Exposed to the Elements

By Alfons Hug

"Rain, rain, all day yesterday, and right now it's starting all over again. If you look straight ahead, you would say it's going to snow. But last night I was woken up by moonlight on a corner of the wall above my rows of books. The patch didn't glow, but covered the place on which it lay with its aluminum-like whiteness. And the room was full of cold night, even the deepest corners. But the morning is bright. A broad easterly wind is coming in over the city with its full front on finding it so spacious. On the other side, to the west, blown and forced out by the wind, are archipelagos of clouds, groups of islands gray as the neck feathers and breasts of waterfowl in an ocean of cold almost-blue hinting at a too-distant salvation." (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to Cézanne, 1907)

Before the weather became the climate

In the old days, weather used to be simply weather. Things smelled of dry hay or wet rubber boots. For ordinary people and artists, it appeared as a gloriously colorful sunset or a sublimely shaped snowdrift. When you met a stranger, the weather gave you an informal start to a conversation, and if you were late it served as an acceptable excuse: Yes, the rain.... The weather was a kind of second skin to people, and despite its occasional harshness you could feel part of a greater order within nature.

But now the weather has become the climate, a frightening, anonymous physical quantity which can lead to catastrophic events at any time. The ancient Greek meaning of the word was "bending," after all. Climate change has turned weather into storm. Climate is weather without poetry or esthetics. Unlike weather, the climate has no aura, that "strange web of space and time." (W. Benjamin) What used to be common property has now become the domain of engineers, scientists, even politicians. Normal mortals – who just a moment ago were enjoying the freshness of the dew and a gentle breeze during a stroll in the park – now experience the weather as a mess of CO2, CFCs and soot particles. They have to be meteorologists to calculate future rainfall, farmers to compare the energy yields of rapeseed and sugar cane, car mechanics to use biodiesel correctly, economists to steer the worldwide flow of goods, zoologists to make sure the zoos keep polar bears in a way that is appropriate to the species – and soldiers to wage wars over raw materials.

An explorer who wanted to visit the North Pole in the middle of an Arctic summer would have to swim the last few kilometers. Even the experts were astounded last August when an icebreaker discovered open sea at the Pole.

A hundred years after the futurist opera "Victory over the Sun," featuring Kazimir Malevich's epoch-making "Black Square" as part of the stage design, what must be feared today is the victory of the Sun over its little planet Earth. And if the Russian avant-garde saw in Malevich's modern icon a never-failing energy field which would initiate the transformation of the world via boundless technological progress, we now seem to be heading for a precipice.

The sky and the old idea of heavenly perfection, as manifested in pre-climate weather and depicted by the German Romanticists, has made way for the satellite image and Google Earth. Even tourists traveling in the Antarctic or Greenland are no longer searching for borderline experiences, but see themselves as embarrassed witnesses of climate change.

The weather's metaphysical and symbolic qualities cannot, however, be represented by diagrams or statistical surveys.

Changes in the climate, whether caused by man or nature, always go hand in hand with cultural changes. Our attitude toward ourselves and to others also changes when the climate changes. The body and the senses are exposed to new experiences.

Heat is a category like color, sex or intoxication, indeed like art itself. Heat makes us lose our sense of so-called reality and forces us to return to our own body, which has always been our most reliable thermometer.

In Walter Benjamin's story "In the Sun," which he wrote on Ibiza in 1932, the author describes the noonday heat of the Mediterranean island as follows: "The traveler is already too tired to reflect, and as he loses control of his feet, he notices that his imagination has freed itself from him. The sun scorches his back. The air is heavy with resin and thyme, and he believes they will suffocate him as he struggles for breath". The traveler in Benjamin's portrayal of Arcadia no longer sees, but feels. After the heliophilia comes the heat stroke.

Heat forces even time to change its inexorable rhythm; it elapses less perceptibly, more viscously, less measurably.

Climatic phenomena, which are being increasingly medialized, therefore need to be "reculturalized" by measuring the aesthetic temperatures of a new feeling for life. However, the kind of esthetic treatment of weather and landscape we are proposing could possibly contribute more to preserving both than a purely scientific approach.

Climate is an invention of the modern city and its research institutions. By contrast, when you talk about the weather, there is always a hint of landscape in the air, too. No one described this subtle interaction better than the Romantic writer Adalbert Stifter, who is to accompany our exhibition because his stories trigger almost visual associations: "One day there was a particular heat in the stones. Although the sun had not come out all day, it had nevertheless penetrated the faint veil covering the whole sky to the extent that its pale picture was always visible, so that an unreal light surrounded all the objects of stoneland without adding shadows, and the leaves of the few plants that could be seen hung down; for although barely half of the sunlight came through the foggy layers of the dome, there was as much heat as though there were three tropical suns in the blue sky, and all three were burning down." (Adalbert Stifter, Kalkstein [Limestone], 1851)

Whereas the climate is prone to abrupt changes, disasters even, philosophically speaking the weather is a constant, timeless category. In the Latin languages – as in the Portuguese word "tempo" or the Spanish "tiempo" – atmosphere, i.e. sunshine and rain, and time in the chronological sense have even entered into a happy symbiosis. Here, every question about the weather always implies a notion of time. German and English, however, make a distinction between "time" and "weather." The latter comes from Old High German wetar = wind.

