FROM CHERNOBYL TO THE FALLS OF IGUAÇU AND THE CERRO PARANAL IN THE CHILEAN DESERT, ANGELIKA MARKUL INVITES THE VIEWER ON AN INITIATORY JOURNEY TO THE “TERRE DE DEPART” [LAND OF DEPARTURE]. AS THE WRITER JEANNE TRUONG ASSERTS, THE WORK OF THE ARTIST CHANGES SCALE, SHIFTING FROM A PERSONAL INQUIRY INTO ORIGINS TO A MEDITATION ON THE THREATS THAT HUMANITY PRESENTS TO NATURE AND THUS TO ITSELF.
The nomad would need the movement of slowness to live because slowness is the true humus of life.
There is a speed that is favorable to life, the speed of joy, adapted to human existence. We have taken too much pride in the fact that we are bipeds that run while the trees remain in place.
Our world is dying for not having searched for the speed that is ours.
Beyond that speed, man loses his head. The machines
go into overdrive, the earth dissolves. Beyond that speed, everything unravels in a desert.
Beyond that speed, we move towards death and destruction. Even a flower is no longer anywhere to be found.
The centrifuges of history make short work of subtlety and finesse. They are indifferent to the precariousness and splendors of the animal kingdom.
Over the course of a decade, Angelika Markul brought about a remarkable change in her body of work. Early on, many emblematic pieces such as Chambre au mois, La Chambre rouge, Les Écorchés, Le Mégalith, Parole d’insectes examined the artist’s intimate sphere. These works related to the origin and birth myth as well as that of the formation of the individual and his sometimes monstrous difficulty in asserting himself. Indeed, in her first artworks, the as yet indecisive figures, still mired and exuding a muffled energy, had something of the animal and the human in what they have in common. Behind dark cavities and obscurity, the artist reveals the secrets and organic—at times pathological—underside of this shameful nature that we repress.
An artist is the mirror of his time. This universal artist is the second artist, the one that prevails over the spontaneous, natural artist who knows his place and accepts the fate that goes with it. He’s not just a magnificent child, this first artist, the one that accomplishes everything with his inspiration born of genius. The second artist can never attain to the vibration of the first, nor his beauty, but he takes on his role, his contribution, his social and human mission. This artist not only follows the contours and modifications of his society; further, he perceives the eternal laws through the variations. To do so he has constantly cleansed himself, he has stood up straight beyond his ego so that his gaze, his experiences and his work may reflect the world and the universe in their reality and scope.
In this respect, one could say that Angelika Markul is a witness of the modifications of our modernity. The ravages that are taking place in our environment under the accelerated pressure of aggressive capitalism have also transformed the artist’s consciousness; we can see that her interest has shifted from organic materials, the warm materials from the maternal womb and the recesses of a private history towards the cold materials of the machines of our time, the minimalist images of her latest videos and the pervasive whiteness that has become increasingly important in her work.
The question is no longer the origin of procreation but the myth of the end of the world, from a cosmic and universal standpoint. The observed time span is now on the scale of human destiny. More to the point, it is on the scale of the cosmos. The artist shows the end of the human kingdom in a metaphysical order, with the recurring eternal questions: “Is there someone who can save us?”, “Where is the universe going?”, “Is there a god in this celestial silence, where the breath of the machine and the stars are one?” Obscurely yet poignantly, these questions resonate with the primitive call of any artist, the signal he sends out to his peers each time he completes a work of art.
This is indeed the time of the odyssey, of the interplanetary voyage, of traveling among the galaxies; it is a long voyage—beyond even human dimensions—in its barest truth. For what remains constant in the artist’s imaginary from her first works is always her obsession with death, destruction and inevitable separation.
Several pieces were already preparing for this change in perspective and scale. La Clarté souterraine, for example, linked the primitive world of the artist and her new line of increasingly obsessive questioning on death in an objective, industrial, and technological world.“Suspended from the ceiling, some paintings wrapped in wire mesh; on the ground a wooden crate containing an electric fan from which shines an orange light; and side by side, two videos, one at eye level and the other on the floor: such were the constituents of the core of Angelika Markul’s installation, La Clarté souterraine, exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw. In the invisible clamor of a room—since we cannot see the image at the source of it—we hear screams, orders, formulas, a siren, a bell, like the imaginary echo of a society organized according to rites and codes, driven by an inner metronome. An armada of neon lights, like a swarm of waiting insects, is immersed in the atmosphere of a cold room in which one imagines them in a state of sleep, interrupted in their decomposition. In the subterranean world, everything that lives is marked by the seal of death, despite the will and ultimate effort to revive the machines, until they tremble and breathe, in order to return a semblance of life to a world in which darkness would be natural, a world of damned souls in which all source of light—far from ushering in hope—is a trap and all clarity, a blinding white luminance…”
Then there’s Welcome, foreshadowing the piece Bambi à Tchernobyl shown at the Palais de Tokyo. Welcome ironically juxtaposes two videos about Fukushima. The black and white images on each screen are shown in acceleration. A piercing, looped soundtrack can be heard—a moving train cutting to a fairground chant, scattered voices of travelers, the knocking of the carriages, the announcement in Japanese and English, international language of tourism: “Lady and gentlemen, we will soon reach Omiya. The stop after Omiya will be Fukushima!” On one side, the accelerated succession of images of houses and apartment blocks; on the other, the increasingly rapid succession of the destruction caused by the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, ad nauseam.
