What ‘Planetary Memories’ tells us about the pandemic

The exhibition at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich seeks for humanity to reflect on its relationship with nature.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Dec 21, 2020

In the middle of March, as many countries around the globe moved into a state of lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, a number of stories emerged about nature reclaiming public spaces in the absence of humankind. While many, including the alleged report of the emergence of dolphins and swans in Venice’s waterways, proved to be mere sensationalism, there have been reports by respectable news channels about animals such as coyotes, boars and peacocks making appearances in urban centres across North America and Europe. Dialectically opposing this eco-utopian narrative are the fears of environmentalists that the loss of economic mobility in the global south might cause more people to seek occupations that might have an adverse effect on their regional ecosystems. Besides its effect on the world’s fauna, there have been other occurrences that have been almost unprecedented for the contemporary experience including a circumstantial drop in the use of fossil fuels, leading to clearer skies and fresher air, and influential stakeholders in the global economy considering reforms in economic and environmental policy.

From the dawn of civilisation, humanity has had a push-pull relationship with nature but in the last 400 years it has progressively verged on infringement, and has culminated in phenomena such as global warming and an accelerated depletion of much of the planet’s resources. It is against this backdrop that that Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories opened at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, Switzerland, on March 7, incidentally just weeks before most of the world went into quarantine, setting into motion the events mentioned earlier that have urged us, as a collective, to look at our connection with nature with a revised reflexivity.

Installation view of the works of Monira Al Qadiri alongside Tabita Rezaire’s Deep Down Tidal at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst | Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories | Monira Al Qadiri, Tabita Rezaire| STIRworld
Installation view of the works of Monira Al Qadiri alongside Tabita Rezaire’s Deep Down Tidal at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Image: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy of Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

Curated by Heike Munder, the museum’s director, and Suad Gareyeva-Maleki, the director of YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan, Planetary Memories is the first chapter of a two-part series of exhibitions conceptualised as part of a collaboration between the two cultural institutions that was meant to travel between the two spaces, though under the circumstances the original schedule for both parts are subject to revision. Thematically, part one reflects on the impact that the exploitation of natural resources has had on the planet while part two, titled Eco-Fictions, attempts to imagine a future where civilisation advances in harmony with nature.

“The title Potential Worlds describes our ambition well — we want a future for all of us — but it will not be a single one, there might be variations. Very important to us was to have many voices from different cultural backgrounds represented in both of the exhibitions and venues,” says Munder, and Gareyeva-Maleki adds, “We also tried to select works that do not just state the problem, but approach it critically, and propose interesting solutions and/or rethink existing dogmas”.

Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change: New York – A Botany of Colonisation (2017) in front of Alberto Baraya’s Berlin Expedition and Sicily Expedition, Herbario de Plantas Artificiales (Herbarium of Artificial Plants) (2014-2018) at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst| Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories | Maria Thereza Alves, Alberto Baraya | STIRworld
Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change: New York – A Botany of Colonisation (2017) in front of Alberto Baraya’s Berlin Expedition and Sicily Expedition, Herbario de Plantas Artificiales (Herbarium of Artificial Plants) (2014-2018) at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Image: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy of Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

A number of works at the exhibition seem to take off from a critical approach towards colonialism’s exploratory trajectories and the influence it continues to exert on the world today. For instance, Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change: New York – A Botany of Colonisation takes a look at plant life that has been transmitted across regions unwittingly through the ships of merchants and slave traders while Alberto Baraya’s Herbario de Plantas Artificiales (Herbarium of Artificial Plants) is concerned with the colonial explorer whose agency to ‘scientifically’ classify a region’s botany conveniently complemented imperial authority. It would seem that these exploitative tendencies, both towards indigenous cultures and the environment, extend well into the age of privatisation, as is explored in the works of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Karikpo Pipline, which inspects the effects of  oil extraction from beneath the Niger Delta, and Carolina Cayceda’s Be Damned looks into the devastation caused by privatised hydroelectric projects across the Americas.

The purview is not limited to the themes of exploitation, and while works such as Departure.Astana by Almagul Menlibayeva present how human activity inadvertently continues to antagonise nature, others such as Reena Saini Kallat’s Siamese Trees hope to remind us of our dependency on the natural realm and Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s RE-ANIMATED allows its audience to experience an extinct bird, called Kauaʻi ʻŌʻō, by means of virtual reality.

Almagul Menlibayeva’s Departure.Astana (2016-2020) and Himali Singh Soin’s we are opposite like that (2019) at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst | Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories | Almagul Menlibayeva, Himali Singh Soin| STIRworld
Almagul Menlibayeva’s Departure.Astana (2016-2020) and Himali Singh Soin’s we are opposite like that (2019) at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Image: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy of Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

Reflecting on the COVID-19 crisis, Gareyeva-Maleki says, “For years climate activists have called on humanity to slow down and reconsider their ideas of progress. Yet, it took an imminent danger to our lives to actually slow down and rethink our behaviours toward nature and animals. I think this experience will teach us that we are not superior or apart from nature, but quite the opposite; the planet will go on one way or another but humanity’s survival is very much dependant on our future actions and interactions with our fellow inhabitants’. Munder further explains that “the interpretation of the virus as a righteous ‘revenge of nature’ or a divine intervention, as it can be seen and heard in today’s media, would be a mistake: The virus costs lives and is a threat to all of us, but unfortunately also here the social inequality will hit the poorest the most. Consequently, we should concentrate on what should be done in politics, to prevent deaths and to support people affected by the virus and its economic effects. The same should be done towards a rethinking of nature; we live on the Earth together with nature”.

Potential Worlds will be on view at YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Baku until February 21, 2021. However, the schedule is subject to change due to the ongoing pandemic.

Mark Dion’s The Library for the Birds of Zurich (2016-2020), Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Karikpo Pipeline (2015) and Mishka Henner’s Levelland Oil Field, Hockey County, Texas (2013 at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst | Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories | Mark Dion, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Mishka Henner| STIRworld
Mark Dion’s The Library for the Birds of Zurich (2016-2020), Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Karikpo Pipeline (2015) and Mishka Henner’s Levelland Oil Field, Hockey County, Texas (2013 at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Image: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy of Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

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