Between science and aesthetics: the ecological art of Ulrike Mohr

On 4 April 2006 the demolition of Berlin’s Palast der Republik was halted for one day. The artist Ulrike Mohr was to be allowed to undertake a systematic botanical survey of the trees and other plants that had colonized the roof since German reunification. This vast public building had fallen into a state of disrepair since the early 1990s and had become a kind of ecological laboratory for the study of urban change. Small fissures in the concrete and bitumen had allowed an accumulation of organic matter, and in addition to the typical adventitious species of plants one might encounter growing out of cracks in roads or pavements there were now well-established trees such as birch, poplar and sallow, indicative of the early stages of a rooftop forest in formation.

Mohr’s investigation of the ecological consequences of urban entropy entitled Restgrün [Remaining green] raises important questions about the intersection between science and aesthetics. The study of abandoned spaces is not just a question of aesthetic curiosity but also holds significant scientific implications: in the case of Restgrün, for example, one of the trees found growing on top of Berlin’s Palast was Populus nigra, which is on the Red List for regionally endangered species.

For the 2002 project Versuchsanordnung Acer Platanoides [Test set-up Acer platanoides] Mohr chose a six-meter-high Spitzahorn, or Norway Maple, Acer platanoides, growing in the Künstlergärten Weimar, and stitched together the tree’s leaves with red thread so that they were unable to fall during the autumn. The entire leaf structure was then carefully removed by crane and put on public display in Mohr’s first solo show at the Kunstverein Hildesheim. With this “ecological interruption” Mohr performed a non-utilitarian intervention in nature: we are invited to reflect on the meaning of nature through its unexpected cultural appropriation so that there is both a temporal and spatial dislocation in a largely unnoticed yet remarkable everyday transformation: the annual shedding of leaves by a maple tree.

This notion of time in nature — referred to in ecological science as “succession” — connects with a fascination with the spontaneous re-arrangement of nature. Mohr plays on the boundary of human intervention in nature in two ways: first, by simply observing nature its meaning and significance change, bringing mundane elements such as a common tree or an assemblage of weeds into a profound form of aesthetic engagement; and second, by simply focusing on one element of nature and performing simple modifications, we contend with the scope and complexity of our relations with nature as an extension of ourselves. In this last sense, Mohr brings her exploration of nature into a historically specific scientific frame: her works connects powerfully with the development of urban ecology in post-war Germany as a form of intricate and passionate engagement with nature in cities. In particular it engages with the diversity of potential biotopes or habitat niches associated with the type of everyday instances of nature that have been largely neglected by mainstream ecological science.

Among the most ambitious of Mohr’s works is the 2003 large-scale tree-planting project 750 Kiefern in militärischer Anordnung/Konversionsgelände Wünsdorf [750 Pines in military formation / Conversion area Wünsdorf ] in which hundreds of pine saplings that had sprouted spontaneously in the parade ground of a former Russian military barracks in Wünsdorf were dug up, measured and replanted. The trees were arranged in five precise formations of 150 trees, with the tallest trees placed at the front of each of the blocks to suggest an ironic confluence of forestry plantations with military discipline. Photographs of the site from above reveal the ambitious scale of the project, and also its spatial accuracy, so that the young trees in combination with their supporting wooden posts resemble a battalion of soldiers standing to attention. This is, above all, a landscape of control: an attempt to regularize nature that connects with the historic purpose of the site as a training ground for military discipline and the exercise of state power. After the completion of the project the site was allowed to revert back to a process of natural succession towards “secondary woodland” so that the work connects both with a sense of ecological time and also historical time since all cultural or institutional forms are temporally limited in their scope.

The tree planting also signals a counterpoint to Joseph Beuys’s mass action entitled 7,000 Eichen [7,000 Oaks], installed between 1982 and 1987 for Documenta 7, where the placing of these trees alongside upright basalt columns was linked with an ecological critique of modernity in the context of pollution-induced Waldsterben [forest death], and also the nascent German green movement with which Beuys was closely involved. What clearly differentiates the work of Mohr from that of Beuys is her rational engagement with urban nature as an arena for cultural discourse rather than a hidden repository for ecological mysticism. It is Mohr’s critical distance from the German romantic tradition that renders her work especially interesting in an international context.

