Jumana Manna, Wild Relatives, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 64 minutes.

Jumana Manna, Wild Relatives, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 64 minutes.


“Critical Zones”

ZKM | Center for Art and Media
Lorenzstraße 19
July 24, 2020–February 28, 2021 (opened online May 23)

Curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel with Martin Guinard and Bettina Korintenberg

Billed as a follow-up to ZKM’s heady exhibition-research projects “Iconoclash” (2002), “Making Things Public” (2005), and “GLOBALE: Reset Modernity!” (2016), “Critical Zones” looks at the politics of nature as it has figured in European art and science from the seventeenth century to the present. The organizers argue that “new climate regime” is a descriptor better suited than “Anthropocene” to define our geologic epoch. For them, the former term connects the “material and political transformations in the relations of humans to their terrestrial conditions of existence,” facilitating analysis of ecosystems (both natural and manufactured) in tandem with their representations.

One of the earliest works in the exhibition is a 1665/1670 painting by Nicolaes Berchem of a protoindustrial landscape awash in plumes of incinerator smoke. Other canvases, by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and Guido Philipp Schmitt, reframe portraiture with nature as their subject; shadowy volcanic rock formations and an ominously beautiful mountain peak shrouded by billowing clouds set the stage for the imaging of later climatic emergencies, where the forces of nature are on full display.

Significantly, “Critical Zones” will feature early atmospheric measuring devices as well as scientific and botanical drawings, some dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The representations of organisms and the environment—including Anna Atkins’s 1843 cyanotype impressions of British algae—emphasize the roles of drawing and photography in advancing scientific knowledge. Additional sketches and images by geologists, botanists, and other researchers offer unexpected aesthetic engagements.

Among some thirty recent projects by artists, researchers, and documentarians are engrossing cinematic explorations by Julian Charrière (An Invitation to Disappear, 2018) and Jumana Manna (Wild Relatives, 2018). These works detail complex social relations to land, from humankind’s radical exploitation of the Earth to its recovery in the face of war and displacement. Charrière’s epic takes place on a palm-oil plantation where a hypnotic rave track plays to an audience of domesticated trees that appear to be on fire—accelerationism of another kind. In Manna’s video, plants are shown to have a deeper importance in sustaining life and culture: After the displacement caused by the Syrian civil war, farmers in Lebanon replant seeds preserved in an Arctic seed bank.  

The catalogue, spanning some five hundred pages, promises to expand the exhibition’s predominantly Western European focus with contributions by such influential ecological thinkers as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Donna Haraway. These writers argue for the need to shift understandings of ecology beyond human-centered concerns to encompass the politics of all life-forms. In the face of the present climatic emergency, this is urgent indeed.