Stories told by the grass growing over them
How depictions of nature reveal history
Rainer Fuchs, curator of the “Natural Histories” exhibition at mumok, explains how history inscribes itself into nature and why nature can have a concealing effect on how society deals with the past.
Art history is no stranger to renderings of the landscape. Your exhibition is called “Natural Histories.” What is the difference between landscape and nature?
Rainer Fuchs: “Landscape” and “nature” are two very open terms. It depends on the context in which they are used. I chose the term “nature” because nature is generally considered free of history. On the other hand, there is a view of history that is strongly politicized by naturalization. I am not interested in stereotypical depictions of idyllic, ahistorical nature, but in how renderings of nature can actually uncover history. Hence the subtitle of the exhibition: “Traces of the Political.”
Concepts of nature and the “natural” always come hand in hand with attributions of identity. How does the exhibition counteract this?
Rainer Fuchs: By showing artistic representations of nature that deal with history in a critical way. The exhibition addresses natural law, for example, which is still being invoked as a doctrine of divine right – by the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), but also by the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), as the most recent elections have shown. The theological conception that there is something divine, natural, that can not be questioned historically, is a foundation of natural law. This, on the other hand, is about a critical reflection of historical and recent political events that are reflected in nature.
Nature is a projection screen for economic and political interests alike. How does the exhibition define its scope thematically and temporally?
Rainer Fuchs: Works from the 1960s and 1970s are key because conceptual art at that time was partly contemplating the basic conditions of art in a political way. The nature motif in Marcel Broodthaer’s 1974 winter garden “Un Jardin d’hiver” was also political. In it, he deals with exoticism and colonialism – the longing for foreign cultures while economically exploiting them at the same time. Another important historical position is Joseph Beuys’ action “I Like America and America Likes Me,” in which he criticizes American imperialism. And in 1967, Hélio Oiticica protested the Brazilian military dictatorship with “Tropicália,” an installation consisting of a sand landscape, tropical plants and live parrots. But positions from Eastern Europe like the artist groups OHO and SIGMA are very important for that time as well.
How does Austrian history figure into it?
Rainer Fuchs: We have artists like Ingeborg Strobl and Lois Weinberger, for example, whose depictions of nature always took a historical-critical approach. One section of the exhibition is devoted to reflections on National Socialism and the Holocaust, as seen in the work of Miroslaw Balka, Tatiana Lecomte, Christian Kosmas Mayer and Heimrad Bäcker, among others. We show objects and Mauthausen photographs from the mumok’s extensive Bäcker archive. Bäcker was also a literary figure, by the way, and was one of the first to deal with the legacy of fascism in language: “Der Führer als Fels in der Brandung” (“The Führer as a Rock in the Surf”) is one of the examples Bäcker analyzed with regard to the naturalization of language.
How does a crime like the Holocaust inscribe itself into nature?
Rainer Fuchs: There are pictures that you wouldn’t associate with the Holocaust at first glance, like a photo series by Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu: the hand-colored photos with added text show a young woman in an idyllic landscape. The fact that she was later murdered at Auschwitz makes the photos documents of the Holocaust.
So it seems nature covered history up in that case, rather than reveal it?
Rainer Fuchs: Covering-over is inherent in nature. The exhibition is also always looking at concealment and camouflage – the proverbial grass that has been allowed to grow over a terrible point in history. But pointing out this camouflage also enables us to look past this concealment and see history again. We have a film showing the zoo in Tirana by Anri Sala: animals stroll out of the dilapidated, overgrown zoo and become a metaphor for a society that has got out of control.
A mediation program seems unavoidable for some of these works.
Rainer Fuchs: We try to elucidate historical connections through mediation, though some works contain textual elements themselves: the text on an Ingeborg Strobl installation about dilapidated chalets in the alpine region shows how the death of alpine cottages is directly tied to urban consumption patterns and the appearance of nature depends on social developments.