Katie Holten

Galerie Van Horn/Schürmann

In a society that increasingly excludes nature from everyday life, how can today’s art engage with the natural landscape? Katie Holten—born in Dublin and living, nominally, in New York although primarily on the road—is looking for an answer to this question. “I’ve always preferred to question things in a silent way, or at least a less aggressive, in-your-face kind of way,” Holten once said in an interview. And, indeed, it is true that her approach to nature is one of meditative affection. Her meticulous India-ink drawings, depicting trees without foliage, branches, imaginative structures of twigs and leaves, and crystalline formations that float on the surface of the paper like snowflakes—some of which were shown at Schürmann in Berlin—attest to this.

However, the centerpiece of the Berlin exhibition was the sculpture The Black Tree, 2005, whose delicate branches reached as high as the ceiling and spread across the entire room, forcing visitors to duck underneath them in order to move through the space. The black trunk conjured memories of rainy winter days when rain-soaked bark lends bare trees a grayish, shimmering gleam. It might have taken the visitor some time to realize that this is an artificial tree, not real at all—its frame is made of wood and wire, wrapped carefully in black gaffer tape. Although the tape and the wire were easily visible at the tips of the branches, the tree still appeared natural, fragile, and, like a living being, in need of protection. A photo dating from 1952 hung on a wall in the back room. It shows a real tree, with no leaves and its roots fully exposed, hanging in a large factory space; like a mirror image of the treetop, the wild growth of the roots reaches down toward the ground. The trunk and the leafless branches bear a striking resemblance to the tree Holten fondly created.

For another recent show, the small room of Galerie Van Horn in Düsseldorf was filled almost to the ceiling by The Best’s to Come, 2007, a globe measuring ten feet in diameter. The armature of the globe is also made of low-tech materials such as wood and wire, and it is covered with pages from the German newspaper Die Welt (The World), but the articles have been obscured by white paint. Visitors had to squeeze themselves between the gallery walls and the globe, treading around a “monster” that, despite its size, seems awkward and delicate. Landmasses are depicted in India ink, but trying to identify them proved difficult—the artist drew them from memory, and their proportions are inaccurate, out of place, or distorted, and many countries and islands are missing entirely. As a source of information, the globe is useless. A drawing on the wall depicted a map much like the large globe, made of India ink on white acrylic; here, however, the source paper is Le Monde.

An unusable globe, an artificial tree made of trash—is this really the way to engage with nature? Perhaps, for Holten’s approach lays bare the fragility and transience of nature, which we so often choose to ignore.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.