Susanne M. Winterling, Vertex Still (I) from Planetwall, 2015, digital print on Plexiglas, 23 5⁄8 × 31 1⁄2".

Susanne M. Winterling, Vertex Still (I) from Planetwall, 2015, digital print on Plexiglas, 23 5⁄8 × 31 1⁄2".

Susanne M. Winterling

An almost magical radiance filled this exhibition. Susanne M. Winterling’s color photographs are luminous—yet what do they show? Cosmo Algae, 2019, for instance, depicts a hand with what appears to be a marble resting in its open palm—a magical sphere? And yet her recent show “Schwerkraft und Atem” (Gravity and Breath), subtitled “Contra-points,” had a fairly mundane theme: nature. It’s one that Winterling has explored for years. She has worked with scientists, delving into the eerie world charted by marine biologists, and trained her attention on the tiniest microorganisms, such as dinoflagellates. What fascinates her about them is their ability to read and shape their environments: Dinoflagellates react to biological imbalances or contamination by releasing colorants, causing events such as red tide. This show included two photographic stills from the CGI video Vertex, 2015, in which Winterling juxtaposes the bioluminescent organisms with an artificially animated hand for an encounter between disparate elements: a sort of counterpoint—or “contrapoint,” per the exhibition’s subtitle—combining a biological phenomenon and a digitally generated action. The video raises the question, What can technologists learn from the biologically conditioned capability of these plankton?

On the floor of the exhibition in Cologne were twenty-two casts made of a transparent bio-resin, part of the larger work Miraculous Biomass Fueling Technology (Composition II), 2018. They were variously shaped, one resembling a power adapter, another a chip card, still another a cell phone—products of the technology of the moment. Trapped inside them were things such as animal bones, seashells, and algae, the kind of stuff you find on a beach, in another forced synthesis of biological organism and technology—again conjuring the dualism of biology and technology, nature and culture.

Winterling has been exhibiting her work since the early 2000s, but first attracted wider attention with her contribution to “Nature After Nature,” an exhibition that Susanne Pfeffer curated at the Fridericianum in Kassel in 2014—one in a trilogy of shows that probed the ideas of speculative realism and their implications for art. A movement in contemporary philosophy, speculative realism strives to break free from the correlation between subject and object, to overcome the subject’s domination of natural objects and allow for a dialogue between natural phenomena in which they speak for themselves. Winterling’s art illustrates that it is indeed possible for the subject to step back and let such objects—microorganisms, in this instance—take the stage.

The hand in the photograph described at the beginning of this review was, it turned out, the artist’s, and the surface of the translucent sphere in its palm renders a distorted mirror image of its surroundings. This object is, in fact, not a marble, but an alga whose reflectivity makes it a diminutive marvel. “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe around us,” the environmentalist and marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote in a passage included in this exhibition’s press release, “the less taste we shall have for destruction.” Winterling’s works achieve this focus. But will they really temper our destructive urges?

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.