“A landscape is more than a piece of nature.”
Email correspondence between curator Liberty Adrien and poet and transmedia artist Anna Zilahi on the occasion of the next exhibition of Trafó Gallery entitled As we see it.
Liberty Adrien (18.12.2021)
It’s a great pleasure to exchange thoughts with you on the significance of landscape in contemporary art and writing. This theme is at the heart of the group exhibition Selon notre regard (As we see it), which will be presented at Trafó Gallery in February 2022.
Thinking about a subject for an exhibition is a process that is like a chain reaction of encounters and influences. The landscape is a recurrent topic in art history that interests me particularly. I am fascinated by the ability of artists to share emotions as well as stories about human relationships and social structures in those images. It is a reflection that came up several times in the course of my study on the history of artworks by women artists acquired by the French state for the national collections, from 1791 to the present day. These collections - the Fonds régional d'art contemporain (FRAC) and the Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP) -, which comprise of 120,000 artworks ranging from classical to contemporary art - 14% of which are by women artists of all nationalities - are important cultural, social and political testimonies. The roots of Selon notre regard (As we see it) lie in this research. It gave me the opportunity to explore the history of women's rights in depth, their struggle and achievements for equality; to read and listen to experiences of women across a wide and diverse spectrum of cultures, classes, creeds, generations, racial backgrounds and sexual orientations / genders. The exhibition offers a way to explore some of these powerful stories through one specific topic. In the depictions of landscapes (scenes of ruins, caves, forests, mountains) in the works of artists such as Lida Adbul, Shirley Bruno, Ana Vaz and Salomé Lamas, we can trace artistic statements concerning the issues of colonialism, climate change and historical events (land dispossession, social revolutions, wars) as well as existential and spiritual reflections. We learn pieces of history through a web of human emotions intertwined with important socio-political reflections.
Has the representation of landscape in contemporary writing been an important source of inspiration and learning for you too?
Lida Abdul: What we saw upon awakening, 2006, video still
Anna Zilahi (20. 12. 2021, Budapest)
I am very excited about the upcoming Selon notre regard (As we see it) show at Trafó Gallery, since I have a strong interest in the question of landscape, especially from feminist and climate-related perspectives. I see the richness and abundance of topics you are referring to, that a simple landscape portrayal can stir up, and this complexity is exactly what makes this topic so crucial for me as well.
I got acquainted with the idea of the landscape through my collaboration with Rita Süveges, Budapest-based visual artist. In 2017, I worked in the framework of the xtro realm artist group to contemplate together on the notions of nature, climate change and the role of the artist within the new ontological circumstances imposed by the climate crisis upon our lives. In 2018, Rita joined the group by organizing Anthropocene field trips. Through these excursions, she brought us to landscapes which function as strong tropes in the Hungarian social imaginary. For instance, we went together to witness the toxic sublime of the Gánt bauxite mine or the „untouched nature” of the Kékes forest reserve. She introduced me to the tool of ecocriticism, which is mainly used in literary theory to analyze and deconstruct a text from the aspect of how it portrays nature and what it tells about how we perceive nature and how we position ourselves in relation to nature:
“The social construction of a landscape indirectly reflects the totality of our ideas regarding the non-human world. If we unpack how these perspectives are constructed we can unveil a reflection of prevalent social relations. A landscape is more than a piece of nature. It is a mode of experiencing the external world as determined by its historical setting and the effect that modernist ideology weighs on its viewer. A landscape reflects how certain social classes define themselves via their relation to nature and how they communicate their role in the external natural and social environment. It presents and represents the natural and socio-cultural factors that have shaped the given space. A landscape is therefore a social product, the historiography of which is disclosable. It is not untouched nature free from human intervention, a perspective with which it is frequently confused.” (Rita Süveges, “Beyond the Postcard: an Ecocritical Inquiry on Images of Nature”, in Climate Imaginary Reader, eds. Rita Süveges and Anna Zilahi, Mezosfera Magazine 9, (October 2020))
Rita's ingenious way of combining landscape – one of the main subjects of art history – with the lens of ecocriticism was a real eye-opener for me. It’s like glasses: when you finally put them on, you cannot believe you lived without this perspective up until that moment. Both in my poetry and my art practice, I liked to imagine landscapes, to deconstruct them, or to superimpose the female body to the landscape or vice-versa. But with this new pair of glasses, my understanding became deeper and I longed for more consciousness. On this journey, the other strand of thought which fascinated and affected me largely, was ecofeminism. It is the idea that the oppression of women and the exploitation of the ecosystem derives from the same capitalist logic which naturalises the feminin and femininises the natural, thus rendering both inferior to the masculin world of production and colonialism.
