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The work of Monika Tobel bridges the gap between humankind and nature

Hungarian artist Monika Tobel explores her niche multidisciplinary craft with STIR.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Sep 05, 2023

The interdisciplinary artist Monika Tobel, who hails from Hungary, has a rather fascinating practice: she focuses on the niche topic of interspecies communication. The Hungarian artist designs a variety of bizarre props and explores various modes of movement in order to bridge the gap between human and non-human actors within our shared world. "My aim is to gain a somatic understanding of being a sensory body, to truly live inside the ecosystem and not above or outside of it. I wish to regain, to re-remember my bodily self, my molecular self, and my sensory self through actions, exercises, and performative doings. I hope that by sharing my experiences with others, I can open them up to the importance and beauty of the more-than-human-world, and encourage them to find their place within it," she tells STIR. A particularly strange example of Tobel’s work is her O2 CO2 Symbiotic Co-Dependence Device for Uncertain Futures. It is a contraption featuring what appears to be a small terrarium with a pipe attached to it. The artist uses a medical apparatus to breathe through the pipe, captured in what is a somewhat dystopian; even apocalyptic image, especially with due consideration to present environmental paradigms: to some, the device may hint at the possibility of self-contained, oxygen-producing ecosystems becoming necessary in a world that no longer generates breathable air.

‘O2 CO2 Symbiotic Co-Dependence Device for Uncertain Futures’, 2021  | Monika Tobel | STIRworld
O2 CO2 Symbiotic Co-Dependence Device for Uncertain Futures, 2021 Image: Courtesy of Monika Tobel

While one may, at first glance, find Tobel’s work to be utterly singular and presenting a very unique take on biomimicry design, this is not quite the case: she finds inspiration in multiple sources, from literature, philosophy, art theory, and not the least in the wide swathe of visual art practices that she engages with. One of the foremost among these is Marcus Coates’ use of play, ritual, and narrative to allow collaborations to form in search of an understanding between multispecies communities. Tobel mentions finding Coates’ work exhilarating, and also cites Feral Practice, a project run by Fiona MacDonald whose work consists of experiments with potential non-linguistic communication in order to re-calibrate the species barrier that sets us apart from nature. MacDonald seeks to establish a more balanced relationship between human and non-human worlds, which is not unlike what Tobel is pursuing. Finnish artist and writer, Terike Haapoja’s ambitious projects that span multiple fields, media, and countries, examining the connection between all forms of othering also find their way into Tobel’s imagination, and Haapoja in particular has encouraged the artist through her focus on speciesism and the exploration of political agency for non-human actors. Tobel also mentions being intrigued by artists who use a blend of voice and movement as communicational tools, such as Meredith Monk and Hanna Tuulikki.

‘Hominid Performance’, 2018 | Monika Tobel | STIRworld
Hominid Performance, 2018 Image: Courtesy of Monika Tobel

Tobel has been living and working in the United Kingdom for the last 15 years. She completed her BA in Drawing for Art Practice at the University of Bath in 2011, followed by a Masters in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Fine Arts in London in 2018. Despite her artistic pursuits, she is also currently studying for a Doctorate in Fine Art at the University of East London. Creatively speaking, the artist has ventured even further than her focus on the natural and the human: as of now, she is exploring death as a concept, and binding it with her prior research into interspecies communication.

St. Francis of Assisi and Me, 2018 Video: Courtesy of Monika Tobel

The multidisciplinary artist tells STIR, “I have arrived at the topic of mortality through a personal phobia. I used to have a crippling fear of death, which led me to study the subject. I learned about death anxiety through Ernest Becker’s theories, which helped me overcome some of my fears, but the real turning point came with the realisation that it is not death anxiety, but rather our separation from nature that is responsible for these negative psychological states. I turned towards environmental and ecological topics and found that the best way to find this lost connection is through communication; through dissipating the perceived hierarchies between species and entities in order to be within nature and not outside or above it.” Her words are certainly food for thought, and prompt one to reconsider our perceived superiority over the natural order. Perhaps in attempting to place ourselves above natural law, we have inadvertently encouraged our own alienation from natural states of being.

‘Deep Time’, 2023 | Monika Tobel | STIRworld
Deep Time, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Monika Tobel

Tobel tries through her work to understand what it is to be a body in vacuous space, to be a non-isolated body in a landscape, and to be a body aware of its sensorial faculties, moving around and interacting with other such bodies. She says, “How do I understand, emphasise and better embody the sensorial perception of being in the world? To pursue this goal, I am looking into phenomenology and ecosomatics.” Many pieces by the artist feature her coming consciously closer to the natural environment, going so far as to immerse her face or limbs in the earth. This is perhaps an effort to better sense or hear the terrain, and by extension its many overland and subterranean dwellers, but many may also see it as an act of solidarity, and perhaps even a return to a state of playful whimsy that has long since left our lives. Tobel’s practice does not merely invite us to rediscover our modes of engagement with the environment, but rather calls for a paradigm shift within the lifestyles we lead: it feels like a wholehearted endorsement for a conscious and thoughtful return to nature.

Portrait photograph of Monika Tobel | Monika Tobel | STIRworld
Portrait photograph of Monika Tobel Image: Courtesy of Monika Tobel

The artist began her creative journey as a painter, which slowly evolved towards installation art, film, and other mediums. It seems she was never quite satisfied with sticking to a single one, and always sought to expand on her creative repertoire. Surely, it is a wilful desire to explore that continues pushing her research and experimentation ever forward. She ends her interview with these words: my work is “concept-driven”, by which I mean that the idea decides upon the media. My current research area lends itself to distinctly performative notions and time-based media. Ultimately, I identify as a cross-disciplinary artist with a strong performative base.” Tobel’s work may be quite a way off the beaten path, but it is very much worth engaging with for art lovers who seek a deeper connection with the natural realm.

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