"The time now, that I see on the clock: what is this 'now'? Now that I am doing it; now that the light is going out here, for example. What is the 'now'? Do I have the 'now' at my disposal? Am I the 'now'? Is everyone else the 'now'? Then I would be time myself, and everyone else would be time. And in our togetherness we would be time – no one and everyone. Am I the 'now', or only the one who says it? With or without explicit clock? Now, in the evening, in the morning, tonight, today: here we encounter a clock that human existence has always given itself, the natural clock of the change between day and night." Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, 1924

In Alexander von Humboldt's "Cosmos" (1845) the weather not only had to do with temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, but also with the "transparency and brightness of the sky, the sky being important not only for the increased radiation of the soil with heat, the organic development of the plants and the ripening of the crops, but also for the human being's feelings and our entire psychological mood."

The weather as the domain of artists

No wonder the weather, and not the climate, has always inspired artists and poets, because weather is mood and spirituality. Rilke spoke of "blond, old warmth." In recent decades environmentalists have never tired of telling us what we must not do. The artists will now offer us a vision of what we can do.

Natural phenomena such as sun, rain, heat, snow, ice, drought and floods have always found expression in visual arts. One need only recall the sun cult among the Incas in Peru, the rain and wind god of the Aztecs, or the statues of the Baule in West Africa imploring the coming of rain. On a 5th-century terracotta from India the river goddess Ganga symbolizes fertility and abundance, and an 18th-century miniature shows Krishna swallowing a forest fire. The Nigerian Mumuye sculptures were used as a medium by rainmakers in ceremonial acts. Fertility rites, which played an influential role in pre-modern cultures, were also closely linked to the climate and its vicissitudes.

Pieter Bruegel's painting "Hunters in the Snow" reminds us that in the 16th century there was a minor ice age in Europe which is now used by meteorologists to make retrospective weather forecasts. The German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich gave ice floes a metaphysical dimension. William Turner's and Frederic Edwin Church's breathtaking sunsets had the same effect in the 19th century. Here, the landscape is still part of a harmonious view of the world.

Yet Félix-Émile Taunay was already pointing out the dangers of deforestation in his painting "Mata reduzida a carvão" at that time. In Brazil Candido Portinari even made drought the subject of his work. This was also the case in many "Cinema Novo" films and classics of Brazilian literature such as Euclides da Cunhas' "Os sertões."

The weather breathes life into Vivaldi's Four Seasons and is enthroned in the spectacular sunset that Claude Lévi-Strauss saw at the Equator during his Atlantic crossing.

And when Cézanne was sur le motif, as he described his working style, and painted the windswept "Great Spruce" (1892) or a still life with apples, the weather was never far away.

The weather is the main character in Chimborazo by Frederic Edwin Church and in Caspar David Friedrich's picture of the Arctic Ocean, which is more a symbolic than a real landscape. After all, Friedrich had challenged artists to paint not only what was in front of them, but also what they saw in themselves.

In all these cases, the issue is not scientific analysis, but an esthetic approach seeking to draw attention to the interdependence of nature and human activity in a form that can be experienced by our senses. The critical mass of art is well-suited to setting awareness processes in motion among the public.

The death of light

"Far out, where the great river flows, there lay a thick elongated line of fog; fog and bales of cloud also crept around on the south-eastern horizon, which we feared greatly, and whole sections of the city floated out in the haze. There were only very weak veils in place of the sun, and these also let large blue islands shimmer through." And again: "For, just like the last spark of a dying wick, the last spark of the sun melted away, probably through a gorge between two lunar mountains. And then deathly silence; it was the moment when God spoke and the people listened."

In this "painting" of the 1842 solar eclipse in Austria, every word gains symbolic depth. Here, Adalbert Stifter is speaking not only of a natural event, but also of a darkening of the spirit and the heart. Going cold, losing color, turning pale and deathly silence are categories we will also meet in contemporary art.

Although all points on the Earth receive different amounts of energy, they do receive the same quantity of light, albeit in different portions. In the Tropics, day and night are of roughly the same length throughout the year. At the Poles, by contrast, the sun does not set in the summer, while, in winter, it does not rise above the horizon. On March 21 and September 21, when the sun is at its zenith at the Equator, day and night each last 12 hours all over the world.

One might expect these cycles of light to play a role in the works of artists. In fact, however, artists often seek the twilight, the dusk, and the gray shades that do not betray the sun's position. Art, especially in its photographic form, thus differs agreeably from the bright orgies of light and design to be found in cities. As their inner light dies down, people demand ever stronger external light sources. Even color becomes a surrogate of light.