Culturally, predominantly patriarchal Western civilizations perceive landscapes as passive and mechanical sceneries, for instance, backgrounds for pick-nicks or other pastime activities, where we could ask a non-European person with an instrument to play some music for us, and involve women to dance and entertain us. With a more contemporary, but still widespread productivist interest, we look at a landscape and we think its minerals could be extracted no matter to whom it belongs (in indigenous American cosmologies it belongs to the Earth, where it lays...), the trees could be cut for energy or for IKEA-furniture. More progressively, we could plant a park of wind turbines there, or even most simply, any wild piece of soil should be cultivated.
I am interested in a counter-perspective though: where nature and culture are not divided and defined against one another, where we look at a landscape and we see a micro-ecosystem, and we do see its non-human (more-than-human) beings. Where we look at a landscape, see class struggle and invisible labour (mostly performed by women „after work”), and a landscape therefore becomes an initiator to imagine a more equal world.
From this deep longing for an interconnected world based on mutual respect, I created a choir piece, the Missa Echologica, together with Laura Szári and the Varsányi Szirének feminist choir. This choir piece evokes the plants, animals and minerals of the Northern Lake Balaton region in Hungary, which are now critically threatened by the Hungarian oligarchy. People of the nouveau riche class close to the power destroy natural habitats under protection to build new hotels and holiday villas for themselves. This process leads to severe long-term societal changes too: local people who mainly live from tourism face a strong and asymmetric competition now. Local families who lived as welcoming hosts of a onetime small fisher village find themselves and their livelihood threatened, just like the ecosystem of the region. In this choir piece, the animals, plants and people of the region are united through the female voice which finds itself through the sense of belonging to the community.
You can tell now, I assume, why I am also thrilled about the landscape, since it encapsulates historical and contemporary problems, but it is an indicator of underlying philosophical controversies as well. However, when we look at it with the right intent, it might also propose answers to us.
Nonetheless, sometimes the questions are already exciting to raise. So looking at your research, I can imagine that the 14% of works acquired from female artists in the French national collection you analyzed offers a different understanding of the world, which might have made these works of distinguished import. Which was the first work that made you think about thematising the landscape within the pool of these female artists and what are the exact perspectives which fascinate you in each of these works? Did they make you think differently, and in what ways? How do these works relate to one another?
Anna Zilahi is a poet and transmedia artist. Her often participatory text- and sound-based works focus on questions of society, ecology, and feminism. She is a co-founder of the Budapest-based xtro realm artist group whose work addresses non-anthropocentric and ecological strands of thought since 2017. She is editor and co-author of extrodæsia: Encyclopedia Towards a Post-Anthropocentric World (2019), a Hungarian-English bilingual dictionary that collects the vocabulary of the Anthropocene in dialogue with poetry and visual artworks. She is also co-editor of the artist group’s Climate Imaginary Reader published in 2020 as the 9th special issue of Mezosfera magazine. In 2021, she was awarded the Attila Hazai Literary Prize. https://annazilahi.com
Liberty Adrien is a curator, art historian and critic. She was recently appointed co-curator of the renowned Kunsthalle Portikus in Frankfurt alongside Carina Bukuts. In 2021, the duo curated together the large-scale project Balade Berlin, an exhibition route in public places, for which they worked with artists Haris Epaminonda, Christine Sun Kim, Jumana Manna, Ulrike Ottinger, Bettina Pousttchi, Willem de Rooij, Jimmy Robert, and Slavs and Tatars. Liberty Adrien founded the independent art space Âme Nue in Hamburg, dedicated to contemporary art and culture, and the artist studios Âme Nue Ateliers in Paris. The French Ministry of Culture awarded her a research grant for her study on "the history of works by women artists acquired for the French national collections, from 1791 to the present day". Since then, she has collaborated with the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (CNAP), the Fonds régional d'art contemporain 49 Nord 6 Est – Frac Lorraine and the Institut français Paris to present exhibitions of video works from the French collections in several European cities. For the Institut français Berlin, Liberty Adrien has created and curated the art space Les Vitrines.
Cover image: Salomé Lamas: The Tower, 2015, video still
The exhibition As we see it is supported by the Institut français de Budapest, National Cultural Fund of Hungary and Káli Kövek.