Apocalyptic tourism! Mass culture! You can visit destruction. No difference between life and death… The entertainment age has sounded the death knell of the sacred in favor of the saccharine. Disney is a culture. Disney is a pink parade. Disney displays the mentality of a local green grocer. Disney is beneath civilization. Everything is transformed into a circus number. Exploitation after death, extracting more labor force from the dead! Post mortem profitability of the victims. Morbid curiosity is hungry for battle fields, disaster zones, abstract lingering odors. Corpses are given Mickey Mouse figurines.
One can’t help but think of the pace of modern history. The increasing rapidity of advancing progress. The straight line, that absurdity created by scientists. If… we… could… slow down… slow down… we would see a small town built on a human scale, with a provincial feel, almost like a village, of a bygone time, silent. One could lead a life of leisure, on holiday in Fukushima. It is not one of these Japanese megalopolises nor the frenzy of Tokyo. It’s a very small town that we see, one we could easily get attached to. And this is where life’s irony has chosen to play its prank. The inhabitants of Fukushima could have continued to live peacefully. But the most modern, the most technological science, chose this little town. This is not the only paradox. There has been Russia and China and their peasants that, from one day to the next, turned into workers against the capitalist dictatorship. All these sleepy places, still drowsy, brutally shaken by the acceleration of progress, science, modernity…
1942, Bambi is dead. Germany invades Russia.
Bambi died in the midst of happy, peaceful, beautiful nature. Nature celebrating life. In Europe, the bombs resound…
Watch out, Bambi! Watch out! Someone is coming!
Bambi crumbles! The boots and the rifle killed him…
Bambi à Tchernobyl, a provocative title, a contraction of history that belies the supposed separation of the Soviet and American blocks. We, like Angelika Markul, now see that this division never existed. In a certain way, we have left the Cold War only to enter into a troubling world, inherited from the monstrous experiments of a war that left us its chilling adjective. We have entered into a cold world. Seen from the angle of the destruction, the industrial age’s acceleration can be felt as much here as there. The bittersweet title, a mixture of horror and naivety, denounces these sorcerer’s apprentices that some scientists who determine the fate of men, East and West, have become.
Let’s remember how the catastrophe came about in Chernobyl. Human error. Against the opinion of the technicians and workers of the power station, the factory manager gave the order to start up an obsolescent generator for the sole purpose of boosting his personal career.
For her exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, Angelika Markul proposes, under this dissonant title, to start it off with an installation. In a perfect white cube, the visitor stumbles on a building under construction. In one of the windows of this sketch, a video is playing. On the floor we see parts from a children’s ride, the remains of an old ferris wheel, a box with a flower on it, a frozen diary – memories of a lost world, of Chernobyl.
Suddenly, an explosion is heard! A quivering white light! The music comes on, music inspired by the beginning of the last century and Franck Krawczyk’s symphony, the music of Bambi under the name Les Fragments du danger.
Quivering… the cloud has melted all the colors. First we saw a multicolored cloud… Eyes filled with the wonder of a scintillating rainbow, before the contraction, before the disappearance, before the blankness… Quivering…
Quivering… the electronic appliances have stopped, the film strips eaten up by the blankness of the image… quivering…
Quivering… the heroes that were sacrificed to save Europe. They didn’t say farewell to their families… Quivering…
Quivering… the snow has covered Chernobyl… odorless… silent… The real inhabitants of Chernobyl are the screeching machines. They whistle acutely… They answer the invisible winds of radioactivity. Man doesn’t feel the radiation… Quivering…
Quivering… Stalker… Chernobyl… the zone… the mutants… quivering…
Naturally, to begin with this white quivering is quite meaningful and symbolic, as an acceleration that mimes not only what happened in Chernobyl but also the acceleration of protons and electrons following the discovery of atomic energy. White image of the video against the white backdrop of the room until they form a single impression of whiteness for the viewer. One can’t help but remember the magnificent passages by Melville on whiteness, Moby Dick’s whiteness.“…Yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”
What was Angelika Markul after in Chernobyl? Wasn’t it the white whale, the same symbol that haunted Captain Achab? At her life’s peril? For Chernobyl remains dangerous as shown by this episode of the collapsing city, the day that—after a long hesitation—the artist miraculously decided to leave the premises. A few hours more and this quest for images would have been fatal, like the search for the whale was for Achab. The video Bambi à Tchernobyl is the result of a true expedition. It demanded heavy logistics with trucks, military personnel, strict supervision, long preparations. The analogy between the two protagonists doesn’t end there. For what do we find in this wintry, post-apocalyptic landscape, this nature after man’s intervention, this face of destruction? We find snow, whiteness, again and again. Is not Angelika Markul also pursuing a ghost, hunting down her own death, as Melville writes too?“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, […] when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? […]Like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.”