The art of Ulrike Mohr is characterized by an attention to detail: not just the subtle textures of everyday things, but also an attempt to uncover relationships between aesthetics and science, and between past and present. Her interventions break with neo-romanticist associations and are suggestive of a cultural synthesis with nature that is free from the baggage of transcendental meaning. Her interactions with nature and landscape are far removed from the heavy symbolism of some artists (the work of Anselm Kiefer, for example) or the shamanistic utterances of Beuys and his followers. In the work of Mohr we find a subtle irony, that provides new insights not through further layers of mystification, but through a calm insistence on the social production of meaning.

Of time and the city

There is something mysterious about Terence Davies’s Liverpool from the outset: at the heart of this cinematic meditation on the city, released in 2008, lies a tension between urban change as a process that is brutal and unremitting and the persistence of memory as something that is delicate and filamentary. Memories become maps through places to which we can never return in a world that is changing all about us.

In Of time and the city Davies presents us with a wondrously idiosyncratic and elegiac journey that is filled with anger, joy and despair. Davies becomes the “angel of history” hovering over Liverpool, alternately caressing his troubled city or pouring scorn on the forces that have brought the city to its knees. The film is punctuated by quotes from poetry, literature and philosophy that are narrated to us by Davies with a sense of staccato urgency: poignant lines chosen from Chekhov, Engels, Joyce and others inform us that this is a serious film from the outset. This is not a film that panders to an existing audience but one that seeks to create a new one. Davies is not making a pitch to our touristic curiosity nor is he using the city in a narrowly didactic sense. This is a deeply personal mode of documentary film making that is imbued with a profound sense of emotional intimacy.

Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew [Il Vangelo Secondo Mateo], released to general amazement in 1964, Davies uses music to sublime effect. Both Pasolini and Davies select music that through its apparent incongruity generates a powerful sense of authenticity and immediacy: faces, images and landscapes are dramatically transformed into far more than their mere physical presence as stones, bricks or flesh. In Of time and the city Davies furiously juxtaposes music and place to transcend the petty cruelties of organized religion or the grinding toil of working-class life. Decaying housing estates are set to Bacarisse; cranes and industrial architecture to Mahler.

Davies reserves his real scorn for the British establishment in all their ineptitude and mean-spirited mediocrity. He exposes the flummery and sexual hypocrisy of organized religion with relish. He excoriates the monarchy and other archaic forms of gluttony that feast on the goodwill of ordinary folk. As we see newsreel footage of the royal marriage — “Betty and Phil with a thousand flunkeys” — and the gilded carriage passes through cheering crowds Davies reminds us that “Britain had some of the worst slums in Europe”. His droll disdain for the establishment is also extended to its would-be cultural assassins such as The Beatles who are rendered little more than a ghostly and ironic presence. Just as Joe Strummer rejected “phoney Beatlemania” back in 1977 Davies now derides the “fab four” as looking like “a firm of provincial solicitors” — “yeah, yeah, yeah” indeed.

As for post-war architecture Davies notes with acerbic understatement that “Municipal architecture, dispiriting at the best of times, but when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, makes for a cityscape that is anything but elysian”. These would-be utopias had by the early 1970s become spaces of decline and emptiness scattered with broken glass and overlooked by boarded-up windows. Instead of utopia we got a city in a state of retraction and disorder. “We hoped for paradise; we got the anus mundi”. These new architectural forms were often poorly constructed and maintained, displaying but a faint echo of their exemplary prototypes in European cities and containing their own versions of built-in senescence to match the social and political neglect of their new occupants.

Liverpool has been the traumatized epicentre of Britain’s full-scale industrial decline since the 1960s with a greater population loss than almost any other British city. Unlike former industrial cities in Europe such as Hamburg or Milan, which have successfully rebuilt themselves, it is apparent that Liverpool’s contemporary renaissance is slender indeed: not a replenished civil society or newfound industrial acumen but a retail desert populated by gaggles of drunken figures tottering around beneath the glare of streetlights and security cameras.

