Simon Martin, Untitled, 2008, digital animated HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.

Simon Martin, Untitled, 2008, digital animated HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.

“Jaguars and Electric Eels”

Simon Martin, Untitled, 2008, digital animated HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.

The second exhibition of new media works drawn from the Julia Stoschek Collection, presented in its new Berlin exhibition space—formerly East Berlin’s Czech Cultural Center—includes thirty-nine works by thirty artists. Curated by Monika Kerkmann, the show focuses on contemporary artists’ engagement with nature, and its title, “Jaguars and Electric Eels,” is taken from Alexander von Humboldt’s 1853 narrative of his explorations in the Americas, during which he developed an early ecological concept of the natural world.   

I was particularly drawn to Juan Downey’s The Laughing Alligator, 1979, part of his 1973–79 “Video Trans Americas” series, shown here on a monitor. Downey and his family lived with the Yanomami Indians in Venezuela for several months, and the video alternates footage of Downey among the Yanomami with shots of the artist back home in New York. This work poses acutely the problem that the exhibition engages: Who is speaking? How does the artist engage with other cultures? Should the camera be given to the people she or he observes, for example?

Many of the works on view explore the porous boundaries of the art and natural worlds: In the Warhol-inspired video Empire, 2004, Paul Pfeiffer uses a stationary camera to document the construction of a wasps’ nest over a hundred-day period (which also happens to be the duration of a Documenta). Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s film Swamp, 1971, takes the viewer on an excursion into a New Jersey reedbed, the camera’s erratic movements motivated by Smithson’s voiced directions. Simon Martin’s video Untitled, 2008, reanimates images of a poisonous tropical frog as if it were the subject of a nature documentary, intercut with fictional text passages, thereby foregrounding the constructedness of his work. Cyprien Gaillard’s KOE, 2015, tracks flocks of immigrant green parakeets across the Düsseldorf skyline, as if they were digitally superimposed on previously filmed footage. The trope “as if,” by which animation tricks the eye into constructing a seamless natural whole, is also present in Bill Viola’s early work The Reflecting Pool, 1977–79, even if contemporary viewers might struggle with what appears as a lack of definition in the early video image.

The exhibition has a great sense of humor, exemplified by Björk’s music video Wanderlust, 2008, produced by the New York–based Encyclopedia Pictura collective, which used computer animation techniques to create an outrageously campy landscape of rivers and mountains amid which the singer performs. Isaac Julien’s three-channel video installation True North, 2004, also concerns an expedition (echoing Humboldt’s explorations): The work stages a reenactment of Admiral Robert E. Peary’s 1908–09 journey to the geographic North Pole, in which African American Matthew Henson was the first person to set foot on the pole. In Julien’s case, the natural world is created from dramatic scenes staged in Iceland and northern Sweden, feeding our imagination of an idea of the North “truer” than the pack ice that actually covers the geographic North Pole. Sturtevant’s four-channel video installation Finite/Infinite, 2010—a three-and-a-half-minute loop of a dog running across a landscape––conveys something of the energy of the exhibition and reiterates a key issue, that of the animal trapped in the artist’s and viewer’s gaze.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques was published in 1955 to immense acclaim. It began the critical and theoretical adventure of structuralism that has informed the work of subsequent generations of artists, critics, and theorists. The tropics are triste, sad, because Lévi-Strauss senses the degradation of this non-Western world even as he is observing it. “Jaguars and Electric Eels,” however, is not so melancholic, and one can be encouraged by the range and intensity of the many artistic engagements with the questions first posed by Humboldt nearly two hundred years ago, even if the natural and human worlds he observed no longer exist.

Mark Nash