WROCŁAW CONTEMPORARY MUSEUM, WROCŁAW (PL)
The exhibition consists of two artists’ works referring to the subject of animal and human territories – their interdependencies, permeability, boundaries between them, as well as who marks them, according to what rules and measures. For Netta Laufer, the area of Palestine and Israel became a lens focusing on these phenomena, while Tom Swoboda analysed a zoological garden.
A territory can be understood as an imprint on the surface of the earth, an area whose boundaries are clearly delimited due to some specific properties. Defined in this way, a territory bears traces of human activity – in the form of setting boundaries, naming, marking or controlling. The Latin root terra means land, which is crucial to both biological and political territories. The exhibition consists of two artists’ works referring to the subject of animal and human territories – their interdependencies, permeability, boundaries between them, as well as who marks them, according to what rules and measures. For Netta Laufer, the area of Palestine and Israel became a lens focusing these phenomena, while Tom Swoboda analysed a zoological garden.
Laufer’s works are based on materials from CCTV cameras and motion tracking cameras as well as maps and technical drawings, so the artist assumes the position of an external and distanced observer whose perception is additionally mediated by recording devices. The eye becomes a tool for research, tracking and control. The works highlight important aspects associated with looking: the desire for power, the tendency to capture and hold, to objectify and perceive holistically. The observed animals and their territories are reduced to abstract spots, lines and dots, which makes surveillance easy. Here, biological and political territories simultaneously overlap and clash with each other. The natural instincts of the animals trapped in this conflict are out of balance, which mirrors human divisions and feuds. By appropriating data from devices used in the surveillance of conflict zones and transferring the footage to the new situation, the artist accentuates those aspects of the technology that are not useful in the original context. In this way, she offers a poignant commentary on the long-lasting conflict in the present-day territory of Israel.
Swoboda, on the other hand, explores the artificial world of zoos. However, he abandons the role of a viewer following the paths imposed by the eye-centric architecture of such places. The artist mixes the human and animal order by changing perspectives – he places himself in a cage, focuses on seemingly insignificant details or confuses perception. In principle, devices used to capture images from the animal world are intentionally masked, invisible, so that the viewer has the impression of penetrating the new world. But Swoboda’s photographs are different – the camera does not reveal anything, it actually emphasises the impossibility of seeing. Due to the multitude of details and reflections, the image is often unclear, blurred, which does not bring the viewer closer to animals. To paraphrase John Berger, the more we look at them, the farther they are, especially since animals are almost absent in Swoboda’s works. They remain on the fringes of the illusory, theatre-like environment of the zoo. Perhaps, as Berger claimed, the margins are more real than a steppe painted on the wall or the tropical plants – puny imitations of the territory they have lost. The spaces photographed by Swoboda are multilayered, as if the successive elements were supposed to somehow make them more refined. Improving the infrastructure of zoos in line with new research and architectural trends is nothing but a futile attempt to repair and expand a structure that cannot be repaired. A similar purpose is fulfilled by the passageways in the wall in the West Bank in Laufer’s work entitled 35 cm, which were intended to enable the animals to move within their territories, but instead have altered their behaviour even more.
The venue strongly determines the way both artists’ works are perceived. The concrete, claustrophobic interior of the former German air-raid shelter meets with the border wall that brutally cuts through the landscape and divides the territory in Laufer’s works. Concrete is also a material that has been commonly used in zoos. According to the visions of modernist architects who ignored the real needs of animals, it was supposed to trigger associations with modernity and make the observation of animal species more dramatic, as if they were watched in a cinema. The architecture of the shelter, characterised by multiple rings, determines circular movement inside it, resembling the movement of an animal in an enclosure with a strictly defined territory. The boundaries can be tangible or invisible, but they act with the same power.