We can detect the names of logos more easily than leaves on the ground, and we kill organisms in order to keep others alive. But what does it look like to achieve true symbiosis between Earth and human? When a world dependent on commodities and global capitalism has been brought to its knees by a microbial virus, this question—pulling from the work of philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour—is essential. Latour prescribes the ideal “terrestrial” as humanity’s shift sideways, away from its central role in relation to nature, beginning a true coexistence with it. The group exhibition ‘Down to Earth’, now showing at Gropius Bau, is named after Latour’s recent book and is perhaps the first attempt at realizing his widely-read theories in a large exhibition.
Less is more in ‘Down to Earth’, not only in its production’s aim to reduce waste, but also in the works presented. From simple satellite images to Asad Raza’s room filled with soil to Tomás Saraceno’s short letter advocating for spiderwebs, over 100 artists have united to create a living, breathing discourse, rather than a simple exhibition. Even Gropius Bau as an institution contributed to ‘Down to Earth’, as it began to contemplate opening windows instead of using air conditioning and omitting the use of spotlights, microphones, speakers and screens. The exhibition’s pamphlets are made with recycled materials and present statistics about the institution’s waste and consumption with a vow to do better.
Raza’s installation ‘Absorption’ can be mistaken for a room full of dirt, and it is perhaps this easy reading that gives the piece its purpose. Our perception of what dirt is—especially as city-dwellers often removed from nature—is quickly challenged. The soil’s contents are, in fact, deliberately intimate: barbecue ashes from a local park, hair collected from salons, crushed bricks, sand and clay from Brandenburg and wood from the Prinzessinnengarten, for example. It is not the dirt that we dust off our shoes, but the fibers of Berlin and the product of its inhabitants that are now given life in a museum. The cultivators add and tend to the soil as though it is a precious garden, inviting visitors to walk around, ask questions, smell, touch and even bring the soil home, as it takes on different forms. Raza forces a connection to the soil in a way that Latour’s “terrestrial” might, bringing us closer to the ground on which we walk.
Andreas Gursky’s satellite images take us a step back, instead. The life-size prints play a delicate balancing act of familiarity and abstraction. At a glance, ‘Antarctic’ could be mistaken for a photo of white powder on a table, or perhaps an intricate digital graphic, when it is really just a rare shot of Antarctica from below. ‘Ocean VI’ is a shot of the Atlantic – small islands could be mistaken for specks of paint, the ocean for strokes. The framing being focused on water urges us to look at Earth as a predominately ocean-planet. When 70 percent is covered by water, and Antarctica, which is 14.2 million km² (twice the size of Australia), is essentially uninhabited, humans become of little significance from a geological standpoint. In the corner, Kirsten Pieroth’s puddle installation on the floor is stagnant and dirty with cigarette butts and bottle caps extracted from the streets of Neukölln. Water is a vital force, much bigger than us, but this exhibition room reinforces our removal from its true magnitude.
Humans are guests on this planet, and our history here is quite short. Saraceno’s ‘An Open Letter for Invertebrate Rights’ is a reminder of this, and it proves society’s fear of spiders to be quite foolish. “Can the minority learn to live with the majority of us? We are 95 percent of all animals on Earth asking for the right to weave synthropically, yet we are threatened into extinction by a small number of individuals.” Saraceno’s letter speaks on behalf of the cobwebs, which were left to thrive and inhabit the otherwise empty room. The spiders and their letter serve to highlight our relationship to such living entities and their crucial, imminent yet fragile existence.
The exhibition’s program changes daily, with music, talks and discussions, live performances and immersive spaces for visitors to participate or to simply sit and read. It presents contemporary art that is daringly simplified in aesthetic, yet theoretically complex and willfully unconventional. The world is not only viewed as a conglomerate of cultures and people, but as a planet of organisms that must live in harmony. In a time of global reflection, amidst the novel Coronavirus, the exhibition presents a set of new possibilities with which to reimagine life on Earth.