Survival Kit 9: How Nature and Art Always Find a Way

October 25, 2017
Author Diāna Kaijaka
Published in Review from Latvia
Andris Eglītis. Laboratory of Poetic Research. Gelatine, mould, potassium permanganate on canvas, 2017

Andris Eglītis. Laboratory of Poetic Research. 2017.  Photo: Ēriks Božis

The Latvian theatre and art critic Normunds Naumanis once compared art to mushrooms, saying that, just like mushrooms, art is a sometimes under-appreciated but ever-present part of human life. ‘Mushrooms are everything, and everything’s a mushroom. We can pretend not to see that, but we still feel it. Right here, next to us, inside, in the core, in the air and light.’[1] The comparison seems to be exceptionally appropriate in the context of this year’s theme for Survival Kit 9. The art festival itself started as a kind of ‘art mushroom’ that pops up every year in a different empty space in Riga, reflecting the most relevant issues and questions, looking for ways to grow and plant its ideas. The idea, or rather the process, in the spotlight this year is ‘becoming’, the search for ways in which the relationship of the human to nature can potentially be transformed into a more transversal and empathetic form of co-existence, as the curators Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Solvita Krese and Inga Lāce explain in their introduction.

The exhibition follows the established postmodern practice of looking back and revisiting ‘known truths’, in order to highlight marginalised points of view, in this case nature, setting a challenge for spectators to try, as it says in the title, ‘Becoming an Apricot, an Apple, a Crow, a Tree, a Cockroach, a Glacier, a Plant, a Mushroom, a Shell, a Bird, Algae’. The chosen theme of ecology is a timeless theme, and yet it seems to be timed perfectly: it echoes current global issues of climate change, natural disasters, and the increasing interest in and relevance of Anthropocene in the art world and beyond. Anthropocene in the festival’s context is the idea that human activity has become the primary influence on our environment, overtaking natural processes, which is not only an interesting topic on its own, but possibly even more so when contrasted with the point of view that tries to turn the idea of anthropocentrism on its head, putting the emphasis on the overlooked and still-present agency of the natural world instead. The art world nowadays finds itself continually more interdisciplinary, and on questions such as ecology, going hand in hand and debating the same issues as science. The bridge that is being built between the natural sciences and art could be a great indicator that the culture-nature divide is just as artificially upheld as aforementioned. Therefore, some of the most interesting questions the exhibition proposes are, whether the border still exists, do we need it, and how does it function?

Making a convincing case for the non-existence of this border, and underlining the union of man and nature, is the shared authorship that Andris Eglītis offers to nature, allowing the Earth and other elements to freely ‘paint’ with him. This series might be considered a continuation of his ‘Earth Works’ (2011), where Eglītis used natural materials such as dirt and mud to paint landscapes. ‘Laboratory of Poetic Research’ (2017) is not only a wonderful development of that, but a play with the idea of ‘man the maker’: first the author as a lone creative force that manipulates and transforms natural materials; and now surrendering this power, becoming part of the process, and finding a new ‘colleague’ in the place of his ‘working materials’.

Nona Inescu. Gommage. Archival print on Hahnemühle paper mounted on plywood plinth, sycamore tree bark flakes (painted), 2016. Drawings from Caterpillars Ink on paper, 2015. Where Touch Begins, We Are Single-channel HD video, 7'35", 2016. Photo: Ēriks Božis

Nona Inescu. Gommage. Archival print on Hahnemühle paper mounted on plywood plinth, sycamore tree bark flakes (painted), 2016. Drawings from Caterpillars Ink on paper, 2015. Where Touch Begins, We Are Single-channel HD video, 7’35”, 2016. Photo: Ēriks Božis

Another example that questions the divide between man and nature is Nona Inescu’s series ‘Gommage’ (2016), ‘Drawing from Caterpillars’ (2015) and ‘Where Touch Begins, We Are’(2016). Inescu’s use of touch and skin speaks directly to the senses through which we experience, interact and are inseparably a part of the natural world. Skin could be perceived as a very distinct boundary; but as, for example, Emilie Rākete writes in the article ‘In Human: Parasites, Posthumanism, Papatūānuku’, exploring the human relationship with nature through the example of Māori stories, the boundary might not be there. Instead, a way of seeing the world as a whole is proposed: ‘Why should a louse living on the surface of my skin be categorised as a parasite, and I should not, when we are both crawling on the skin of a larger ecology […]? How can we talk about insides and outsides? Margins?’[2] Quoting from John Dewey’s ‘Art as Experience’: ‘The epidermis is in only the most superficial way an indication of where an organism ends and its environment begins.’[3] These ideas are reflected in each of the works by Inescu we see, and even in the exhibition as a whole. There is even a certain ‘overlap’ with sounds, sometimes making it challenging to separate the sound installations by James Webb from those of the building itself, environment and the visitors, leading us to again consider the presence and careful deconstruction of all kinds of borders in the exhibition.

