Critics´Conversations: Eamon O´Kane on the Sarah Jost and Ellen Ringstad exhibitions

Spaceship Earth

In the introduction to the book The Three Ecologies by Felix Guattari there is a description of humankind as a type of fungus on the Earth of which the planet is unaware. We could take this further and suggest that humans are like a type of parasite or bacteria. We could see the Earth as an organism itself and that huge structures like the Great Wall of China (which can just about be seen from outer space) could be seen as a scar, or that all the huge cities that humankind has constructed are brown/grey blemishes on an otherwise healthy green and blue surface. Since The Three Ecologies was first published in 1989 the grey/brown human effect on the earth has multiplied even to the extent of forming large islands of plastic waste in the oceans. It could be said that these perspectives proposed by Felix Guattari, and Gregory Bateson before him, sum up the difficulty that humankind has been facing ever since realising that human activities could have an effect on the ecology of the planet. Are we separate from nature or are we part of nature? Of course, the idea of nature is something of a human construct already, but that also contributes to the dilemma that we find ourselves in as a species.

In their two exhibitions from an arboreal point of of view and Apclpstk currently on show at Galleri Christinegaard and USF, Sarah Jost and Ellen Ringstad examine aspects of the crisis of the Anthropocene in differing, but related ways.

Sarah Jost grew up in Sweden where her family owns a forest, consisting of trees that had been planted by her grandparents. This human made forest is intended to be harvested and replanted and indeed, in her childhood she experienced one of these harvestings. Whilst understanding on some level its significance, she says it was quite a traumatic experience. This idea of the human harnessing nature is not necessarily at odds with the concept of being part of nature as one could say that humans are inventing new natural processes related to the use of material in much the same way as other creatures such as bees, ants or termites (just at a larger scale). It does throw up a problem, however, if we see it from a purely subjective human perspective, as we could begin to ask what is the real nature (or real forest in this case).
It is also this human centric point of view that allows us to invent terms like the Anthropocene in the first place as is suggests an end game for the world or nature, when actually it may really mean an end game for humankind.

It is this type of apocalypse that is at the core of Ellen Ringstad´s exhibition. Coincidentally she is also engaging with a forest and this time it is a “real” one in that it has been left “untouched” by humans for thousands of years. It is also located in a place connected to her childhood, that is the Laurisilva forest on Madeira island where her mother’s family is from. This forest is described as 90% primary forest and is a UNESCO world heritage site. In her exhibition which is inspired by the philosopher Ernest Bloch, Ringstad explores ideas of how we can escape the impending apocalypse through tapping into a more spiritual relation to the world around us. This approach harks back to indigenous cultures such as the Native Americans, Aboriginals or even the Sami people. Ringstad sets up her installation in a way which could be termed site sensitive and this is something in common with Sarah Jost’s exhibition which relates directly to the architecture of the Villa Christinegaard and whose wooden sculptures feel very much at home in relation to the plywood walls and the centuries old wooden beams in the floor above. Ringstad’s approach is to construct a threshold space that operates in the mode of relational aesthetics in a similar way to Rirkrit Tiravanija´s happenings. She has constructed a wooden installation which is part tea kitchen, part aquarium and part tropical veranda. The fish tanks in this space are full of beautiful fish and as we turn around after examining these creatures we realise that we are also contained in a type of architectural fish tank of USF (which is fronted with glass windows from floor to ceiling) where we humans are the subjects. The space has a calming effect which is further enhanced by the delicious tea provided on the stove. There is a slightly ominous feeling in the sounds emanating from the second room which is entered through a curtain which further emphasizes the sense of liminality. In the second room, we are confronted with a large projection on the far wall accompanied by a soundtrack which reverberates throughout the space. The soundtrack oscillates between making one feel as if one is back in the womb, and a sense of foreboding that seems to be the contrast that Ringstad is trying to achieve. The looped film starts with an extract from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the images we are presented with are scenes from the forest in mist, sometimes overlaid with an image of a glass sphere. This is perhaps a nod to the music of the spheres which is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies (the Sun, Moon, and planets) as a form of music, but it could equally suggest a crystal ball into which we look for answers of the future. Drinking the tea and visually ingesting the film induces a type of mesmeric trance or meditative state where one contemplates these scenes which are devoid of human presence.

Sarah Jost´s installation could be said to be playing with a different type of liminality in relation to the human and the non-human. There seems to be a subtle underlying critique of the way human kind tends to archive, categorise, manipulate and control the natural world. Her work titled sjutton träd och jag genom tusentals år i norge appears on the surface to be a formally abstract installation using the materials of wood paper and pigment, but on closer inspection we see that it is more of a historical timeline of non-indigenous trees in Norway and suddenly we are in the world of the natural sciences. But this is again confounded when one realises that what appear to be colour coded rubbings of the tree rings are nothing of the sort, but more abstract meditations on the cross section of the tree, and any attempt to make scientific sense of the timeline and the images is futile. We are suspended in the liminal space between knowing and not knowing. Another work titled of, relating to, resembling; trees, functions in a similar way except here we are presented with the microscopic cross section of a pine needle and a magnifying lens on top of the needle itself. A jar with green liquid and a wooden root sculpture form another part of the construction. It is as if this construction is suggesting itself as a perception tool that will enable the viewer to understand what they are looking at in a deeper way. But even though Jost is using some of the visual language of the scientific world, the feeling of the work is that this perception is much more connected to an intuitive, perhaps primitive way, of understanding the world. This connects with the more spiritual relationships with the natural world evoked in Ringstad’s work and the traditions we have lost that had been maintained for centuries by indigenous cultures across the globe. The sister work to of, relating to, resembling; trees, which has also the same title involves a wooden and cardboard structure which resembles both a viewing table in a museum or an architectural model of a house and a tree. This work transports the viewer from the micro to the macro and back again in an Alice in Wonderland way where, if one looks in closely at a large lens in the roof/table top, one can see tiny cross sections of twigs that are arranged in a circle that become like wooden tree trunks under the roof of a building. I saw Sarah’s exhibition before Ellen’s but now thinking back to it, the large lens in this work reminds me of Ringstad’s crystal ball or the music of the spheres. Perhaps in these two exhibitions where there are no images of humankind and little evidence of humans as the dominant creatures on this planet, there is a proposal to return to a type of tabula rasa and press a reset button that allows us a different understanding of what it means to live on this relatively small sphere that Buckminster Fuller once called Spaceship earth.

Eamon O`Kane

The text was written in conjunction with Critics´ Conversations held February 1st, 2018. You can hear the conversation here.
In the panel was also Kari Aasen and Arve Rød, see also their texts here and here.

Eamon O`Kane has had over 70 solo shows, and has been shown by a number of important art institutions in Europe and the US. He is recipient of a number of awards, like EV+A Open Award (selected by Dan Cameron), The Taylor Art Award, The Tony O`Malley Award, Fulbright Award and artist residencies in (Irish Museum of Museum of Modern Art), Roma (BSR Scholarship), Paris (Centre Culturel Irlandais). His work is represented in a number of collections: Museum of Fine Arts, Brest, France; Deutsche Bank, Germany; Burda Museum, Baden Baden, Germany; Microsoft, Ireland; Country Bank, New York, USA; ASPEN RE, London; Danske Bank, Denmark. Han er professor i maleri ved Kunstakademiet, KMD, University of Bergen.