The Cultura/Natura theme of this year’s edition of the Fotograf Festival in Prague opened up a lot of space for artistic and theoretical responses to environmental issues. We were fortunate enough to be in town to speak at a lecture event on Migration in the Anthropocene, which also gave us a chance to see many of the exhibitions organised as part of the festival, and to form an impression of the range of artistic practices around art and ecology for which it provided a platform.
On display in Prototyp Gallery, an off-space a tram ride out of the centre, Romanian artist Claudio Cobilanschi’s Virgin Forest grows out of the artist’s own experiences at a forestry school in Transylvania. Through portrait photographs of students, documentation of sensitive artistic interventions in the woods, and a collection of youtube clips that exemplify the forester mentality, the work brings home the gulf between the extractivist attitude of commercial forestry and more ecologically sensitive approaches to the natural world.
One of the most prominent independent art spaces in Prague, Tranzitdisplay, hosted two exhibitions for the festival, the group show Common Harvest – Work in Progress featuring the work of Fernando García-Dory, Tamás Kaszás, Asunción Molinos Gordo and Tomáš Uhnák, and a solo presentation of a new project by Swiss artist Ursula Biemann. Through a series of gentle humorous annotated slides, Tamás Kaszás tells the story of an attempt to leave the city and start a new life in the countryside, while the Madrid / Cairo based artist Asunción Molinos Gordo examines issues of rural justice through the lens of a post-colonial perspective in a series of ink works that likewise present a narrative – in this case of the emergence of peasant political consciousness in the Middle East.
Ursula Biemann’s installation Biosemiotic Borneo shows the wealth of possibilities for apprehending the complexity of the natural world available to both artists and biologists, with a field trip to the dense forests of Borneo opening up into a multispecies musical composition that raises questions about our understanding of both natural selection and ecological coexistence. The relationship between wilderness and traditional and high technologies is also referenced in this work.
Among several projects that relate closely to the concerns of the environmental humanities, the exhibition in Ex Post revisited the activity of Czech zoologist and photographer Václav Staněk, who in the 1930s and 40s published a number of popular science books illustrated with his own photos of natural phenomena and species. By highlighting his parallel activity as both a scientist and a photographer, the exhibition suggests ways in which the divide between natural science and the arts might be overcome. In addition to reprinting his photographs from the surviving negatives alongside the original publications, the show also included a contemporary response from a young photographer.
The circulation of images about Africa in Western visual culture, and in particular the frequent alternation between representing scenes of poverty and violence and depictions of wild animals, typically on safari, was the focus of the exhibition Birth of the Cinematic Wilderness in AMU Gallery. The constructed character of prevalent imagery about Africa is highlighted in the show by curatorial devices such as the viewing of photos in a dark room using hand held torches, or placing them within cut out wooden frames of the continent.
The exhibition ZOO Bratislava provided a chance to revisit the work of exceptional Slovak artist Peter Bartoš, whose activity in areas of art and environment, and art and species, dates back to the 1970s. Held in the appropriate location of the Entrance Gallery, which is in the middle of a park, and curated by Mira Keratová, the show provides an insight into his activity as a conceptual artist employed by Bratislava Zoo between 1979 and 1991. Working with photocopies, drawings and documentary materials, the artist presents his visions for remodelling the zoo to reflect the interests of its nonhuman inhabitants. The opening speech also seemed to be of great interest to a number of canine exhibition visitors that milled around Keratová, perhaps sensing that the show was particularly relevant to animal concerns.