Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have shown that humanity’s presence on this planet can be precarious. But, as a recent exhibition in Ålesund has shown, art is capable of revealing how we can better understand our role in the natural world
Shock, the utter shock was all she could feel while standing inside the exhibition space. She was listening to the guide who was speaking Mandarin while surrounded by human fetuses in glass containers. The year was 1986 and Tove Lande was backpacking through China, and on that day she was visiting an art exhibition about human abortions. Completely unprepared for the experience, it made such an impact on her that she’s carried it with her since.
“It collided with my perception of what it means to be a human – what a human can be,” Tove, a curator at the KUBE museum in Ålesund in Norway, recalls. “It was a highly unusual experience to have in the 1980s and it left me thinking: how do we treat humans, both the alive and the non-living?”
Decades later and the question remains just as relevant. Although one could argue that humans have never had it better than they do today, our rise has brought with it massive exploitation of our natural surroundings. With rising temperatures and sea levels, extreme weather events and, most recently, a global pandemic, many of us are seeing clearly that human (co)existence is not only at risk, but also not at the center of the universe.
“We are realising how insignificant the human race is in the total picture of the world. Humanity is no longer at the top of the pyramid, controlling the world next to God. We are just a part of the bigger picture and have to climb down,” Tove says.
As we transition into a post-pandemic age and, arguably, a post-humanist era, what does it mean to be human? The KUBE museum’s recent exhibition, ‘Am I Human to You?’, seeks to highlight the many possible answers to the age-old philosophical question posed by the show’s title. Featuring the works of John Akomfrah, Per Inge Bjørlo, Anders Holen, Harminder Judge, Amy Karle, William Kentridge, Lawrence Lek, Britt Sorte, and Liv Dysthe Sønderland, the exhibition’s unique juxtapositions create spaces for new interpretations and ideas.
“I wanted to be able to communicate with members of the public regardless of what relationship they might have to art, and to do so in a way that is accessible and inclusive. The artworks themselves are easy to understand and interpret in their context,” Tove adds.
Exhibiting artist, Anders Holen investigates our place in the world through an installation of seven sculptures – a still-life of science fiction-esque pieces in the guise of anatomical fragments and human mouths that contain extinct flower species.
“I always work from a place where I try to see things from different angles, establishing points
of view where I can see one thing as multiple possible other things. A thing is always something else, too,” Mr. Holen says.
The works are magnetized, creating a physical relationship between the objects. The magnetic
field of the earth plays a key role, contributing to a sort of equilibrium between them. Ideas inspired by philosophies that regard people as one of many active and equal agents amongst all things take various forms within the exhibition. From this perspective, humankind is no longer a superior species. Yet, in this day and age where humans and objects are more and more intertwined through technology, it’s as if a new superiority emerges – a sort of fusion of the two.
“As of now, it seems we are moving towards a place where human vulnerability is being
devaluated as something time-consuming, expensive, and, obviously, deadly. It will be interesting to see how these properties will be dealt with in the future. If we get to a place where vulnerability is rare, perhaps it will transform into something precious,” Holen says.”
Fellow exhibitor, Per Inge Bjørlo, is one of Norway’s most prominent artists, recognized for his pioneering installations. “Nature is at breaking point as a result of our exploitation in exchange for material needs and political power,” he explains, “but we are totally dependent on it – so nature is just as important in all alterations. We are existing at its mercy.” The notion of humans as a destructive force is something Bjørlo reflects upon in his 2019 installation included in the exhibition, – and the wounds grow in all of us, in which he visualizes the wounds humans give each other and the natural world through a technique of carving, etching, burning, and printing.
“My work fumbles around under the pressure of our time that we’re all taken captive by,” he says. “A confusion derived from connections running through historic layers of genetics to our everyday life towards the open space that concludes it all. An examination of feelings and ethics, the eternal questions that in flashes can give an answer.” While his work is open to individual interpretation, the images can be read as an expression of sorrow, pain and anger. “In this perspective art will always be important – because art is the biggest metaphor for insight and comprehension for us all.”
Art does indeed have the unique ability to handle difficult and painful questions of our time, our past and our future. With self-isolation, lockdowns and closed borders, a less smog-filled sky has shone brighter, humans have realized the value of physical connection and contact. Simultaneously, the darker sides of our existence emerge, with the mindset of ‘us and them’ crawling across our lit screens and seeping into our digitally vulnerable minds; with the uneven global distribution of vaccines that has privileged the Western world; and racial and social inequalities scream louder than ever. It all leaves us wondering if, in an attempt to revitalize a post-pandemic world, should we revive humanist ideals?
“Looking at humanism historically, it’s not as inclusive as it claims to be. If we are going to continue to exist on this planet, I’d rather we think anew, together, with a new economy and a new direction. My wish is that we can start to create an experience of change, one that includes other people and other existences on this earth,” Tove says.
Perhaps we aren’t meant to rule this world. Clearly, there is no single, simple answer to these complex questions. However, a good place to start might just be in the halls of an art exhibition where diverse installations invite us to pause for just a moment – a moment in which we are face to face with difficult topics, in which we navigate questions we otherwise wouldn’t have asked. And maybe, just maybe, we can spark a conversation with a stranger next to us with whom we wouldn’t otherwise have spoken.
Words by Hannah Magnusson
AIDOL (2019) BY LAWRENCE LEK, DOOM LOOP (2019) BY ANDERS HOLEN ABOVE RIGHT: WORKS BY HOLEN AT THE ASTRUP FEARNLEY MUSEUM, OSLO. REGENERATIVE RELIQUARY, (2016) BY AMY KARLE, AND I, IIIIII (URD J. PEDERSEN) (2019) BY ANDERS HOLEN. THE ARTIST PER INGE BJØRLO AT WORKS IN HIS STUDIO, WE ARE ALL SAILORS AND WOMEN LEFT BEHIND (2019) AND WELCOME HOME (2021). SELF PORTRAIT (AFTER KALI AND GENE) (2009) BY HARMINDER.