Precarious Environments

by Josefin Granetoft

Isa Melsheimer: Der unerfreuliche Zustand der Textur
KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin
22 March–5 July 2020

Laid out in the centre of the exhibition space is a collection of three ceramic objects, modelled after a whale’s heart. Their bulging tissue shifts between earthy mud tones and nude pinks, while their hollow arteries let us peek into their dark cores. Like shiny carcasses, flesh carved away, these intricate, organ-shaped sculptures look equally obscene and sublime. As I approach them, my impression is divided between terror and awe. The large size and rough finishing of the central piece suggest that it was extracted from a monstrous creature, presumably now dead. The two accompanying ones are smaller and glossier, lending them an attractive aesthetic, yet there is something vulgar in these commodified forms of flesh and tissue. Regardless of size and finishing, they are all placed directly on the floor. Removed from an imagined body and placed in an unshielded environment, the gruesome appearance of these organ-ceramics is coupled with a sense of fragility, which is underscored by the breakable quality of the material.

Isa Melsheimer, Der unerfreuliche Zustand der Textur, KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, installation view.Courtesy the artist, KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art and Ester Schipper, Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Soft organic tissue made of hard ceramics—contradictions of materiality are a major trait of Isa Melsheimer’s practice, which ranges from ceramics, textiles, paintings, and videos to works fashioned from concrete and live plants. In her exhibition Der unerfreuliche Zustand der Textur (The Predicament of Texture) at Berlin’s KINDL, she utilizes this entire range, consciously playing with material qualities and representation. These are more than just formal experiments. Melsheimer uses her sensibility to explore the structures of natural as well as urban environments.

Fogo Island

Melsheimer has long engaged with modernist and postmodern architecture to investigate the social aspects of urban space. Only recently has she taken more interest in the infrastructure of natural environments. A significant number of works in this exhibition are the direct outcome of a fellowship on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, in 2017, where Melsheimer spent time observing the landscape and marine life. This experience has clearly impacted her artistic output. As can be observed in the whale heart sculptures, Walherz, Walherz (Jordan) and Walherz (Squish), which were modelled after an actual, 300-kilogram heart, Melsheimer pays close attention to the intricacy of organic structures. In other works, she observes organic life on a micro- and macrolevel by visualising the connections between organisms and their environment.

One example of this is the textile work Curtain (A Year of the Whale), which is a seven-metre-tall and three-metre-wide piece of hand-dyed fabric, hung over one of the inner walls of the exhibition space, that depicts an embroidered landscape on the front side and a huge moon on the back. The landscape is not represented through an illusion of depth, nor is it fixed to a specific point in time, and thus it resists a perceptual reading of perspective. Composed of multiple, zigzagging lines, representing the shifting horizon, it portrays a landscape in constant motion. In the far distance of the embroidered panorama, we can see a whale, a codfish, a scattering of rocks, and a group of flowers floating in the front.

Isa Melsheimer, Der unerfreuliche Zustand der Textur, KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2020, installation view. Courtesy the artist, KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art and Ester Schipper, Berlin. Photo: Oliver Mark.

Melsheimer’s gaze upon this landscape is omnipotent, yet it does not try to control or fix the image of nature. Instead of producing a scenic image seen from a distinct vantage point, set to a specific time and place, she uses the canvas to document nature as a living, changing, and moving force. Like the title suggests, Melsheimer in fact hung the fabric as a window curtain in her studio at Fogo Island so that she could trace and then stitch the horizon line. With the daily change of weather and sea level, she ended up with a variety of different lines. The plants and animals are not reproduced with the intention of creating an illusory, perspectival space but rather make up a conceptual space consisting of all the vital elements of the island—the sea, rocks, plants, and animals. The only agent she left out, the human, is perhaps left to be filled in by the spectator.

Melsheimer’s rendering of the constant flux of the horizon captures the ephemerality of nature, an insight that is coupled with the gloomy reality of climate change. One of the attractions offered for tourists at Fogo Island is iceberg watching—a rather ominous spectacle, one would presume, given the link between melting glaciers and impending climate collapse. Melsheimer also reminds us of the consequences of these man-made changes by showing the scarcity and preciousness of the living creatures at the island. The fact that she reproduced them by means of laborious stitchwork bears evidence of her careful and compassionate attention to them during her stay at the island. 

Entangled Togetherness

Forming an understanding of the shifting, interconnected nature of our environment and the species we co-exist with resonates with the thinking of feminist writer and theorist Donna Haraway, whom Melsheimer has cited as an important source of inspiration for her work. Haraway prompts us to think of our existence as intrinsically linked to and dependent upon that of other animals, plants, and critters. She therefore rejects the term Anthropocene, which describes the current geological age as one in which humans have significantly impacted Earth’s ecological systems. Haraway argues this view is too human-centred. Instead, she proposes we refer to the Chthulucene, a term originating from the tentacular and web-spinning spider Pimoa chthulhu: “[T]he Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen — yet. We are at stake to each other.”1 By talking of how we are at stake to each other, Haraway points to the entanglements and dependencies linking us together with a multitude of species and the habitats we share with them. Given the times we currently live in, in the throes of a cross-species transmitted virus pandemic, these connections are painfully evident.

