It’s 13th of August 1942. Eight months have passed since the German tanks reached North-Africa and, just a couple of days before, Mahatma Gandhi was detained in Bombay by the British forces. In exactly 10 days from now the Battle of Stalingrad will begin. As a consequence of the Final Solution to the Jewish problem and due to the large numbers of Soviet prisoners that flooded the Auschwitz main camp in the previous year, the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp already houses thousands of inmates. On this day, across the ocean, just four days after it’s World Premiere in London, Walt Disney releases the animated movie Bambi, a life in the Woods in New York.
Miroslaw Balka’s 2003 ‘Winter’s Journey videos, Bambi 1, Bambi 2, and Pond can be found and watched in one of the rooms located on the second level of Mumok, as part of the exhibition Natural Histories. Traces of the Political. Between young birch trees, remains of concrete foundations and barbed wire fences, a couple of deers roam the landscape, searching for something to eat. The sky is a few shades darker than the thin, ashen snow that lies on the ground. The claim of the scenery, as one could argue without knowing the exact location, could be seen as just a somber depiction of winter. But, if you look closer, the deers appear as prisoners of a landscape which is made up of disused buildings.
As per Balka’s intentions, the videos address the internal conflict which also made the Zoos in the Treblinka and Buchenwald camps – (Zoos which were built in the extermination camps to provide entertainment for the guards) – incredibly hypocritical. The idealised appearance of the deer, once present in many tales and mythologies, exists against a backdrop of a war so shameful that it seems the only contact with the deeper sources of the collective consciousness are the written explanations which are provided by Balka himself. I wonder who would willingly allow themselves into a more profound historical enquiry, so they could find out that the paradox here not only lies in the fact that the grandson of an orthodox rabbi, Felix Salten, was the author of Bambi, but also that his book, which was banned in Nazi Germany, still made it’s way back into the light? The truth is, we are on Auschwitz camp territory.
Occupying the entire upper three floors of the museum, all the installations, videos and photos create a reflection of the portrayal of nature using not just a historical and political network, but also a social one. Although many of the artists, such as Heimrad Bäcker, Marcel Broodthaers, Ion Grigorescu, Joseph Beuys, Marc Dion and Hélio Oiticica are already well-known, many are yet to be discovered. As part of the fresh wave of Brazilian artists, Jonathas de Andrade’s work ABC de Cana ( Sugar Cane ABC) takes us to the core of the Brazilian monoculture industry: sugarcane. Starting from the top in alphabetical order, Andrade’s pictures reveal sugarcane workers reproducing letters using whole sugarcane stalks. As central figures of the visual narrative, the laborers wear a deep blue working uniform while they bend the twigs. A far cry from what would be called a fairly normal, rural life, for many workers located in the region of Nordeste where the pictures were taken, daily life means not having other options, hence, they continue working their low paid jobs. In contrast with the average 20% illiteracy rate of the area, Andrade’s alphabet paints a vivid picture of this Brazilian reality, thus raising questions about the kind of biased history Brazil is immersed in.
Nevertheless, the inherited traditions within Western culture still shape our psychological and cultural assumptions of what we give credit to. From a global perspective, questions regarding the hidden social and political layering that exists in all societies, appear to be profoundly connected with nature and the state of it. In this context, historical and present-day attitudes act in a very discriminatory way. Granted with oligopolies, the upper classes have always had the upper hand. In between possessing goods and celebrating their status, their wealth was always acknowledged, especially regarding works of art, starting from the Renaissance era right up until the 1900s. Rather than showing the work itself, art pieces were symbols of glamour which one could find exclusively in a state of wealth. What is significant for this argument, is that the story of their interest in assembling validation of their richness did not stop at works of art, but it extended with the collecting and imposing a classified dominance of nature. Private menageries, zoological gardens or cabinets of curiosities were embellished with dead or alive exotic animals. Alongside owning the paintings, the animals were seen as further proof of their worth.
However, since the mid-nineteenth century, these spaces have changed in meaning, from once embodying the merits of the patron, to now providing entertainment for the general mass audience. This adjustment, of course, brought another type of shift within the architecture of the space. As properly seen in Candida Hofer’s photos from the series Zoological Gardens, taken in the zoos from across Europe and America, the animals are left to live in spaces which can be mostly framed as arenas for entertainment. From Paris to the Bronx, the visual investigation unveils the personal or intimate human interest that can be seen in the contrasting architecture of each setting. Cement steps that won’t take the penguins across the frozen tundra, painted walls behind a giraffe imitate savannas, polar bears which can be seen from neighbouring buildings, shackled elephants eating hay between concrete walls and pillars – these spaces attain a functionality mostly due to anthropomorphic thinking. As a result, instead of revealing the natural world, these places essentially depict living dioramas.
Our assumption after the second World War ended was that the human narrative of exploiting, controlling, playing and assembling the natural narrative of both nature and other human beings would come to a halt. As I think this, my mind settles back to the images from the exhibition- to what was there – and what wasn’t. The tiny garden filled with vegetables you’ll see but not pay attention to, exactly before entering Mumok, includes the well familiar corn, beans and squash. However, this natural mix of plants is not European. Traditionally known as Milpa agriculture, this way of cultivating the land belongs to Mesoamerica and was imported to Europe during colonial times. In this recreated installation, Christian Philipp Müller pinpoints the hidden stories that lie in the origins of the plants we use in our daily meals. Even more legitimacy is added because he keeps the original name of this mixture of vegetables, naming it the Three Sister Corridor. The absence of present-day testimonials that could constantly show the effects of colonialism is not surprising though. Today, the former camp Treblinka, as many other camps, is completely overgrown by trees. Concealed by nature and time, this current state is a powerful contrast with the deforestation that occurred when the whole area of the camp was in use. When talking about modern agriculture, the methods used are simply detached from the complex interactions between the crops and the land. Our plants have lost their capacity to connect and are, as a consequence, nothing but easy targets for predatory insects. Unfortunately, the exotic animals do not share a happier fate. Like the giant redwood trees planted in the cities by royalty, their existence is a constant struggle due to years of post-colonial urbanization and their capture usually provides an economical boosts for those who struggle in today’s harsh economy. And these are facts which need to be taken seriously, precisely because our cultural heritage pretends that they are ineligible. And my question is this: how can we market our natural habitats without spoiling them? Can we restore the damage? Can we reframe, once again, the past?