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>> True North at the Deutsche Guggenheim / Hans Hartung
>> Young Chinese Art at the 60 Wall Street Gallery / Miwa Yanagi in Houston

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Interfaces Between Nature and Civilization
True North at the Deutsche Guggenheim

A Journey to the End of the World: North and South Pole, mountains and glaciers, outer limits of ice and snow. In the exhibition True North, the Deutsche Guggenheim presents works by seven contemporary artists whose photo and video works critically examine the tradition of romantic landscape painting.

Thomas Flechtner, Glaspass (Walks #10), 2001
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007, 2001 Thomas Flechtner

There's hardly a region on this planet that's been more subjected to legend and myth than the North. In our imagination, it's always a rugged, untouched terrain where humans have to defend themselves against a magnificent and pristine nature, or overcome it in true pioneer spirit. The image of the North is colored by the romantic and heroic European and North American landscape paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries; it is also closely connected to the early days of photography, which allowed a wider public to feel part of the struggle against glacier and ice, such as the legendary North Pole expeditions of Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson, and Frederick Cook, and the founding of research and trade stations as outposts of the "civilized world."

Stan Douglas, Nu.tka., 1996 (Installationsansicht)
Foto: Courtesy the artist und David Zwirner Gallery, New York
© Stan Douglas

This stereotypical perspective is called into question by the contemporary positions in True North, which touch upon some very current themes. Particularly today, in a time shaken by social uncertainty and ecological catastrophe, a longing for an unspoiled place of refuge seems to be on the rise. At the same time, the impossibility of true escape is all too apparent. While Caspar David Friedrich once postulated that painters should not merely paint what they see before them, but also what they see within, we know today that this view of our own inner nature is always culturally influenced – a mirror of our time. This paradox also finds expression in contemporary art: there's hardly another theme that has inspired the young scene over the past several years more than the critical examination of the romantic tradition. Yet in contrast to their predecessors, the works of Stan Douglas, Olafur Eliasson, Elger Esser, Thomas Flechtner, Roni Horn, Armin Linke, and Orit Raff refer to critical standpoints on history, the environment, and politics.

Their analytical interest is particularly directed at the interfaces between nature and civilization and the relationship between reality and media representation. For the international artists that have lived or worked in different regions of the North, it's a matter of questioning to what extent technological and cultural progress, colonization, and the development of remote landscapes to accommodate tourism have altered our perception of the North. At the same time, the works, largely on loan by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, document ecological destruction, the repression of indigenous culture, and the loss of original free space and identity.

Roni Horn, Pi, 1997–98 (Detail),
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The horizon – or its absence – is a leitmotif that carries throughout the exhibition. In Pi (1997-98), a room-sized all-around panorama of photographs, Roni Horn focuses on several cycles that take place in and around Iceland: one couple can't miss a single series of Guiding Light, while eider ducks embark on their journeys and animals perish and are transformed into taxidermist's specimens.

Olafur Eliasson, The glacier series, 1999
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
© Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson's The glacier series (1999) arranges 42 pictures of a glacier taken from a propeller airplane in the form of a serial grid. The horizon, pushed to the edge of the picture, prohibits any romantic association with the images. On the other hand, the boundaries of the visual field in Elger Esser's Ameland-Pier X, The Netherlands (2000) remain the only recognizable feature in a dematerialized white seascape.

Elger Esser, Ameland-Pier X Courtesy Elger Esser,
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008

Other works, such as Palindrome (2001) by Orit Raff or Glaspass (Walks #10) (2001) by Thomas Flechtner make it clear how futile approaches to the northern world are that place extreme demands on the human capacity for action and survival. The actress in Raff's video compulsively stacks up felt mats to create warmth. Her futile efforts seem even more puzzling when compared with the simultaneous film sequence of a coyote nimbly roaming through its frozen territory.

Orit Raff, Palindrome, 2001 (film still)
Courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery
© Orit Raff

Flechtner, who often makes trips to the farthest reaches of the world, questions human presence in the northern landscape. His photo piece Glaspass (Walks #10) documents the ski tracks the artist drew into the topographical contours of a snow cliff. In contrast, the skiers in Armin Linke's Ski Dome, Tokyo, Japan (1998) have fun in the artificial North of a ski dome on the outskirts of Tokyo, which has since been torn down.

Armin Linke, Ski Dome, Tokyo, Japan (from the Global Box series, 1998–2000), 1998
Photo: Courtesy Galleria Marabini,
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
© Armin Linke

But beyond this, True North examines the function of the North as a place of political conflict and historical repression. In his video installation Nu•tka• (1996), Stan Douglas reveals the immanent contradictions in Western Canada's wilderness by superimposing two staggered film sequences of the remote area, combining them with voiceovers that include explorers' reports from the 18th century. Douglas characterizes the North as the site of traumatic loss, whose landscape is scored by human dissension.

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