Multi-sensory experience of ‘Down to Earth’ underlines efficacy of collective action

Against the shadow of pandemic crisis, the exhibition Down to Earth in Berlin, forges novel ways to evaluate climate changes with participatory practice.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Sep 03, 2020

The disproportionate distribution of power, before the global pandemic COVID-19 swept the globe, dotted selective social narratives. The pandemic turned opaque inequality into a more transparent reality, leaving the choice to either collectively overcome the crisis or approach it as individuals. The act to find oneself immersed in the situation and survive is determined on the scale of heterogeneity. The exhibition Down to Earth at Gropius Bau in Berlin, the sixth exhibition in the Immersion series since 2016, pushes creativity to be framed, discussed and shaped ‘collectively’. The Immersion series from the inception attempts to draw similarities with the theatre, where the presence of the audience occupies a pivotal role. Along with Thomas Oberender, the founder and artistic director of the Immersion programme and the initiator of the exhibition, the curatorial team includes Julia Badaljan, Anja Predeick, Tino Sehgal, Jeroen Versteele, together with the co-curators Descha Daemgen, Stefanie Hessler, Marc Pohl, Joulia Strauss and Frédérique Aït-Touati.

Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Velvet | Down to Earth| STIRworld
Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Velvet Image: Courtesy of die Künstlerin

The alarming climate change necessitates attention from not just the campaigners, policymakers and researchers, but also demands channelisation of awareness through participatory and transformative potentials of artistic projects. Oberender professes that climate change is the second turning point in the history of Europe after the revolution punctuated Eastern Germany. The project, eponymous of French philosopher Bruno Latour’s manifesto Down to Earth, carries political urgency and highlights the effects of human actions on the planet. What makes this exhibition set apart from the spiking trends of exhibitions on climate change is the emphasis of the indigenous knowledge systems. The modes of sustainability hitherto pushed to the margins are resurrected to familiarise the audience with the available resources to reclaim the planet. The images by Kader Attia, Andreas Gursky and Jean Painlevé show the present day conditions of the ocean planet; the work by Alicja Kwade straddles the transitional world of natural and technological transformation; the soundless installation by Vibha Galhotra is a dedication to the annihilation of the bees across the globe. Besides these installations, the participatory works led by Asad Raza on ‘neo-soil’; spider artwork of Tomás Saraceno and Tino Sehgal’s work This Situation immerses the audience to let them have a hand on experience. 

Installation view of ‘Down to Earth’. Climate Art Discourse unglugged | Down to Earth| STIRworld
Installation view of Down to Earth. Climate Art Discourse unglugged Image: Courtesy of Eike Walkenhorst

Oberender, in an interview with STIR, explicitly shares the four-pronged curatorial strategy to give framework to the spectrum of works, “No electricity, art unplugged – we try to minimise our carbon footprint. So, in the exhibition, we consistently work without screens, beamers, microphones, loudspeakers, laptops, spotlights and instead use daylight and music. All the theatre productions have been reworked in line with this idea. We work with recycled materials and no one involved in the project uses a plane. Secondly, the objects in our exhibition are respected for their enigmas and are not specimens of an instructive curatorial philosophy. They represent themselves, plain and simple. Thirdly, the practice of one’s own institution and the way one conducts one’s own life is what counts, not abstract goodness that we all agree about anyway. So, we won’t hang any pictures of melting glaciers on the wall only, but we will try to stop them melting through our actions in our work in this institution. We will investigate and publish how much we use, and question our technical systems. Lastly, our exhibition is both material and social. The exhibition with objects and installations is material. The four social modules integrated into the route are social: an autonomous academy and its ‘indigenous assembly’ that we have invited to come from Athens. A ‘working space’ by Bruno Latour and Frederique Ait-Touati, a programme of experts pioneers of sustainability and a performance module with music, dance and theatre”.

Kader Attia, Rochers Carrés | Down to Earth| STIRworld
Kader Attia, Rochers Carrés Image: Courtesy of Galerie Nagel Draxler Berlin

If the theoretical framework of the exhibition revolves around climate change, it is the immersive experience that brings the audience a step closer to understand the gravity of the situation. Oberender declares, “Our understanding of ‘immersion’ has little in common with event experiences like tours of Hollywood studios. As we understand it, immersion consists of social rituals, scripted realities, creating opportunities for multisensory experiences in classically one-dimensional institutions – presenting music, dance, olfactory interventions, workshops, lectures etc. as natural programming in a traditional white cube environment. Ideally, we can push humanity being the centre of the world and all experience a little to one side and present a broader view of the ecology in which it is embedded, that is made up of machines, plants, social practices, other species and landscapes.” 

Alicja Kwade, TransForm | Down to Earth| STIRworld
Alicja Kwade, TransForm Image: Courtesy of Garance Primat

While offering an array of experience across the platforms, Oberender states, “We want our visitors to come away with an experience of the world’s richness, a joy in the natural state of the world that is non-malign and complex, a blessing to us that brings with it a duty of care”. Labelled as the many ‘bads’ of the ‘second modernity’ by many, the climate change as a topic is frequently picked to underline the lopsided relationship between the power structures, ecological harmony and social propriety. Against the shadow of the pandemic crisis, the exhibition like Down to Earth constructively engages with the realm of embodiment, emotions, aesthetics, and sensuous experience to articulate that the future depends on the choices of the present.

Asad Raza, Absorption | Down to Earth| STIRworld
Asad Raza, Absorption Image: Courtesy of Eike Walkenhorst

The exhibition Down to Earth is on view till September 13, 2020 at Gropius Bau, Berlin.

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