Ecologies of the Ghost Landscape. The Word for World is Forest
Participating artists: Maria Thereza Alves, Petra Feriancová, Oto Hudec, Gerard Ortín,
Hanna Rullmann & Faiza Ahmad Khan, Petr Štembera
Curator: Borbála Soós
11/06/–31/07/2020, tranzit.sk, Bratislava
There was a man who found two leaves and came
indoors holding them out saying to his parents
that he was a tree.
To which they said then go into the yard and do
not grow in the living-room as your roots may
ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he
dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.
As with many projects and exhibitions recently, Ecologies of the Ghost Landscape, curated by Borbála Soós at tranzit.sk, has been marked by the changes that took place in recent months due to Covid-19. The exhibition was not cancelled however, and was able to open two months after its originally planned opening. But what happened in the previous months, in the time of lockdown, is also worth mentioning: this exhibition was among the few which managed to come up with engaging programs during the most chaotic months, from March till May, creating different channels through which the audience could engage, prior to the opening, with the topics the show presented. It was intriguing to follow what Borbála Soós, the artists and tranzit.sk had been up to until the opening: the online program functioned not only as a “warm-up” but as a dialogical platform, one which intended to open up discussion beyond the original topic of the exhibition; about the climate crisis, the violent process of deforestation and notions of rewilding and renaturing. The Instagram take-overs by the artists for example, shed light on the working processes and the research behind each work, and ranged from longer videos to intimate sketches, sometimes also closely related to the pandemic.
The regular reading groups organized by Soós also provided a certain kind of stability, as well as inspiration, among the various online events. Even though for some people it could be difficult to engage in these endeavours through Zoom, the existence of these events, and the chance to read several texts from the reading list, felt like a ready opportunity to experiment with different formats related to an exhibition whose actual space could not yet open. I found this to be a much more engaging approach, with all of its knowledge-sharing opportunities, than to move the exhibition online and create a virtual space for it.
When I finally managed to see the exhibition in late July, I felt like I had already arrived with a certain knowledge and curiosity deriving from the online events and actions. The exhibition in general fitted well with the research-based and analytical projects organized by tranzit.sk, and it’s not a surprise that Soós, who is currently a researcher also in CCA Derry – Londonderry and leads a Peer Forum around ecologies of rewilding in collaboration with Artquest and Horniman Museum and Gardens, elegantly presented various perspectives and narratives related to the topic of the colonial legacy of deforestation and the present developments of rewilding, in which she understands forest as “an ecology including human and non-human beings, as well as the cultivation, social and cultural practices, politics, tensions and wars it entails”. As in other projects curated by Soós, there was a fine balance between the more research-based, “scientific” works, and the personal, intimate projects. From the streets of Budapest, through the Basque Country, and on to Acre in Brazil, the exhibition managed to focus on the specific localities, while presenting them, or rather, mapping them out in a global context as well, always in a horizontal way. It functioned as a certain kind of mindmap or constellation, where the works could function separately, yet at the same time the ways they connected to each other made even more sense. As stated in the curatorial text, the exhibition was happening amid a situation of global emergency “one which is emerging out of an unfolding ecological crisis, and can be attributed to the violent process of rampant deforestation, which constitutes a continuation of imperial methods of territorial control. This massive reshaping of the land, together with the shifting baselines regarding what kind of green deserts we are willing to accept as forests, might be seen as a symptom of our Anthropocene epoch”.
Dystopian greenhouses, actual indigenous lands and extinct forests and species emerged in the show, and one might have wondered if the exhibition used loss and melancholia as its main metaphors, or glorified the past in a certain way. Luckily none of this was happening, and even though the exhibition space could be seen as a place of commemoration, it also served as a place of reflection, to underline the different approaches to constructing the notion of nature and wilderness, to the possible (artistic) solutions to investigating current means of domination and destruction.