The final tracking shots of gentrified docks and warehouses evoke a sense of placelessness: these waterside developments with their familiar “brandscapes” could be any one of a number re-fashioned industrial waterfronts from Baltimore to Buenos Aires. “As we grow older,” observes Davies, “the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated…and now I’m an alien in my own land”. We float with Davies across neon-lit landscapes or hover over boutiques and wine bars that were once factories or churches. At the close of the film we encounter Liverpool “gathered in at gloaming”, a myriad of strange illuminations in the failing light. What has Liverpool been? What have we been?

Beautiful and scathing in equal measure Of time and the city must surely rank as one of the best films about a British city that has ever been made. But the film is not simply about Liverpool: it is also a mordant response to the failures and disappointments of post-war Britain and a bittersweet exploration of the delicate connections between memory and place that anchor our sense of individual and collective identity amidst the tumult of historical change.

El sol del membrillo [The quince tree sun]

Víctor Erice’s documentary El sol del membrillo [The quince tree sun] (1992) is a simple idea: we follow the artist Antonio López Garcia’s attempt, during the autumn of 1990, to paint a quince tree in his back garden. The film seems to emerge quietly in real time on a late September morning as we see the artist arranging his canvas and inspecting the tree; the only sounds are largely ambient, the rumble of a train, a radio playing and incidental moments like removing the stopper from a bottle of turpentine. With gentle time-lapse photography we observe the emerging canvas over coming days; preparation, patience and detail are interspersed with reminiscences with an old friend who comes to visit. Together, they marvel at the beauty of the tree: the shape, the colours and the fullness of the fruit. Garcia is consistently perplexed by small variations in sunlight and the fact the tree itself is changing over time: he paints small white markers on the leaves and fruit to trace changes in the shape of the tree and the gradual sinking of the branches under the weight of the ripening fruit. “I follow the tree,” he remarks, but the weather worsens, the sky is overcast and his sense of frustration grows.

It is late October and we see the stairwell in his house illuminated with light, set to the music of Pascal Gaigne — very little incidental music is used in the film but it drifts through specific scenes to mesmerizing effect. Garcia has now abandoned his attempt to paint the tree and switches to a drawing instead which he refers to as “a map of the tree”. He contrasts his approach with other artists who work from pictures or photographs since he wishes to avoid “aesthetic games” and struggle directly with the impossibility of representation. By mid-November Garcia describes the tree as being in “full decadence” and he picks up the first fallen fruit on the ground and smells it; the leaves of the tree are now beginning to yellow with small blotches and imperfections spreading. “It’s over,” he declares, and he collects up his things, leaving the garden strangely empty for the first time.

Garcia now poses for another artist, his wife María Moreno: he lies on a bed observing a cut crystal and falls into a deep sleep disturbed by vivid dreams. We see shots of Madrid at night: flickering television screens and moving traffic are interspersed with a bright moon and drifting clouds revealed in all their detail. He narrates a strange dream where he is standing with many others and sees his quince tree now transposed somewhere else. We see the tree next to a camera, the fallen fruit lying under the glare of a powerful light. “Dark spots slowly cover their skin in the still air…Nobody seems to notice the quinces are rotting under a light…turning into metal and dust”. And then the garden is shown next spring with shrivelled and misshapen fruit lying beneath the tree but new buds becoming visible on the branches.

This is a remarkable film of almost unimaginable subtlety that emerges from an intense encounter between an artist and his struggle to convey what lies in front of him. In the end it is time and light that defeat him: the growing tree is itself impossible to capture effectively and every small play of light continually transforms the appearance of the tree. Of course this is not a documentary in the conventional sense but something far more interesting: an exploration of the intersection between an outer world of beauty and decay and an inner world of dreams and imagination.

Bremen’s elephant

Near the centre of the northern German city of Bremen is a large elephant made of bricks. This imposing ten-metre high structure — designed by Fritz Behn — was completed in 1931 as a monument to the German colonies which then included Cameroon, Togo, Deutsch-Ostafrika [Tanzania], Deutsch-Südwestafrika [Namibia] and several islands. For decades the “Reichskolonialehrendenkmal” stood as a powerful symbol of German colonial ambition that spanned both the Nazi era and the post-war period of reconstruction: an aesthetic continuity that stands in sharp contrast to the hurried erasure of the DDR.

