this raw basement space.
I don’t know what the space was originally used for, but along one basement wall are three deep cement sinks. Using mini projectors, a single video is projected onto one wall of each sink, creating a triad of films that, in a traditional space would be stacked one on top of the other, but in the space work like an expanding accordion tunnel. It’s a really cool effect, and the perfect setting for the films, which are also about the under ground: active mines and fracking in Northern Scandinavia, the films silently record the activity of the miners and the machines as they go about stripping the Earth and rearranging the landscape, up there in the quiet North.
And here is the Anthropocene hard at work, destroying the Earth with the industrial machines we’ve created to mine for material used to build new technology to improve our lives as we literally dig our own graves. And the more subtle side of the Anthropocene, the publicity and propaganda, the misinformation, fake news, the alternative truths we swear by, letting pop culture and social media rewrite history itself: the Scandinavians are the most eco-conscious societies on Earth, recycling so much garbage and creating so much renewable energy they exist in a smug collage of socialist furniture, solar power and sustainable fish.
At least, this is what we want to believe (especially if you’re Finnish… or just getting started). Ingen förolämpning, Svensk familj.
We want to believe that modern technology doesn’t REALLY come from fossil fuels; we want to believe that our wireless signals don’t REALLY bounce off of satellites that have to be built… and launched… we want to believe that social media doesn’t REALLY start a revolution, or spread terrorism (of all kinds), or reach 3,000 in Berlin for an art opening on a Friday night. Not really.
Back at Koenig Gallery, I finally made it into the bathroom. Just to back up a bit… this Special Guest had already reached out to me some months ago, to tell me that they enjoyed listening to Artipoeus, once in awhile to ask a question about a specific episode or to share an opinion. So there was already some level of trust established, and every communication followed the general rules of politeness, etiquette and respect… so I had pretty good reason to believe that Special Guest wasn’t a creep. I mean, I do come from the land of John Wayne Gacy… who was also an artist. So don’t get any funny ideas, folks.
Kind of like that funny idea about the Anthropocene. Ask any geologist, and they’ll tell you that Anthropocene is a pop culture term, and for Rosefeldt, as we saw in last year’s installation Manifesto, that’s appropriate. When pop culture is interpreted as science, and then taken for fact, this is when it becomes dangerous. This is what rewrites history, in fact what rewrites our reality. This is the Anthropocene.
Rosefeldt’s video, In the Land of Drought, is meant to take place in a post-apocalyptic world, when humankind has managed to render itself extinct, mostly thanks to the technology it has invented to destroy itself. It tells the story of some mysterious scientists, who show up in white Hazmat suits to investigate the remains of human civilization — actually an abandoned film set in Morocco, supplemented with some scenes shot in a desolate region of Germany, and was shot entirely by drone, underscoring emotional distance and our own remoteness from nature. The drones film from above the film set and the Ruhr region in Germany, accompanied by ambient music that itself drones on, all of it, including the drones, using the very technology that will ultimately destroy us all. How very clever.
Rosefeldt’s work , as usual, is the most pop art interpretation, the most accessible — but that doesn’t make it the most dynamic, or the most intelligent, or the most probing. It just makes it popular in exactly the way Andy Warhol defined pop art, because it rubs shoulders with celebrity. It’s a bleak and one-dimensional view of the future.
Here is the difference between pop culture and art. Rosefeldt went to an abandoned film set in Morocco, and then a desolate area in Germany — hardly outside of anyone’s comfort zone, and then he used drones to film. Emilija got a diving license so she could film underwater, swimming in the dark, risking hypothermia. She went outside of her comfort zone to explore a concept — that is what artists do. They do it for the rest of us, they are brave where we are not. Pop culture can make you think, and sometimes even about uncomfortable things (Andy Warhol’s electric chairs). But in Rosefeldt’s case, the artist himself never compromises his own comfort.
What I love about Emilija is her vision — it’s so big, it reached beyond our known universe, into other dimensions, like time. She’ll post things to Facebook like “reading about Deep Time!” and you’re like oookay…. And then after you’ve Googled it to figure out what she’s talking about, you get happy. “Great! Can’t wait!” you think, because it’s always so exciting to see what very smart people will do with new information.
And I love her dedication. She went to a NASA satellite station and hung out with the scientists, climbed inside one of the massive satellite dishes, which she told me was pretty scary, and filmed from there. She heard the musicality in the sounds of the quasars and drew it out — — and here we have the other side of Anthropocene.
There is a lot of work being created about the Anthropocene right now, and there’s some great stuff, like the work of German artist Hannu Prinz, whose work I saw at the A Plus gallery a few weeks ago, his rusted corrugated iron sheets covered in patchworks of leather that create a Frankenstein collage of new technology, old industry and our hapless groping back to nature, acknowledging the beauty in the profane in the same way the Old Masters did.
And in the same way that Emilija does, only her work is so, so large it is both beautiful and horrifying at the same time, it is the deepest meditation, the point at which you finally relax the human need to shape and control so completely you simply… let go. And become one with the cosmos and the ether and the people and the technology too, floating through the universe to the leitmotif of quasars.
In mathematical terms, Manifold is a collection of points forming a certain kind of set, such as those of a topologically closed surface or an analogue of this in three or more dimensions.
This is also a pretty accurate description of collage, like the beautiful collage piece waiting for me in the bathroom at Koenig Gallery, mostly using black and white exhibition cards — the postcards people spread around to promote their exhibitions. They have been cut out and layered to create a portrait of a woman, a face of classic beauty, like the kind seen on Greek statues, a siren herself who called me to Koenig Gallery in the first place.
A handmade gallery card is mounted next to the piece: title, Berlin Skies; artist: Unknown; price: 25,000 euros. And on the other side, that red gallery dot to mark it sold.
I realized that while I was waiting in line, no one had reacted to this brilliantly subversive piece because it’s so good, it looks like it belongs there. Just like the way things creep into life unnoticed until we can’t remember a period with it: technology, social media, pop culture, humans…
Because in this vast universe of quasars and black holes and deep time and unknown seas, as far as our technology has been able to determine, there’s no one else out there. We’re the anomaly. We are the Special Guest.
Music in this episode are excerpts from Laurie Anderson’s Oh Superman! used under the Fair Use Act.
Music in this episode is the track Wisdom, composed and produced by Artipoeus pal, Amadeus Joseph. You can hear more of his work on Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/amadeusjoseph.