A Pumpkin’s Universe

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Courtesy of the artist, 2016

The name of the exhibition by Ieva Jurjāne, displayed at Alma gallery (October 19th – November 17th 2016),  in English might also sound like this: Life is Still. Then the word-play inherent in it would become more obvious. However, it could also be Nature is Silent, which is a literal translation of the Latvian title Daba klusē, and indicates the points of reference of the exhibition: nature, culture, the human being, talking, and staying silent. If still life traditionally embodies something of an ideal order, more precisely, from the human preconception of the ideal order in nature, or offers a view of nature as a metaphor for human ideas, then consideration of the title allows us to expect that, instead of an anthropocentric viewpoint at the exhibition, the microphone will be handed over to nature itself.

This approach is quite widespread in contemporary art. Examples of land art from the 1960s come to mind, and, closer to the present day, experiments in the new media with natural phenomena, bacteria, plants and animals, which, unbeknown to them, are empowered to carry out the act of artistic creation. Imprints and traces are left behind, sounds are created and recorded, the process of growth or disintegration is registered, or the surrounding environment is altered: all of these fluctuations are usually fixed by complex technologies, and we understand the result to be art. True, at Ieva Jurjāne’s exhibition, it immediately becomes clear that there aren’t any sounds here; nor will any be heard, either in the literal sense or metaphorically.

On display in the exhibition are small paintings and micro-installations, which, while being self-contained pieces of art, once served as arrangements of objects for the paintings exhibited. The drawings have been placed next to their ‘objects of representation’, as if inviting a comparison between what is depicted and the subject that is to be depicted. This juxtaposition is confusing: did the artist wish to make an ironic comment on the verities expressed in Foucault’s work This is not a Pipe, for example, that when contemplating art, we inadvertently seek to identify it “like an infinite murmur – haunting, enclosing the silence of figures, investing it, mastering it, extricating the silence from itself, and finally reversing it within the domain of things that can be named”?[1] All that we are missing here are a few captions, such as ‘this is not …’, ‘that is not …’, in order for the link with Magritte to be established unequivocally, and then perhaps the exhibition could be renamed The Silence of the Pipe. Even though the captions are not there, my (flawed) imagination creates them in my mind, and this background noise does not promote the perception of the silence of nature.

Staying silent or silence? Because there is a difference, isn’t there. Silence can occur by chance, during the time when staying silent anticipates the presence of the subject, precisely what we are yearning for, when we have subjected to criticism the position of superiority of the human being, and the contrast between nature and culture that arises from it. As the anthropologist Sherry Ortner writes, traditionally one of the functions of culture has been to rationalise nature, to transform and culturalize it, so as to acquire the ability to resist the savage forces of nature, to control destructive natural occurrences, and to interfere in processes that are natural, but at times quite harmful to the human being.[2] Even today, this tendency has not gone away, perhaps only the emphases and attitudes have changed in relation to what is natural, recognising that nature as such is the same kind of cultural construct as culture itself, something for which, to a large extent, we should be grateful to the theory of post-structuralism.

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Courtesy of the artist, 2016

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Courtesy of the artist, 2016

In the drawings by Ieva Jurjāne, the human being has been reduced to the size of a toadstool, or else it has been placed sitting at the centre of a pumpkin; hence we can speak of ‘the crown of creation’ only in an ironic sense. The small white (and yes, fragile) porcelain figurines appear to be somewhat feeble, vulnerable, dependent, and with a limited capacity for action, either due to a conscious decision or fateful coincidence. The proportions between man and nature are equalised, the carrot becomes his ally, a hollow in a tree, his home. He no longer holds the privilege of meaning while interpreting the qualities of nature, he no longer has any claim to enhance the natural landscape, nor the opportunity to wastefully consume natural resources: these harmful habits of contemporary post-industrial life have been given up, and have even become inconceivable.

A fairly dusty catchphrase from Rousseau comes to mind: “Back to nature”. Is it not then, in some way, still alive and relevant today? Surely we often hear that human beings must live in harmony with nature, should cure themselves with natural remedies, must take heed of the rhythms of nature, whether it is a woman’s menstrual cycle or the changing of the seasons. I have mentioned woman, of course, not inadvertently, because according to some theories, her relationship with nature is much closer than the masculine subject, who ‘in the spiritual sphere’ is preoccupied with art, while a woman, in giving birth to children and nursing them, stays silent, just like a still life… Even though this exhibition is not unduly burdened with gender issues, the porcelain figurines are of both men and women, and at least one work betrays a zephyr of feministic inclination (it portrays the fallen figure of a woman, in the face of heroic towering forks of branches in trees; moreover, what is more frightening, it is a whole mob of them all at once).

It seems that already we can reach a paradoxical conclusion, one that I have been indirectly leading to from the very first lines: the more a human being strives to merge with nature, and to become an intrinsic part of it, the more clearly the contrast between the human and nature stands out. The novel Surfacing by Margaret Atwood comes to mind, where a woman makes a radical attempt to reject all forms of human existence: she decides to move around on all fours, abandoning her dwelling, clawing at the earth with her nails, letting her hair grow wild, and similar things. The natural creatures of Ieva Jurjāne exist under a completely different regime, however: if pine needles are pine needles, and branches are branches, then the white porcelain figurines are artistic enough to be placed in the category of ‘artifice’, not ‘nature’. This assertion is alluded to in the comment by the artist herself: “The fragility of human existence, existential questions and the level of despair intuitively seek to be compensated through contact with nature.” In other words, the human being is something other than nature, and our human condition (fragility, questioning, despair) exists in isolation from nature, in parallel with and independent of it. Only in extraordinary circumstances (when he loses the stability of his position as a human) does he turn to nature to seek refuge, consolation and answers to questions. Thus, we have to admit that we have been unable to proceed any further than the traditional view of nature as a resource, to which we can turn in time of need and to recover from the noise of culture.

This allows us to intuit that the chief focus of the exhibition is not the silence of nature, but rather the way that a human being perceives this silence. Because it is precisely the human being who fulfils the function of being the subject in this exhibition: he listens. He has questions, but there are no answers. True, that is no great surprise: in her depiction of nature, the artist emphasises the chaotic and the accidental, rather than the logical and the orderly. Objects of nature fly in unknown directions through the space of the white page, they lack context, tradition, coordinates. The knot of roots and the slice of watermelon are just as big a conundrum as the human being who inhabits them.

Taking into account Ieva Jurjāne’s remarkable experience as scenographer, working both in theatre and cinema, one more supposition could be made: these scenes are productions that have very little to do with nature. More accurately, elements of nature, those self-same conifer needles and branches, become scenery, the stage set, the props that a human being puts to use when seeking to establish some kind of clarity in their investigations or interpersonal relationships. A corner of nature is a good place to hide, to curl up and go to sleep for a while, as if back in the womb. It is nice to know that someone is waiting for you at the exit. And it is not a predatory wolf, a poisonous snake or an enormous mosquito, but someone just like you: it doesn’t matter if it’s missing an arm or a leg, the main thing is that it should have ears.

Photo reportage from Ieva Jurjāne’s exhibition Nature is Silent at Alma gallery by Kristīne Madjare:

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[1]      Foucault, Michel. This Is Not a Pipe. Trans. by James Harkness. University of California Press, 2008, p. 34.

[2]     Ortner, Sherry B. Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? // Feminism–Art–Theory. An Anthology 1968–2000, p. 21.

Jana Kukaine
Author
November 17, 2016
Published in Review from Latvia
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