In the works of the artists in this exhibition, light is a precarious good that is constantly threatened with extinction.

In their video 3 Ster mit Ausblick, Jürgen Heinert and Michael Sailstorfer set fire to a wooden hut until, in the end, only the glowing stove remains. They seem to be referring to Lord Byron's poem "The Darkness," in which people set fire to houses just to see light.

Punta Arenas and Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego like to describe themselves as the end of the world. But what if there were land far to the south of there? A huge continent which, in ancient times, formed part of Gondwana, was situated somewhere around the latitude of Madagascar and has been engaged in a restless journey around the world in 80 million years ever since? Antarctica is currently situated at the South Pole, the abdomen of the Earth hidden well out of the reach of the world. The latter will probably never be able to fully take control of this storehouse of time and weather.

Reisewitz has photographed the Chilean and Russian research station, an outpost of science at this inhospitable place. The blood-red containers look like iron-fortified claws clinging to the black earth. While in German Romanticism a tiny monk or walker still occasionally loses his way in the stunning landscape, Reisewitz does without human presence entirely. In his works, Antarctica is a land of traumatic loss. From the simple, wooden Russian Orthodox church, which recalls Caspar David Friedrich's "Abbey in the Oak Forest," we look at a depot of unused days slumbering in the eternal ice.

Frozen time

In Antiquity, philosophers believed that for reasons of symmetry the southern hemisphere must contain a counterweight to the land mass of the northern hemisphere.

Mercator's 16th century maps also claim the presence of a "large southern continent" (Terra Australis Incognita), which was regarded as a tropical paradise.

Between 1555 and 1567, when the Bahia de Guanabara was occupied by the French during a failed attempt at colonization, Rio de Janeiro was even known as the capital of "France Antarctique," which admittedly referred to all territories in the Americas south of the Equator, or "La quatrième partie du monde."

The intensive search for the real Antarctic during the 19th century was guided by the conviction that contact with the end of the world would unearth new insights for the human spirit. Not until 1820 did the Baltic German captain Fabian Bellingshausen (who was in Russian service) and the American seal hunter Nathaniel Palmer both finally discover the white continent at the same time. Even so, highly respected contemporary personalities, including Edgar Allan Poe, still subscribed to the superstitious belief that there was an opening in the globe at the South Pole through which travelers could reach a civilized world which they suspected within the Earth's crust.

Today, 4000 scientists committed to peaceful research from all over the world (1000 in the winter) work in 80 stations scattered all over the Antarctic, which is about as big as Brazil and Europe together (almost 14 million square kilometers). The sparse tourism is still ecologically defensible – so far.

The Antarctic Treaty (1959), which was signed at the peak of the Cold War and froze all territorial demands until further notice, was an exemplary agreement which still maintains a key status in global environmental and peace policy today.

The Antarctic is therefore the only continent with no military weapons, no economic exploitation, and no land ownership; not even the plentiful mineral resources may be exploited: utopian conditions indeed. While the rest of the world wears itself out in endless conflicts, a destructive exploitation of resources, and ownership claims of all kinds, the Antarctic, that classic no-man's-land, has a higher calling: it belongs to no one and therefore to everyone.

Its natural cycles are certainly very closely interwoven with our own, and its fragile ecosystem reacts sensitively even to disturbances caused in other areas of the world. It functions as the Earth's "measuring instrument."

Zero point of culture

Although affected by the environmental sins committed by the rest of the world, the southern continent is largely still in a state of sublime innocence. It is the land before the Fall, perhaps the final great promise to mankind since the Tropics lost some of their paradisiacal beauty.

The icy ground of this mythical region resembles an enormous archive in which the climatic history of the Earth is stored. The Antarctic is frozen time.

This zero point of culture is well suited for intellectual and artistic reflections on the world: emptiness, silence and seclusion, but also purity, clarity, peace and spirituality are some the existential categories that will be discussed in the transcendental Antarctic. The artists begin where the scientists and their measurements cannot reach, thus allowing a new and fresh perspective on this neuralgic point of the Earth.

The artists will also have to come to terms with the color white, which was regarded by the impressionists as a noncolor, yet in the eyes of Kandinsky was an "insurmountable, indestructible, almost infinite cold wall," a silence that can suddenly be understood. "It is a void that is juvenile or, more precisely, a void that is before the beginning, before birth" (Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art).

And just as the "white cube" of the modern art galleries, in its complete neutrality, mercilessly reveals the weaknesses of a work of art, so the naked, white expanse of the Antarctic exposes the inadequacies of human activity.

 

© Copyright text: Alfons Hug

Theme of the 2nd Biennial of the End of the World: Intemperie

Alfons Hug is the
General Curator
of this edition of
the Biennial

 

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