PRINT May 1997


Recent research shows that dolphins are capable of humming melodies heard several days earlier. Sadly, this talent is coupled with a penchant for Mariah Carey and Bryan Adams. Reportedly, less brainy creatures, such as frogs, not only have better taste, they’ve got more rhythm, too.

Case in point: investigating the musical preferences of Swedish frogs, Henrik Håkansson felt sure he detected a predilection for ambient techno. To test his observation he organized a rave in a large marsh. While playing his favorite tracks, Håkansson noted that his animal friends responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own: their croaking actually rose and fell in time to the music. A starting point for Håkansson recent work, this experiment resulted most immediately in the installation Frog For e.s.t. (eternal sonic trance), 1995. A cross between a rain forest and a dimly lit disco, it consisted of a room with a small inflatable pool, humidifiers, and a large number of living larvae and beetles—in short, everything necessary to a frog’s happiness. A DJ mixed techno music for the guests of honor, some twenty-odd frogs of various kinds, who made themselves at home in this tropical dance club, its lush overheated atmosphere intensified by a strobe light.

Early in Håkansson’s career, the will to make nature speak resulted in simple, almost childish installations, such as Help, help, help me!, 1992, which consisted of plants with thought balloons containing cries for help, or videos like Explanation, 1993, in which a rabbit, jumping up and down, uses incomprehensible sign language in an attempt to interpret the rest of the artworks in the show. When nature seems incapable of making itself understood, Håkansson extends a helping hand, drawing smiling or crying faces on plants and tree trunks with a felt-tip pen. In Z.O.N.E. (Zoological Optimized Nocturnal Ecstasy) for frogs, 1996, a collaboration with percussionist and DJ Jean Louis Huhta, Håkansson again tried to bridge the gap between nature and culture, acting as mediator for an assembly of frogs housed in a climate-controlled room at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum. During an ecstatic techno séance, the artist teamed up with his little green friends for a rousing chorus of electronically amplified croaking.

Whether the frogs truly appreciated Håkansson’s efforts, we’ll never know. As in Joseph Beuys’ animal rituals, the ideal of a utopian communion between man and beast remains, in large part, just a fantasy—and Håkansson would be the first to admit this. Yet in Håkansson’s artificial biospheres the dream is alive.

Their playfulness and apparent naïveté aside, Håkansson’s works are animated by a genuine longing—a melancholic desire—to penetrate the Earth’s mysteries, a time-honored theme of Scandinavian art. In his own odd way Håkansson extends this tradition into our technological present. Though his climatic spheres are synthetic through and through, they give expression to the artist’s will to transcend human isolation—to, as one of his titles has it, “break on through (to the other side).”

At their best, Håkansson high-tech nature zones, with their detailed and educational display of biological processes, are intellectually provocative and visually compelling. The lush green structure that constituted Wall of Voodoo, 1996—an autonomous universe, with its own digitally controlled heat, light, and moisture—was not simply home to a colony of Peruvian fern stick insects, but a sculptural piece in its own right. For a moment, one could forget about the far-reaching speculations on nature and technology conjured by the piece (Is simulated nature still nature? When technology meets biology do we enter a new world order?) and concentrate on its purely visual qualities.

Though Håkansson often seems a satisfied amateur biologist testing his homespun theories, sometimes the boy scout is transmogrified into a megalomaniacal scientist. He erects worlds only to allow his amazing creations to self-destruct and their inhabitants to perish. Wall of Voodoo, for instance, with its perfectly functioning ecosystem, ended in tragedy. The edifice collapsed and the few stick insects that had not already died from eating the pesticide-coated plants, had to be removed. In the moment of crisis, their creator had already fled to greener pastures. Morally suspect as his disappearance may have been, one thing is certain: the post-catastrophe sculpture looked even more dramatic than the original.

In many of Håkansson’s pieces, it’s possible for the viewer to interfere in their fragile ecosystems. Wall of Voodoo’s climatic cycles were controlled by a portable computer accessible to all, which transformed spectators into demigods capable of tampering with the forces of nature. In an earlier piece, Growing Up in Public, 1994, which centered on the life of the Congo beetle, viewers had to decide whether to provide the small creatures with their daily supply of bananas and water, or let them starve. Since the beetles thrived, most of us must be motivated more by human charity than demonic caprice.

In the majority of Håkansson’s works tapping into the world of insects and amphibians requires elaborate human intervention. But in his recent The Monsters of Rock Tour, 1996, thousands of live crickets, determined to make themselves heard, blasted their sound through a public-address system. While some animals—dolphins for instance—clearly have bad taste in music, Håkansson’s cricket groove was truly awesome.

Daniel Birnbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.