Yet times have changed. If Achab’s tragic and absurd heroism has become a sublime saga under the pen of a great novelist who tells the fantastical tale according to a psychological, inner and tragic logic, Angelika Markul’s video is mercilessly sober and, to a certain extent, poor. The days of the saga are behind us. Left are only anonymous heroes, consumed in the nuclear fires, numbers with no names. None so famous as Achab or Queequeg or the Pequot. Of this journey through desolation, only the place name remains: Chernobyl. For the artist, there is also Bambi’s name who in this respect announced the annihilation to come. In 1942, it was already the age of industry. An age that will eliminate animals in the same way that it is eliminating human beings. The assassin will be faceless. The victim will have no name. And it would be difficult to imagine a human—in the guise of Bambi—running across these lands even though they have grown back green. Even though nature has reclaimed its territory and life has returned, any man that would tread it would expose himself to an irrevocable death. Chernobyl is an environment that is forever more uninhabitable for any human being. The life of each species is subject to a certain speed. In order to grow back, the flora is much quicker than animals that are much quicker than man. From this perspective, man is species that is slow to bounce back. His adaptation necessitates an amount of time that is inversely proportionate to his propensity towards self-destruction. Thus you could say that there exists a speed which is properly human.
From this intense experience, there remains the circular succession of the trees in the snow, a few houses, some apartment blocks, a wheel for children. To the sensitive eye able to perceive the stress of trees, the black stigmata on the branches and trunks, their thinness could arouse doubts… But without the tragic music that gives the work a semblance of a narrative and saliency we would be in an ordinary video in which a continuous landscape would just flash by. But a quivering, a certain vibration, the speed of the images, indicate that we are in an exceptional place. The scorched trees, their black texture despite the persistence of leaves, the silence, the absence of animal life, the circular movement of the camera, against the squares of the apartment blocks, roundness echoing the wheel: all of this plunges the viewer into a dramatic state of expectancy. The reward arrives with the title. This silence, this sobriety become poignant. They themselves function like a white quivering, maintaining all the stories in a virtual absence, as fertile as an epic narrative. What isn’t shown moves us acutely and subtly. We sigh, thinking that the movement of the video is that of the cycle of life, of karma, of the inescapable wheel. Of course, the absence of animal life poses the question of our own species’ disappearance. Only the immutability of the trees and stones is left. Man’s time will have been fleeting. His story the story of a suicide. The work Terre de départ from which the exhibition takes its title—but that is not part of the exhibition—underscores even more this difference in time scale between man and the universe. This is a video in which the artist shows simply the image of a starry constellation, vibrating with a mute and persistent light.
From time to time: a shooting star. We sense out there a perpetual and subtle agitation, a constant life, a revelation to come. The breath of the machines breathes life into the universe. The mystery of life is penetrated. In this cosmos, man is only a fraction of a second. What value it has, though, as the artist suggests when associating this image of the constellation with the voices of the dying, their last cry for help, found in the flight recorder of crashed airplanes. Their last terror, their ultimate cries are the tragic testimonials of the human odyssey.
There is a river that feeds all birth and an inverted river where everything returns. These two rivers don’t exist. Destruction after destruction, the many is two once more, then one, then silence.
Thus, after Bambi à Tchernobyl, Angelika Markul’s exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo invites the visitor on a sort of initiatory journey. We enter the Pièce du silence, a dark room that could have been a Japanese meditation room with its partitions and bareness, except that the artist’s partitions are a series of over a hundred black paintings made using wax, from which a very vibrant energy emanates. The surface of these “walls” is far from smooth. It is filled with grooves, stories lain dormant, nooks and crannies, vales and miniscule ravines. Yet this room represents an airlock, a passage to an alternative, after the nuclear destruction. The energy and the material of the partitions could be the remains of animal life. To be resuscitated? It’s human life that is rejected by the universe while the fate of the other kingdoms transforms and asserts its durability. Is the wax also potential life; warmth ready to germinate; the hope for rebirth? This darkroom is therefore both a beginning and end. It leads to the next piece, the Gorge du diable.