In 1988, however, a metal sign was created next to the elephant by the youth wing of the Bremen metal workers union in support of the Anti-Apartheid movement. In 1990, with the celebration of Namibian independence from South Africa, the elephant itself was re-dedicated as the “Bremen anti colonial monument” thereby attempting to invert its historical meaning yet retaining the original design. And in 2009 a new monument was created next to the elephant to the victims of German genocide: between 1904 and 1908 over 70,00 of the Ovaherero, Nama and Damara peoples of Namibia were murdered followed by an intensified phase of racial segregation that pre-figured the development of Apartheid in South Africa. In contrast to the elephant the genocide memorial adopts a more abstract design reminiscent of land art or street installations: a horizontal array of simple elements such as rocks and stones in the place of vertical bombast.

This assemblage of memorials and plaques reveals that the German colonial presence in Africa was not a minor element in European history: we now know that many of the perpetrators of early twentieth-century violence in Namibia and elsewhere would go on to play a significant role in Nazi expansionism in Europe. In the place of the Herero were the Slavs and others to the east, where an envisioned settler landscape bore parallels with European sequestration of fertile lands in Africa. What is especially interesting about Bremen’s elephant is that it poses the possibility for changing the meaning of public monuments: it allows remnants of the past to become incorporated into new understandings of history. How many other elephants remain unnoticed or unchallenged in European towns and cities?

The magic of emptiness: reflections on a Berlin corner

Since the summer of 2004 I have got to know a corner of Berlin very well, where the Chausseestrasse, running north-south, meets the quieter Linienstrasse from the east. In 2004 this corner of Berlin, where the district of Mitte, the centre of the former east Berlin, meets “Red Wedding”, the traditional bastion of working-class Berlin and one of the poorest districts of West Berlin, was surrounded on three sides by “empty spaces” where the Berlin Wall had once been. The large plot to the east of the Chausseestrasse had become a vibrant meadow full of birds, butterflies and wild flowers, dominated by brilliant blue patches of Echium vulgare which goes by the extraordinary English name of Viper’s Bugloss (it is also known in German as Snake’s Head or Natternkopf). On the north side of the street a drab municipal park to the south an ecological paradise.

One summer evening I stumbled across an extraordinary moth that I didn’t recognize at all: I carefully took a photo and let it go. It turned out to be Cucullia fraudatrix, an eastern European species at the extreme west of its range in Berlin, that normally flies over dry grasslands. But is not only nature that fascinates me in these places: objects and fragments also become part of this spontaneous landscape where rusting pieces of metal appear perfectly placed as if in an urban sculpture garden.

By 2010, however, these open spaces are in accelerated retreat: to the west of the Chausssstrasse a vast new office block is close to completion that will house the headquarters of the German security services. Next door, in pristine brick, is a new building belonging to the Berlin water works. Two normally hidden infrastructural arms of the state now lie side by side, like shiny mushrooms sprouting from their tangled mass of networks hidden from view. And the urban meadow on the east side of the street, that I had explored over several summers, is now fast disappearing: about one-third has become a petrol station and another third a parking lot.

Returning yesterday I could no longer see the meadow from the street. It is now surrounded by a high wooden fence: a moment of enclosure before its final and inevitable erasure. I took some photos as suspicious drivers entered the petrol station. Somewhat disheartened and trying to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures I crossed the street and noticed a wire fence next to wooden billboards. There was a small gap and I stepped through. A tangled mass of plants reached above head height and the ground was hard with frost. After taking a few paces I realized that this was just an “antechamber” to an extensive ribbon-like void space stretching hundreds of metres where the Wall had once been. It was like entering a series of rooms each more mysterious than the last. A discarded bottle lay among dead leaves and there were some occasional strips of red tape: people have been here.