Similar to Haraway’s use of storytelling as a literary and theoretical tool, Melsheimer also experiments with multiple, fictious narratives in her artistic output. In a series of gouaches, titled Nr. 437438, 439 and 440, also on display in the exhibition, she presents us with four different scenarios in which human and animal worlds violently clash. The first painting of the series shows the luxurious Fogo Island Inn, a container-shaped postmodern construction sitting on the rocky island like an alien spaceship, being attacked by a giant octopus coming up from the sea. The next painting depicts the same architectural structure as the place of death for a group of stranded whales, ominously lit by a thunderous pink sky.

Isa Melsheimer, Gouaches Nr. 437,438, 439 and 440. Courtesy the artist, KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art and Ester Schipper, Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

In these paintings, Melsheimer’s interest in architecture and natural environments come together. Animals are set against humans, presenting them as two rivalling forces. As we know from experience, the outcome fated in such scenarios is that only one of the two will survive. Once again, humans are absent from the picture. The lack of a human figure to identify with forces us to take the animals’ side, which perhaps is not so difficult given that they are the underdogs here—they are the ones threatened by extinction in the ecological rivalry between humans and animals. I ask myself whether Melsheimer consciously strays from the hopeful tone of Haraway’s writing by emphasising conflict rather than entangled togetherness. These images bring up the grim consequences of global warming, while singling out humans as the perpetrators. In another work, Wardscher Kasten (Fogo Island) and Wardscher Kasten (Palermo), Melsheimer creates a miniature ecosystem that in fact depends on the very absence of human intervention. Modelled from so-called Wardian cases, they are made up of two hermetically sealed glass boxes filled with earth and sown with seeds. Named after the nineteenth-century inventor Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, the purpose of Wardian cases was to keep plants watered during transport with the condensed moisture of the trapped air. The plants inside Melsheimer’s sealed-off glass boxes seem to be symbolically sprouting, in a micro-cosmos freed from human disturbance.

Postmodern Urbanity

The clash between natural and built environments in some of these works creates a link to Melsheimer’s long-standing engagement with architecture and the social fabric of urban space. The exhibition title, Der unerfreuliche Zustand der Textur, references a chapter from Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s book Collage City (1983) in which the authors mount a critique against the modernist ideal of “total design”. This ideal is perhaps best demonstrated by the spirit of the modernist architect Le Corbusier, in his wish to demolish a large part of central Paris to create a new, utopian structure.2 Opposing this totalitarian, clean-slate ideal, Rowe and Koetter instead propose a city built through the ad-hoc approach of bricolage. By gathering fragments from the past, present, and future, one could create a city composed of smaller utopian structures capable of transforming with the passing of time and the ever-changing needs of its citizens.3

In the textile work Slothrop, Melsheimer applies the bricolage technique suggested by Rowe and Koetter by creating a collage of a printed cityscape, juxtaposed with multicoloured fabrics and embroidered graffiti tags. Animals are present in this landscape, too, and are represented by an embroidered image of a stork-like bird. Sharing a critical stance with the depictions of natural environments in her newer bord work, Melsheimer’s rendering of urbanity is coupled with humorous distortions of postmodern aesthetics. Take, for example, the installation Tea and Coffee Piazza d’Italia in Post-Katrina Times, in which she inverts the concept of the Italian design brand Alessi. In the 1980s, Alessi commissioned architects to devise a rather kitschy, domestic landscape in the form of a tea set. Melsheimer’s take on this project consists of overthrown teapots and vases in baby pink, placed on geometric pieces of concrete resembling the scraps of a modernist building. As a backdrop for this postmodern ruin hangs a textile collage of pink, blue, green, and leopard-print fabric, embroidered with the ironic title statement Times are hard, but Postmodern.

The last work shown in the exhibition, Wasserballett für Marl, consists of a direct intervention into urban space. In this video work, the neglected and outdated brutalist town hall of Marl in the northern Ruhr area of Germany is invested with new life through Melsheimer’s staging of a water ballet in the pool in front of the building, which has been cleaned and filled for the occasion. In contrast with the sharp lines and heavy concrete mass of the building, the dancers’ movements are soft and gracious. Instead of proclaiming a death sentence on a past urban ideal, represented by this style of architecture, she injects the building with new life through dance.

Melsheimer has an acute sense of awareness of her surroundings and wants us to think about how we inhabit our own. In transforming urban spaces through, for example, dance or textile work, she brings them closer to human sensibility. Similarly, her attention to biological elements and structures makes us aware of the precarity of natural environments. Instead of offering us platitudes on the pivotal challenges of our time, the poignant criticality of her work comes from a simple invitation: to reflect on the historical and contemporary inhabitation of space.

Josefin Granetoft studied Art History and Visual Studies at Lund University (SE) and is currently completing her MA in Art History at Freie Universität in Berlin. Her current academic focus is on art in public space, performance and participatory practices. 

1 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 55.

2 See for example his “Plan Voisin” in the work on urban planning Urbanisme (1929).

3 Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983).

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin
Berlin 2020