After the lethal whiteness and cold, here we are, finally in the belly of the Earth! The installation is organized around a gigantic video showing the waterfalls of Iguaçu. No frills, no enhancements. This video celebrates the hydraulic power of these gigantic falls. We are at the heart of the vital source. We feel that we are touching the mystery of creation, of the sacred. We are now cleansed, rinsed, purified. The falls wash each visitor of his filth and each feels how it has weakened him in his life. Will the water cleanse humanity of its crimes and horrors? It flows here in boundless gushes. And what a wonder it is to feel its effect on our tired bodies. The video gives us an authentic energy bath like a sort of baptism of rebirth. But, on closer inspection, we see that the sources flow in reverse. They don’t flow out into the world but away from it. Is this a return to a principle from before the Creation? Or does it prophecy the true catastrophe? Has man reached the point that he has touched the feeding mother, the principle of life in its very roots?
Several messages of hope, however, are hidden in these inverted sources. Man can no longer consume what has been offered him. His materialism has exhausted nature’s patience. Should we return to other, more spiritual sources? To understanding the symbol of the source—non-exploitable, useless and unproductive? Despite flowing upstream, it is encouraging us to return to a time before the apocalypse, to reverse time. The vital power of these devil’s gorges is transmitted to the viewer, lending him its vigor and sounding its awakening. It communicates its joy to him. Of course nature was made for our enjoyment. That is what we lost when we went in pursuit of nuclear power and industry. We lost the gentle and maternal prodigality of the Earth. The devil’s gorges would be destructive if they continued to flow freely, to call us to incessant consumption and frivolous wastefulness. Would they—against all evidence—turn into a paradise if they reversed their current and returned to a more fundamental source, clean of any stain? This piece asks more questions than it offers answers. First of all, it asks the fundamental question of the limit between what must remain untouched and what may be consumed of that portion of purity and sacredness that ensures our balance.
The future is already here…
Science itself has long ago changed scale. It no longer works within the range of our human senses. It works with instruments that are of a supra-human order as demonstrated in the installation 400 milliards de planètes, the closing piece of the exhibition. The video in this installation is a slow tracking shot inside the biggest telescope in the world. Indeed, the eye that observes the stars no longer belongs to man. It is a gigantic mirror in the Chilean desert financed by the world community. Its weight, fragility and size make it necessary to handle it with the utmost precaution and very slowly. Man observes with the machine things that are beyond his grasp with an eye of metal, complex cables and technological fibers. Paradoxically, this eye moves very slowly because of its great size, reminding us of its hand-crafted and human essence. Though impressive, its construction has an air of a very large-scale D.I.Y. project. The artist’s eye observes the eye of the machine, turned towards the galaxies. It interprets the technology. The artist, like this eye, is a mirror for his contemporaries. His is the eye that explores the cavities and the recesses of our world’s mutations. He watches our progress with humor, takes that step back to distance himself from our most absorbing activities, rouses us from the hypnosis of our most passionate research, formulates the meanings of our most obvious gestures. He observes us as we observe.
The focus has moved from the landscape to the tool that is transmitting the images of this landscape to us. Because of this, Angelika Markul’s work notes the ever increasing mediations that science allows and imposes between our perception and the object of our perception. As if the increasingly distant field of exploration of science were also carrying us away from our own organs, our natural and primary tools. This piece proposes a genuine investigation of what we know, a departure towards another dimension. The intent throughout the course of the piece is to challenge our capacity to transform our gaze with regard to this eye that is no longer a human organ, to project our time onto scales of geological, cosmic, science fiction proportions. As the rest of the installation makes evident, we have shifted towards a time of the future or of a cosmic past, if we consider that what reaches us is the journey of light that has already disappeared. Thus, on the ground and shrouded in darkness lie more or less recognizable shapes of tree fossils, animals, carbonized and mummified bones. The remnants of an extinct world. Angelika Markul situates herself in a future that has already occurred. She surveys the remains of our corpses and of the animal kingdom like an archeologist of the future, ushers us into the realm of elongated time, of time larger than our mere existence: into nuclear time. One can also imagine that this is how the eye of the machine will see us once we have disappeared.
Translated by Caroline Burnett
Jeanne Truong is an author, screenwriter, curator, and art critic. She has facilitated many artistic and cultural exchanges with Asia. Her published work includes La Nuit promenée (Gallimard, 2005), Bikhir, enfants du Maroc (Marval, 2006) and Fragments du métropolitain (Beauchesne, 2010).