Ursula K. Le Guin is becoming quite hip in the field of contemporary art: several exhibitions use her rich oeuvre as metaphors or starting points, and this show takes her novella from 1972, The Word for World is Forest, written in response to the Vietnam War, as a starting point. It is also worth mentioning the sci-fi author’s other books, namely the Earthsea novels, where the equilibrium between human and non-human beings is one of the most important things, and where magic is based on the notion of care and helping your community. In this world people are not yet alienated from nature, and instead of creating borders and ways to distance themselves and destroy it, their relationship towards their surroundings is based on mutual respect. The world of Earthsea has another quite obvious parallel in the fantasy genre, in which even though men are starting to rule the world, there are still some places where different kinds of connections are possible. The Ents in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are the shepherds and protectors of the forests (residing in Fangorn Forest), with a tree-like appearance, still able to talk and communicate with trees and plants. They also have a specific role in the second book, where they finally abandon their slow and peaceful nature and rebel against Saruman whose army is cutting down large numbers of their trees. Ents could be seen as a metaphor for our present, where both escapism (to nature) and its protection are gaining prominence. It’s not surprising that, even though the exhibition’s subtitle might cause it to be associated with the fantasy classics mentioned, the works presented were removed from the realm of imagination, and addressed the most urgent problems. And if they played with fiction, it was always a darker fiction. The ideal forest remained in the books, and the artists in the exhibition shed light on the often hidden conflicts and collisions related to it.
Oto Hudec’s work We are the Garden! (2020), which consists of texts, objects, paintings, drawings and tough not presented here also a video, undoubtedly resonates with our current crisis and the possible aftermath of the virus: the installation’s strongest part was a short story set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future about a man who decides to leave society and survive on his own (becoming self-sufficient) and who later on meets another human being, a child. Although we could only read fragments from the story with small, intimate drawings accompanying it, through the sensitive, detailed yet objective narrative style (This is how it started: the insects disappeared first. If you walked in the meadow in the summer, something was missing.) we found ourselves empathizing with the main character, thinking about whether this could be the way out. Can such escapism and withdrawal be possible? Or is it only a temporary state, which will always meet obstacles from the outside world. If not, is it a life worth living? (“Then I realize that my decision – to survive without regard to anyone or anything – is like living in a personal prison. It’s a lie without anyone to share it with.”) What gave a sense of hope is the greenhouse presented in the exhibition, which also appears in the short story. (“Every single touch of a plant is like a ritual”.) It is a replica of the artist’s own, which he built next to a wooden hut in Kosice to grow plants and vegetables. Thus reality and fiction morphed together in the piece presenting the garden as a small island of survival. But as its only a “simulacrum” we might wonder for how long we can “cultivate our gardens” and forget about the rest of the world.
As Hudec’s work talked about the perhaps not so distant future, another more poetic piece guided us back to the past. Petra Feriancová’s work Found and Given (The Petrified Forest) (2016), is based on a found archive from the 70’s which was sent to the artist. It turns out that it was a collection by a Hungarian, and the black and white photos depict strange stones, which are probably cross-sections of petrified wood; frozen moments of former forests, as the curator puts it. The collection of the photographer is re-arranged by the artists as some kind of archaeological collection and presented as a “ghost landscape”, a ruin of a previously rich place, or even a site of trauma; the trauma of disappearance. The abstract quality of the photos again challenged our imagination: they looked as if they were not only from another time, but from another planet. It’s hard to believe that these transformations exist; that wood is turning into stone, erasing the forest forever.
Petr Štembera’s action and its documentation (Grafting, 1975), like Petra Feriancová’s archives, comes from the 1970’s. It is a seemingly minimalistic gesture in one’s body, through which one is becoming a plant (becoming in the sense of Deleuze). This is something which was achieved through the very direct gesture of “implanting” a branch onto the body, which also resembled healing rituals, shamanic experiences, or which one can associate with the famous painting by Pollaiolo, where Daphne is turning into a laurel tree when fleeing from the god Apollo. The whole afternoon the twig was joined to Štembera’s forearm, but later on the artist had to visit the emergency room because of blood poisoning: in the end, his body was pushing away the other entity. The intimate photo documentation of the action underlined how alienated we are from nature, no matter how many plants we are buying to make our apartments more beautiful.