Of course the word “void” is somewhat misleading: these spaces have become temporarily detached from the urban land market or their ownership remains shrouded in uncertainty. In other cases they are simply held by someone as speculative parcels of land until their value rises or they are vestiges of state disinvestment and the dismantling of the DDR. As this quarter of Berlin becomes more prosperous their presence becomes more anomalous. On re-entering the street there is another billboard I had not noticed before: the site is to be redeveloped into sixty luxury apartments. Computer generated images show faux Wilhelmine façades — the favoured retro look for wealthy newcomers to Berlin — along with modern blocks little different from the latest developments in London, Buenos Aires or elsewhere.

On the other side of the street next to the petrol station is a small memorial to the Berlin Wall: a recent addition I had not noticed before. Some explanatory text in four languages (German, English, French and Russian) is encased in a discoloured plastic stand next to an inconspicuous metal inscription set in the pavement below. On the opposite corner stands a grey six-storey housing block — a typical example of working-class housing dating from the 1950s — where many apartments would have faced the Wall only metres away. This block was once a distant outpost of the island city of West Berlin and it now looks out on a landscape that has again been utterly transformed. The neatly printed names next the entrance are mostly a mix of German and Turkish names and there are battered fly-posters nearby advertising yoga classes and anti-fascist action.

When the DDR collapsed in 1989 there were brief hopes that an alternative and truly democratic German state might emerge but the remnants of East Germany were quickly subsumed within the capitalist behemoth of West Germany. In the hollow imprint of the absent DDR, however, a unique medley of spontaneous landscapes has emerged over the last twenty years that provide a poignant symbol of urban possibilities. They reveal a city within a city that is not stage-managed for greed or consumption but a myriad of quieter spaces awaiting their rediscovery.

Get Carter

Traveling from London to Newcastle by train the other day I decided to watch Get Carter where a London villain called Jack Carter, played by Michael Caine, goes in search of the truth about his brother’s death. Directed by Mike Hodges, and released in 1971, this impressive British gangster film has a hard-edged realism, laced with wry dialogue, not unlike John Boorman’s depiction of rage in Point Blank (1967) or Stephen Soderbergh’s impressive “fish out of water” drama The Limey (1999). Whilst Point Blank and The Limey are both set in the shadows of Los Angeles, Get Carter takes place in the industrial city of Newcastle in north-east England. In the striking title sequence, set to Roy Budd’s soundtrack, the three-hour train journey is compressed into three minutes as we pass through a succession of different landscapes in the gathering darkness. Newcastle is portrayed as a city where crime syndicates, opportunist urban developers and “new industries” of gambling and pornography permeate society like hyphal threads emerging out of the poverty and industrial decline. “It’s all a question of design,” notes an architect discussing a proposed restaurant at the top of the Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park (designed by brutalist architect Rodney Gordon and demolished in 2010). In Get Carter we find two bleak worlds in uneasy juxtaposition: a decaying working-class city and a “new world” of concrete and corruption. At one level the film serves as a mordant critique of post-war optimism but even more striking after forty years (the film was made on location in 1970) is the oppressive sexual politics exemplified by Carter’s killing of two women: one “by mistake” locked in the boot of a sinking car and the other to frame the man who killed his brother. The film’s denouement takes place near Blackhall Colliery where spoil is tipped directly into the North Sea and our smug anti-hero is gunned down by a cliff top sniper. Get Carter remains a major milestone in British cinema and a brutal antidote to romanticized visions of the early 1970s. With its uncompromising screenplay and stark cinematography it remains one of the most important films in its genre.

The view from my window

I have been thinking a lot about the “view from the window” as a way of looking at landscape. The view from my study in Stoke Newington is in many ways a completely unremarkable London landscape: an expanse of rooftops with jumbles of chimney pots and aerials; a mix of nineteenth-century and more recent buildings in various states of disrepair; and various gardens ranging from bare earth where all living things have been expurgated to rich assemblages of species from all over the world. A fine sycamore tree that once stood in my field of vision has recently been hacked down so I now have an uninterrupted view of heating vents from the back of restaurants in nearby Church Street. In my small garden below my window the now dry teasel heads bob in the breeze and I can imagine that the many frogs sitting in my pond have not yet decided whether it is time to sink down into the mud and sleep until spring.