Of course, the relationship between humans and nature is not always harmonious: maybe we need a border to protect one another? The inherent violence of the ‘circle of life’ mixed with gentle gestures such as a hug and soft stroking are explored through the ritualised fishing tradition in a village in Brazil depicted by Jonathas de Andrade’s ‘O Peixe (The Fish)’ (2016). Another, more ambiguous form of human dominance is found in Annika Eriksson’s ‘I Am the Dog That Was Always Here (Loop)’ (2013), where we see the abandonment and isolation of stray dogs by people and the authorities. But a different kind of interference can be observed by the author herself: in giving ‘voice’ to the stray dogs, is Eriksson not simply reflecting her own ideas and attempts at empathising? Is it not a form of subjugation to imagine that we can give ‘voice to the voiceless’, to know what the earth, plants and animals feel and think? This authorship of a dog’s thoughts is perhaps so striking because we don’t see the artist, just her subjects, and therefore the text seems to claim a form of objectivity.

Ehsan Ul Haq. I Love Morality. Site specific installation, 2017. Photo: Ēriks Božis

Ehsan Ul Haq. I Love Morality. Site specific installation, 2017. Photo: Ēriks Božis

One of the works that also touches on the theme of the human tendency to impose on the environment is Ehsan Ul Haq’s ‘I Love Morality’ (2017). The site-specific installation balances a tongue-in-cheek play with found elements and a somewhat moralising tone, emphasising the ‘grand ego of man’ and his need to control and rearrange the world. In contrast ‘The Ugly Duckling – Child of Man’ (1985) by Andris Grinbergs and Laima Žurgina is a beautiful example of the healing power of nature, as it follows Grinbergs as an art teacher in a special boarding school in Mazirbe. The children are also shown giving ‘voice to the voiceless’, and even though it still remains a one-way form of communication, it feels somehow harmonious, because we see a relationship develop between the children and their apple-tree companions. It might even be argued that it is not a one-way relationship at all, as the children look after their trees, and the bond they develop helps them in return. It is all about balance, as the curators remind us with the example of the quote from Henri Michaux in the festival’s title, and the little, added things throughout the building like the crow’s nest that included wires, etc: look for the unknown, try to be in the apple, but don’t get stuck or frozen in it; find the delicate middle ground, a border that lets you grow.

Indeed, an aspect of the exhibition that cannot be overlooked is education. Survival Kit 9 is quite literally taking us back to school: the now almost abandoned Biology Faculty of the University of Latvia. The building itself embodies a kind of perfect in-between place, where the natural world is scrutinised and taken apart, and yet admired, studied and cherished. Through all of this, the overall message of the exhibition does not become didactic, even though a theme such as ecology and human intervention in nature lends itself to some lecturing.

The use of museums that hold the last signs of life within the huge building also has a special significance: a particularly interesting case is the ‘Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle’ (2008) by Christine Ödlund, in the Latvian Museum of the History of Chemistry. More than the nettle, the real stress call seems to belong to the forgotten people and exhibits in the building.

Ieva Epnere. Green School. HD video, installation, 2017

Ieva Epnere. Green School. HD video, installation, 2017. Photo: Ēriks Božis

Education as an environmental issue is perhaps most clearly reflected in Ieva Epnere’s ‘Green School’ (2017). Education and children as the focal point in the exhibition are a key component, one that allows us to consider a more hopeful vision of the future, where with a little more compassion and thoughtfulness, we might finally strike the right balance. The theme of education also appears in works such as ‘This is Not an Apricot’ (2009) by Maria Thereza Alves and ‘The Sarcophagus (II)’ (2017) by Andrej Polukord, where the emphasis is on the diversity and ingenious qualities of nature to the point of the human inability to sometimes recognise it: like the huge variety of ‘apricots’ or fungi. In his work, Polukord endeavours to give instructions to become a better mushroom picker, urging us to be more conscious and attentive. It is an ode to the fungi, and now is the right season to go and find some of your own, not only the ones in forests, but to start a collection of idea mushrooms that grow all around us. The most important tip is to look for the unexpected. Art and nature will always find a way to surprise.


[2] Rākete (2015, P.12)

[3] Emilie Rākete. In Human: Parasites, Posthumanism, Papatūānuku (2015, P.12)ūānuku-by-Emilie-Rākete.pdf