One of the most striking works in the exhibition was by the artist Maria Thereza Alves, which teleported the viewer to Brazil. In the videos (To See the Forest Standing, 2017) 34 agroforestry agents were describing the importance of indigenous lands and forests in their community, as well as what the most effective ways to help preserve them are, and how one can enable more efficient agroforestry methods. The agroforestry agents, who are also community leaders representing various indigenous peoples in Rio Branco, in the state of Acre in Brazil, shed light on the processes of deforestation and destruction by non-indigenous peoples, and how their land has become a site of colonial greed and genocide for centuries. Education functions as a key element: talking to the next generation and working together with them was emphasized in the documentary-style, straightforward interviews, where the community leaders spoke with pride and ambition about their goals and plans. This motive of knowledge-sharing and encouraging cross-generational encounters reminded me of an exhibition I saw in Berlin in 2019, entitled How to talk with birds, trees, fish, shells, snakes bulls and lions (curated by Ina Dinter and Aleksandra Jach at Hamburger Bahnhof) which emphasized the different ways of communication, connecting and care towards nature and our surroundings. In a video, which was the outcome of a collaborative workshop between Luciana de Oliveira and the Guarani-Kaiowa indigenous peoples in Brazil, a little boy with his grandfather walked through the forest, talking about the disappearance of the traditional hunting practices used by the indigenous people, and how much the forest changed in the past decades. Although they are from different generations, they both appear to be advocates for finding ways of caring and collective enablement in keeping these forms of living going, and finding stability within change, just like the agroforestry agents.
If we talk of forests one cannot omit the topic of wilderness, and how the construction of the Wild, as a certain kind of Other as well as in opposition to the domestic, existed in the imagination of people for a long time. In his video, Reserve (2019), Gerard Ortín investigates the drastic reduction of the wolf population in Araba (Basque Country) and its various after-effects. Throughout the video we could hear a voice-over, a phone call from Spain to the United States: it presented a certain product, a predator’s urine, which uses the urine of the wolf to scare off other wild animals who venture outside of their territory. The cinematic language the artist used, highlighting for example the foggy forest and the strange gestures of people shooting at replicas of animals, underlined the notions of invisibility and extinction, as well as the various human-created “solutions” to deal with what they caused.
The last film, quite different from the previous one, is part of a research project by Hanna Rullman and Faiza Ahmad Khan (Habitat 2190, 2019), and investigates how a certain place or territory can become a focal point, for different political and ecological reasons. Their case study told the recent story of the nature reserve Fort Vert, which is at the site of the former migrant camp, The Jungle, in Calais. Through the interviews we could understand that specific situation when, in the name of protection, something else is being abandoned and neglected. Or in other words, the controversy of rewilding and renaturing as still being a human-centred way of thinking, one which still leaves certain human beings out of the discussion. As the curator summarized, the work talks about “how nature and the protection of rare species is regarded as an opportunity to make claims over a territory, and juxtaposed the value placed in the protection of other species against the lack of care for certain groups of humans in vulnerable positions”. In a discreet yet critical way, Rullman and Khan’s research-based video examined these power struggles through the specific site in France.
In another online lecture by Borbála Soós, which she gave within her residency at Agosto Foundation (Prague), she asked the audience to name a tree which is important for them in a certain way. This icebreaker worked well, and soon the participants were discussing favourite trees, trees with a special meaning, childhood memories and so on. For me it was a tree in a park in Budapest, where we used to play in primary school. Each afternoon my friends and I gathered at this old tree, probably a willow, and decided which game we were going to play. That was the place I first heard about the Spice Girls and where we debated which Sailor Moon character suits us best. When I was describing the tree, I realized that I’m not even sure if it’s still there. The downslope of Tabán remains in my mind as it was in the 90’s, untouched. But maybe it’s time to revisit it.
The author would like to thank Judit Angel (tranzit.sk) and Daniel Hall for their support.
Cover image: Oto Hudec: We are the Garden! (2020), installation view. Photo: Adam Šakový / Courtesy of tranzit.sk